To continue with Women’s History Month, I would like to introduce you to Hanna Reitsch, an accomplished German aviatrix and Nazi test pilot during World War II. She was the only female to be awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot/Observer Badge in gold with diamonds. It is important to remember that both sides of this horrific conflict suffered greatly and triumphed in different ways, and while Hanna supported the opposing side, her accomplishments surpassed those of the average woman of her day and age.
Hanna was born 29 March 1912 in Hirschberg, Silesia (Now in Poland) to an upper middle-class family. Her father was a doctor and hoped his daughter would follow in his footsteps. Hanna agreed with her father but had her own unique agenda in mind; a flying missionary doctor for Northern African countries. She studied medicine at the Colonial School for Women and began flight training soon after, in 1932, at the School of Gliding. She later enrolled in a German Air Mail flying school for powered aircraft, adding to her skill set immensely. Noticing her talents as a pilot, Hanna’s instructors encouraged her to become a fulltime pilot. She decided to leave medical school in order to pursue a career as a pilot/instructor for a gliding company and was later approached for stunt piloting in the film, “Rivals of the Air”. Her proficiency won her many competition prizes and distinguished medals.
|Candid photo of Hanna in her aircraft|
Naturally, when war broke out in Europe for the second time, Hanna’s aptitude for flying made her highly qualified for the Luftwaffe. Reitsch became the first female helicopter pilot and was also one of the few to fly the first fully controllable helicopter, which earned her the Military Flying Medal. Her well mannered demeanor and good looks (particularly an Aryan look) made her a propaganda gem for the Nazi Party, which became her primary claim to fame.
To keep up appearances, Hanna ran daily ‘missions’ and partook in various expeditions in the late 1930s. But one of her major tasks was to test pilot all the latest and greatest aircraft in production. She would provide detailed reports on how the aircraft handled and any concerns that may arise for other pilots. Hanna crash landed only once during her time as a test pilot, which put her in the hospital for five months. Despite her injuries, she was still able to give a full detailed report on the aircraft. That particular incident earned her the Iron Cross First Class.
|Hanna Reitsch propaganda|
As her notoriety grew, her influence with military hierarchy grew alongside it. After visiting the Luftwaffe on the eastern front, post Battle of Stalingrad, Hanna presented Hitler with the idea of suicide flight bombers, known as Operation Suicide. This operation would entail volunteers to fly gliders into enemy targets, essentially acting as gigantic bombs. At first, Hitler believed the situation for Germany did not warrant such an extreme plan; however, by the summer of 1944, the plan was set in motion. Reitsch began test piloting suitable gliders and made several successful flights before training the volunteers. The operation was never employed; by the time training would have been sufficient, the war had taken a terrible turn for Germany. Regardless, the idea that a well mannered woman could enact such an extreme plan suggests her determination for German victory.
When the Russian Red Army began heavy bombardment of Berlin, Hitler invited Reitsch to his Führerbunker. The Red Army was already invading the area when she flew into Berlin. Her low altitude flight training served her well, enabling her to find an alternative escape route, landing close to the bunker. Upon arrival, Hitler gave Hanna a vial of poison, fully prepared to die alongside her leader. However, before such drastic measures were needed, an escape plan was initiated. Using the same improvised airstrip as before, Reitsch was able to successfully take off despite the Red Army’s advances.
Nevertheless, soon after her escape from Berlin, Hanna was captured by American military intelligence officers and was questioned as to why she had left the Führerbunker on April 28, 1945. Her statement included little detail, only that she was disappointed she could not die alongside the leader of her country. Hanna was particularly inexperienced in regards to Hitler’s ulterior motives for Germany. She refused to believe the atrocities Hitler and Nazi regime committed during the war, believing the rumors to be falsified. When questioned, those around her validated her convictions that the news was indeed fiction. They wanted to keep her in the dark to protect their propaganda agenda. She spent the remainder of the war in captivity.
|Hanna meeting Pres. John F. Kennedy|
After war’s end, Hanna settled in Frankfurt and began flying gliders once several of the bans for German citizens were lifted. She continued with flying competitions as before the war, becoming a German champion in 1955. She was able to break the women’s altitude record in 1957 and earned her first diamond of the Gold-C badge. In 1959, she was invited to India to institute a gliding center; then, in 1961 she was invited to the White House by President Kennedy. The celebrity of her career followed her for the rest of her life, but she was determined to follow her heart’s first desire one way or another. In the mid 1960s, Hanna moved to Ghana, establishing the first black African gliding school.
At first, the people of Ghana were apprehensive of Reitsch past, but it quickly became apparent that she was politically naïve and her past opinions no longer rang true. She felt a kindred spirit with the friendships she built in Ghana and had a new respect for other cultures. However, despite building a new life for herself in Africa, Hanna could never fully shake the events of the war, especially while in the Fuhrer’s bunker. She loved Germany with a passion and believed the country had deep regret for the war, but were more upset they had lost. Hanna returned to Frankfurt but unfortunately died shortly after, at 67 years old, in 1979. She would never marry, nor have children to carry on her legacy. It has been rumored Hanna kept the poison Hitler had given her so many years ago and that she finally used it under the pact she and another had made; however, it is more universally believed she died from a heart attack.
|Reitsch test piloting.|
In the end, Hanna had written four autobiographies and has been portrayed in various films, three of which were produced before her death.