When she died in 1979, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called Hanna Reitsch 'the most successful woman flier of all time.'
by Michael D. Hull
A diminutive blonde with bright blue eyes and a ready smile, she was a fearless Luftwaffe test pilot, helped to plan the brilliant German glider assault on the Belgian fort at Eben Emael in 1940, and was one of the few women to gain the admiration of Adolf Hitler. She was the world’s first female test pilot, the first woman to fly a glider over the Alps, the first woman to fly a helicopter, the first woman to be named a flight captain, the first woman to pilot a rocket plane and jet fighter, and the first and only woman in German history to be awarded the Iron Cross, first and second class.
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After setting more than 40 distance and altitude records as Germany’s leading woman glider pilot in the 1930s, she tested all types of fighters, bombers, and transports for the German Air Force, and flew the last airplane out of Berlin before Soviet forces captured the German capital in the spring of 1945. Although a loyal if naïve National Socialist who sought after World War II to justify and clarify her unique role in the Third Reich, she was a brave and tireless aviatrix who won universal respect.
Reitsch’s Early Years
Born on March 29, 1912, in Hirschberg, Silesia, the daughter of an eye doctor, Hanna watched birds as a little girl and yearned to soar like “the storks in their quiet and steady flight, the buzzards circling ever higher in the summer air.” Her desire to fly “could never be stilled.” She also wanted to help people, but her father was not enthusiastic when Hanna announced at the age of 13 or 14 that she wanted to become a flying medical missionary in Africa.
Doctor Reitsch compromised. If the girl would say no more about flying until she had gained her diploma from the Realgymnasium (high school), he would reward her with a training course at the nearby Grunau glider pilot school. Hanna studied hard, passed her school examinations, and held her father to his promise. She went excitedly to Wolf Hirth’s Grunau Training School, a leading center of German gliding activity in the 1930s where many future Luftwaffe airmen learned to fly.
The Only Female Member
Hanna Reitsch—five feet and half an inch tall and weighing 90 pounds at the age of 19–was the only female member of her class. Her classmates jeered her, but her boldness and powers of concentration soon silenced them. After some practice run mishaps, she outflew her classmates easily and passed her flight tests with such skill that Hirth personally took over the rest of her training. She passed her final test in 1931, set a glider endurance record for women (51/2 hours in the air), and gained her license.
Hanna graduated from the Oberrealschule (preparatory school), and in 1931-32 attended the Colonial Women’s School in Rendsburg. Then, largely to please her father, she went off to a medical school in Berlin. She still wanted to be a flying doctor, but the anatomy of airplanes was more fascinating to her than that of human beings. After winning a heavier-than-air pilot’s license in 1932, she set an unofficial gliding altitude record (more than 5,000 feet) during a hair-raising flight in a new Grunau-Baby training glider. Also that year, she extended her nonstop record to 111/2 hours.
Joining the German Institute for Glider Research
Hanna joined an expedition of the German Institute for Glider Research in Darmstadt to study thermal conditions in South America, performed stunt flying for a romantic film, Rivals of the Air, and flew aerobatics in Brazil and Argentina in 1934. Associated with the institute for 11 years, the vivacious little aviatrix test flew new types of gliders and powered planes and made aviation history by proving the success of dive brakes. She continued to set numerous distance and altitude records and flew in glider races and exhibitions in Germany, South America, Portugal, Finland, Hungary, Libya, Yugoslavia, and the United States. She was now a national heroine.
In 1937, after Germany’s powerful, secretly built air force had been unveiled to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh and the rest of the world, the life and career of Hanna Reitsch changed radically. She was appointed a flight captain and test pilot by General Ernst Udet, chief of the Technical Office in the Reich Air Ministry, and was assigned to the Luftwaffe’s experimental station near Rechlin.
Testing the World’s First Practicable Helicopter
One of Hanna’s early duties was to test the Focke-Achgelis Fa61, the world’s first practicable helicopter capable of taking off vertically and hovering in midair. After a vaudeville show in Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in 1938, the aviatrix flew the big helicopter with its side-by-side main rotors around the huge roofed stadium to demonstrate German engineering skill. A larger version, the Fa223, became the world’s first helicopter to reach production status, but only three were built because of official indifference and the coming war.
At Rechlin, Hanna became a national idol as a test pilot. When Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, the corpulent Luftwaffe commander and World War I fighter ace, was introduced to her, he asked, “How can that be? Is that all? How can such a small person fly anything?” But Hanna felt more at home in the sky than anywhere else. She said that flying was “more thrilling than love for a man, and far less dangerous.”
Setting a Point-to-Point Women’s Gliding Record
She found time to win a sailplane race, compete in the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, and set a point-to-point women’s gliding record in 1939. But Hitler’s Germany was marching toward war, and Hanna Reitsch was playing a key role in preparing the world’s most powerful air force for it. At Rechlin and Darmstadt, she test-flew new fighters and bombers—anything that had wings. She did virtually everything for the Luftwaffe but fly combat missions after war broke out with Great Britain and France on September 3, 1939. She ferried Nazi leaders and military officers around Germany and the occupied territories and acted as a liaison between advance Luftwaffe bases and the rear echelon.
Hanna tested new fighters, bombers, Messerschmitt rocket planes, and Stuka dive-bombers, and she made 150 dangerous flights in Dornier Do-17 and Heinkel He-111 bombers carrying a new device designed to cut the thick cables of British antiaircraft barrage balloons. During one of the tests, a cable shaved off parts of the propeller blades of Hanna’s Dornier, but she coolly feathered what was left of the propellers and managed to land the bomber safely. For this, she was decorated with the Iron Cross, second class, by Hitler. She later received the Iron Cross, first class, and the military pilot insignia in gold with diamonds.
The Messerschmitt 321 Gigant
The petite aviatrix also test-flew the Messerschmitt 321 Gigant assault glider, then the largest warplane in the world. It boasted a wingspan of 180 feet, a length of 92 feet, a height of 33 feet, and a payload of 48,500 pounds. The vast plane needed booster rockets for takeoff and had a detachable undercarriage. The Gigant’s control forces required great strength and even stronger nerves, but Hanna mastered it. The glider was eventually deployed for aerial supply chores in Russia and North Africa.
When the German high command planned the invasion of Holland and Belgium, it became evident that the formidable Albert Canal defense line would have to be breached in one bold stroke. The key to the defensive system was the fortress of Eben Emael, bristling with interlocking guns dominating all crossing sites on the canal and the River Maas, and considered one of the most impregnable fortifications in the world.
Glider Assault on Belgium
The Führer took a personal interest in the operation and called in Hanna to lend her gliding expertise. She immediately suggested a silent assault on the fort with troop-carrying gliders. Hitler was delighted, and General Kurt Student, the father of the German airborne forces, confirmed the feasibility of the plan.
In a four-pronged assault launched early on the morning of May 10, 1940, German glider, parachute, and ground troops seized two canal bridges and landed nine gliders on the grassy roof of the fort. The Belgian garrison was overwhelmed in one of the earliest and most successful airborne operations of the war. It was a stunning tactical victory for the Germans.
Testing the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet
In 1942, Hanna faced her most challenging assignment so far—testing the stubby, rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet fighter. A violently unstable aircraft, the delta-winged Me-163 took off in a blast of flame and could climb to 30,000 feet in 90 seconds, eventually reaching a speed of almost 600 miles per hour. Powered by a hydrogen peroxide motor, the plane was handicapped by a short duration of eight minutes of powered flight.
Even sitting on the tarmac in “a hellish, flame-spewing din,” Hanna reported, it was “all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions.” But she was undeterred.
On her fifth flight in the Komet, a special launching undercarriage failed to drop off as planned, and she was forced to crash-land. The plane was wrecked. Sitting in a daze in the cockpit, she felt a stream of blood on her face and gingerly raised her hand to find that “at the place where my nose had been was now nothing but an open cleft.” She reached for a pad and pencil, sketched the events leading to the crash, and then collapsed.
A Near-Death Experience
Hanna’s injuries included multiple skull fractures, and her doctors did not expect her to live, let alone fly again. However, she began to mend after spending five months in a hospital and was determined to get back into the air. While still suffering headaches and dizzy spells, the little aviatrix put herself on a strict regimen of tree and roof climbing to restore her sense of balance. Much to the amazement and concern of her doctors, she was soon test-flying again.
The Komet, meanwhile, showed an unfortunate tendency to catch fire, and several well-trained pilots were incinerated. Its planned operational debut in 1944 was cancelled.
Hanna, who miraculously survived several plane crashes during her career, became a favorite of Hitler, one of only a handful of women with whom he established lasting relationships. The flier was patriotic and loyal, though politically naïve. Her enthusiasm for the Führer and National Socialism was almost simpleminded, and she steadfastly refused to believe that her leader was implicated in such events as the Kristallnacht pogrom. She dismissed talk of concentration camps as propaganda.
Assigned to Robert Ritter von Greim’s Headquarters
In November 1943, Hanna was assigned to the headquarters of General Robert Ritter von Greim, commander of the 6th Air Fleet and then the 4th Air Fleet on the Eastern Front. One of the Luftwaffe’s best pilots, he was also an idealistic devotee of National Socialism. A World War I ace, he had given Hitler his first airplane ride in 1920 and been appointed the Luftwaffe’s first squadron leader in 1935.
Meanwhile, the war was not going well for Germany, and Hanna proposed to Hitler that she be allowed to form a squadron of female fighter pilots along the lines of the Soviet Union’s famed “Night Witches.” Her offer was rejected. Next, she conceived the formation of a suicide squadron to strike at key industrial centers in Britain and capital ships of the Allied fleets. The plane to be used would be the V-1 flying bomb, then in the final stages of development. For the suicide missions, V-1s would be equipped with a seat for the pilot.
On February 28, 1945, Hanna drove up to Hitler’s scenic alpine retreat, the Berghof, to suggest how Germany might yet win the war. The V-1 rocket, she told him, was too inaccurate, so a piloted rocket was the answer. She would be the first volunteer. But the Führer rejected the idea immediately.
Proposing a V-1 Suicide Project
Hanna persisted with the concept of suicide pilots and was surprised when Hitler gave her grudging permission to begin experimental work. She successfully test flew a V-1 prototype that was equipped with landing skids, and was the only person to do so. But the suicide project was abandoned.
Hanna Reitsch’s last and most hazardous assignment came in the spring of 1945 as the Third Reich was crumbling before the Allied and Soviet Armies. A shaken Hitler had moved his headquarters into the underground bunker at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. When the Führer announced that he would remain there until the end, Marshal Göring, his designated successor, misinterpreted this as an abdication.
The Luftwaffe chief, who had been blamed for Germany’s defeats and had already left for Bavaria, thought he had been called upon to inherit the Third Reich. He asked that he be allowed to take over at once. However, Göring and his family were placed under house arrest and he was forced by armed SS officers to sign a document relinquishing his positions because of poor health.
Escorting Greim to Meet With the Führer
Meanwhile, General von Greim, now commanding Luftflotte 6 in Munich, had driven up to Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat, which had been reduced to rubble during a raid by 318 Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force. The loyal Greim, who had received a telegram on April 24 ordering him to report to the Chancellery bunker, berated one of Göring’s aides about the “treasonable” acts of his superior.
Hanna Reitsch was assigned to ferry Greim to the Berlin bunker for a meeting with the Führer. Luftwaffe officers who briefed Greim and Hanna believed that it was an impossible mission. Berlin was now ringed by Red Army troops, and for two days not one German plane had been able to enter the city. Only one airfield, Gatow, was still in German hands, but it was under continuous Russian artillery fire and was expected to fall soon.
Nevertheless, the two loyal Nazis decided to attempt it. Their plan was to fly from the Rechlin air base, 60 miles northwest of Berlin, to Gatow in a modified single-engine, single-seat Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighter. A Luftwaffe sergeant familiar with the Soviet antiaircraft defenses around Berlin would fly the plane to Gatow.
A Rough Ride for Greim and Reitsch
Early on the morning of April 26, 1945, the three clambered aboard and squeezed themselves into the FW-190. The sergeant took the controls, Greim sat in the passenger seat, and Hanna wedged herself feet-first into a space in the rear of the fuselage. They took off. Escorted by several fighters mustered by the virtually nonexistent Luftwaffe, the FW-190 flew to Gatow and landed safely. There, Greim and Hanna chose a high-wing, two-seater Fieseler Storch Fi-156 observation plane for the flight to the Berlin Chancellery. With a maximum speed of 109 miles an hour and capable of short takeoffs and landings, it would enable them to land on the Charlottenburger Chaussee, a broad east-west boulevard passing half a mile west of Hitler’s bunker.
General Greim and Hanna waited until evening and then took off from a shell-pocked runway at Gatow. At the last moment, Greim decided to take the controls because his woman companion had had no experience of flying under fire. It was only about 15 miles eastward to central Berlin, but it promised to be a rough ride.
Greim steered the little spotter plane at treetop level across the outskirts of the capital in order to avoid Soviet fighters. Looking down, he and Hanna saw a hellish landscape of fire, smoke, and street fighting. “From the ground, out of the shadows, from the treetops themselves, leapt the very fires of Hell,” Hanna reported. “Below, Russian tanks and soldiers were swarming among the trees.” Dogfights raged above the Storch as it droned steadily onward.
Arriving to the Chancellery
The plane was rocked by Soviet antiaircraft bursts as it flew eastward over the Tiergarten toward the Brandenburg Gate and the Chancellery. An armor-piercing shell crashed into the underside of the Storch, and a gaping hole appeared in the cockpit flooring. Greim slumped over with his right foot shattered. As the plane began to dive out of control, Hanna reached over and grabbed the stick. She managed to right the craft as it was showered with shell splinters. Then she calmly steered downward to a safe landing, as planned, on the broad Charlottenburger Chaussee near the Brandenburg Gate. She flagged down a passing German staff car, and the pair rode to the Chancellery.
After General Greim’s foot was treated in the bunker dispensary, Hitler entered to greet his last two visitors. Hanna was shocked to see that he appeared to have lost touch with reality. His head drooped, his eyes were glassy, and his arms twitched continually. His moods swung from despair to hope, and back again. The Führer declared bitterly that Göring had betrayed and deserted him, and he informed the startled Greim that he had been summoned to the bunker to be named commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. Hitler promoted him to field marshal and, in a low voice, declared, “In the name of the German people, I give you my hand.”
Staying in the Führer’s Bunker
Turning to Hanna, the Führer exclaimed, “Brave woman! So there is still some loyalty and courage left in the world!” Deeply moved, Greim and the aviatrix asked to be allowed to stay in the bunker, and Hitler consented. For the next two days, Hanna observed life in the cramped underground madhouse. Despite the protection of 16 feet of concrete and six feet of earth and the steady roar of the diesel-driven ventilation system, the thunder of Russian artillery could be heard growing closer.
Eva Braun told Hanna that she had no wish to live in a Germany without Adolf Hitler. “It would not be fit to live in for a true German,” said Braun. Hanna considered her a shallow woman who spent most of her days polishing her fingernails, combing her hair, and changing her clothes. When summoned to Hitler’s private suite of four tiny rooms, Hanna asked him, “My Führer, why do you stay? Why do you deprive Germany of your life? The Führer must live so that Germany can live. The people demand it.”
“You belong to those who will die with me.”
Hitler replied, “No, Hanna. If I die, it is for the honor of our country. It is because as a soldier I must obey my own command that I would defend Berlin to the last.” He still believed that one of his armies—the best hope was General Walter Wenck’s 12th Army—could break through the Russians to relieve the Chancellery.
As the Soviet bombardments increased and tension heightened in the bunker, Hitler grew more despairing. He handed Hanna two small blue vials of potassium cyanide, one for herself and one for Greim, and said, “Hanna, you belong to those who will die with me. I do not wish that one of us falls to the Russians alive, nor do I wish our bodies to be found by them. Eva and I will have our bodies burned. You will devise your own method.” Hanna sobbed.
She took the poison to Greim, and they agreed that “should the end really come,” they would swallow it and blow themselves up with hand grenades.
April 28, 1945
Spending a day in the suite of Propaganda Minister Josef Göbbels, his wife, Magda, and their children, Hanna found Göbbels to be melodramatic as he ranted about Göring’s treachery but admired Magda for her cheerfulness and self-control. Hanna told the children stories of her flying experiences and taught them songs which they later sang for Hitler.
April 28, 1945, was a harrowing day in the bunker. The Red Army was getting ever closer, there was no sign of relief, and news came of a new betrayal. According to a BBC broadcast of a dispatch from Stockholm, Sweden, Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler had negotiated with Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross, and offered to surrender the German armies in the west to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander.
The news, Hanna reported, struck “a death blow to the entire assembly. Men and women alike screamed with rage, fear, and desperation, all mixed into one emotional spasm.” Hitler, who had never doubted Himmler’s loyalty, raged like a madman and then sank into a stupor. Eva Braun confided to Hanna, “Poor, poor Adolf, deserted by everyone, betrayed by all. Better that 10,000 others die than that he be lost to Germany.”
The Order to Fly to Rechlin
The bunker was in a frenzy by the time of Hitler’s evening conference. He learned from General Helmuth Weidling that the German troops in the Berlin area could resist for no more than two days. Soviet units were moving through the Tiergarten and approaching the Potsdamerplatz, a block away, and would probably attack the Chancellery on the morning of April 30.
After the conference, the Führer went to visit Greim and Hanna. Ashen faced, Hitler slumped on the edge of Greim’s cot and said, “Our only hope is Wenck, and to make his entry possible, we must call up every available aircraft to cover his approach.” Revoking his promise that the pair could die with him in the bunker, Hitler ordered Hanna to fly Greim to Rechlin so that he could assemble planes for an all out bombing of the approaching Russians.
He also ordered them to fly to Admiral Karl Dönitz’s headquarters at Plon and arrest Himmler as a traitor. Dönitz had been named by Hitler as his political successor. With his voice quavering and his hands trembling, the Führer ranted, “A traitor must never succeed me as Führer! You must get out to ensure that he will not.” Painfully, Greim started to get dressed while a tearful Hanna asked for permission to stay. Hitler refused. “God protect you,” he said.
Magda Göbbels gave Hanna two letters to give to her son, and took off a diamond ring and asked her to wear it in her memory. Eva Braun handed Hanna a letter for her sister. Hanna could not resist reading it later and tore it up because it was “so vulgar, so theatrical, and in such poor, adolescent taste.” After emotional farewells, Hanna and Field Marshal Greim left the bunker.
Around midnight on April 28, Hanna helped Greim, hobbling on crutches, to an SS armored car. The darkness was illuminated by burning buildings, and as they rode through the ruined streets to the Brandenburg Gate, they could hear the rattle of small arms fire. Hidden near the famous gate was a single-engine, two-seater Arado Ar-96 advanced trainer. The Fieseler Storch that had brought them to Berlin had been destroyed by Soviet shellfire.
Hanna hurriedly helped Greim aboard the small monoplane. There was no time to lose; Berlin was afire and swarming with Soviet troops. Hanna gunned the 12-cylinder piston engine and taxied the Arado along the smoky east-west axis road as shells crashed down nearby and Russian searchlights fingered the dark sky. Hanna increased speed and managed to lift the plane amid a hail of fire. Skimming above the shattered rooftops, she tried to dodge the persistent searchlights. Antiaircraft bursts rocked the little trainer.
“Miraculously,” the aviatrix reported later, “not a single shot touched the plane.” Switching to full power, she climbed away from the city and headed northward. On the outskirts of Berlin, she plunged gratefully into a low cloud formation, emerging 12 miles away and free of Soviet gunfire and fighters. She touched down at Rechlin at 3 am.
Greim Takes His Cyanide
Field Marshal Greim duly ordered the remnants of the Luftwaffe into the air battle over Berlin and went to confront Himmler. The Gestapo leader denied that he had betrayed Hitler and admitted later that Greim had “reproved” him. Shortly afterward, Hanna and Greim learned of the Führer’s suicide.
Admiral Dönitz intended to retain Greim as Luftwaffe commander, regarding him as a “fine man and officer.” But Greim was disillusioned. At Plon on May 2, 1945, Dönitz reported later, Greim “spoke bitterly of the fact that the idealism and devotion to duty of soldiers who believed they had been serving a noble cause should have ended in so dire a catastrophe. He did not wish, he said, to go on living, and we parted, deeply moved.” Still immobilized by his foot wound, Greim made use of the cyanide capsule Hitler had given him and committed suicide at a prison in Salzburg, Austria, on May 24.
Interned for 18 Months
The war was also over for Hanna Reitsch. Although she, too, was drawn to the notion of suicide, she resisted. When Germany capitulated, she could have taken the easy way out. The alternative for a number of prominent German experts in various fields was to go to the United States or to prison. Hanna chose not to turn her back on her homeland. That May, she was interned in the Allied interrogation center at Oberursel. Still shaken by the ordeal in Hitler’s bunker, she was classified by her U.S. Army interrogators as a “highly hysterical person.”
She was held for 18 months, during which she stubbornly rejected offers to follow rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and others to America. She was released in November 1946.
Hanna, the national heroine and dedicated disciple of National Socialism, now found herself being rejected by Germans anxious to rebuild their shattered lives and put the war behind them. She lectured, wrote articles, and gave newspaper interviews to try and prove that she had done no more than help German fliers survive in combat. She helped sick and needy people in Frankfurt and made a great effort to escape from the shadows of the past. She dreamed of flying again. She wrote books, and published her autobiography, Flying Is My Life, in 1951.
Still Winning Medals
She lived a quiet life, ran and did yoga exercises daily, and played the piano. In the 1950s, when Germans were allowed to fly again, Hanna returned to her true passion, gliding. Proving that she had not lost her touch, she won a bronze medal as the only female competitor at the international gliding championships in Madrid in 1952, became the German sailplane champion in 1955, flew as a research pilot, and set a women’s glider altitude record of 7,000 meters in 1957. But the following year she found herself unable to flee her past when Poland refused her a visa to participate in the world glider championships there.
Meanwhile, as the truth about past Nazi excesses continued to be revealed, Hanna underwent a change of heart about her loyal service to Hitler. She told an American reporter in 1952 that she was shaken and disgusted by what the Third Reich had wrought on the world. But her fame spread, anyway. She established a gliding school in India, addressed the Congress in New Delhi, and took Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for a sailplane ride. She also spent four years setting up a national gliding school in Ghana, where her students called her “Mother,” and was received at the White House by President John F. Kennedy. She was named pilot of the year in the United States in 1972.
Flying “As Long as I Live”
Until the late 1970s, she racked up many more distance and altitude gliding records in Europe and America, and finished first in the women’s section of the first world helicopter championships. Asked by a reporter in 1978 how long she intended to fly, Hanna replied quickly, “As long as I live.”
Hanna Reitsch, one of the most remarkable women in aviation history, died in Frankfurt of acute heart failure on August 24, 1979, and was buried quietly in Salzburg, as she had wished.
This article is from the May 2005 issue of WWII History Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.