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|Born||29 March 1912|
|Died||24 August 1979 (aged 67)|
Frankfurt, West Germany
|Born||29 March 1912|
|Died||24 August 1979 (aged 67)|
Frankfurt, West Germany
Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was a German aviator, Nazi test pilot, and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot/Observer Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II. She set over forty aviation altitude and endurance records during her career, both before and after World War II, and several of her international gliding records still stand in 2012. In the 1960s she founded a gliding school in Ghana, where she worked for Kwame Nkrumah.
Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia on 29 March 1912 to an upper-middle-class family. She had a brother, Kurt, and a sister. Although her mother was a devout Catholic, Reitsch and her siblings were brought up in the Protestant religion of their father, an ophthalmologist who wanted her to become a doctor. Interested in aviation, she thought she might become a flying missionary doctor in North Africa and studied medicine for a time at the Colonial School for Women at Rendsburg. She began flying in 1932 in gliders and left medical school in 1933 at the invitation of Wolf Hirth to become a full-time glider pilot/instructor at Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg. She was soon breaking records, earning a Silver C Badge No 25 in 1934. She flew from Salzburg across the Alps in 1938 in a Sperber Junior.
In 1937 Reitsch was posted to the Luftwaffe testing centre at Rechlin-Lärz Airfield by Ernst Udet. She was a test pilot on the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Dornier Do 17 projects. Reitsch was the first female helicopter pilot and one of the few pilots to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the first fully controllable helicopter. Her flying skill, desire for publicity and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi party propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a "ready smile". She appeared in Nazi Party propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1938 she made nightly flights of the Fa 61 helicopter inside the Deutschlandhalle at the Berlin Motor Show.
At the outbreak of war in 1939 Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs, among them the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet as well as several larger bombers on which she tested various mechanisms for cutting barrage balloon cables. A crash on her fifth Me 163 flight badly injured Reitsch, who reportedly insisted on writing her post-flight report before falling unconscious and spending five months in hospital. Reitsch became Adolf Hitler's favourite pilot and was one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class during World War II. She became close to former fighter pilot and high-ranking Luftwaffe officer Robert Ritter von Greim.
During the winter of 1943 to 1944, she was assigned to the development of suicide aircraft and, under the command of SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, was the first founding member of the SS-Selbstopferkommando Leonidas (Leonidas Squadron). This project, in which the pilots flew manned bombs and died during the mission, similarly to the later use of Tokkōtai (or "Kamikaze") by the Japanese, was proposed by Hitler on 28 February 1944. It is probable that the idea originated with Reitsch during her testing of the Messerschmitt Me 163 in 1942: she was the first to volunteer for the newly formed unit. The programme met with considerable resistance from the Luftwaffe high command and was never activated: even Hitler was initially reluctant to accept its use. The unit was disbanded one year later.
According to Reitsch, she held several discussions with Heinrich Himmler in which she was persuaded that he was smart and correct in his ideas about the world. In October 1944 she was shown a booklet by Peter Riedel, with images of the German death camps and evidence of gassing. She claims she believed it to be outrageous propaganda, and confronted Hermann Goering with it. He asked her if she believed it, and upon her negative response, and request to counter it, he agreed that it would be "the rope by which they will hang us, in case of defeat". Accordingly, never actually believing in any Nazi atrocities, she writes that Himmler followed suit and accordingly denied the claims in the newspapers of neutral countries.
The film Operation Crossbow began a popular myth that early guidance and stabilisation problems with the V-1 flying bomb were solved during a daring test flight by Reitsch in a V-1 modified for manned operation. However, in her autobiography Fliegen, mein Leben, Reitsch recalled other test pilots had been killed or gravely injured while trying to land the piloted version of the V1 (known as the Reichenberg), so she made test flights late in the war to learn why and found the craft's extremely high stall speed was thwarting the pilots, who had no experience landing at extremely high speeds. Reitsch's background with the very fast and dangerous-to-land Me 163, along with simulated landings at a safe high altitude, led her to a successful landing of the Reichenberg at over 200 km/h (120 mph).
During the last days of the war, after Hitler dismissed Hermann Göring as head of the Luftwaffe for what he saw as an act of treason – sending the Göring Telegramme and allegedly attempting a coup d'état – he appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim as head of the Luftwaffe. Von Greim asked Reitsch to fly him into embattled Berlin to meet Hitler. Red Army troops were already in the central area when Reitsch and von Greim arrived on 26 April in a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch. With her long experience at low-altitude flying over Berlin and having already surveyed the road as an escape route with Hitler's personal pilot Hans Baur, Reitsch landed on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate; von Greim was wounded in the leg when Soviet soldiers fired at the light aircraft during its approach. They made their way to the Führerbunker, where Hitler promoted von Greim to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall and to Hermann Göring's former command of the barely functioning Luftwaffe. During the intense Russian bombardment, Hitler gave Reitsch a cyanide capsule for herself and another for von Greim. She accepted the capsule, fully prepared to die alongside her Führer.
During the evening of 28 April, von Greim and Reitsch flew out of Berlin from the same improvised airstrip in an Arado Ar 96 trainer. Von Greim was ordered to get the Luftwaffe to attack the Soviet forces that had just reached Potsdamer Platz and to make sure Heinrich Himmler was punished for his treachery in making unauthorised contact with the Western Allies. Fearing that Hitler was escaping in the plane, troops of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army, which was fighting its way through the Tiergarten from the north, tried to shoot the Arado down but failed, and the plane took off successfully.
Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by American military intelligence officers. When asked about being ordered to leave the Führerbunker on 28 April 1945, Reitsch and von Greim reportedly repeated the same answer, "It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer's side." Reitsch also said, "We should all kneel down in reverence and prayer before the altar of the Fatherland." When the interviewers asked what she meant by "Altar of the Fatherland" she answered, "Why, the Führer's bunker in Berlin..." She was held and interrogated for eighteen months. Her companion, von Greim, committed suicide on 24 May. After having previously been evacuated from Silesia ahead of Russian troops, Reitsch's family took refuge in a chateau, Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg. After having heard a rumour the family would be expelled and handed over to Polish communists in their hometown of Hirschberg (Jelenia Gora) by members of the American army, Reitsch's father shot and killed her mother, her sister, and her sister's three children before killing himself on the night of 3 May.
After her release, Reitsch settled in Frankfurt am Main. Following the war, German citizens were barred from flying powered aircraft, but within a few years gliding was allowed, which she took up. In 1952, Reitsch won third place in the World Gliding Championships in Spain; she was the only woman to compete. She continued to break records, including the women's altitude record (6,848 m (22,467 ft)). She became German champion in 1955.
During the mid-1950s Reitsch was interviewed on film and talked about her wartime flight tests of the Fa 61, Me 262, and Me 163. In 1959, she was invited to India by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to begin a gliding centre. In 1961, Reitsch was invited to the White House by US President John F. Kennedy. From 1962 to 1966, she lived in Ghana, where she founded the first black African national gliding school. She gained the Diamond Badge in 1970.
Throughout the 1970s, Reitsch broke gliding records in many categories, including the "Women's Out and Return World Record" twice, once in 1976 (715 km (444 mi)) and again in 1979 (802 km (498 mi)) flying along the Appalachian Ridges in the United States. During this time, she also finished first in the women's section of the first world helicopter championships.
A particularly interesting part of her postwar career, though one relatively little known in the west, was her work in Ghanaian aviation. Kwame Nkrumah invited Reitsch to Ghana after reading of her work in India. A gliding school was developed at Afienya, and she worked closely with the government and the armed forces. Support was received from the West German government. The project was evidently of great importance to Nkrumah, and has been interpreted as part of a "modernist" development ideology.
Reitsch's attitudes to race underwent a change. "Earlier in my life, it would never have occurred to me to treat a black person as a friend or partner..." She now experienced guilt at her earlier "presumptuousness and arrogance".
She became close to Nkrumah. The details of their relationship are now unclear due to the destruction of documents, but some surviving letters are intimate in tone.
In Ghana, some African-Americans were disturbed by the prominence of a person with Reitsch's past, but Shirley Graham Du Bois, a noted African-American writer who had emigrated to Ghana and was friendly towards Reitsch, agreed with Nkrumah that Reitsch was extremely naive politically.
Contemporary Ghanaian press reports seem to show a lack of interest in her past.
Reitsch was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s, toward the end of her life, by American photo-journalist Ron Laytner. In her closing remarks she is quoted as saying:
And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can't find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power... Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don't explain the real guilt we share – that we lost.
That same month Eric Brown, a British test pilot who had known her before the war, was surprised to receive a letter from Reitsch in which she reminisced about their shared love of flying, the letter ending with the words; "It began in the bunker and there it shall end". Brown speculated that this may have referred to a suicide pact with von Greim, who may well have been Reitsch's lover: they had both been given cyanide pills by Hitler while in the bunker and Reitsch was known still to have hers. It is possible that she had made a pact with von Greim to follow him in committing suicide, albeit at a different time in order to dampen any rumours of their affair. Her death was announced shortly after Brown received this letter, which led him to wonder whether she had finally carried out her side of the pact and had used the suicide pill at last: apparently no post-mortem inquest was carried out on her body.
Hanna Reitsch has been portrayed by the following actresses in film and television productions.
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