hanna reitsch ... great wings ... amazing courage ....fanatic ideals ...lack of contrition... sinistral regime.
Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was a German aviator and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II. Along with her flying skills Reitsch was photogenic and willingly appeared in Nazi Party propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, which made her a celebrity. Reitsch was the first woman to fly a helicopter, a rocket plane, and a jet fighter. 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 are still standing to this day.
Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia. Her father was an ophthalmologist who wanted her to become a doctor. She was interested in aviation, and thought she might become a flying doctor in North Africa and even studied medicine for a time. Reitsch began flying in 1932 with flights in gliders. She left medical school in 1933 at the invitation of Wolf Hirth to become a full-time glider pilot and 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.
Activities during the Third Reich 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. In 1938 she made nightly flights of the Fa 61 helicopter inside the "Deutschlandhalle" at the Berlin Motor Show.
With the outbreak of war in 1939 Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs. Among these were the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet and several larger bombers on which she tested various mechanisms for cutting barrage balloon cables. After crashing on her fifth Me 163 flight Reitsch was badly injured but 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 during World War II. Reitsch became close to former fighter pilot and high ranking Luftwaffe officer Robert Ritter von Greim who became her lover.
During the winter 1943-44, she was assigned to the development of suicide aircraft; and, under the command of SS-Obersturmbannfürer Otto Skorzeny, she was the first founding member of the SS-Selbstopferkommando Leonidas (Leonidas Squadron). This project, where the pilots flew manned bombs and ultimately died during the mission, was similar to the Japanese later use of Tokkōtai ("Kamikaze") and was proposed by Adolf Hitler on 28 February 1944. It is probable that the idea originated with Reitsch during her testing of the Messerschmitt Me 163 in 1942, and she was also the first to volunteer for the newly formed Leonidas unit. This program was met with a considerable resistance at the German air-force high-command and was never realized, and even Hitler was initially reluctant to accept her proposal. The unit was disbanded one year later.
V-1 The film Operation Crossbow began a popular myth that early guidance and stabilization 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, Meine 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 test pilots, who had no experience landing at extremely high speeds. Reitsch's background with the very fast Me163, along with simulated landings at a safe high altitude, led her to a successful landing of the Reichenberg, but only at over 200 km/h.
Führerbunker A Fieseler Fi 156 Storch similar to the one Reitsch landed in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate during the Battle of BerlinDuring the last days of the war, in light of Hermann Göring's dismissal as head of the Luftwaffe for what Hitler saw as an act of treason (sending the Göring Telegram and allegedly attempting a coup d'état), he appointed Colonel-General Robert Ritter von Greim as head of the Luftwaffe. To enable him to meet Hitler, von Greim asked Reitsch to fly him into embattled Berlin.
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 (Greim was wounded in the leg when Red Army 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 vial of poison for herself and another for von Greim. She accepted the vial willingly, fully prepared to die alongside her Führer.
During the evening of 28 April, Von Greim and Reitsch flew out from Berlin in an Arado Ar 96 trainer (from the same improvised airstrip). Von Greim was ordered to get the Luftwaffe to attack the Soviet forces that had just reached Potsdamerplatz and to make sure Heinrich Himmler was punished for his perceived treachery of 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. The Soviet troops failed in their efforts and the plane took off successfully.
Capture 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 Fuhrerbunker 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. Her father killed her mother, her sister, and her sister's children before killing himself during the last days of the war after expulsion by the Polish from their hometown of Hirschberg.
Later flying career 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 (and was the only woman to compete). She continued to break records, including the women's altitude record (6,848 m). 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) and again in 1979 (802 km) 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.
Postwar controversy Although she kept a low profile after the war, toward the end of her life she was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s by US photo-journalist Ron Laytner. His report on her last interview suggests a lack of contrition on her part about her Nazi involvement. 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. Death Reitsch died in Frankfurt at the age of 67 on 24 August 1979, allegedly following a heart attack. She had never married.
In a postscript to her death, Eric Brown, British test pilot who had known her before the war, was surprised to receive a letter from Reitsch that same month, 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 been an enigmatic reference 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 to have still kept hers. It is quite possible that she had made a pact with von Greim to commit suicide with him, 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; there was apparently no post-mortem carried out on her body.
Hanna Reitsch was born in '12. She wanted to be a flying missionary doctor but became a glider pilot. She set records, worked as a movie stand-in flyer & went on expeditions to S. America & Africa. She was the 1st female honorary flight captain. A reformed Luftwaffe hired her as a civilian test pilot in '37. She accepted, calling German warplanes "guardians of the portals of peace." Historian Judy Lomax tells how her values were instilled by a mother who wrote daily, warning against pride & praying for her safety. She rode the forefront of technology. Before Siskorsky perfected helicopters in '39, she tested a primitive version. She tested the gliders which deposited troops on the French Maginot line in '40. In '41, Hitler awarded her the Iron Cross, 2nd class, for dangerous work developing means for cutting cables dangled by British barrage balloons. The most dangerous machine she tested was the Messerschmitt 163 interceptor rocket. 90 seconds from takeoff it climbed at 65-degrees to 30,000' at 500 mph--the fastest humans had ever gone. On a 5th flight, the takeoff dolly jammed. She crashed, retaining presence of mind to write a report before passing out & spending four months in hospital. Hitler awarded the Iron Cross, 1st class. When she confronted Heinrich Himmler with concentration camp rumors, he had her believe he was outraged at such Allied propaganda. Learning of a piloted suicide version of the V1, she tested prototypes. After the war she was unrepentent, wearing the Iron Crosses proudly & writing memoirs. She continued flying, generously helping women pilots from other countries. Aged 65, months before dying, she set a new women's glider distance record
Hanna Reitsch flew almost every German military aircraft in the Second World War, including the rocket-powered Mel 63, and was closely associated with the development of the flying bomb, the V1, which so nearly brought disaster to Britain just when it seemed that victory was in sight. Meeting in the course of her work many prominent personalities in the Third Reich, she was one of the last people to see Hitler in the Bunker and she was the only woman to be awarded the Iron Cross during the war. Yet she never sought political power; she was a pilot and loved flying above everything else. She left her medical studies in order to take up aviation in peace-time and held the world gliding record for women. She stunt-flew for films, and travelled widely all over the world expanding the horizons of flight. With the outbreak of war, however, her role became a military one and she was almost killed when she crash-landed the Me163 on testing. In April 1945 she ran the gauntlet of Russian anti-aircraft fire to fly with Colonel-General von Greim into Berlin, where he had been summoned by Hitler to be appointed the new Chief of the German Air Staff. She gives a graphic and vivid account of her ensuing meetings with Hitler in the Bunker. Hanna Reitsch was an outstanding pilot and a remarkable woman. Her readable and fascinating memoirs are equally remarkable, reflecting as they do her sheer exuberance in the joys of flight for its own sake as well as providing insight into the plans of the Luftwaffe and its operations during the critical years of the war.
Reitsch in 1936
Hanna Reitsch greets well-wishers on a visit to her hometown of Hirschberg, Silesia in April, 1941. Karl Hanke, Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, is at left.
Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the first fully controllable helicopter
The Leonidas Squadron, formally known as 5th Staffel of Kampfgeschwader 200 was a unit which was originally formed to fly the Fieseler Fi 103R (Reichenberg), a manned version of the V-1 flying bomb that was never used in combat because Werner Baumbach, the commander of KG 200, and his superiors considered it an unnecessary waste of life and resources, and preferred to use the Mistel bomb instead. However, from 17 April until 20 April 1945 (during the Battle of Berlin) thirty-five pilots of the Leonidas Squadron flew suicide sorties against Soviet bridges over the river Oder with little noticeable effect.
The establishment of a suicide squadron (staffel) was originally proposed by Otto Skorzeny and Hajo Herrmann. The proposal was supported by noted test pilot Hanna Reitsch. The idea proposed was that Germany would use volunteers as suicide pilots in order to overcome the Allies' numerical advantages with their fanatic spirit. The idea had roots in German mythology that was glorified by Nazi propaganda. Hitler was reluctant, but eventually agreed to Reitsch's request to establish and train a suicide attack air unit, with the proviso that it would not be operated in combat without his approval. The new unit, nicknamed the "Leonidas Squadron", became part of KG 200. It was named for Leonidas I, the king of Sparta who in 480 BC resisted the invading Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae with 300 elite warriors who fought to the last man.
Reitsch's plan was to attack Allied invasion shipping using the Messerschmitt Me 328, armed with a 900 kilograms (2,000 lb) bomb, which would dive into the sea at such an angle that it would explode beneath the target ship's hull. Heinrich Himmler approved the idea, and suggested using convicted criminals as pilots. The Luftwaffe's High Command was unenthusiastic; Erhard Milch turned the plan down as impractical, and Hermann Göring showed little interest. Adolf Hitler was against the idea of self-sacrifice, believing that it was not in keeping with the German character, and furthermore did not see the war situation as being bad enough to require such extreme measures. Despite this, he allowed Reitsch to proceed with the project after she had shown the plan to him in February 1944. Günther Korten, the Luftwaffe's head of general staff, gave the matter to the commander of KG 200 to deal with.
Over 70 volunteers, mostly young recruits, came forward, who were required to sign a declaration which said, "I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as part of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death."
Problems were experienced in converting the Me 328, and the decision was taken to use instead a manned version of the V-1 flying bomb, the Fieseler Fi 103R (Reichenberg). However, the Reichenberg never entered operation.
On 9 June 1944, Karl Koller announced that a Gruppe of KG 200 equipped with special Focke-Wulf Fw 190s was ready for "total operations". Each aircraft carried a heavy bomb, due to whose weight the machines could not carry enough fuel for a return flight, and the pilots were trained only using gliders. This project came to nothing, and Werner Baumbach, now the commander of KG 200, persuaded his friend Albert Speer that it would be more productive to use the men against Russian power stations than the Allied invasion fleet, and Speer in turn passed this on to Hitler.
Suicide sorties During the Battle for Berlin the Luftwaffe flew "Self-sacrifice missions" (Selbstopfereinsatz) against Soviet held bridges over the Oder River. These 'total missions' were flown by pilots of the Leonidas Squadron under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Heiner Lange from 17 April until 20 April 1945, using any aircraft that were available. The Luftwaffe claimed that the squadron destroyed seventeen bridges. However, the military historian Antony Beevor, writing about the incident, thinks that this was exaggerated and that only the railway bridge at Küstrin was definitely destroyed. Beevor comments that "thirty-five pilots and aircraft was a high price to pay for such a limited and temporary success". The missions were called off when the Soviet ground forces reached the vicinity of the squadron's airbase at Jüterbog and were in a position to overrun it
The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, designed by Alexander Lippisch, was a German rocket-powered fighter aircraft. It is the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to have been operational. Its design was revolutionary, and the Me 163 was capable of performance unrivaled at the time. Messerschmitt test pilot Rudy Opitz in 1944 reached 1,123 km/h (698 mph). Over 300 aircraft were built, however the Komet proved ineffective as a fighter, having been responsible for the destruction of only about nine Allied aircraft (16 air victories for 10 losses, according to other sources).
The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow") was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. Design work started before World War II began, but engine problems prevented the aircraft from attaining operational status with the Luftwaffe until mid-1944. Compared with Allied fighters of its day, including the jet-powered Gloster Meteor, it was much faster and better armed
A Fieseler Fi 156 Storch similar to the one Reitsch landed in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate during the Battle of Berlin