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Reaching for the Sky

By Reina Pennington
4/18/2018 • MHQ Magazine

After breaking records and gender barriers in the Luftwaffe, two female pilots compete to change history—one to ensure Hitler’s success, the other his doom.

Controversy stalked the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Germany had excluded Jewish athletes from its teams, and in many countries there were calls for a boycott. The games proceeded, and Germany intended to demonstrate the superiority of Nazi culture and a pure Aryan race. When track star Jesse Owens, a black man from the United States, won four gold medals, he threatened Nazi claims of Aryan superiority. Less obviously but no less decisively, two German women at the games were also, in their own way, disproving Nazi ideology.

The Nazi regime never advocated equal rights for women and Adolf Hitler, speaking to the National Socialist Women’s Organization in 1934, argued that the German woman’s world should be “her husband, her family, her children, and her home.” But pilots Melitta Schiller and Hanna Reitsch had long refused to embrace his stereotype and made their point again when they participated in flight demonstrations with well-known fighter aces and daring sports pilots at the Olympics.

Hanna Reitsch was already a sort of “glider ambassador” for Germany, having given demonstrations across Europe during the 1930s and setting several gliding records along the way. Prototypically Aryan—an exuberant, petite blonde—the 24-yearold Reitsch was already a darling of the German press and was on the verge of career breakthroughs that would bring her fame and the personal patronage of Hitler and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring.

Almost unknown to the German public, 33-year-old test pilot Melitta Schiller was also among the pilots who demonstrated the capabilities of Nazi Germany’s expanding fleet of aircraft. Schiller had Jewish grandparents, and was already haunted by that ancestry even as the regime increasingly took advantage of her exceptional abilities. Modest about her accomplishments and attractive in a serious, rather elegant way, Schiller was also an accomplished engineer.

Though there is no record of their having noticed one another at the Olympics, the paths of Reitsch and Schiller—the only two female professional test pilots in Germany—had led to the same place for one brief day. Both were indisputably skilled, determined, and courageous women who would go on to fly scores of test flights in some of Germany’s hottest and most experimental fighters and bombers. Both would play their parts in advancing the Nazi regime and both would receive the prestigious Iron Cross. But Reitsch’s ambition and enthusiasm led her to Hitler’s inner circle, while Schiller’s unheralded (and perhaps reluctant) work as a pilot-engineer led her to the resistance movement, and eventually to her death.

Born in 1903 in West Prussia, Melitta Schiller was a bright, artistic, athletic, and practical young girl. At 16 she moved to Hirschberg, Silesia, to live with her grandmother and attend a college preparatory school. She was a voracious reader obsessed with physics and aerodynamics, and flying became her fixation just as gliding was becoming a prominent sport in postwar Germany. The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany to have an air force, but future pilots could still be trained on gliders. In 1922, Luftwaffe veterans opened a gliding school near Hirschberg, and Schiller spent much of her free time at the airfield. She impressed the pilots with her technical knowledge, but they told her that girls weren’t allowed to take lessons.

Schiller entered the Institute of Technology in Munich in 1922. When the institute opened a flying club in 1923, she immediately applied, but again, women were refused admission. Schiller passed her engineer’s certification in 1927 and went to work in Berlin for Deutschen Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (DVL), the oldest state-sponsored German aviation research center. She worked there for more than eight years, studying aerodynamics, jet propulsion, and rocket technology.

But she didn’t give up her dream of learning to fly, and in 1929 she finally found a flight school that would take her. The classes were expensive, but she devoted all her resources to taking one course after another. By age 26, she had finished college, become an engineer, and learned to fly.

The early 1930s were a turning point in Schiller’s personal life. At a wedding in April 1931, she met the Stauffenberg brothers, twins Berthold and Alexander, and their younger brother Claus. No matchmaker would have paired Alexander von Stauffenberg, a poet working on a doctorate in ancient history, with Melitta Schiller, two years his senior, a scientist, pilot, and engineer. But it was truly a case of opposites attracting. Melitta and Alexander began a long and devoted courtship, intending to marry when Alexander finished his doctorate.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor, and the Nazi Party’s emergency decrees censored the press and suspended civil liberties and the constitution. Germany adopted anti-Semitic rules and regulations, and created the first Nazi concentration camp to hold political opponents of the new regime. In April the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was enacted, directing that all Jewish civil servants be fired.

It was then that Schiller, raised as a German Protestant, learned for the first time that she had Jewish ancestry. Just how and when her father told the family that he had been born Jewish isn’t clear, but he only did so after the new Nazi ethnic policies were adopted. In late 1935, the Nazis introduced the Nuremberg Laws; Germans had to present proof of Aryan status to their employers. Schiller and her siblings claimed their father’s papers, which would have revealed they had two Jewish grandparents, were unattainable. They presented only their parents’ marriage certificate listing them both as Lutherans. In the absence of absolute proof of ancestry, they all had to apply for “equal to Aryan” status, and anxiously awaited the ruling, hoping no one would discover their Jewish background. As Schiller’s sister Klara said, “since 1933 this had hung like a sword of Damocles over us all.”

Although Hanna Reitsch never had to face the sort of ethnic discrimination that now threatened Melitta Schiller, they shared the struggle against gender discrimination. “In our family,” Reitsch recalled in her memoir, “it was accepted as a principle, so obvious as to be unspoken, that a girl could have only one task in life, namely, to marry and become a good mother to her children.” She decided instead to become a “flying missionary doctor.” “Flying” was the critical part of that job description; she later dropped out of medical school and, as an adult, showed little interest in religion. But she had to add “missionary doctor” to the equation to persuade her family to permit her to take flying lessons.

By 1931 the gliding school that had rejected Melitta Schiller eight years earlier relaxed its rules, and Hanna Reitsch enrolled. The only girl in her class, she had an aptitude for gliding, and early in her training she was allowed to try out a new glider design. The weather was ideal, and she soared for five and a half hours. On landing, she learned she had set a new world record. Such records were made and broken on a regular basis, but because there were few young women in the sport of gliding, the feat attracted some publicity.

Reitsch entered medical school in Berlin in 1932, but her flying activities left little time for study. She skipped lectures and became a fixture at the flying school. Each morning at 5, Reitsch bicycled out to the field for classes in powered flight. Although earning a license to fly something more sophisticated than gliders was key to prestige and advancement for any pilot, Reitch’s heart was always in gliding. “Powered flight is a magnificent triumph over nature,” she wrote later, “but gliding is a victory of the soul in which one gradually becomes one with nature.”

The Nazi rise to power in 1933 had little effect on Reitsch. During her summer break from medical school, she resumed gliding, and again found herself in the limelight. In May 1933 she set out in a new trainer, the Grunau Baby, on what was supposed to be a quick instrument-training hop. Unexpectedly she found herself in a freak storm that pulled her up to 9,500 feet. The glider iced up and was tossed about, but she managed to fly out of the storm and landed at a ski resort. It turned out that she had set a new altitude record, again quite unintentionally, and she was once more lauded in the German press.

Just 22 and with no technical training or college degree, Reitsch was offered a position at the German Institute for Glider Research in Darmstadt. She dropped out of medical school and devoted herself to flying, testing new sailplanes and a catapult glider-launching device.

Although the Nazi regime did not encourage career women, it did spotlight women like Reitsch who fit the Aryan ideal: pretty, blond, athletic, young. She was single-mindedly focused on her career, but that aspect of her character wasn’t played up in the news, where she was portrayed as selflessly “flying for the fatherland,” a gliding ambassador who gave demonstrations everywhere: from South America to Portugal, Finland, and Sweden.

When the 1936 Olympics came around, it was natural that Reitsch would be asked to perform in the flight demonstrations that were part of the festivities. After her performance there, she entered the Rhone Gliding Contest, but was incensed to learn that new regulations barred women from participating. The ban was probably connected with the Nazis’ increasing emphasis on military-related aerial training for men.

As she did so often in her career, Reitsch turned to a man to get what she wanted. Ernst Udet, another flashy pilot who loved the limelight, was a colonel in the Luftwaffe and had been Germany’s second-ranking fighter ace in World War I. He had become friend and mentor to Reitsch. With Udet’s support, Reitsch was allowed to fly in the contest and placed fifth out of 61 entrants. Soon after, she became the first woman to cross the Alps by glider.

Back at Darmstadt, Reitsch began testing dive brakes on gliders, and she demonstrated the new system for Luftwaffe leaders, including Udet and his good friend and fellow fighter ace Robert von Greim. Greim, too, quickly became her mentor and, though 20 years older than Reitsch and married, he rapidly formed a warm connection with her. (Reitsch never admitted to anything more than a strong friendship.) In the spring of 1937, Reitsch received the title of Flugkapitän (flight captain), an honor normally reserved for distinguished pilots in Lufthansa—the government-run commercial airline—who had held a commercial license for at least six years and had clocked a minimum of 2,000 hours flight time. Reitsch certainly did not have those qualifications, but Udet awarded her the title in an honorary capacity.

Reitsch set her next career mark in the world’s first fully controllable helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-61, manufactured in Germany in 1937. Hanna Reitsch talked her way into its test program and performed so well that she was tapped to demonstrate the Fa-61 helicopter to Charles Lindbergh during his 1937 visit to Germany. Reitsch’s fame continued to grow with her daily demonstrations of the Fa-61 during the threeweek-long International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin in 1938. She also continued her international activities, flying in the International Air Races in Cleveland, and on an expedition to Libya. The International League of Aviators awarded Reitsch the Harmon National Trophy, naming her Germany’s top female pilot for 1938.

Melitta Schiller’s post-Olympics career was quite different. Despite eight years of exemplary service, she was fired from her government position at DVL in October 1936 and she was hired by Askania-Werken, a private firm in Berlin that made top-notch aviation instruments. The reason was never stated, but it seems to have been because she had not yet received her “equal to Aryan” status. At about that time, Schiller’s brother and sister were also forced to leave government-related positions for work in private industry.

Belying their reputation for order and predictability, while the Nazis banned Schiller from government service, they welcomed her skills for military-related aviation projects in the private sector. At a time when German law required most women, especially married women, to leave their jobs, exceptions were made in the classified world of military testing, where female scientists and engineers were largely invisible to the public.

So despite being a woman with a questionable ethnic background, Schiller continued to expand her abilities and skills as an engineer. She also took instrument flying courses from 1935 through 1937, learning to fly blind at night and in bad weather.

Schiller’s path to the top of her field was not without setbacks, however. In late 1936 her open-cockpit fighter was caught in a snowstorm, and she made an emergency landing, unwittingly, in France. Realizing where she was, despite being low on fuel, she taxied back to the runway posthaste and took off again; a bad landing in Germany was better than a good landing in France.

As she headed northwest, her fuel ran out, and she was forced to set down in a farm field. The plane plowed into the mud and flipped upside down; two farmers managed to dig her out. The freak storm had caused many forced landings and crashes that day, but Schiller was temporarily grounded as punishment.

In August 1937, Melitta Schiller quietly married Alexander von Stauffenberg. No photos of the wedding have been published, and some sources indicate they were secretive about their relationship. Schiller had surely informed Alexander of her Jewish ancestry, but he and his family accepted her completely.

Stauffenberg was outspoken against the National Socialists, and he called attention to himself in July 1937 when he publicly refuted “Aryanized” interpretations in his field of historical study. (In fact, Alexander had heated debates with his brother Claus over Nazi policies right up to 1942, when Claus joined the anti-Nazi resistance.)

Alexander and Melitta continued their long-distance relationship after their marriage. She worked in Berlin, he in Würzburg, and they spent weekends together when they could.

Schiller’s friends noted that her marriage changed nothing about her commitment to her career, and she continued to use her maiden name. Most people who knew her professionally were unaware that she had married into the prestigious Stauffenberg family. In October 1937, she became, without fanfare, the second woman to receive the title of flight captain. She was far more qualified for this honor than Reitsch had been, but she received much less publicity. She didn’t seem to mind the lack of attention, and she valued her new title as a sign of professional achievement. As a friend noted, “‘Flugkapitän’ was her public face; ‘Countess’ she kept private.”

At Askania-Werken, Schiller researched and tested designs for remotely controlled aircraft that could be used as practice targets for antiaircraft crews. Askania also conducted classified research on Junkers Ju-87 and Heinkel He-118 dive-bombers. From 1936 until 1944, Schiller worked on systems to improve the accuracy of dive-bombing for Stukas and other dive-bombers. She flew hundreds of grueling test flights that included steep climbs to high altitudes, brutal dives toward targets, then, after dropping cement bombs, punishing pullouts from the dives that inflicted up to seven Gs of force on the pilot and aircraft.

Like Alexander, Melitta scorned Nazi politics and policies. At the same time, her work was her life and it is hard to imagine that Schiller could have been content to become a hausfrau. Yet she did try to end her association with military work. When war broke out in September 1939, Schiller asked for a transfer to serve in the Red Cross. But the Air Ministry refused to release her, insisting that she continue her test flights. She was transferred to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main testing ground for new aircraft designs, and the pace of her work increased. She was now flying up to 15 missions a day, mainly in the Junkers Ju- 88. Between October 1939 and February 1942 alone, she made more than 900 dives from altitudes up to 15,000 feet in the Ju- 87, Ju-88, Dornier Do-17Z and Do-217, and Messerschmitts Me-109 and Bf-110B.

In 1941 Germany began deporting Jews, but Schiller’s reputation and the importance of her work to the war effort saved her and three of her four siblings from deportation. The Reich Chancellery apparently granted Schiller “equal to Aryan” status in June 1941, although her siblings were not granted that designation until later. By 1942, suggested one friend, Schiller had become depressed as she increasingly recognized the criminal nature of the Nazi regime and tried to lose herself in her work. Adding to her stress, Alexander was activated for military service at age 36 and sent to the Eastern Front. He did three tours and by 1944 had been wounded three times.

In contrast to Schiller’s growing anxiety, the declaration of war in 1939 imbued Hanna Reitsch with renewed zeal. The army was interested in gliders because they were silent and hard to detect, so the Glider Research Institute designed a glider for transporting troops. Reitsch tested the prototype and flew demonstrations for Udet, Greim, and Field Marshal Erhard Milch, second in command of the Luftwaffe.

Reitsch believed that her Luftwaffe-related work helped to save German lives. But she said she also found that her work with the military exposed her to discrimination from officers whose “obstructionist attitude…would often have delayed the execution of vital work” if her mentors, Udet and Greim, had not intervened.

During the Battle of Britain, Reitsch tested methods for cutting the cables that tethered barrage balloons, such as those being used over London. In 1941 Udet was on hand to observe, but on that day, things went wrong. The cable sliced off part of two propeller blades of the Dornier Do-17 Reitsch was flying, and she had to make an emergency single-engine landing in a nearby field. She was unharmed, and her cool handling of the tricky landing impressed everyone.

Udet described the episode to Hitler, who decided to award Reitsch the Iron Cross, Second Class. Only two women had previously been so honored; none since World War I. In March 1941 Göring presented her with the Military Flier Badge in gold with diamonds and rubies, and Hitler himself presented the Iron Cross. It was the second time she had met with Hitler, and she recalled he “greeted me with friendly warmth.” The presentation of the Iron Cross brought her a fresh flood of publicity, followed by a torrent of letters and telegrams.

Reitsch’s quest to become the most famous female pilot in Germany continued with her assignment to the Messerschmitt Me-163 “Komet” test unit. She first flew the swept wing Me- 163A in May 1942 and was assigned to test powerless glider versions. Despite her mastery, in October 1942 she suffered a spectacular crash landing that nearly killed her when she made her fifth flight in the experimental Me-163.

Its volatile rocket fuel and sensitive handling characteristics made the Me-163 a dangerous aircraft, a proven killer of test pilots. Reitsch didn’t have to worry about explosions, because she was flying tests with no fuel and without engaging the engine. Like a glider, the Me-163 was towed into the air. A launching trolley on the undercarriage had to be jettisoned as soon as the plane was 10 meters above the field, otherwise nasty stability problems could occur.

But on this test, the trolley release failed. Despite standing orders to bail out in such a situation, Reitsch tried to land the valuable test plane. She hit a dirt field just short of the runway at 150 miles per hour. Since there was no fuel on board, the aircraft did not explode, and at first Reitsch thought she was unharmed. Then she realized her nose was bleeding and badly injured. While she waited for help, she calmly tied a bandana around her face, wrote up some notes on the flight, and then passed out. At the hospital it was found that she had suffered multiple skull fractures, as well as damage to her nose, jaw, and several vertebrae. Doctors thought it doubtful that she would ever fly again, if she even survived.

Göring and Milch discussed Reitsch’s accident and decided that she should receive recognition for suffering such serious injuries while performing military-related duties. They settled on the Iron Cross, First Class, as an appropriate honor. Col. Georg Pasewaldt, head of the Luftwaffe’s technical development branch, opposed giving the award to Reitsch on the grounds that it was normally given only for combat-related actions. He was overruled, and an accident exacerbated by her own recklessness would make Reitsch a national heroine as the Nazis made a propaganda event of Hitler presenting her a top honor.

Pasewaldt did seize the opportunity to point out Melitta Schiller’s accomplishments to Milch, which in his view surpassed those of Reitsch. “I said ‘Sir,’” he declared, ‘“under the present circumstances, I think it is also justified and necessary that we honor the performance proven in hundreds, in fact, thousands, of test flights, of Countess Stauffenberg in the service of the Luftwaffe. She has sacrificed herself in countless research assignments, in a way that no one’s aware of.’”

Three months later, the 40-year-old Schiller received a telegram from Göring formally awarding her the Iron Cross, and inviting her to lunch at his mansion. Schiller said that Göring “absolutely did not want to believe that I could fly and even dive heavy bombers, like the Ju-88.” He asked her which aircraft she had flown, and when she began to list them, he said, “I must rather ask, which airplanes have you not flown!” He pinned the Iron Cross on her jacket, then discussed her work arrangements, and suggested that instead of working for Askania, it might be better if she worked directly for the government.

Göring made good on his offer of a new contract, but in working out the details, Schiller became involved in negotiations and disputes that lasted the rest of the year. In the course of those discussions, there were issues about compensation, which led inevitably to the first official comparison of Schiller’s contributions with those of Reitsch. The Luftwaffe report dated January 10, 1944, was incomplete at best, and seemed to favor Reitsch for her social profile over Schiller’s clear edge in training and experience. It concluded (despite her thousands of hours diving Stukas) that Schiller flew “normal” airplanes on flights that “are to be regarded as established and harmless,” whereas Reitsch was flying untried new airplane designs.

Reitsch’s flights were “particularly dangerous,” the report read, “therefore an unusually high bonus for hazardous duty is justified.” But it also noted that Melitta Schiller, in her spare time, had written a doctoral thesis. It concluded that “the achievements of the two women cannot be compared with one another,” but both should receive approximately the same salary.

Hanna Reitsch spent most of 1943 recovering from the injuries she received in the Me-163 crash. When she returned to work, she was not permitted to fly the new, fully powered variant of the Me-163; her prolonged absence from the project and lack of combat experience meant that other test pilots were given priority. Reitsch reportedly protested, “The Führer has given me permission to fly any plane I like!” Göring and Milch knew of no such order.

Reitsch withdrew from the Me-163 project when Greim invited her to visit his unit on the Eastern Front. He felt Reitsch, a national heroine, might boost morale, which was sagging badly since the German forces were in retreat and facing the prospect of another winter in Russia. She visited his troops in November 1943 and was deeply affected by the experience; a visit that was supposed to last for a few days extended to three weeks.

Meanwhile, Melitta Schiller had resumed her test flights and engineering reports, day in and day out, and had accumulated more than 2,000 dive-bombing tests by the end of 1943, when she, too, received the Military Flier’s Badge in gold with diamonds, also called brilliants. There was no fuss about the award; she celebrated with two colleagues at the officer’s mess with a bottle of red wine and a pack of cigarettes—rare commodities by this time in Germany. She took the cigarettes to her husband, who was recovering from a serious war wound, and whispered to a friend, “I’m much happier about the cigarettes than about the brilliants.”

Schiller was fully aware that she was forging paths for women with her work. In a speech she delivered in Stockholm in December 1943 about women in aviation, she asserted that “We flyers are no suffragettes.” She told her audience: “The fact that I’m the only person to acquire every pilot’s license for every class of land- and sea-based aircraft is proof of the size of the obstacles I had to overcome.”

The year 1944 was proving desperate for Germany. Hanna Reitsch and Melitta Schiller, each in her own way, prepared to take desperate measures. In August, Reitsch, at loose ends in her flying work and increasingly worried about a German defeat, developed an idea for “a piloted flying bomb,” such as a manned V-1 pulse jet, for use against critical enemy targets. She believed that these weapons might be so lethal that the Allies might be willing to negotiate a peace with Germany. Reitsch went to Milch with the idea, which she dubbed “Operation Self Sacrifice.” Milch, never the Reitsch advocate that Udet had been, thought the idea morally objectionable and un-German. Others doubted its technical viability. But when Reitsch saw Hitler in February 1944, she managed to secure his reluctant permission to test the idea.

Reitsch had told Hitler that there were hundreds of volunteers, but only 70 actually signed a pledge to fly a manned glider bomb. Several variants of the V-1 with tiny cockpits, designated the Fieseler Fi-103R Reichenberg, were created for training purposes. He-111s towed them into the air, where they flew and landed like gliders. Reitsch conducted test flights and then became one of seven Reichenberg instructors (of whom two were killed and four injured).

However, the unit was not ready by the time of the 1944 D-Day landings. At that point, the suicide pilots were reassigned. Reitsch had been almost the only advocate of this unit, and it was dissolved without further comment.

While Reitsch was striving vaingloriously to preserve the Nazi regime, Schiller was resolving with her husband’s brothers to bring it to an end. In the spring of 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg was finalizing his plans to assassinate Hitler, part of a plot codenamed Valkyrie. After recuperating from severe war wounds in 1943, Claus had been transferred to a staff position in Berlin, which gave him occasional access to Hitler.

Alexander was left out of the plot; he had recently been transferred to a staff assignment in Greece, and in any event his brothers regarded him as “incautious” in his outspokenness against the regime. But Claus von Stauffenberg was willing to ask for his sister-in-law’s help. In late May or early June 1944, Claus informed Schiller of his plans, and asked if she would fly him to whatever destination might be chosen for the assassination attempt. In May, Schiller had been appointed chief of a secret testing unit at Berlin-Gatow. Much of her work involved testing optical equipment to improve landing procedures for fighter pilots at night. She was thrilled with the assignment, which gave her a great deal of autonomy, even though the work was plagued by staff shortages, constant air raids, and a lack of supplies.

Schiller spent June and July assiduously preparing to assist Claus. Her diary entries reveal that she conducted unusual night flights. She sought ways to secure a Ju-87 for the mission, and she planned routes and studied possible landing and refueling areas. In the end, Claus abandoned the idea of having Schiller fly him. A scheduled meeting with Hitler gave him a better opportunity, traveling on an official aircraft with his aide.

On the night of July 20, 1944, Schiller was on the flight line preparing for a Ju-88 test when she heard of the failed assassination attempt. Claus had been arrested and was executed the following day. For a few days Schiller continued to work as usual; she and Alexander had unassailable alibis. But within a week, they (and most of the Stauffenberg family) were arrested under Hitler’s “kith and kin” rules. Alexander’s twin brother, Berthold, was executed on August 10; the fate of the rest of the family was precarious.

The Gestapo never discovered Schiller’s connection with the conspiracy. She may have been saved by doing war-related work, by the fact that her husband was out of the country during the attack on Hitler, or by the Nazi tendency to underestimate women. On September 2, Schiller was freed and for the next seven months, she continued making night flights in a wide variety of aircraft, including the new Me-262 jet fighter.

Schiller had returned to work on the condition that she be allowed to visit her husband and his family and take them food and other essential items. She visited Alexander at least once a month, tracking him down over the course of frequent prison transfers. She also worked tirelessly to ensure that Claus’s children and widow were protected.

But she eventually paid a steep price for her steadfast loyalty and brave heart. By April 1945 Alexander had been transferred from Dachau to a prison in southern Germany. On April 8, Schiller acquired an unarmed training aircraft and flew to see her husband. Before she reached the prison, an American fighter plane shot her down. She managed to land the plane but died soon after. A visitor’s pass to the prison was found on her body, along with most of her jewelry and the money from her bank accounts. “I have to conclude that she was trying to find me,” Alexander later said, and “would have tried to escape with me to Switzerland.”

While Melitta Schiller was trying to keep the surviving Stauffenbergs alive, Hanna Reitsch supported the Nazi regime to the bitter end. By early 1945, she was acting as a special courier, flying small aircraft carrying military dispatches and formulating plans to evacuate wounded Berliners if the Russians encircled the city.

On April 24, with the battle of Berlin at its height, Hitler telegraphed Greim to report to the Reich Chancellery. Greim recruited Reitsch to fly him to Berlin in a helicopter, but none was available. Reitsch insisted on accompanying Greim, even though she was no longer needed as a pilot.

They got to Gatow airfield, where Melitta Schiller had been conducting her test flights until her death less than two weeks earlier. From there, Reitsch and Greim crammed into a single-seat Fieseler Fi-156 Storch, with Greim at the controls and Reitsch squeezed in behind his seat. When Greim was shot in the right leg, Reitsch helped land the plane.

They arrived at Hitler’s bunker on the evening of April 26. Hitler informed Greim he had been called to replace Göring, whom Hitler now suspected of treason, as head of the Luftwaffe. That night, Reitsch had a private meeting with Hitler, who told her, “Hanna, you belong to those who will die with me.” He gave her two vials of poison—one for herself, one for Greim. The pair agreed to commit suicide together when the time came.

Although they had begged Hitler to remain with him in the bunker, early on April 30, the beleaguered führer ordered Greim to leave to organize air cover for German forces for a possible breakthrough to the bunker. A last contingent of SS troops took them to a hidden monoplane, an Arado Ar-96, and Reitsch and Greim took off on a stretch of roadway, very likely the last flight anyone made out of Berlin before the Red Army occupied the city.

The Allies were quickly closing in on Germany, on all fronts. In early May 1945, Americans liberated Alexander from prison. But he sank into deep depression; his wife’s death hit him hard, and he often said he wished he could have died with his brothers. He managed to have Melitta’s body exhumed and moved to the family graveyard in Lautlingen, then became a recluse for the next three years.

Because of her premature death and modesty, Melitta Schiller’s achievements have gone virtually unremarked. If Hanna Reitsch had had her way, it would have remained that way. Reitsch sometimes described herself as the only female test pilot in Germany. Three years before her own death, Reitsch wrote to Schiller’s sisters and accused Melitta of having lied about receiving the Iron Cross. It was easy to disprove the accusation. Nevertheless, in her own arrogance and disdain for the accomplishments of other women, Reitsch probably believed that she had been the only female pilot to receive the award.

American occupying forces kept Hanna Reitsch under arrest for 18 months. Her American interrogator later said that the information she supplied was pivotal in leading the Nuremberg prosecutors to conclude that Hitler was, in fact, dead. Despite her close association with the architects of the Holocaust, Reitsch’s fame continued to grow. William Shirer included a summary of her testimony in his 1947 classic End of a Berlin Diary. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler, a bestseller also published in 1947, which at points characterizes her as hysterical rather than heroic, infuriated her. Her own memoir, Flying Is My Life, was published in 1952.

After the war, Reitsch returned to gliding, her first and greatest love. In 1959, she spent two months in India and took Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru up in a glider. In 1961, at the instigation of her old friend Wernher von Braun, the world-famous German rocket physicist and astronautics engineer, now a U.S. citizen, she attended a White House reception honoring female helicopter pilots.

She spent some years running a gliding school in Ghana. In 1970 she set a new gliding record, and met astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was also a gliding enthusiast. In 1971, she became one of the first women to become an honorary member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. She set a new women’s distance record in gliders on her 67th birthday in 1979, before dying in her sleep a few months later.

Although Hanna Reitsch and Melitta Schiller had both contributed to the Nazi war effort, their motivations and final actions were worlds apart. Hanna Reitsch garnered the lion’s share of attention, likely more than her accomplishments warranted. She survived the war, shook hands with John F. Kennedy, and lived to a relatively old age. Melitta Schiller, who had been willing to risk everything to help with Hitler’s assassination, was killed scant weeks before the war ended by an American fighter pilot. That these women—two of the 20th century’s most fascinating pilots—would be handed such divergent fates is certainly one of history’s great ironies.

 

Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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