The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry, by Clare Mulley, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018, $20
Dual biographies are hard. Achieving a balance between two subjects, even when both relate to a broader topic, requires judgment and finesse.
British author Clare Mulley is an accomplished biographer well suited to tackle the Third Reich’s leading female pilots: namely, the celebrated Hanna Reitsch and the lesser-known but highly competent Melitta von Stauffenberg. Of the two, Reitsch still comes across as the more impressive. She was equally adept at sailplanes, powered airplanes and helicopters. During the war she mastered the treacherous Reichenberg manned V-1. Then in April 1945 she flew a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch into the Berlin rubble to deliver new Luftwaffe chief Robert Ritter von Greim to a final audience with Adolf Hitler. After the war she continued to excel in gliders and helicopters, working in India and Ghana. She died, seemingly an unrepentant Nazi, in 1979.
Von Stauffenberg, born Melitta Schiller in 1903, was bred for success. She studied science and engineering, graduating with an aeronautical specialty in 1927. Nine years older than Reitsch, she married in 1937 into the titled von Stauffenberg family, which featured disastrously in the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. Though a distinguished aviator, she preferred Red Cross work but was essentially drafted as a test pilot, conducting hundreds of dive-bombing flights. Consequently, she and Reitsch both earned the honorific Flugkapitänin.
Mulley treats both women equitably, though Reitsch’s malleable attitude toward National Socialism is a source of criticism throughout the text. British test pilot Eric Brown, who knew Reitsch and was interviewed by Mulley, described the pilot as “a fanatical Nazi,” though she was never a party member.
Even absent their professional rivalry, von Stauffenberg certainly was less enthused about the Nazi regime than Reitsch. Possibly planning to fly her husband to Switzerland, she was shot down in a Bücker Bü 181 over Bavaria on April 8, 1945, a month before VE Day. She fell to a U.S. Ninth Air Force P-51 Mustang pilot, who claimed to have downed an FW-190, despite the Bücker’s fixed gear.
Mulley’s dual biography is thoroughly documented with 60 pages of notes and nearly 20 pages of sources. Her book fills a long-standing gap in World War II aviation history.