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Archive Report: Axis Forces
1914-1918   1935-1945

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
Hanna Reitsch: Luftwaffe test pilot
Hanna Reitsch: Luftwaffe Test Pilot and Aviation Record Holder

We appreciate that a great deal of interest has been shown in this story and would value any additional information from interested parties (full credits placed with your approval).


Hanna Reitch was born 29 March 1912 in Hirschberg, Silesia and died 24 August 1979 in Frankfurt. From an early age Hanna wanted to fly (picture left, courtesy Bundesarchiv).

In her autobiography she wrote, “The longing grew in me, with every bird I saw go flying across the azure summer sky”. Despite her parents’ misgivings, she managed to persuade them to let her take up gliding in her teens. She loved flying from the start, and although she began to study medicine, her true love was aviation.

She managed to convince her parents that for a future career as a flying doctor in Africa she would need a pilot’s licence, and so she began to take lessons in powered flight. Proving herself to be both dedicated and determined when it came to anything to do with flight, she soon gave up her medical studies to become a gliding instructor for a number of years, also winning many glider competitions and gaining a number of records.

From 1935, Hanna began to be involved in glider research and test gliding. In 1937 she was one of the first pilots to cross the Alps in a glider. Around this time she was ordered to report to a Luftwaffe testing station for duty as a test pilot, and thus began the type of flying for which she is best known.

(Pictures courtesy Bundesarchiv)

She flew a wide variety of types of military aircraft, including the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Dornier Do 17. Her obvious flying skill made her a star in the Nazi party, though she herself was not interested in politics and simply loved flying.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 Hanna 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. She became Adolf Hitler's favourite pilot and was one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross First Class during World War II.

(Right: Hitler awarding Reitsch the Iron Cross 2nd Class, March 1941. Pictures courtesy Bundesarchiv)

In 1937 Hanna first flew an early helicopter, which had been designed by Professor Focke of Bremen. Teaching herself to fly it, she thoroughly impressed its inventor, and was soon engaged to fly indoors, demonstrating the new flying machine to the public inside the Deutschlandhalle at the Berlin Motor Show. This gave her a love of helicopters which was to last all her life.

Hanna was captured and interned towards the end of the war, but afterwards settled in Frankfurt am Main, in Germany. She took up gliding again, and became German champion in 1955. Throughout the 1970s she continued to fly, breaking gliding records in many categories. She died in Frankfurt at the age of 67, on 24th August 1979 following a heart attack.

Hanna wrote at the end of her autobiography, “Flying – that is my life”. That about sums up the story of an outstanding pilot and a remarkable woman.

Further Reading:

The Sky My Kingdom, Hanna Reitsch, Greenhill Books 1991
List of Awards and World Records:
1932: women's gliding endurance record (5.5 hours)
1936: women's gliding distance record (305 km)
1937: first woman to cross the Alps in a glider
1937: the first woman in the world to be promoted to flight captain by Colonel Ernst Udet
1937: world distance record in a helicopter (109 km)
1938: the first person to fly a helicopter Focke-Wulf Fw 61 inside an enclosed space (Deutschlandhalle)
1938: winner of German national gliding competition Sylt-Breslau (Schlesien)
1939: women's world record in gliding
1943: While in the Luftwaffe, first woman to pilot a rocket plane( Me 163). She survived a disastrous crash though with severe injuries and because of this she became the first and only German woman to receive the Iron Cross First Class.
1944: the first woman in the world to pilot a jet aircraft at the Luftwaffe research centre at Reichlin during the trials of the Messerschmitt Me 262 and Heinkel He 162
1952: third place in the World Gliding Championships in Spain together with her team-mate Lisbeth Häfner
1955: German gliding champion
1956: German gliding distance record (370 km)
1957: German gliding altitude record (6.848 m)

Helen is herself a helicopter pilot as well as an accomplished author. Among her many books is the important book Flying Helicopters. Helen Krasner holds a Commercial Pilot's Licence and Instructor's Rating for helicopters. She worked as a helicopter instructor for several years, instructing for various flying schools on Robinson R22s and R44s. She has also flown a large number of other helicopter types, has a private pilot’s licence for aeroplanes, and has tried flying microlights, gliders, and balloons. Helen has been writing professionally for many years and contributes regularly to a number of aviation publications. She was nominated for an Aerospace Journalist of the Year award in 2004, for an article about flying helicopters in Russia. She is also a former Newsletter Editor for the BWPA (British Women Pilots' Association). Her personal website is must-fly.com.

Part of this article especially written for Aircrew Remembered by the author, Helen Krasner.

Mr. Karl Striedleck has contacted us from the USA and very kindly sent us further photographs:

(Photo left: Hanna during her world record flight near the turn point in West Virginia. Right: view of airstrip where Hanna started her record flight in Pennsylvania. Also, although not clear, on the right of that photo is the home of Karl Striedleck)

"I met her at the world gliding championships in Chateauroux, France in 1978 and invited her to visit us.

She needed a quiet place to write her fifth book and came here in late March 1979. She flew one of my gliders for a feminine world record on April 7th, 1979 (my birthday).

Hanna was one of the most energetic and enthusiast individuals I have known, and a spell binding story teller. I can remember a couple breakfasts that went on to 11am. while I sat slack-jawed as she recounted experiences flying all the Luftwaffe stuff and gliders.

As you know, she was one of the last persons to escape the encircled Hitler bunker in the last days of the war. Various circles attempt to diminish her stature because she didn't repent/grovel to the victors, but as you can imagine from assessing her achievements and drive, she had a very strong will, loyalty and convictions. She hated politics and never joined the Nazi party. She just loved to fly, up until the day she died."

The following additional material to that provided by Ms Krasner and Mr. Streidleck gives further information and insights to Hanna Reitsch's motivations and beliefs. This material is largely from Wikipedia and whilst no contradictory evidence has been provided to date (February 2013) readers should nonetheless check citations for accuracy.

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. 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 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 possible that the idea originated with Reitsch during her testing of the Messerschmitt Me 163 in 1942, though there is no direct proof of this. 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.

V-1 Flying Bomb Development

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).

Führerbunker

Hitler, during the last days of the war 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), and 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 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 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.

Capture and Interrogation

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. Her father shot and killed her mother, her sister, and her sister's three children before killing himself during the last days of the war after expulsion by the Polish communists 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 (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 miles) and again in 1979 (802 km - 498 miles) 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 remarks

Although she kept a low profile after the war, she was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s, toward the end of her life, 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 after a heart attack. She had never married.

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.


For material on other women flyers:

SY July 2014

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives and Fred Paradie - Paradie Archive (both on this site), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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