Thursday, 21 June 2018

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

One of the great joys of researching my two books about special agents and pilots in the Second World War has been interviewing veterans and witnesses to that conflict, and others who knew or met those who served in it. As the human coast erodes, as it were, it feels ever more important to capture these stories.

Occasionally after a book has been published, people get in touch with stories that I would love to have included in my books. With The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the dramatic and still little-known story of Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, the only women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots in the Second World War, but who ended their lives on opposites sides of history, I have been lucky enough to meet two people who knew Hanna.  


Former diplomat, Treasury official and President of the European Investment Bank, Brian Unwin, met Hanna in the 1960s when he was serving the British High Commission in Accra, Ghana. He got in touch having been astounded by the very different picture he had gained of Hanna from reading my book. Over lunch at the Reform Club, Brian told me how he had been sent to deliver a diplomatic gift of books to the head of the Ghanaian gliding school outside Accra in ‘the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah’s totalitarian regime’. He remembered a few white buildings around the field, a crowd, the hot sun, and his giving a ‘stock speech’. Afterwards the ‘attractive silver-haired director of the school, in her 50s’ offered to take him up in a glider. Slightly nervous, Brian checked that she was qualified to do so. After her reassurances she took him up for a short flight. Only when he returned to the High Commission did he learn that she was Hanna Reitsch, ‘Hitler’s pilot’. 

Brian said that he had been rather proud to include this story in his memoirs, and to think that he was probably the last Englishman alive to have been flown by Hanna Reitsch. Having read my book, however, and learned ‘how unreconstructed’ Hanna was, he has reviewed his perspective. 

Last week, after I gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary Festival, John Batchelor, MBE, introduced himself. John is a military artist and technical illustrator who met Hanna at Edwards Air Force Base in California, around 1977. Hanna had got out of her Mercedes car, John told me, and soon had a crowd of people around her. Curious as to who she might be, John identified her by the two pieces of jewelry she was wearing. One was a senior gliding award with diamonds, the other a round brooch with a border of precious stones and a swastika at its centre. The woman could only be Hanna Reitsch and the second brooch her gift from Hitler, which she said she would wear for the rest of her life – even though it was now illegal to wear the swastika in Germany.


John introduced himself to Hanna, and found her ‘very helpful’ when he asked her about her war-time test flights. Fascinatingly, she told him that the one aircraft she would not fly under power was the Me163. This confirmed my belief that although she was happy to tell the BBC in an interview that flying the Me163 was ‘like riding on a cannon ball,’ her own flights with it had been when she was towed up to test the gliding landings. 

Hanna did not discuss the Nazi regime or politics with John, but when he mentioned her jewellery she told him that she had also kept her Iron Cross but did not wear it ‘every day’. It seems to confirm that Hanna was, as the brilliant British Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown had told me during my research, ‘a fanatical Nazi’ to the end. 

John was amused, however, when he left Hanna or, as he put it, ‘got rid of her into her waiting Mercedes’. A group of young aviation people, editors and writers, who were waiting nearby, asked, ‘Who was that old woman you were trying to date’, only to be astounded to learn that it was Hanna Reitsch!

Twice during my research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler I was told that I was just ‘two handshakes away from Hitler’; once by Eric Brown, who had shaken Hanna’s hand, and once by Major General Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father Claus von Stauffenberg had led the most famous assassination attempt on Hitler; the 20 July 1944 Valkyrie bomb plot. It was an honour, as well as a great pleasure, to interview all these men, and it is always wonderful to meet other people who are willing to generously share their memories to help me gain the most accurate picture I can of my subjects. Perhaps, if I get the chance to have a new edition of The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I can add some further nuance to their stories!   


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