Wednesday 28 June 2017

Pioneers of flight: Hitler's forgotten Valkyries

First published by Pan Macmillan on 28th June 2017

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented and record-breaking women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. In her new book, The Women Who Flew For Hitler, acclaimed biographer and author Clare Mulley tells the real story of Hanna and Melitta. Here, Clare explains why she was drawn to write about these two fascinating women. 

Among the women who were awarded the Iron Cross during the Second World War, for me, two stand out. Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were both brilliant pilots whose skill and conviction placed them firmly at the heart of the Third Reich. Hanna with her dazzling smile, blonde curls and blue eyes, was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s new regime, happily lending her image to a series of publicity articles and collectable cigarette cards. She also test-flew the most pioneering designs from the Nazi aircraft development programme. The darker, more serious and seemingly shy Melitta had a more conflicted relationship with the regime. Although one of their most senior aeronautical engineers and the lead Stuka dive-bomber test-pilot, she would never accept many of the policies and practices of National Socialism.

As young women, Hanna and Melitta had learnt to fly fragile wood and canvas gliders over the same green slopes. With engine-powered flight prohibited under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, gliding became the focus for German national pride after the First World War. Although girls were only expected to watch, the women who dared to take to the skies quickly became icons in this golden age of flight.

In 1936 both Hanna and Melitta would wow the crowds flying at events during the Olympic Games. Two years later Hanna became the first women to fly a helicopter, and the first person ever to fly one inside a building, blowing all the gentlemen’s hats off as she circuited the Deutschlandhalle. When war came she tested the design of wing blades developed to cut through British barrage balloon cables, practised deck landings, and eventually crash-landed in a prototype of the famous Me163 rocket plane, destroying much of her face. Hitler awarded her the Iron Cross for her courage and commitment to duty, making her the first woman to receive the Iron Cross during the war.

In contrast, Melitta Schiller had quietly built her career further away from the limelight. A brilliant aeronautical engineer as well as a test pilot, Melitta’s work was fundamental in developing the accuracy of Stuka dive-bombers. Sometimes she would pass out during tests, regaining consciousness just in time to pull out before impact. She knew she had to work at the limits of the possible; it was through becoming uniquely valuable that she hoped to help protect herself and her siblings – all of whom had been defined as Jewish ‘Mischling’ in 1937. By 1944 Melitta had been reclassified as ‘Equal to Aryan’, her family were safe, she too had received the Iron Cross, and she was heading up her own military flight institute; an unheard of position for a woman, let alone one with Jewish ancestry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although they knew each other well and often met before and during the war, Hanna and Melitta had a difficult relationship.

As the tide of the war turned against Nazi Germany, Hanna and Melitta both looked for radical ways to bring an earlier but very different end to the conflict. Their beliefs, decisions, determination, courage and dramatic actions would put them powerfully on opposite sides of history. Yet later, when Hanna was infamous, revered and abhorred in almost equal measure, Melitta simply faded from the record. Uncovering her story has shed extraordinary new light not just on both these women’s lives, but on life more generally inside Germany under the Nazi regime, the limited options open to some, and the courage it took to face realities and act on truths under the perverting conditions of dictatorship and war.