Hanna Reitsch

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Hanna Reitsch
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B02092, Hanna Reitsch.jpg
Hanna Reitsch greets well-wishers with the Hitler Salute in her hometown of Hirschberg (Jelenia Góra); April 1941. Karl Hanke, Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, is at left.
Born 29 March 1912
Hirschberg, Silesia
(Jelenia Góra, Poland)
Died 24 August 1979 (aged 67)
Frankfurt am Main, West Germany
Nationality German
Ethnicity German
Known for Aviatrix
Only woman in World War II awarded:

Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was a German aviatrix, test pilot, and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot/Observer Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II. She set over forty altitude and endurance records during her career, both before and after World War II, and several of her international gliding records still stood in 2012. In the 1960s she founded a gliding school in Ghana, where she worked for Kwame Nkrumah.

Early life

Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia (today Jelenia Góra in Poland) on 29 March 1912 to an upper-middle-class family. She had a brother, Kurt, and a sister. Although her mother was a devout Catholic, Reitsch and her siblings were brought up in the Protestant religion of their father,[1]:Chapter One an ophthalmologist who wanted her to become a doctor. Interested in aviation, she thought she might become a flying missionary doctor in North Africa and studied medicine for a time at the Colonial School for Women at Rendsburg.[1]:Chapter One She began flight training from Pit van Husen in 1932 with a Schneider Grunau 9 glider at the School of Gliding in Grunau,[1]:14 and, under Wolf Hirth's guidance, set a five-hour world record.[1]:29 While a medical student in Berlin she enrolled in a German Air Mail amateur flying school for powered aircraft at Staaken, instructed by Otto Thomsen in a Klemm Kl 25.[1]:30,33–34 That summer, May 1933, she set a glider altitude record in a Schneider Grunau Baby.[1]:45–54 She left medical school at the University of Kiel in 1933 to become, at the invitation of Wolf Hirth, a full-time glider pilot/instructor at Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg.[1]:55 After competing in the Rhön Contests in Wasserkuppe, Reitsch contracted with the Ufa film company as a stunt pilot for the movie, "Rivals of the Air", and set an unofficial endurance record for women of eleven hours and twenty minutes south of Memel.[1]:59,61,63 In January 1934 she joined Professor Georgii's South America expedition to study thermal conditions, along with Wolf, Peter Riedel, and Heini Dittmar.[1]:64–65 While in Argentina, she became the first woman to earn the Silver C Badge, the 25th to do so among world glider pilots.[1]:75 Reitsch became a member of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS) in June 1934[1]:76 and one of her first tasks was flying the Heinkel He 46 on night meteorogical flights,[1]:88 before becoming a test pilot in 1935 for the DFS Kranich[1]:101 and the DFS Seeadler.[1]:105 Following another flying expedition to Finland Reitsch enrolled in the Civil Airways Training School in Stettin, where she flew a twin-engine on a cross country flight and aerobatics in a Focke-Wulf Fw 44.[1]:78–87 In May 1935 she participated in the International Air Display at the Lisbon "Festivas Lisboa".[1]:89 Reitsch was given the honorary title of "Flugkapitan" by Ernst Udet in 1937, after successfully testing Hans Jacobs' divebrakes for gliders.[1]:108–11 She flew from Salzburg across the Alps in May 1937 in a DFS Sperber Junior.[1]:111[2]

Reitsch in 1936 at Wasserkuppe
Adolf Hitler awards Hanna Reitsch the Iron Cross 2nd Class in March 1941

Third Reich

In September 1937 Reitsch was posted to the Luftwaffe testing centre at Rechlin-Lärz Airfield by Ernst Udet.[1]:117 She was a test pilot on the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Dornier Do 17 barrage balloon-cable fender projects, for which she received the Iron Cross, Second Class, from Hitler on 28 March 1941.[3]:166, 170–171

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,[1]:119–121 for which she received the Military Flying Medal.[1]:123 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".[4] She appeared in Nazi Party propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1938 she made daily flights of the Fa 61 helicopter inside the Deutschlandhalle, during the three weeks of the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin.[1]:123 In September 1938 Reitsch flew the DFS Habicht in the Cleveland National Air Races.[1]:129–138 This was followed by another expedition with professor Georgii to Libya in North Africa.[1]:139 At the DFS she test flew transport and troop-carrying gliders, including the DFS 230 used at the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael.[1]:155–156

Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs, among them the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.[3]:173–174 A crash landing on her fifth Me 163 flight badly injured Reitsch, who still managed to sketch the events leading to the crash, before falling unconscious and spending five months in a hospital recovering.[1]:175–179 Reitsch received the Iron Cross First Class a few days after the accident.[1]:179

After news of the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943 she accepted an invitation from Col. Gen. Ritter von Greim to visit the Eastern Front. She spent three weeks visiting Luftwaffe units, flying a Fieseler Storch.[1]:185–187

On 28 February 1944 she presented the idea of Operation Suicide to Hitler at Berchtesgaden, which "would require men who were ready to sacrifice themselves in the conviction that only by this means could their country be saved." Hitler "did not consider the war situation sufficiently serious to warrant them...and...this was not the right psychological moment." He did agree to allow development work to proceed.[1]:189,191–193 Development of the project was the responsibility of Gen. Günther Korten.[1]:193 There were about seventy volunteers who enrolled in the Suicide Group as pilots for the human glider-bomb.[1]:193 Reitsch and Heinz Kensche finished tests of the Me 328, carried aloft by a Dornier Do 217, by April 1944.[1]:194 By then she was approached by SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, a founding member of the SS-Selbstopferkommando Leonidas (Leonidas Squadron). They adapted the V-1 into three models, a two-seater, and a single-seater with and without the mechanisms to land.[1]:195–196 The plan was never implemented operationally, "the decisive moment had been missed."[1]:198

In October 1944 she was shown a booklet Peter Riedel had obtained while in the German Embassy in Stockholm, concerning the gas chambers. She claims she believed it to be enemy propaganda, but agreed to inform Heinrich Himmler about it. Himmler asked her if she believed it, and she replied, "No, of course not. But you must do something to counter it. You can't let them shoulder this onto Germany." "You are right," Himmler replied.[1]:184


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 that after two initial crashes she and Heinz Kensche took over tests of the prototype Reichenberg. She made several successful test flights before training the instructors. "Though an average pilot could fly the V1 without difficulty once it was in the air, to land it called for exceptional skill, in that it had a very high landing speed and, moreover, in training it was the glider model, without engine, that was usually employed." [1]:196–198

Berlin, 1945

A Fieseler Fi 156 Storch similar to the one Reitsch landed in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate during the Battle of Berlin

During the last days of the war Hitler 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. Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim as head of the Luftwaffe, after Von Greim and Reitsch flew from Gatow Airport into embattled Berlin to meet Hitler in his Führerbunker.[1]:205–208 Red Army troops were already in the central area when Reitsch and von Greim arrived on 26 April in a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch.[1]:205,210 With her long experience at low-altitude flying over Berlin and having already surveyed the road as an escape route, Reitsch landed on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate, after von Greim was wounded in the leg.[1]:206 During the intense Russian bombardment, Hitler gave Reitsch two phials of poison for herself and von Greim.[1]:211 She accepted the capsule, fully prepared to die alongside her Führer.[5]

During the evening of 28 April von Greim and Reitsch were flown out of Berlin from the same improvised airstrip in an Arado Ar 96 piloted by a Luftwaffe sergeant.[1]:203,213 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 as to surrender.[6] 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.[7][8]


Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by American military intelligence officers.[9] 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 ..."[10] She was held and interrogated for eighteen months.[1]:219 Her companion von Greim committed suicide on 24 May.

After having previously been evacuated from Silesia ahead of Russian troops, Reitsch's family took refuge in a chateau, Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg.[1]:202 Hearing a rumour that all refugees were to be taken back to their original homes and not wanting to surrender to the Russians, Reitsch's father shot and killed her mother, her sister[1]:215 and her sister's three children before killing himself on the night of 3 May.[11]

Postwar 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 again. In 1952, Reitsch won a bronze medal in the World Gliding Championships in Spain; she was the first woman to compete.[1]:220 She became German champion in 1955.[1]:220 She continued to break records, including the women's altitude record (6,848 m (22,467 ft)) in 1957 and her first diamond of the Gold-C badge.[1]:220

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, Reitsch (who spoke fluent English) was invited to India by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to begin a gliding centre and flew with him over New Delhi.[1]:220 In 1961, Reitsch was invited to the White House by US President John F. Kennedy.[1]:221 From 1962 to 1966, she lived in Ghana, where she founded the first black African national gliding school.[12][13] She gained the Diamond Badge in 1970.[2]

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 mi)) and again, in 1979, (802 km (498 mi)) 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.[4]

Career in Ghana and relationship with Nkrumah

A part of her postwar career, though one relatively little known in the west, was her work in Ghanaian aviation. Kwame Nkrumah invited Reitsch to Ghana after reading of her work in India. A gliding school was developed at Afienya, and she worked closely with the government and the armed forces. Support was received from the West German government.[14] The project was evidently of great importance to Nkrumah and has been interpreted as part of a "modernist" development ideology.[15]

Reitsch's attitudes to race underwent a change. "Earlier in my life, it would never have occurred to me to treat a black person as a friend or partner ..." She now experienced guilt at her earlier "presumptuousness and arrogance".[16]

She became close to Nkrumah. The details of their relationship are now unclear due to the destruction of documents, but some surviving letters are intimate in tone.[17]

In Ghana, some Africans were disturbed by the prominence of a person with Reitsch's past, but Shirley Graham Du Bois, a noted African-American writer who had emigrated to Ghana and was friendly towards Reitsch, agreed with Nkrumah that Reitsch was extremely naive politically.[18]

Contemporary Ghanaian press reports seem to show a lack of interest in her past.[19]

Last interview

Reitsch was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s, towards the end of her life, by American photo-journalist Ron Laytner. 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.[20]


Reitsch died in Frankfurt at the age of 67, on 24 August 1979, apparently after a heart attack. She had never married.[21][22]

In his book Wings On My Sleeve - The World's Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story, Former British test pilot and Royal Navy Officer Eric Brown mentions that he received a letter from Hanna to his utter surprise at the beginning of August 1979 in which she said they (Hanna and Eric Brown) had a common bond in love of flying and of danger, but neither Eric nor anyone outside Germany really understood her passionate love of the Fatherland (Germany). This letter was short and finished with the words "It began in the bunker, there it shall end." These words (in German) puzzled Eric and only the news of her death in Frankfurt on 24 August 1979 gave Eric a possible key to this mystery. It was well known that Hitler gave Hanna and Von Greim each a cyanide pill before dismissing them from the bunker on 28 April 1945. Hanna always considered that she and Von Greim had made a binding pact to commit suicide, one after another, but with an intervening period to prevent rumour of a love affair. Von Greim swallowed his pill on 24 May while under arrest in hospital at Salzburg. It is known that Hanna had managed to retain her cyanide pill throughout these years, and then again news of her death was not made public until a fortnight after demise. Also there appears to have been no post mortem made on her body, or at least no such report is available. Anyway, Eric sent Hanna's letter to her brother Kurt, whom Eric knew in the post-war German Navy, but received no acknowledgement. Eric wondered if Hanna was honoring her pact with Von Greim many years after Von Greim's suicide.[23] Eric had received Hanna's final letter to him just few weeks before her death as mentioned above.

List of awards and world records

  • 1932: women's gliding endurance record (5.5 hours)
  • 1936: women's gliding distance record (305 km (190 mi))
  • 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 (68 mi))
  • 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 (Silesia)
  • 1939: women's world record in gliding for point-to-point flight.[24]
  • 1943: While in the Luftwaffe, the first woman to pilot a rocket plane (Messerschmitt 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 Rechlin 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 (230 mi))
  • 1957: German gliding altitude record (6,848 m (22,467 ft))

Books by Hanna Reitsch

  • Fliegen, mein Leben. 4th ed. Munich: Herbig, 2001. ISBN 3-7766-2197-4 (Autobiography)
  • Ich flog in Afrika für Nkrumahs Ghana. 2nd ed. Munich: Herbig, 1979. ISBN 3-7766-0929-X (original title: Ich flog für Kwame Nkrumah).
  • Das Unzerstörbare in meinem Leben. 7th ed. Munich: Herbig, 1992. ISBN 3-7766-0975-3.
  • Höhen und Tiefen. 1945 bis zur Gegenwart. Munich: Heyne, 1984. ISBN 3-453-01963-6.
  • Höhen und Tiefen. 1945 bis zur Gegenwart. 2nd expanded ed. Munich/Berlin: Herbig, 1978. ISBN 3-7766-0890-0.

In popular culture

Reitsch has been portrayed by the following actresses in film and television productions.

See also



  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 1.33 1.34 1.35 1.36 1.37 1.38 1.39 1.40 1.41 1.42 1.43 1.44 1.45 1.46 1.47 1.48 Reitsch, Hanna (2009). The Sky My Kingdom: Memoirs of the Famous German World War II Test Pilot. Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania: Casemate Publishers.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Slater, AE (December 1980 – January 1980). "Obituary". Sailplane & Gliding. British Gliding Association. 30 (6): 302.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Reitsch, H., 1955, The Sky My Kingdom, London: Biddles Limited, Guildford and King's Lynn, ISBN 1853672629
  4. 4.0 4.1 wwiihistorymagazine.com, Profiles, May 2005, retrieved 6 May 2008
  5. Shirer, William L., The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960, ISBN 978-0-671-62420-0, p. 1454.
  6. The Luftwaffe order differs in different sources: Beevor states it was to attack Potsdamer Platz, but Ziemke states it was to support General Wenck's 12th Army attack (towards Potsdam) – both agree that he was also ordered to make sure Himmler was punished.(Ziemke 1969, p. 118 Beevor 2002, p. 342)
  7. Ziemke 1969, p. 118.
  8. Beevor 2002, p. 342.
  9. "Hitler's Woman Pilot Seized". New York Times. 10 October 1945. Retrieved 7 July 2008. The question whether Adolf Hitler is dead or alive may be answered by the testimony of Hanna Reitsch, woman Luftwaffe pilot, who was in a Berlin bomb shelter with him a few hours before the Russians captured it. She was arrested in the United States zone of occupation today and is being interrogated.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Hans Dollinger with Hans Adolf Jacobsen, tr. Arnold Pomerans, The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan: A Pictorial History of the Final Days of World War II, New York: Crown, [1968], OCLC 712594, p. 234.
  11. Piszkiewicz, Dennis, From Nazi Test Pilot to Hitler's Bunker: The Fantastic Flights of Hanna Reitsch, Praeger Publishers, 1997. ISBN 978-0-275-95456-7, from summary by Emerson Thomas McMullen, retrieved 8 January 2010
  12. The school was commanded by JES de Graft-Hayford, with gliders such as the double-seated Schleicher K7, Slingsby T21, and a Bergfalk, along with a single-seated Schleicher K8.
  13. Afua Hirsch (16 April 2012). "Hitler's pilot helped Ghana's women to fly". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Jean Allman, "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing", American Historical Review, vol. 118 no. 1 (Feb. 2013) p. 108.
  15. Allman, "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing", American Historical Review, vol. 118 no. 1 (Feb. 2013) p. 116
  16. Reitsch, Ich flog für Kwame Nkrumah (I flew for Kwame Nkrumah), pp. 29–30, quoted in Allman, "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing", American Historical Review, vol. 118 no. 1 (Feb. 2013) p. 114
  17. Allman, "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing", American Historical Review, vol. 118 no. 1 (Feb. 2013) p. 124-6
  18. Shirley Graham Du Bois to Nkrumah, 28 June 1965, box 3 file 57, Nkrumah Papers, quoted in Allman, "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing", American Historical Review, vol. 118 no. 1 (Feb. 2013) p. 122.
  19. Allman, "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing", American Historical Review, vol. 118 no. 1 (Feb. 2013) pp. 104–5.
  20. Ron Laytner, "The first astronaut: tiny, daring Hanna", The Deseret News 19 February 1981, pp. C1+, p. 12C.
  21. "Hanna Reitsch, 67. A Top German Pilot. Much-Decorated Favorite of Hitler Was Last to Fly Out of Berlin Was Cleared by U.S. Hitler Gave Her Iron Cross in Voluntary Suicide Squad". New York Times. 31 August 1979. Retrieved 7 July 2008. Hanna Reitsch, the leading German female pilot and a much-decorated favorite of Hitler who flew the last plane out of Berlin hours before the city fell in 1945, died Friday at her home in Bonn, West Germany. She was 67 years old.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Hanna Reitsch, Test Pilot for Hitler". Washington Post. 1 September 1974. Retrieved 7 July 2008. Aviation pioneer Hanna Reitsch, 67, who flew the last plane out of burning Berlin before the fall of the Nazis in 1945, died Aug. 24, the West Germany radio has reported.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Eric Brown's Book "Wings On My Sleeve- The World'S Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story", Pg. 113-114
  24. "Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979)" at monash.edu.au
  25. "Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 8 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973) (TV)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 8 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Untergang, Der (2004)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 8 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Further reading

External links