Hanna Reitsch

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch in 1941
Born29 March 1912 (1912-03-29)
Died24 August 1979 (1979-08-25) (aged 67)
NationalityGerman, Austrian[1]
Known forNazi, Aviator, test pilot
PartnerRobert Ritter von Greim (1945)

Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was a German aviator and test pilot. Along with Melitta von Stauffenberg, she flight tested many of Germany's new aircraft during World War II and received many honors. Reitsch was among the very last people to meet Adolf Hitler alive in the Führerbunker in late April 1945.

Reitsch set more than 40 flight altitude records and women's endurance records in gliding and unpowered flight,[2][better source needed] before and after World War II. In the 1960s, she was sponsored by the West German foreign office as a technical adviser in Ghana and elsewhere,[3] and founded a gliding school in Ghana, where she worked for Kwame Nkrumah.

Early life and education[edit]

Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia, on 29 March 1912 to an upper-middle-class family. She was daughter of Dr. Wilhelm (Willy) Reitsch, who was an ophthalmology clinic manager, and his wife Emy Helff-Hibler von Alpenheim, who was a member of the Austrian nobility. Despite her mother being a devout Catholic, Hanna was raised a Protestant. She had two siblings, her brother Kurt, a Frigate captain, and her younger sister Heidi. Reitsch began flight training in 1932 at the School of Gliding in Grunau.[4] While a medical student in Berlin she enrolled in a German Air Mail amateur flying school for powered aircraft at Staaken, training in a Klemm Kl 25.[5]



In 1933, Reitsch left medical school at the University of Kiel to become, at the invitation of Wolf Hirth, a full-time glider pilot/instructor at Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg.[6] Reitsch contracted with the Ufa Film Company as a stunt pilot and set an unofficial endurance record for women of 11 hours and 20 minutes.[7] In January 1934, she joined a South America expedition to study thermal conditions, along with Wolf Hirth, Peter Riedel and Heini Dittmar.[8] While in Argentina, she became the first woman to earn the Silver C Badge, the 25th to do so among world glider pilots.[9]

In June 1934, Reitsch became a member of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS) and became a test pilot in 1935.[10] 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.[11] In 1937, Ernst Udet gave Reitsch the honorary title of Flugkapitän after she had successfully tested Hans Jacobs's divebrakes for gliders.[12] At the DFS she test-flew transport and troop-carrying gliders, including the DFS 230 used at the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael.[13]


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

In September 1937, Reitsch was posted to the Luftwaffe testing centre at Rechlin-Lärz Airfield by Ernst Udet.[14]

Her flying skill, desire for publicity, and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a "ready smile".[15] She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.[16]

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, for which she received the Military Flying Medal.[17] In 1938, during the three weeks of the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin, she made daily flights of the Fa 61 helicopter inside the Deutschlandhalle.[16]

In September 1938, Reitsch flew the DFS Habicht in the Cleveland National Air Races.[18]

Reitsch was a test pilot on the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber and Dornier Do 17 light/fast bomber projects, for which she received the Iron Cross, Second Class, from Hitler on 28 March 1941.[19] Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs, among them the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.[20] And as such, she became the first and only women in the world to fly a rocket plane. A crash landing on her fifth Me 163 flight badly injured Reitsch; she spent five months in a hospital recovering.[21] Reitsch received the Iron Cross First Class following the accident, one of only three women to do so.[22]

She was also the only woman to fly the world's biggest glider, the Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant (Giant). She was instrumental in having a second pilot added to the Me 321. She was also the first woman in the world to fly a jet fighter (Me 262), and the only woman in the world to fly a cruise missile (Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg). She was also likely to have been the first woman to fly a dive bomber (Ju 87).

In February 1943 after news of the defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad she accepted an invitation from Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim to visit the Eastern Front. She spent three weeks visiting Luftwaffe units, flying a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch.[23]

V1, 1944[edit]

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." Although Hitler "did not consider the war situation sufficiently serious to warrant them ... and ... this was not the right psychological moment", he gave his approval. The project was assigned to Gen. Günther Korten.[24] There were about seventy volunteers who enrolled in the Suicide Group as pilots for the human glider-bomb.[25] By April 1944, Reitsch and Heinz Kensche finished tests of the Me 328, carried aloft by a Dornier Do 217.[26] 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 flying bomb into the Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg including a two-seater and a single-seater with and without the mechanisms to land.[27] The plan was never implemented operationally, "the decisive moment had been missed."[28]

In her autobiography Fliegen, mein Leben Reitsch recalled that after two initial crashes with the Fi 103R she and Heinz Kensche took over tests of the prototype Fi 103R. 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."[29]

In October 1944, Reitsch claimed she was shown a booklet by Peter Riedel which he'd obtained while in the German Embassy in Stockholm, concerning the gas chambers. She further claimed that while believing it to be enemy propaganda, she agreed to inform Heinrich Himmler about it. When she did, Himmler is said to have asked whether 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.[30]

Berlin, 1945[edit]

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 and appointed von Greim to replace him. Von Greim and Reitsch flew from Gatow Airport into embattled Berlin to meet Hitler in the Führerbunker, arriving on 26 April when Red Army troops were already in the central area of Berlin.[31] Reitsch and von Greim had flown from Rechlin–Lärz Airfield to Gatow Airfield in a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, escorted by twelve other Fw 190s from Jagdgeschwader 26 under the command of Hauptmann Hans Dortenmann.[32] In Berlin, Reitsch landed a Fi 156 Storch on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate.[33] Hitler gave Reitsch two capsules of poison for herself and von Greim.[34] She accepted the capsules.[35]

Shortly after midnight on 29 April, Reitsch and von Greim flew out of Berlin in an Arado Ar 96 from the same improvised airstrip. This was the last plane out of Berlin.[36] 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 so as to surrender.[Note 1] Troops of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army, which was fighting its way through the Tiergarten from the north, tried to shoot the plane down fearing that Hitler was escaping in it, but it took off successfully.[37][38][Note 2]

Capture, 1945[edit]

Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by U.S. military intelligence officers.[Note 3] When asked about being ordered to leave the Führerbunker on 29 April 1945,[36] 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 ..."[42] She was held for eighteen months;[43] von Greim killed himself on 24 May 1945.

Evacuated from Silesia ahead of the Soviet troops, Reitsch's family took refuge in Salzburg.[44] During the night of 3 May 1945, after hearing a rumour that all refugees were to be taken back to their original homes in the Soviet occupation zone, Reitsch's father shot and killed her mother and sister[45] and her sister's three children before killing himself.[46]


After her release Reitsch settled in Frankfurt am Main. After 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[47] and in 1955 she became German champion.[47] 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.[47]

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, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Reitsch, who spoke fluent English, to start a gliding centre, and she flew with him over New Delhi.[47] In 1961, United States President John F. Kennedy invited her to the White House.[48]

From 1962 to 1966, she lived in Ghana. The then Ghanaian President, Kwame Nkrumah invited Reitsch to Ghana after reading of her work in India. At Afienya she founded the first black African national gliding school, working closely with the government and the armed forces. The West German government supported her as technical adviser.[49] The school was commanded by J.E.S. de Graft-Hayford, with gliders such as the double-seated Schleicher K7, Slingsby T.21 and a Bergfalke, along with a single-seated Schleicher K 8.[50] She gained the FAI Diamond Badge in 1970.[51] The project was evidently of great importance to Nkrumah and has been interpreted as part of a "modernist" development ideology.[52]

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".[53] 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.[54]

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.[55] Contemporary Ghanaian press reports seem to show a lack of interest in her past.[56]

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.[15]

Last interview, 1970s[edit]

Reitsch was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s, towards the end of her life, by Jewish-American photo-journalist Ron Laytner. In her closing remarks she is quoted as saying:

And what have we now in Germany? A country 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 of 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.[57]

In the same interview, she is quoted as saying,[41]

I asked Hermann Göring one day, "What is this I am hearing that Germany is killing Jews?" Göring responded angrily, "A totally outrageous lie made up by the British and American press. It will be used as a rope to hang us someday if we lose the war."


Grave of Hanna Reitsch in Salzburg

Reitsch died of a heart attack in Frankfurt at the age of 67, on 24 August 1979. She had never married.[58] She is buried in the Reitsch family grave in the Salzburger Kommunalfriedhof.

Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown said he received a letter from Reitsch in early August 1979 in which she said, "It began in the bunker, there it shall end." Within weeks she was dead. Brown speculated that Reitsch had taken the cyanide capsule Hitler had given her in the bunker, and that she had taken it as part of a suicide pact with Greim.[59] There is no record of an autopsy.[60]

List of awards and world records[edit]

  • 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: the first woman to fly a helicopter (Fa 61)
  • 1937: world distance record in a helicopter (109 km (68 mi))
  • 1938: the first person to fly a helicopter (Fa 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.[61]
  • 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 of three German women 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[edit]

  • 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[edit]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.[37][38]
  2. ^ Although a 10 October 1945 New York Times article announcing Reitsch's capture stated that she was in the Führerbunker a few hours before Hitler's suicide, according to Hugh Trevor-Roper,[39] she arrived in Berlin on 26 April and left early on 29 April – , a day and a half before Hitler died. Although Reitsch corroborated that she left after midnight on 29 April,[40] she later condemned the account given by Trevor-Roper, saying "throughout the book, like a red line, runs an eyewitness report by Hanna Reitsch. I never said it. I never wrote it. I never signed it. It was something they invented. Hitler died with total dignity."[41] (Reitsch did not witness Hitler's death.)
  3. ^ "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.""Hitler's Woman Pilot Seized". New York Times. 10 October 1945. Retrieved 7 July 2008.



  1. ^ "Hanna Reitsch – Hitlers Fliegerin". ORF. Archived from the original on 13 October 2016. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  2. ^ Hanna Reitsch at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ Rieger 2008.
  4. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 14.
  5. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 30, 33–34.
  6. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 55.
  7. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 59, 61, 63.
  8. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 64–65.
  9. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 75.
  10. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 76, 101, 105.
  11. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 78–87.
  12. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 108–11.
  13. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 155–156.
  14. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 117.
  15. ^ a b wwiihistorymagazine.com, Profiles Archived 16 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine, May 2005, retrieved 6 May 2008
  16. ^ a b Reitsch 2009, p. 123.
  17. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 119–123.
  18. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 129–138.
  19. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 166, 170–171.
  20. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 173–174.
  21. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 175–179.
  22. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 179.
  23. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 185–187.
  24. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 189, 191–193.
  25. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 193.
  26. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 194.
  27. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 195–196.
  28. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 198.
  29. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 196–198.
  30. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 184.
  31. ^ Reitsch 2009, pp. 205–210.
  32. ^ Caldwell 1991, pp. 367–368.
  33. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 206.
  34. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 211.
  35. ^ Shirer 1960, p. 1454.
  36. ^ a b Reitsch 2009, pp. 203, 213.
  37. ^ a b Ziemke 1969, p. 118.
  38. ^ a b Beevor 2002, p. 342.
  39. ^ Trevor-Roper 1947, pp. 147–150.
  40. ^ Reitsch 2009.
  41. ^ a b Mulley 2017.
  42. ^ Dollinger & Jacobsen 1968, p. 234.
  43. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 219.
  44. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 202.
  45. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 215.
  46. ^ Piszkiewicz 1997.
  47. ^ a b c d Reitsch 2009, p. 220.
  48. ^ Reitsch 2009, p. 221.
  49. ^ Allman 2013, p. 108.
  50. ^ Hirsch 2012.
  51. ^ Slater 1979–1980.
  52. ^ Allman 2013, p. 116.
  53. ^ Allman 2013, p. 114.
  54. ^ Allman 2013, pp. 124–126.
  55. ^ Allman 2013, p. 122: Shirley Graham Du Bois to Nkrumah, 28 June 1965, box 3 file 57, Nkrumah Papers
  56. ^ Allman 2013, pp. 104–105.
  57. ^ Laytner 1981.
  58. ^ Cook 1979.
  59. ^ Reitsch mentions Hitler giving them the capsules in her autobiography The Sky My Kingdom (1991 English-language edition), p.211.
  60. ^ Brown 2006, pp. 113–114.
  61. ^ "Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979)" at monash.edu.au
  62. ^ Anderson, Michael (1 April 1965), Operation Crossbow (Action, Drama, War), Sophia Loren, George Peppard, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios, retrieved 27 December 2020
  63. ^ "Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)". IMDb.com. 9 May 1973. Retrieved 8 May 2008.
  64. ^ "The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973) (TV)". IMDb.com. 7 January 1973. Retrieved 8 May 2008.
  65. ^ "Untergang, Der (2004)". IMDb.com. 8 April 2005. Retrieved 8 May 2008.


Further reading[edit]

  • Lomax, J. (1990). Hanna Reitsch: Flying for the Fatherland. John Murray Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7195-4571-9.

External links[edit]