Copyright By Ron Laytner
Edit International 2010
Hanna Reitsch died quietly in bed in Frankfurt, Germany one year after setting a new womens distance record in a glider.
Her 67-year-old body bore faded scars of long-ago plane crashes. Her mind held memories of Adolf Hitler and her heart still carried Nazi pride which kept her out of history.
If this tiny woman had died 40 years earlier hundreds of Londoners killed by Nazi buzz bombs might still be alive. Scores of dead Allied airmen shot down by well-designed German fighter planes could be playing with their great grand-children. The jet age would have taken longer to arrive. And man might still be striving to walk on the moon.
For Hanna Reitsch, Nazi Germany’s celebrated woman test pilot who had flown the VI rocket bomb in sub orbital flight 80,000 feet up in the early 1940’s – years before the first American spaceman – was actually history’s first astronaut.
She began by wanting to be a flying missionary but laws kept her from flying airplanes and she began in gliders, winning dozens of competitions and attracting the attention of Hitler.
She soon became Nazi Germany’s ideal woman, young and vivacious, daring and highly publicized by the Nazi propaganda machine.
If she hadn’t been on the losing side and if she had been later willing to admit the horrors of the Nazi regime, Hanna Reitsch would be honored in history books as the greatest woman pilot.
She was probably the mother of Womens Liberation, having bested men in every flying competition. She was photographed rarely after the war and though she is mentioned more than 60,000 times on the internet, never interviewed, except by me.
We first met in 1970 when she quietly flew in from Brazil to enter an international helicopter competition in Munich and won at the age of 57.
Dozens of surviving German air force pilots and present-day German NATO pilots literally shook with excitement to see her.
Inside a small hanger, speaking in heavily-accented English, the 95-pound woman gave the first of a series of interviews to be released after her death. She died in 1979 just after winning one more flying competition and is buried in Salzburg, Austria.
At a time when women were expected to stay in the kitchen, she was one of the world’s top glider pilots. She held 40 world aviation records; was the first to cross the Alps in a glider, first to fly a helicopter and first to fly a jet plane. She was the first woman awarded the iron Cross and was the world’s first woman test pilot.
History records she flew into a burning Berlin at night in the last days of the war and landed a small plane safely on a street full of firing Russian tanks. A direct hit on her plane mangled the foot of the pilot who had been summoned by Adolf Hitler. Hanna had been standing behind him but when he was wounded, took over the perilous landing.
Hanna stayed three days in the Hitler underground bunker then flew the last plane out of Berlin before it fell to the Russians. Her eye-witness account of the last days of Hitler are an important part of history and her flights in the VI rocket are a first chapter in space travel.
She spent her last years in quiet. The darling of Nazi Germany was a post-war outcast. Germans who adored her later shunned her.
She never married, saying her man died in the war. “But there are millions in Germany who love me,” she told me. “It is only the German press which has been told to hate me. It is propaganda helped by the government. Germans have not been allowed to write about me since 1945. They are afraid I might say something good about Adolf Hitler.
“But why not? Because of Hitler we Germans were the pioneers of space travel, ahead of our time, ahead of the world. The first space rockets were copies of our V2 bombs which climbed 50 miles up. After the war my dear friend Werner Von Braun helped the Americans. He was brilliant with the V2 rocket and the father of all space travel and satellites.
About Nazi crimes all she would say was, "I asked Herman Goering one day, 'What is this I am hearing that Germany is killing Jews?'
Goering 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.'
She would rather talk about the VI rocket. “I am surprised I am still alive. So many of my friends were killed. Ten of us test flew the VI rocket. Five were killed and three severely injured.
“The V1 was built to fly as a robot controlled by an early auto-pilot – something else we designed. It was almost impossible to fly with fins or wings just three feet long. But I flew it ten times.
“Catapulted from a sled, it produced more than 24 G’s acceleration force, enough to burst body organs as we learned from experiments and dead pilots.
“In 1965 they made a movie in England called “Operation Crossbow”, with Sophia Loren playing an Allied spy. They pictured me flying off a catapult in the film. It was all technically wrong and made without my permission.
“For our tests the bomb was attached under the left wing of a Heinkel III bomber and we were dropped at high altitudes. The Americans copied us years after with their X15 Rocket Plane, even tracking me to Africa and asking for technical advice.
The tiny woman in the self-designed brown corduroy uniform she wore throughout her life, looked up at the sky, closed her eyes and remembered, “The bomb was complex to fly and had just so much time available in the air. We used an early on-board computer, another German invention, plotting the power of the pulse jet engine, weight of explosive cargo, wind factor and remaining fuel.
“The VI handled like a piano. It wasn’t designed to be landed, but to fall as a bomb. Only my training as a glider pilot kept me alive.
“We landed at a military test base north of Berlin on Germany’s longest runway at over 100 miles an hour just a few feet off the ground on a tiny metal skid.
“Later when the Americans invaded Germany we fled our launch pads at Peenemunde and began dropping VI’s from bombers, just as I had tested them.”
She described her famous Berlin flight to Hitler.
“In November 1944 the capital was being devastated by US and British bombers. My presence was important. German radio broadcast to the city, ‘Stand fast. Hanna Reitsch endures this with you.’
“One night a bomb blast shook my left arm loose from its socket. I was taken to a hospital filled with wounded servicemen. Many were amputees. I knew we were losing the war and wondered if, in the future, I could rescue some from the advancing Russians by flying in at night and landing on the street beside the hospital.
“For several days I flew around the city memorizing landmarks until I knew I would be able to find the hospital at night without radio assistance.”
Air Force General Ritter Von Greim (her only boyfriend) learned of Hanna’s planning and later, in the last days of the war, asked her to join him on a perilous night flight into Berlin to see Adolf Hitler.
It happened on the night of April 26, 1945 when the city was under heavy Russian attack. The first aircraft they were to use was destroyed by bombs, so they switched planes and flew to Gatow Airfield outside of Berlin.
They transferred to a tiny Fiesler Storch spotter plane and, using Hanna’s memorized landmarks, flew slowly into the burning city, landing in a hail of Russian tank fire on a street outside the German Chancellery. A heavy Russian bullet pierced their little plane and destroyed General Greim’s right foot.
Die-hard Nazi SS troops around the headquarters rushed them to an elevator at the bunker just before the Russians began scoring direct hits on the building.
None of Hitler’s close associates were in the underground bunker except Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann, Propaganda Minister Dr Joseph Goebbels, his German 'First Lady' wife, Magda and their six children.
On the upper levels Hanna met Bormann, an admiral, several generals and secretaries. On the lower level were private quarters for Hitler, his girl-friend, Eva Braun and Hitler’s doctor.
“They were all very moved to see me come in,” said Miss Reitsch. “all were calm and ready to die. History books say Hitler was mad and incoherent, that many in the bunker were drunk and having sex parties.
“It is not true. I was there. We were seeing the end of a great man and his cause. There was nothing in the bunker but dignity. Hitler greeted us quietly and without emotion.”
He heard Greim report from a stretcher on the floor. He knelt to shake his hand and, turning, told Hanna, “You are a very brave woman. There is still loyalty and courage in the world.”
Hitler explained he’d asked them to come because Luftwaffe head Herman Goering had refused an order to fly in. Instead he had sent a telegram asking to take over as new Chancellor.
Said Hitler, “Nothing is spared me. No allegiances are kept. No honor is lived up to. There are no disappointments I have not had, no betrayals I have not experienced and now this above all else. Nothing remains. Every wrong has already been done…”
Hitler now officially fired Goering, taking away his rank, titles and properties and named General Greim Goering’s successor, promoting him to General Field Marshall. But Greim now commanded an air force which no longer existed. He and Hanna Reitsch were trapped.
Handing them two vials of poison, Hitler said, “Hanna, you are a loyal German and belong to those who will die with me… I do not wish that one of us falls to the Russians alive, nor do I wish our bodies to be found by them. Eva and I will have our bodies burned. You will devise your own method.
Hitler refused Hanna’s pleas to fly him out. And Eva Braun said, “I do not wish to live in a Germany without an Adolf Hitler. It would not be fit to live in for a true German.”
Hanna and Greim decided they would swallow the poison and blow themselves up with a heavy hand-grenade just before the Russians broke in.
When she wasn’t nursing the wounded Von Greim Hanna Reitsch baby-sat with the children of Magda Goebbels as she and her husband prepared to kill them in a family suicide.
The children, ranging in age from four to 12, had been playing happily for days in the bunker unaware of their danger.
‘My dear Hanna,” said Magda, ‘when the end comes you must help me if I become weak about the children.’
“I entertained the children with flying and travel stories,” said Miss Reitsch. “They believed the war was just a big game, that their uncle Hitler was responsible for the bombs going off outside and that we were winning.
“They kept singing a favorite song, ‘In the morning, God willing, we will wake again’. They had no idea their parents were going to kill them.”
As the Russian bombardment intensified, plaster fell even at the lowest levels of the bunker. Sleep was impossible. And yet, for a time, there was hope for rescue by German forces. Hitler, holding a battered auto road map, even planned a counter attack
But Hanna was certain she’d never see daylight again when she learned on April 29th that SS General Herman Fegelein, Eva Braun’s former brother-in-law, had been brought back from the city under guard to the underground headquarters and shot on Hitler’s orders for trying to escape from the bunker.
Then, just after midnight, Hitler visited Greim and Reitsch. He held a Reuters news agency dispatch reporting that Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler was offering to surrender German armies in the west to General Eisenhower.
It was the last blow. “Even Himmler has betrayed me,” said Hitler. He ordered Hanna and Greim to break out of Berlin, take command of the air force and arrest Himmler.
A weeping Magda Goebbels urged them to save themselves and gave Hanna a letter to her son from her first marriage. The woman pilot immediately headed for the street level without seeing the Goebbels children again.
Two days later the children were stopped in their playing. They were lined up before an SS doctor and one at a time, were given an injection of poison. The same doctor, using the same needle and poison, had killed Hitler’s dog the day before. After the children were dead their parents went into another room where they knelt in front of an orderly who then fired a pistol into the back of their heads.
“I believe now,” Hanna told me years later, “the Russians would not have hurt the children or their mother. Their lives were wasted. They were innocents.”
It was also the end for Hitler By next morning he had drawn up his last will and testament and married Eva Braun. Hours later they were dead of poison and a gun-shot wound.
Above the bunker, amid earth shaking explosions, ears deafened by concussion and under a sky red with flames, Hanna Reitsch and Ritter Von Greim were picked up by an SS armored car.
Inching through the rubble of street wreckage and barely avoiding Russian troops, they reached a small German Arado 96 scout-plane and its waiting pilot. Chances of escape were slim. Three must fly out in a plane built for two on just twelve hundred feet of still undamaged roadway. Shells were falling around them and the Russians were closing in fast.
At the last possible moment the tiny plane got off the ground and slowly climbed. Over the Brandenburg Gate it was caught in Russian searchlights and heavy cross-fire. But in a few minutes it was hidden in dense smoke clouds. Soon, high above them, Hanna Reitsch entered a still and peaceful sky over the doomed city and flew to safety.
Next morning at Ploen, in northern Germany, Hanna and Greim met Grand Admiral Doenitz, Hitler’s successor and learned the war was finished. On May 9th, two days after Germany surrendered, Hanna Reitsch gave herself up to the Americans.
Because Hitler’s body was never seen by the allies it was widely believed for years that Hanna Reitsch flew out of Berlin with Hitler or his secretary Martin Bormann.
“I met Herr Bormann in the bunker,” Hanna Reitsch told me. “But believe me I had nothing to do with getting him out. And as for rescuing Hitler, that is just nonsense of the British and American press at that time.”
Hanna spent a year and a half as an American prisoner without any charges being lodged against her. The civilian woman test pilot had never joined the Nazi party. In 1959 she went to India to help Nehru build an air force. Later she disappeared into Africa. In 1961 she quietly met with President John F. Kennedy. An old photo shows her standing near Kennedy, wearing a dress and carrying a woman's handbag.
She showed up in Ghana in 1962 building an air force for the late dictator Kwame Nkrumah whom she hoped would be the black Hitler of Africa. But he was a loser too and was overthrown in 1966.
Years later the lady pilot told me, “Someday after I am dead. I hope your story will set the record straight.
“When I was released by the Americans I read historian Trevor Roper’s book, ‘The Last Days of Hitler’. Throughout the book like a red line, runs an eyewitness report by Hanna Reitsch about the final days in the bunker. I never said it. I never wrote it. I never signed it. It was something they invented. Hitler died with total dignity.
“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.
Then she uttered the words that for so long kept her out of the history books:
“Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost.”
Copyright by Ron Laytner
More photos >