Imagine if you can, a diminutive 5 foot ½ inch 90-pound woman with short blonde hair and blue eyes standing before Adolf Hitler, trying to persuade him to use suicide bombers to help win the war. That’s exactly what happened on this day, February 28, 1944, when Hanna Reitsch met with Hitler at Berchtesgaden to receive her second Iron Cross medal from the Führer (German for ‘leader’).
At the time, Germany was developing its V-1 rocket buzz bomb. Reitsch’s idea was to use a modified version of the V-1, known as the V-1e which was designed to be flown by a single pilot, for suicide missions over enemy targets. She argued that the V-1 rockets were too inaccurate and that a human pilot would make the weapon far more accurate and lethal. The brave woman even volunteered to be the first pilot.
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Although Hitler rejected her plan, Reitsch did fly several test flights in a V-1e, where she discovered that the engine noise was so great that it caused the entire aircraft to severely vibrate. In the end, the piloted V-1e rocket plane was never used in combat.
But who was this tiny woman that commanded Hitler’s attention and being awarded 2 Iron Cross medals? Unless you’re a history, flying or World War II buff, you probably never heard of Germany’s version of Amelia Earhart.
Hanna Reitsch was born March 29, 1912 in Hirschberg, Germany. Her father was an ophthalmologist who encouraged young Hanna in her studies. From a very early age, she dreamed or soaring in the sky with the birds, like many kids do, only it was more than a dream to the small girl. At age 4 she tried to soar with the birds by leaping off her back porch. Later on in her autobiography, Reitsch wrote:
“The longing grew in me, with every bird I saw go flying across the azure summer sky.”
While in school, she decided she wanted to be a flying doctor to Africa and convinced her parents to let her take lessons on flying gliders. Not long after she convinced them to let her lessons for powered flight so she could get her flying license to be a flying doctor.
Reitsch was invading a male dominated world and being so small, many of those men didn’t take her serious at first, but that soon changed. Through her various flight schooling endeavors, she aced one test after another. Not only did she obtain her licenses to fly gliders and powered aircraft, she also learned how to maintain them.
She knew that if she was a flying doctor that it would be to her advantage to learn the mechanics of a plane engine so she started helping out the mechanics and asking them questions. Eventually, she was given a worn out engine and told to strip it down and put it back together over a weekend. On Monday they found her covered in grease and oil but the engine had been reassembled and repaired.
Her flying accomplishments far exceed most men of the day. She set numerous records in gliders and powered aircraft. She was the first person in the world to test fly the first practicable helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa61. She set endurance records and won air races in Europe and America. As a civilian test pilot, she tested many of Germany’s planes and gliders that were eventually used by the military in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Messerschmitt 321 Gigant assault glider was one of the war planes she test flew. At the time, it was the largest war plane in the world, measuring 92 feet in length with a wingspan of 180 feet and capable of carrying a payload of 48,500 pounds. Tiny 5 foot Reitsch was not daunted by the size of the huge glider and successfully test flew it.
In 1942, she was the test pilot for the stubby, rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet fighter. The plane used a hydrogen peroxide engine that was capable of climbing 30,000 feet in 90 seconds and reach a speed of 600 mph. The draw back was that it could only fly for around 8 minutes.
The Komet had a special undercarriage used for takeoff that was then jettisoned once the plane was in the air. However, on her fifth test flight, the undercarriage would not jettison. She tried everything and realized that she had no choice but try to land with the undercarriage still attached. The landing did not go well and she crashed. Before collapsing and covered in blood, she quickly sketched what happened that caused the crash. Her injuries were so severe that the doctors did not expect her to survive. Her injuries were described as:
“Her nose was nearly sheared off, her skull was fractured in four places, two facial bones were fractured, and her upper and lower jaws were misaligned.”
Her skill and bravery led Reichsmarshall Göring to personally award her with a special version of the Gold Medal for Military Flying which was encrusted with diamonds. This took place only 4 days after her crash. In fact, Hanna Reitsch was the only woman during World War II to be awarded an Iron Cross First Class Luftwaffe and the Pilot/Observer Badge, both awarded by Göring.
Reitsch spent five months in the hospital but eventually recovered and returned to flying before her doctor ever cleared her.
In 1943, Reitsch was assigned to be part of General Robert Ritter von Greim’s staff. He was a famed World War I ace who commanded the 6th Air Fleet and then the 4th Air Fleet that operated on Germany’s eastern front. In April 1945, Reitsch and Greim flew to Berlin to meet with Hitler. They stayed with Hitler in his bunker.
On April 28, 1945, Reitsch and Greim flew out of Berlin as Russian troops were only a block or two away from the Hitler’s bunker. Miraculously, Reitsch managed to avoid the hail of gunfire aimed at the small airplane. It’s possible that Hanna Reitsch was one of the last people to see Hitler alive.
When allied forces took control of Germany, Reitsch considered taking the standard issue cyanide pill but decided not to. Even though she was a civilian throughout the war, her expertise on aircraft led to her arrest by American forces. She was given the option of going to the United States or jail. She chose to remain faithful to her homeland and spent the next 18 months at the Allied internment camp in Oberursel. She was released in November 1946.
From the 1950s to 1970s, Reitsch continued to fly and continued to set numerous distance and altitude records in gliders. On August 24, 1979, at the age of 67, Hanna Reitsch died of acute heart failure and was buried in Salzburg.
Hanna Reitsch may have been small in stature, but she was a giant in aviation who so loved her homeland that she was willing to fly the first V-1e suicide mission, which she proposed to Adolf Hitler on this day in 1944.
Source for the above include: Test pilot Reitsch pitches suicide squad to Hitler; Hanna Reitsch (1912-1979); First female test pilot – Hanna Reitsch; Hanna Reitsch: Luftwaffe Test Pilot and Aviation Record Holder; German Female Glider & Fighter Pilot Hanna Reitsch; Hanna Reitsch: Hitler’s Female Test Pilot.