Hanna Reitsch

Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was a German aviatrix and test pilot. During the Nazi era, she and Melitta von Stauffenberg flight tested many of the regime's new aircraft.

Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch in 1940s
Born29 March 1912 (1912-03-29)
Died24 August 1979 (1979-08-25) (aged 67)
NationalityGerman, Austrian[1]
Known forAviator, test pilot

She set more than 40 flight altitude records and women's endurance records in gliding and unpowered flight,[2] 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

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. She began flight training in 1932 at the School of Gliding in Grunau.[4]:14 While a medical student in Berlin she enrolled in a German Air Mail amateur flying school for powered aircraft at Staaken, in a Klemm Kl 25.[4]:30,33–34



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.[4]:55 Reitsch contracted with the Ufa Film Company as a stunt pilot and set an unofficial endurance record for women of eleven hours and twenty minutes.[4]:59,61,63 In January 1934, she joined a South America expedition to study thermal conditions, along with Wolf Hirth, Peter Riedel and Heini Dittmar.[4]: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.[4]:75

In June 1934, Reitsch became a member of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS) and became a test pilot in 1935.[4]:76,101,105 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.[4]:78–87 In 1937, Ernst Udet gave Reitsch the honorary title of "Flugkapitän" after she had successfully tested Hans Jacobs' divebrakes for gliders.[4]:108–11 At the DFS she test flew transport and troop-carrying gliders, including the DFS 230 used at the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael.[4]:155–156


In September 1937, Reitsch was posted to the Luftwaffe testing centre at Rechlin-Lärz Airfield by Ernst Udet.[4]:117

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".[5] She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.[4]:123

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.[4]:119–123 In 1938, during the three weeks of the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin, she made daily flights of the Fw 61 helicopter inside the Deutschlandhalle.[4]:123

In September 1938, Reitsch flew the DFS Habicht in the Cleveland National Air Races.[4]:129–138

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.[6]:166, 170–171 Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs, among them the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.[6]:173–174 A crash landing on her fifth Me 163 flight badly injured Reitsch; she spent five months in a hospital recovering.[4]:175–179 Reitsch received the Iron Cross First Class following the accident, one of only three women to do so.[4]:179

In February 1943 after news of the defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad 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 Fi 156 Storch.[4]:185–187

V-1, 1944

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.[4]:189,191–193 There were about seventy volunteers who enrolled in the Suicide Group as pilots for the human glider-bomb.[4]:193 By April 1944, Reitsch and Heinz Kensche finished tests of the Me 328, carried aloft by a Dornier Do 217.[4]: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.[4]:195–196 The plan was never implemented operationally, "the decisive moment had been missed."[4]:198

In her autobiography Fliegen, mein Leben Reitsch recalled that after two initial crashes with the V-1 flying bomb she and Heinz Kensche took over tests of the prototype Fieseler Fi 103R 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." [4]:196–198

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.[4]:184

Berlin, 1945

During the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed Hermann Göring as head of the Luftwaffe and appointed Reitsch's lover, Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, to replace him. Greim and Reitsch flew from Gatow Airport into embattled Berlin to meet Hitler in the Führerbunker, arriving on 26 April as the Red Army troops were already in the central area of Berlin.[4]:205–210 Reitsch landed on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate.[4]:206 Hitler gave Reitsch two capsules of poison for herself and von Greim.[4]:211 She accepted the capsule.[7]

During the evening of 28 April, Reitsch flew von Greim out of Berlin in an Arado Ar 96 from the same improvised airstrip. This was the last plane out of Berlin.[4]: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 so as to surrender.[8] 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.[9][10]

Capture, 1945

Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by U.S. military intelligence officers.[11] 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 ..."[12] She was held for eighteen months.[4]:219 Greim killed himself on 24 May 1945.

Evacuated from Silesia ahead of the Soviet troops, Reitsch's family took refuge in Salzburg.[4]:202 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[4]:215 and her sister's three children before killing himself.[13]


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.[4]:220 and in 1955 she became German champion.[4]: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.[4]: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, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Reitsch who spoke fluent English to start a gliding centre, and she flew with him over New Delhi.[4]:220

In 1961, United States President John F. Kennedy invited her to the White House.[4]:221

From 1962 to 1966, Hanna lived in Ghana. Ex-Ghanian Prime Minister 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.[14] 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.[15] She gained the Diamond Badge in 1970.[16]

The project was evidently of great importance to Nkrumah and has been interpreted as part of a "modernist" development ideology.[17]

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".[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] Contemporary Ghanaian press reports seem to show a lack of interest in her past.[21]

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.[5]

Last interview, 1970s

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.[22]

In the same interview, she is quoted as saying,[23]

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.'


Reitsch died of a heart attack in Frankfurt at the age of 67, on 24 August 1979. She had never married.[24][25] She is buried in the Reitsch family grave in 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. No autopsy was performed, or at least no such report is available.[26]

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: the first woman to fly a helicopter Focke-Wulf Fw 61
  • 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.[27]
  • 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

  • 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.

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

Further reading

  • Rieger, Bernhard. "Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979): The Global Career of a Nazi Celebrity." German History 26.3 (2008): 383-405.
  • Mulley, Clare. "The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry." in German History (2017) ISBN 1250063671

See also



  1. "Hanna Reitsch – Hitlers Fliegerin". ORF. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hanna-Reitsch
  3. Bernhard Rieger, "Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979): The Global Career of a Nazi Celebrity." German History 26.3 (2008): 383–405.
  4. Reitsch, Hanna (2009). The Sky My Kingdom: Memoirs of the Famous German World War II Test Pilot. Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania: Casemate Publishers.
  5. wwiihistorymagazine.com, Profiles, May 2005, retrieved 6 May 2008
  6. Reitsch, H., 1955, The Sky My Kingdom, London: Biddles Limited, Guildford and King's Lynn, ISBN 1853672629
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 118Beevor 2002, p. 342)
  9. Ziemke 1969, p. 118.
  10. Beevor 2002, p. 342.
  11. "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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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 Archived 2 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine by Emerson Thomas McMullen, retrieved 8 January 2010
  14. Jean Allman (February 2013). "Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing". American Historical Review. 118 (1): 108. doi:10.1093/ahr/118.1.104.
  15. Afua Hirsch (16 April 2012). "Hitler's pilot helped Ghana's women to fly". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 April 2012.
  16. Slater, AE (December 1979 – January 1980). "Obituary". Sailplane & Gliding. British Gliding Association. 30 (6): 302.
  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. 116
  18. 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
  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. 124–6
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. Ron Laytner, "The first astronaut: tiny, daring Hanna", The Deseret News 19 February 1981, pp. C1+, p. 12C.
  23. Mulley, Clare (18 July 2017). The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry. ISBN 9781250133168.
  24. "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.
  25. "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.
  26. Eric Brown's Book "Wings On My Sleeve – The World's Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story", pp. 113–114
  27. "Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979)" at monash.edu.au
  28. "Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 8 May 2008.
  29. "The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973) (TV)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 8 May 2008.
  30. "Untergang, Der (2004)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 8 May 2008.


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