Hanna Reitsch: German aviator (1912 - 1979) | Biography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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Hanna Reitsch
German aviator

Hanna Reitsch

Hanna Reitsch
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro German aviator
Was Pilot Aviator Test pilot Helicopter pilot Military personnel
From Germany Austria
Field Military
Gender female
Birth 29 March 1912, Jelenia Góra, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland
Death 24 August 1979, Frankfurt, Darmstadt Government Region, Hesse, Germany (aged 67 years)
Hanna Reitsch
The details (from wikipedia)


Hanna Reitsch (29 March 1912 – 24 August 1979) was Germany's most famous female aviator and test pilot, starting in the early 1930s. During the Nazi era she served as an international representative for the regime. In the 1960s she was sponsored by the West German foreign office as a technical adviser in Ghana and elsewhere.

She was 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 more than 40 altitude and endurance women's records in gliding before and after World War II. 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. She began flight training in 1932 at the School of Gliding in Grunau. 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. 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. 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. In January 1934 she joined a South America expedition to study thermal conditions, along with Wolf, Peter Riedel and Heini Dittmar. While in Argentina, she became the first woman to earn the Silver C Badge, the 25th to do so among world glider pilots. Reitsch became a member of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS) in June 1934 and became a test pilot in 1935. 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. Reitsch was given the honorary title of "Flugkapitän" by Ernst Udet in 1937, after successfully testing Hans Jacobs' divebrakes for gliders.

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. 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.

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. 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". She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1938 she made daily flights of the Fw 61 helicopter inside the Deutschlandhalle, during the three weeks of the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin. In September 1938 Reitsch flew the DFS Habicht in the Cleveland National Air Races. At the DFS she test flew transport and troop-carrying gliders, including the DFS 230 used at the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael.

Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs, among them the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942. A crash landing on her fifth Me 163 flight badly injured Reitsch; she spent five months in a hospital recovering. Reitsch received the Iron Cross First Class following the accident.

After news of the defeat in 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.

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 gave his approval; the project was assigned to Gen. Günther Korten. There were about seventy volunteers who enrolled in the Suicide Group as pilots for the human glider-bomb. Reitsch and Heinz Kensche finished tests of the Me 328, carried aloft by a Dornier Do 217, by April 1944. 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. The plan was never implemented operationally, "the decisive moment had been missed."

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.


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 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."

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. 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. Reitsch landed on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate. Hitler gave Reitsch two phials of poison for herself and von Greim. She accepted the capsule.

During the evening of 28 April von Greim was flown out of Berlin by Hanna in an Arado Ar 96 from the same improvised airstrip. This was the last plane out of Berlin. 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. 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 plane down, but failed and it took off successfully.


Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by American military intelligence officers. 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 ..." She was held for eighteen months. Greim killed himself on 24 May.

Evacuated from Silesia ahead of the Soviet troops, Reitsch's family took refuge in Salzburg. 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 and her sister's three children before killing himself on the night of 3 May.

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. She became German champion in 1955. 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.

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. In 1961, Reitsch was invited to the White House by United States President John F. Kennedy. From 1962 to 1966, she lived in Ghana, where she founded the first black African national gliding school. She gained the Diamond Badge in 1970.

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.

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

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".

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.

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

Last interview

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 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.


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

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. There was no autopsy made on her body, or at least no such report is available.

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.
  • 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.

  • Barbara Ruetting in the 1965 film Operation Crossbow
  • Diane Cilento in the 1973 British film Hitler: The Last Ten Days.
  • Myvanwy Jenn in the 1973 British television production The Death of Adolf Hitler.
  • Anna Thalbach in the 2004 German film Downfall (Der Untergang).
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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