Aviation is remarkably male dominated, which is odd considering that physiologically, women do make the better pilots. When we get to Test Pilots, the male domination is almost total. Growing up a plane and war buff, one name stood out amongst the lists of men, Hanna Reitsch. Watching her interviews in documentaries, she seemed beyond remarkable. Years later, that view of mine became more real, especially after reading more about her and Eric Brown’s autobiography Wings on My Sleeve, in which he documents his encounters with this “remarkable, fervent Nazi”. Upon hearing of Clare Mulley’s new book, The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I was delighted to learn more about this woman. Having just finished Danny Orbach’s The Plots Against Hitler (Review Here), I was even more intrigued to discover more about the other woman in Mulley’s book, Melitta von Stauffenberg, who was Claus’ sister in law, an aeronautical engineer, test pilot, had responsibility for the dive systems on the Stuka and so very much more. While Hanna and Melitta are bonded by a love of flight, they, as Mulley uncovers in her brilliant biography, could not have been more different.
Melitta and Hanna were born nine years apart, but their paths followed each other closely. In post war Germany, were powered flight was essentially forbidden, gliding became the only way to learn to fly. Both would attend the gliding schools in Hirschberg and both would channel their boundless energy into the pursuit. The similarities start to end there. Melitta came from upper class Prussian stock, while Hanna from a more middle class background in Hirschberg itself and this could be reflected in their lives. The age difference is telling too, as the two would have very differing experience of growing up within the Weimar Republic and then the rise of National Socialism under Hitler. While the academic Melitta would pursue the knowledge of flight, Hanna would be swept up in the revival of German fortunes in the early thirties, chasing accolade upon accolade.
It is this dichotomy between the two that Mulley uses so well to tell these similar and yet drastically different lives. Melitta’s work on the aerodynamics and control of aircraft in a high speed dive was revolutionary. Her dive systems incorporated into Junker’s Ju 87 Stuka and Ju 88 would cause havoc during the blitzkrieg of Poland and France, and throughout the rest of the war. When the war moved into the night, Melitta worked on revolutionary blind flying instruments and systems that allowed Luftwaffe fighters to intercept RAF bombers at night. Reading about this, you have the utmost admiration for this groundbreaking work, while slightly shocked at having grown up on the terror caused by such aircraft in film and books. Hanna on the other hand, was working as the more traditional test pilot, pushing to fly every type of aircraft she could. From the huge troop carrying glider, the Messerschmitt Me-321 Gigant, various bombers through to the iconic Me-163 Komet rocket plane. Hanna’s gliding abilities would be vital for the development as, once the aircraft had expended its fuel (fuel which would literally dissolve its pilot), it would need to glide back to base. Hanna’s work on this aircraft would allow it to get into service, but at great cost to herself.
Mulley tracks these parallel lives well and their trajectories are remarkable. From the awarding of the Iron Cross to both, through their interactions with officials in both the Luftwaffe and the Nazi Party, we see the very different personalities laid bare. Melitta’s determination to provide the best aircraft she could and Hanna’s continued bid for every inch of the limelight. While the ability of the two women is never in question, their loyalties are examined thoroughly by Mulley, and this is where the book really takes flight. Hanna survived the war and was able to attempt to shape her own narrative, like most high ranking Germans post-1945 (of which John Le Carre is most scathing in his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel). Melitta died weeks before the end of the war. Where Hanna had bought in completely into Nazism’s view of Germany, Melitta fought for the ideals of a Germany beyond the current political one. Litta’s involvement in the 20th July Plot, executed by her brother in law, Claus von Stauffenberg, is especially intriguing considering she was classified as “half-Jewish”. This rating meant that her vital work kept her family alive, but she was willing to put this at risk for a “greater good”, as she saw it. Hanna would use Melitta’s “racial” issues against until the day she died, while still stating her suicide piloted V-1’s had merit.
Clare Mulley has crafted an intimate and honest look at two remarkable and complex women. Even 70 years on, we tend still see the Germans through a one way lens. In reality, yes some were very much like Hanna, but more were like Melitta and we need to be reminded of this as distortion of history leads directly to very dark places. Mulley’s book is a wonderful read. The women involved led fascinating lives and the remarkably complex relationship between them is a timeless tale, one that Clare Mulley has done honour too.
My interview with Clare Mulley about The Women Who Flew For Hitler can be found here.