In Nazi Germany, which operated under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1945, women’s role was simple: to be homemakers, cooking, cleaning and making themselves healthy and beautiful for their racially pure husbands so as to bear many children for the fatherland. One slogan was “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”, meaning “Children, Kitchen, Church”. And Jews were despised by Hitler as sub-human, scapegoats for all the misfortunes that had befallen once-great Germany, including the loss of the First World War with its severe reparations, and the hyperinflation and economic struggle of the 1920s and early 1930s. The Jews were labelled for extermination.

Yet Melitta Schiller, who had a Jewish background, and Hanna Reitsch, a fine example of blonde and blue-eyed Aryan womanhood, proved to be naturally brilliant fliers who against the odds attained prominence in Germany’s male-dominated air industry. They were the only female test pilots actively to serve the Nazi regime, each achieving the honorary status of Flugkapitänin (Flight Captain) and both winning the Iron Cross. (The rules of state are easier to break when you’re the ones in power making them.)

Melitta was the older, born in Krotoschin, Prussia (present-day Krotoszyn, Poland), in 1903. Her father was Michael Schiller, son of a Jewish fur-trading family, who had become a Protestant while young. Hanna was nine years younger, born in Hirschberg, Silesia (today Jelenia Góra in Poland) in 1912. They grew up in neighbouring regions of Germany and didn’t know each other. As children they were both desperate to become pilots. Hanna jumped out of trees and off window sills, with her arms spread. Melitta idolised the pioneering pilots of the First World War.

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 forced defeated Germany to demobilise its air force and destroy its military aircraft. The manufacture of engine-powered planes was temporarily forbidden but gliders were exempt. As a result, gliding gained a mass following; a symbol of patriotic regeneration and freedom. Crowds of thousands would watch displays and competitions.

This obsession swept up Melitta and Hanna, and was their first path to flight. In the Hirschberg Valley, where Melitta went to boarding school and Hanna grew up, conditions were perfect for gliding. They each joined clubs and learned to fly in fragile open-cockpit gliders made from wood and canvas. They adored the sensation and freedom of flight. Both had a natural aptitude for flying and a lack of fear, and progressed to planes. They were soon noticed by those outside the flying world.

During the mid-1930s, Hanna and Melitta’s exceptional ability, courage and determination marked them as being of unique value to the new Nazi regime. Hitler started to take a personal interest in them both. The two women became the darlings of German aviation, symbols of a brave new Germany, being featured in magazines and newsreels. The glamorous Hanna revelled in the publicity, promoting not only herself but Germany, Hitler and the Nazi regime. The media portrayed her as a wonderful flying fräulein. Melitta preferred to work away from the limelight at the German Research Institute for Aeronautics.

Her career began when in 1922 she was the only woman enrolled at the Technical University of Munich to study mathematics, physics and engineering. Aeronautical engineering became her specialist area of study by the time she graduated in 1927. She found employment testing propeller and engine assemblies on the Junkers G31. Between 1934 and 1936, she used wind tunnels to examine how to generate increased lift on the newest aircraft using the more powerful modern engines.

Her passions for physics and engineering came together in the cockpit. Melitta spent half her time at the drawing board developing pioneering changes for the Luftwaffe, the German air force, and the other half testing out her own designs. Her speciality was dive bombing: almost vertical dives at very high speeds in the Junkers Ju87 Stuka.

This was hugely dangerous: the blood in the body was pulled to the extremities and pilots were at high risk of blacking out. To undertake one dive bomb was extraordinary. Melitta undertook around 1500. Other experts couldn’t believe that one pilot could be doing all these tests and were further astounded when they discovered it was a woman.

They were both proud German patriots with a strong sense of duty. However, they were committed to very different things: Hanna to the new Nazi regime, Melitta to a much older idea of Germany, whereby she lived by the traditional values of the old Junker class. They took diametrically opposed positions to Nazism.

Melitta was critical of the regime from the start and felt loyal to the country, not to the National Socialists. She therefore thought of her support for the Luftwaffe as a way of saving German lives by making the planes safer, but the moral conflict tormented her. In 1935 the Nuremberg laws meant that her father’s Jewish ancestry – never relevant to Melitta before – suddenly became politically significant. The family was in increasing danger, and Melitta was tainted by her Jewish blood and her perceived coolness to Hitler. But by establishing herself as the leading expert on dive-bombing, Melitta made herself indispensable to the regime.

In 1937, she married the historian Alexander Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, making her the brother-in-law of army officer Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, one of the leading members of the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler and remove the Nazi Party. The would-be assassins were executed. The plot further complicated her status in Nazi Germany.

Certain patriotic duties were required of them both, and each demonstrated their flying skills during the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, wtih Melitta performing aerobatics at the prestigious Grossflugtag (Great Flight Day). But asked to do publicity work, she always managed to find an excuse. Eventually she succumbed to the pressure and gave a speech in Stockholm, managing never to actually mention Hitler or the Nazi regime. Instead she spoke about Germany in vague terms.

Hanna was determined to fight for her country in the Second World War even though as a woman she was not allowed to serve in the Luftwaffe. Instead she worked to test new planes, including gliders and helicopters, and advising, cajoling and even warning Hitler and Hermann Goering, the second-most powerful man in Germany.

Hanna was the first woman to fly a helicopter, and in 1938 she stunned an international audience by flying one inside a building – a first for male or female – at the Berlin Motor Show, intended to demonstrate the nation’s return to power. After landing it, she emerged giving the Nazi salute. Hanna also flew the jet-rocket-powered Messerschmitt 163, at 500mph.

She tested planes with special wing tips intended to cut the steel cables underneath the zeppelins that formed the barricade around London. She would deliberately fly into balloon cables at huge personal risk: this was incredibly courageous work. After a terrible crash in which she reportedly “wiped her nose off her face”, Hanna became an early plastic surgery patient. She was also used to boost morale during the war, being sent to reinvigorate troops on the eastern front when things were going badly.

As Germany collapsed, Hanna put forward a last-gasp plan to Hitler to create the Nazi equivalent of a kamikaze squad of suicide bombers. He was less than enthusiastic about the idea. Then, while the Red Army was closing in on Berlin in the final days of the war in 1945, she became one of the last people to fly into the city. After her plane was shot at and her co-pilot slumped unconscious from blood-loss, she landed near the Führerbunker. Here she begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety but he refused.

Hanna had been delighted to be associated with Hitler’s party, which she saw as bringing back commerce, jobs and pride to Germany after the humiliation of the punishment heaped on the country with the Treaty of Versailles. Later, even when she was made aware of what was happening in the concentration camps, she was very willing to look away and accept the Nazi cause uncritically. Despite being shown photographs and put through the denazification process, she claimed she was apolitical and remained a Holocaust denier.

She never revised her opinion. Letters Hanna wrote after the war reveal that she was a deeply anti-Semitic Nazi apologist and she wore her Iron Cross even when it was illegal to do so.

Author Clare Mulley tells their whole absorbing story in an utterly compelling read. She reveals how, instead of being allies, the two women became fierce rivals and actually had a strong dislike of one another. There were some very frosty meetings. It was said that Melitta wouldn’t even have a cup of tea with Hanna. Hanna was very suspicious of Melitta’s political persuasions, and made the dangerous insinuation that Melitta might have been trying to sabotage the war effort. Only one of them survived the war.

While researching her book, Mulley met veterans, survivors or other witnesses for interviews, and found herself just a couple of handshakes from Hitler. Read about Hitler’s first flight, about the missing eagle of Berchtesgaden as told by Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, and other anecdotes. As Mulley says, ultimately it was the contrast in the women’s beliefs, decisions and actions that makes their stories so fascinating and important. “The Women Who Flew For Hitler” brings it all to life, for our benefit.

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