Hanna Reitsch

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Hanna Reitsch

Hanna Reitsch (ᛉ 29 March 1912 in Hirschberg im Riesengebirge, Province of Silesia, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire; ᛣ 24 August 1979 in Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, West Germany) was a German aviator and a leading female pilot in the 20th century, being the first women in many positions and breaking many records. In World War II, she was a test pilot of the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht, but did not fly combat missions. She was the first German woman to be awarded the Iron Cross. At the end the war, she was one of the last persons to see Hitler and flew the last German warplane out of Berlin in late April 1945.


Hanna Reitsch with Seeadler glider, 1936
A tanned Hanna Reitsch, 1941
Festive reception for Hanna Reitsch (with the German salute) in her hometown; in the background Gauleiter Karl Hanke.
Hanna Reitsch was the first woman awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class[1] and the Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II. She was also the first woman to receive the title Flugkapitän (flight captain).
Family grave in Salzburg

Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia. Her father wanted her to become a doctor. She was interested in aviation, and thought she might become a flying doctor in North Africa and even studied medicine for a time in Berlin und Kiel. Reitsch began flying in gliders in the autumn of 1931 in Grunau in the Giant Mountains (Riesengebirge), her instructor was the well known flyer Wolfram „Wolf“ Hirth. Her father had promised her these leasons, if she wrote an outstanding Abitur at her Gymnasium, which she did. During this time she would meet Wernher von Braun for the first time. She left medical school in 1933 after two semesters at the invitation of Wolf Hirth to become a full-time glider pilot and instructor at Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg. She was soon breaking records, earning a Silver C Badge No 25. In the same year she took part in a glider expedition in South America (Brazil and Argentina). In order to earn the 3,000 Reichsmark for the trip, she became a flying stunt double in 1933 during the making of the UFA film "Rivalen der Luft", which released in January 1934. She flew from Salzburg across the Alps in 1938 in a Sperber Junior.

In 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 projects. 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. Her flying skill and photogenic qualities made her a star to the people of Germany. In 1938 she made nightly flights of the Fa 61 helicopter inside the "Deutschlandhalle" at the Berlin Motor Show.

With the outbreak of WW II in 1939 Reitsch was asked to fly many of Germany's latest designs. Among these were the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet and several larger bombers on which she tested various mechanisms for cutting barrage balloon cables. After crashing on her fifth Me 163 flight Reitsch was badly injured but reportedly insisted on writing her post-flight report before falling unconscious and spending five months in hospital. Reitsch became Adolf Hitler's favourite pilot and was one of only two known women awarded the Iron Cross First Class during World War II. Reitsch became close to former fighter pilot and high ranking Luftwaffe officer Robert Ritter von Greim.

During the last days of the war, in light of Herman Goering's dismissal as head of the Luftwaffe for what Hitler saw as an act of treason, he appointed Colonel-General Robert Ritter von Greim as head of the Luftwaffe. To enable him to meet Hitler, von Greim asked Reitsch to fly him into embattled Berlin. Red Army troops were already in the downtown area when Reitsch and von Greim arrived on 26 April in a Fieseler Fi 156 "Storch". With her long experience at low altitude flying over Berlin and having already surveyed the road as an escape route with Hitler's personal pilot Hans Baur, Reitsch landed on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate (Greim was wounded in the leg when Red Army soldiers fired at the light aircraft during its approach). They made their way to the Führerbunker where Hitler promoted von Greim to Hermann Göring's former command of a now wholly defunct Luftwaffe. During the intense Russian bombardment, Hitler gave Reitsch a vial of poison for herself and another for von Greim. She accepted the vial willingly, fully prepared to die alongside the Führer. On Hitler's orders, she escaped from Berlin with von Greim during the evening of 28 April 1945, flying the last German plane out of Berlin shortly before the fall of the city by climbing through heavy Soviet anti-aircraft fire. Hitler had ordered them to rendezvous with Karl Dönitz, who Hitler was convinced was rallying troops for a counter-attack.

Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by American military intelligence officers.[2] 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."

She was held and interrogated for eighteen months. Her companion, von Greim, committed suicide on 24 May 1945.

After her release Reitsch settled in Frankfurt am Main. Following the war German citizens were forbidden from flying but within a few years gliding was allowed, which she took up. In 1952 Reitsch won third place in the World Gliding Championships in Spain (and was the only woman to compete). She continued to break records including the women's altitude record (6,848 m). She became German champion in 1955.

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 she was invited to India by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to begin a gliding centre. In 1961 Reitsch was invited to the White House by US President John F. Kennedy. From 1962 to 1966 she lived in Ghana where she founded the first black African national gliding school.[3]

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) and again in 1979 (802 km) 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.[4]


Reitsch died in Frankfurt at the age of 67 on 24 August 1979 following a heart attack.[5] She had never married, stating her one true love was Generalfeldmarschall Robert Ritter von Greim.[6][7] In his book "Wings On My Sleeve - The World's Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story", Former British test pilot and former Royal Navy Officer Eric Brown mentions that he received a letter from Hanna to his utter surprise at the beginning of August 1979 in which she said they (Hanna and Eric Brown) had a common bond in love of flying and of danger, but neither Brown nor anyone outside Germany really understood her passionate love of the Vaterland (Germany). This letter was short and finished with the words "It began in the bunker, there it shall end." These words (in German) puzzled Brown and only the news of her death in Frankfurt on 22 August 1979 gave Brown a possible key to this mystery. It was well known that Hitler gave Hanna and Von Greim each a cyanide pill before dismissing them from the bunker on April 28, 1945. Hanna always considered that she and Von Greim had made a binding pact to commit suicide, one after another, but with an intervening period to prevent rumour of a love affair. Von Greim swallowed his pill on 24 May 1945 while under arrest in hospital at Salzburg. It is known that Hanna had managed to retain her cyanide pill throughout these years, and then again news of her death was not made Brown until a fortnight after demise. Also there appears to have been no post mortem made on her body, or at least no such report is available. Anyway, Eric sent Hanna's letter to her brother Kurt, whom Eric knew in the post-war German Navy of the Bundeswehr, but received no acknowledgement. Brown wondered if Hanna was honoring her pact with Von Greim several years after Von Greim's suicide.[8] Brown received Hanna's final letter to him just few weeks before her death as mentioned above. Based on this calculation, Von Greim made the pact with Hanna in the bunker which was long before she even found out anything about the death of her family. Hanna's book "The Sky My Kingdom" acknowledges that she and Von Greim's stay in Adolf Hitler's bunker was before finding out about the death of her family.

Hanna may have been planning to use cyanide capsule. But as mentioned above, the reason for Hanna's death has been clearly identified as Heart attack. The doctor would have been able to find out if Hanna Reitsch used cyanide capsule or not. This is because the way cyanide works is that oxygen can't leave the blood. The face and the parts of the body on the surface also becomes red in color.


Hanna Reitsch originated from a fairly wealthy family. Her father was the ophthalmologist Dr. med. Wilhelm „Willy“ Paul Reitsch (ᛉ 21 August 1878 in Wanggrawitz/Wongrowitz by Posen), her mother was Emy, née Helff-Hibler von Alpenheim from Feldkirch, a lady of old Tyrolean nobility. Her father was a gentle, artistically gifted man and a passionate cello player (Hanna would often accompany him on the piano), who grew up in Magdeburg, where his father was a successful building supervisor. Willy Reitsch was the head of a private eye clinic. He was also a medical officer of the Kaiserliche Marine (since 1 April 1900), promoted to Marine-Stabsarzt der Reserve on 27 January 1916, retiring as a Marine-Oberstabsarzt der Reserve. Emy and Wilhelm Reitsch were seen alive in April 1945 in Salzburg, where they had fled to, for the last time, their bodies were found later, some sources say having committed suicide in the night of 3/4 May 1945.[9]

Hanna had two siblings. Her brother Kurt (1910–1991) was an officer of the Reichsmarine, the Kriegsmarine and the German Navy of the Bundeswehr, and lastly Fregattenkapitän and Marineattaché. Her younger sister Heidi (ᛉ 5 November 1916) was married to a man surnamed Machholz. Heidi had three children, son Hanns Jürgen (7 years old) and the twins Ellen and Björn (5 years old). Heidi and her children also died on the night of 3/4 May 1945.


Although she kept a low profile after the war, toward the end of her life she was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s by US photo-journalist Ron Laytner.[12] At the end of her last interview she told Laytner:

  • "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."[10]
  • "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.'" – Hanna Reitsch, last interview in the 1970s.[10]

Portrayal in the media

Hanna 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)


  • Fliegen, mein Leben, 1st edition, 1951 (autobiography)
    • 4th edition, Herbig, München 2001, ISBN 3-7766-2197-4
  • Höhen und Tiefen. 1945 bis zur Gegenwart, 2nd edition, Herbig-Verlag, München/Berlin 1978, ISBN 3-7766-0890-0
  • Ich flog in Afrika für Nkrumahs Ghana, 2nd edition, Herbig-Verlag, München 1979, ISBN 3-7766-0929-X (earlier title: Ich flog für Kwame Nkrumah).
  • Das Unzerstörbare in meinem Leben, 7th edition, Herbig-Verlag, München 1992, ISBN 3-7766-0975-3.
  • The Sky My Kingdom (Memoirs), London & California, English-language edition, 1991, ISBN: 1-85367-093-6

Awards, decorations and honors

  • Glider Pilot Badge (Segelflugzeugführerabzeichen), C-Stufe in Silver, 1934 (Nr. 25)
  • Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds (Flugzeugführer- und Beobachterabzeichen in Gold mit Brillanten) on 27 March 1941
    • She was the only woman to receive the 2nd model (2. Form des gemeinsamen Fliegerabzeichens) and a smaller ladies clasp, which was easier to wear.
  • Picture of the Reichsmarschall in a silver frame[11] on 27 March 1941
  • Iron Cross (1939), 2nd and 1st Class
    • 2nd Class on 28 March 1941 as Flugkapitän
    • 1st Class on 5 November 1942
  • Golden HJ Honor Badge with oak leaves (Goldenes HJ-Ehrenzeichen mit Eichenlaub)
  • Honorary citizen (Ehrenbürger) of her birthplace, the city of Hirschberg
  • Diamond Badge of the FAI Gliding Commission, 1970 (Goldenes Leistungsabzeichen C mit 3 Diamanten der Internationalen Segelflugkommission)

List of records (excerpt)

  • 1932: women's gliding endurance record (5.5 hours)
  • 1936: women's gliding distance record (305 km)
  • 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)
  • 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 (Schlesien)
  • 1939: women's world record in gliding (which record?)
  • 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.
  • 1944: the first woman in the world to pilot a jet aircraft at the Luftwaffe research centre at Reichlin 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)
  • 1957: German gliding altitude record (6.848 m)


External links



  1. Some sources claim, Hanna Reitsch was the only woman to receive the 1st Class, but at least one other woman did: German Red Cross nurse Else Großmann at the end of 1944 (source: Ritterinnen des Eisernen Kreuzes; Newspaper article from 5 December 1944;).
  2. "Hitler's Woman Pilot Seized". New York Times. 10 October 1945. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10817FF3B5416738FDDA90994D8415B8588F1D3. Retrieved 2008-07-07. "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."  (archive)
  3. 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.
  4. Michael D. Hull: German Female Glider & Fighter Pilot Hanna Reitsch, Warefare History Network
  5. Slater, AE (December 1979/January 1980). "Obituary". Sailplane & Gliding 30 (6): 302. British Gliding Association.
  6. "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. https://web.archive.org/web/20171108075540/https://www.nytimes.com/1979/08/31/archives/hanna-reitsch-67-a-top-german-pilot-muchdecorated-favorite-of.html. Retrieved 2008-07-07. "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." 
  7. "Hanna Reitsch, Test Pilot for Hitler". Washington Post. 1 September 1974. https://web.archive.org/web/20121020114940/http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost_historical/access/130126652.html?dids=130126652:130126652&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=SEP+01%2C+1979&author=&pub=The+Washington+Post&desc=Hanna+Reitsch%2C+Test+Pilot+for+Hitler&pqatl=google. Retrieved 2008-07-07. "Aviation pioneer Hanna Reitsch, 67, who flew the last plane out of burning Berlin before the fall of National socialism in 1945, died Aug. 24, the West Germany radio has reported." 
  8. Eric Brown's Book Wings On My Sleeve – The World'S Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story, Pg. 113-114
  9. Sadly these tragedies were commonplace at the end of the war. See: Huber, Florian, Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself - The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945, Allen-Lane, U.K., English-Language edition, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-241-39924-8
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ron Laytner, "The first astronaut: tiny, daring Hanna", The Deseret News 19 February 1981, pp. C1+, p. 12C.
  11. Nichttragbare Auszeichnungen der Luftwaffe