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Claire Mulley in conversation with James Holland

Clare Mulley talks to James Holland about the Women Who Flew For Hitler, the only 2 female test pilots in Nazi Germany.

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

One of the great joys of researching my two books about special agents and pilots in the Second World War has been interviewing veterans and witnesses to that conflict, and others who knew or met those who served in it. As the human coast erodes, as it were, it feels ever more important to capture these stories. 

Hanna Reitsch with Kwame Nkrumah, from Hanna Reitsch, I Fly for Kwame Nkrumah (JF Lehmanns Verlag, 1968)

Occasionally after a book has been published, people get in touch with stories that I would love to have included in my books. With The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the dramatic and still little-known story of Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, the only women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots in the Second World War, but who ended their lives on opposites sides of history, I have been lucky enough to meet two people who knew Hanna.  

Former diplomat, Treasury official and President of the European Investment Bank, Brian Unwin, met Hanna in the 1960s when he was serving the British High Commission in Accra, Ghana. He got in touch having been astounded by the very different picture he had gained of Hanna from reading my book. Over lunch at the Reform Club, Brian told me how he had been sent to deliver a diplomatic gift of books to the head of the Ghanaian gliding school outside Accra in ‘the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah’s totalitarian regime’. He remembered a few white buildings around the field, a crowd, the hot sun, and his giving a ‘stock speech’. Afterwards the ‘attractive silver-haired director of the school, in her 50s’ offered to take him up in a glider. Slightly nervous, Brian checked that she was qualified to do so. After her reassurances she took him up for a short flight. Only when he returned to the High Commission did he learn that she was Hanna Reitsch, ‘Hitler’s pilot’.  

 

Brian said that he had been rather proud to include this story in his memoirs, and to think that he was probably the last Englishman alive to have been flown by Hanna Reitsch. Having read my book, however, and learned ‘how unreconstructed’ Hanna was, he has reviewed his perspective. 

Last week, after I gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary Festival, John Batchelor, MBE, introduced himself. John is a military artist and technical illustrator who met Hanna at Edwards Air Force Base in California, around 1977. Hanna had got out of her Mercedes car, John told me, and soon had a crowd of people around her. Curious as to who she might be, John identified her by the two pieces of jewelry she was wearing. One was a senior gliding award with diamonds, the other a round brooch with a border of precious stones and a swastika at its centre. The woman could only be Hanna Reitsch and the second brooch her gift from Hitler, which she said she would wear for the rest of her life – even though it was now illegal to wear the swastika in Germany.

Clare Mulley with John Batchelor. Photo c. Alan Bentley

John introduced himself to Hanna, and found her ‘very helpful’ when he asked her about her war-time test flights. Fascinatingly, she told him that the one aircraft she would not fly under power was the Me163. This confirmed my belief that although she was happy to tell the BBC in an interview that flying the Me163 was ‘like riding on a cannon ball,’ her own flights with it had been when she was towed up to test the gliding landings. 

Hanna did not discuss the Nazi regime or politics with John, but when he mentioned her jewelry she told him that she had also kept her Iron Cross but did not wear it ‘every day’. It seems to confirm that Hanna was, as the brilliant British Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown had told me during my research, ‘a fanatical Nazi’ to the end. 

John was amused, however, when he left Hanna or, as he put it, ‘got rid of her into her waiting Mercedes’. A group of young aviation people, editors and writers, who were waiting nearby, asked, ‘Who was that old woman you were trying to date’, only to be astounded to learn that it was Hanna Reitsch!

Twice during my research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler I was told that I was just ‘two handshakes away from Hitler’; once by Eric Brown, who had shaken Hanna’s hand, and once by Major General Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father Claus von Stauffenberg had led the most famous assassination attempt on Hitler; the 20 July 1944 Valkyrie bomb plot. It was an honour, as well as a great pleasure, to interview all these men, and it is always wonderful to meet other people who are willing to generously share their memories to help me gain the most accurate picture I can of my subjects. Perhaps, if I get the chance to have a new edition of The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I can add some further nuance to their stories!   

 


Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, is a dual biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, but who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. 

 

A regular contributor to TV and radio, Clare gave recently gave a TED talk at Stormont, and lectures in London and Paris on wartime female special agents. She reviews non-fiction for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. Clare was chair of the judges for the Historical Writers Association 2017 Non-Fiction Prize, and has recently become an honorary patron of the Wimpole History Festival. She will be talking about The Women Who Flew for Hitler at 2pm on 26 June 2018 at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Book your tickets here.

Pilots And Spies, Enablers And Resisters.

Clare Mulley talks about why she has chosen to focus her books on women in conflict.

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were the only two women to serve as test pilots for the Nazi regime. Truly remarkable women, both were made Honorary Flight Captains and both were awarded the Iron Cross… yet they ended their lives on opposite sides of history. I am delighted to be talking about their beliefs, decisions and actions as told in my new book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, when I return to the Chalke Valley History Festival this June.

I was last at the festival in 2013, speaking about The Spy Who Loved, my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. You can hear a recording of that talk here. These days the questions that I am most often asked are; why the focus on women in conflict; and why the shift in perspective from the story of an Allied heroine, to that of two women serving the Nazi regime…

For a historian, the seismic upheaval of war brings fascinating stories not only of honour, courage and duty, betrayal, sacrifice and horror, but also of shifting priorities and perspectives. For women in Britain, the Second World War brought an end to many hopes and dreams but also new opportunities, notably in the workplace. For some, the conflict also brought the chance to serve both at home, and behind enemy lines. It was of course preconceptions about gender that made female special agents so unexpected and inconspicuous in the field, and therefore so effective when they were trained, armed, and sent to work in Nazi-occupied Europe alongside their male counterparts.

The well-connected daughter of a Polish count and Jewish banking heiress, before the war Krystyna Skarbek got her thrills from smuggling cigarettes by skiing across her country’s mountainous borders. Arriving in London towards the close of 1939, she was desperate to put her skills and experience to good use in the fight against Nazism. Being British and male were then the fundamental requirements of the Secret Intelligence Services, but Krystyna offered a unique opportunity to see how the enemy was organizing in an occupied territory. Deployed before the year was out, she became Britain’s first – and longest serving – female special agent, and was ultimately awarded the OBE, George Medal and French Croix de Guerre for her service in three different theatres of the conflict.

Krystyna’s principle motivation was her deep sense of patriotism. The conflict had enabled her to live a life of freedom, action and significance, but it had also left six million of her compatriots dead, and her ravaged country under the control of a Soviet-backed Communist regime. For her, surviving the ‘terrible peace’ that followed the war was harder than responding to the call to action.

Pioneering German aviators Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg not only made their names in the male-dominated field of flight in the 1930s but, with the onset of the war, also became test-pilots for the Nazi regime. They, too, were motivated by both their sense of honour, duty and patriotism, and their love for personal freedom. Their understandings of what these words meant, however, were very different not only from Krystyna Skarbek’s conception, but also from each other’s.

With her blond curls and blue-eyes, Hanna looked the perfect ‘Aryan’ woman, which suited both her inclinations and her ambitions. Firmly aligning herself with what she considered to be the dynamic Nazi regime, when war came she proudly put her life on the line to test prototypes including the vast Gigant troop-carrying glider, the Me163 rocket-powered Komet, and even a manned-version of the V1 flying bomb or doodlebug. As a brilliant aeronautical engineer, Melitta, helped develop the Stuka dive-bombers, even insisting on testing her own innovations. She knew that it was only by making herself uniquely valuable to the regime that she might protect herself and her family – her father had been born Jewish. On 20 July 1944 Melitta supported the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life. Conversely in the last days of the war, Hanna flew into Berlin under siege and begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety.

The Nazi regime and its enormously powerful armed forces led to the suffering and death of millions of people, Jews of all nations, Poles of all religions, Russians, British, French, American, the list goes on. The Women Who Flew for Hitler searches for the truth about two female pilots, asking why they were so successful and how they felt about serving the Nazi regime. I hope that what it reveals – the good and the bad – will contribute to a better understanding of the ways in which Hitler was able to harness the resources of his country for his terrible purposes. It is no less important that we seek to understand these questions, as that we remember the courage, achievements and sacrifices of the brave men and women whose service in so many fields helped to defeat that threat.


Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, is a dual biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, but who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. 

 

A regular contributor to TV and radio, Clare gave recently gave a TED talk at Stormont, and lectures in London and Paris on wartime female special agents. She reviews non-fiction for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. Clare was chair of the judges for the Historical Writers Association 2017 Non-Fiction Prize, and has recently become an honorary patron of the Wimpole History Festival. She will be talking about The Women Who Flew for Hitler at 2pm on 26 June 2018 at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Book your tickets here.