Photo of barrage balloon from America from the Great Depression to World War II, at the Library of Congress.
Today in Odd History
Female Pilot Pitches Suicide Squad to Hitler (February 28, 1944)
Today in Odd History, Hanna Reitsch, Nazi Germany's celebrated female test pilot, suggested that Adolph Hitler should create a suicide squadron of glider pilots. Hitler was skeptical of the idea, believing that such a squadron would not be an effective use of Germany's limited resources. The delicate blonde's enthusiasm finally won him over; he agreed to investigate the possibility of adapting the V-1, which was designed to be a pilotless robotic bomb, to a kamikaze vehicle. Reitsch promptly formed a Suicide Group, and was herself the first person to take the pledge: "I hereby...voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death." As it turned out, neither she nor anyone else was ever called upon to make that sacrifice, as the squadron was never deployed.
Reitsch came to flying by an indirect route. Born in Hirschberg, Germany in 1912, she originally pursued a career in medicine, and dreamed of becoming a flying missionary doctor in Africa. Her passion for the air soon overtook her interest in medicine, however, and she left medical school to become a full-time glider pilot. (Germany had been forbidden to build "war planes" after WWI, which meant that most of the planes constructed in Germany were built without engines.) She worked as a stunt pilot in films, but she really distinguished herself in competition, setting the women's world record for non-stop gliding in 1931, (a record she more than doubled in 1933), the women's world record for point-to-point gliding in 1939, the women's record for for non-stop distance flight in 1936, and the women's altitude record in 1934. She was the first person to cross the Alps in a glider, in 1937. In 1938, she won the German long-distance gliding championships.
In 1937, General Ernst Udet appointed her as a civilian flight captain and test pilot for the Luftwaffe. She was thrilled; to her, the Luftwaffe were "guardians of the portals of peace." She was a devoted and idealistic Nazi, who adored Adolph Hitler and refused to believe the reports of concentration camps and torture. Her skill and dedication made her a powerful symbol for the Reich. The Luftwaffe made full use of her talents. She tested everything from their first helicopter, in 1937, to the prototypes of the V-1, in 1944. (A test pilot was need for this pilotless plane because the wings had shown a tendency to fall off. A special seat was built in the nose, from which Reitsch could watch the behavior of the wings and report on it after landing. She was chosen for these tests because she had already demonstrated a remarkable ability to withstand physical stress.) She flew missions, as well. In 1940, she brought German troops to the Maginot Line via glider transport. In 1942, Hitler awarded her the Iron Cross, Second Class, for her efforts to cut the steel lines dangling from English barrage-balloons, again in a glider. In 1944, she tested the rocket-powered Messerschmitt 163, which she flew at speeds of up to 500 MPH. During her fifth ME 163 flight, she spun out of control and crash-landed the plane. Despite her injuries, she managed to write out a full report before losing consciousness. Hitler awarded her the Iron Cross, First Class for that flight. It was during the ceremony, in Berchtesgaden, that she introduced him to her idea of a suicide bombing squad.
Since November 1943, Reitsch had been stationed along the Eastern front in Russia, with General Robert Ritter vonGreim. On April 26, 1945, they flew to Berlin, where Greim was supposed to take command of the Luftwaffe. Their plane was hit by Soviet anti-aircraft fire, and Greim was wounded. They stayed in Berlin for 3 days, as Hitler's guests, but on April 29th, he ordered them to return to Russia and rally the remaining German forces. Reitsch protested, at first. She wanted to be allowed to die with her Fuhrer. In the end, though, she and Greim did as they were told, escaping Berlin just as the Russian noose tightened around it. They made it to Admiral Karl Doenitz's headquarters, but both of them were eventually captured by the Allied forces. During her internment by the American Army, Reitsch testified to the "disintegration" of Hitler's personality in the last days of the war. Not until much later, though, would she say that she had been "disgusted" by what she witnessed in the Third Reich.
Although she may ultimately have been disillusioned by Nazism, Reitsch never lost her love of the skies. She set dozens of world records, and participated in a number of competitions. She was often the only woman competing. She also continued to work as a research pilot. In 1959, she traveled to India, where she became friends with Indira Ghandi and Prime Minister Nehru. In 1962, she founded the National School of Gliding in Ghana, where she stayed until 1966. Always drawn to people in power, she was friends with Ghana's president, Kwame Nkrumah. She died in Frankfurt in 1979, a year after setting yet another women's glider distance record.
Hanna Reitsch, in her own words:
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