Pilots and Spies, Enablers and Resisters

8 May 2018

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.

Blog commissioned and first published by the Chalke Valley History Festival