Sunday 25 August 2013

Hanna Reitsch

I know that The Blob, like so much of this bloke-run world, gives far less attention to women than they deserve: 50% of people have, after all, two X chromosomes.  If I hadn't been born in Dover and (therefore?) getting all excited about cross-channel swimming yesterday, I might have noted that Hanna Reitsch died on 24 August.  She is definitely worth writing about for her own extraordinary exploits rather than merely to shift The Blob's gender balance one point.  You have to be a little sensitive here because Reitsch was an unrepentant member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and would have been paying her dues to the Party still in 1970 if it hadn't melted away in 1945.

Her father was a doctor and she started adult life in medical school with the idea that she would be a missionary flying doctor in Africa.  While there she learned how to fly and was shocked that most of her fellow pilots had no idea how planes actually worked.  So she started hanging around the hangar where the engines were tuned and repaired. She was soon able to dissassemble any aero-engine to its component parts and put it back together again so it worked.  It must have been a little like teenage girls being willing to shovel horse-shit for a day to get up on a horse for an hour.  Clearly she was equipped for the vocation she had chosen.

But she dropped out of medical school in 1933 to pursue a full time job as a gliding instructor and proceeded to shatter records for gliding.  As we all know, Hitler became Reichskanzler the same year and over the next several years the charismatic and technically competent Reitsch became the poster girl ideal Mädchen. So technically competent that she became a test-pilot, taking to the air in dive bombers, rocket-planes, helicopters and whatever the frenzied imagination of the Nazi war-machine could dream up. . . and surviving - most of her Right Stuff colleagues didn't.  

Her last stunning exploit in WWII was to fly herself and newly appointed head of the Luftwaffe Robert Ritter von Greim into Berlin to report to Hitler, as the Red Army fought inexorably through the rubble of the suburbs.  It must have been like the opening sequence of Terminator, but Reitsch took control of the Fieseler Storch when Greim was shot in the foot, and landed at the Brandenberg Gate.  Three days later, having been giving personal cyanide capsules by Hitler they flew out again in a hidden Arado Ar 96 trainer and a hail of bullets (the Storch was understandably a write-off).  She didn't use her capsule, although Greim (probably her lover) and both her parents did rather than be surrendered to the Russians.

After the war she finally went to work in Africa: not as a medical missionary, but to develop aviation in Ghana at the personal invitation of Kwame Nkrumah the Premier. Working closely with him and other Africans she abandoned ("what presumptuousness and arrogance") the prejudice that most white people (not just Nazis!) have about the inferiority of blacks.  She died in Frankfurt in 1970, aged 67, and there is a suggestion of a hint that she finally used her half of the pair of capsules given to her and Greim by Hitler.

In the final interview she ever gave she said "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".
I like that, it shows integrity.

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