Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The book deserves better than its risible sub-title! It is an absorbing profile of two very talented test pilots – Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg (née Schiller). But absorbing in showing how two senior and ostensibly intelligent figures coped with the stresses of, and exploited the opportunities presented by, the Third Reich.
Whilst both highly skilled pilots, they were very different in nature: Reitsch was an ardent racist and Nazi (although she claimed never to have been a member of the party), she was not well educated. Schiller, in contrast, had an intellectual curiosity from a young age, which was crowned with a PhD, becoming a highly qualified aeronautical engineer. One surmises that she was therefore much more useful as a test pilot. Melitta evolved into a rounded personality, deeply in love with her husband Alexander. The family is of course well known through Alexander’s brother Claus. (As Claus was 6’ 3” tall, it is something of a surprise that the diminutive Cruise was cast to play him in the film, Operation Valkyrie)! Reitsch never seemed to develop – retaining her racist, opportunist bitchiness to the end. It is to the reader’s sadness that the wrong one died first!
The book is very well researched, so there are some colourful asides. For example, the father of the German gliding movement, Wolf Hirth (taking Lillenthal as the grandfather), had a cigarette holder carved from the fibula of his leg that he lost in a motorcycle accident! There is a good exposition of the racist attitudes of the general public in German (and Austria) prior to and during the War. There are copious footnotes, arguably too many. It is therefore somewhat frustrating when the author makes the important assertion that “Neither Hanna nor Melitta knew about Nazi extermination camps” without either footnotes or a supporting argument.
The major fault in this book derives from that fact that the author clearly knows little about aircraft or aviating. One therefore suspects that she may have missed useful aspects of her source material. Firstly she commits the cardinal solecism of referring to aircraft as carpenter’s tools. A Grunau Baby glider has “cabin windows” (I don’t think so). We are told Melitta’s work in 1934 produced “pioneering design solutions which became standard for commercial airlines” - without being told what they are. On a record-breaking glider flight in 1937, “wind was drumming on the fuselage” – not the serenity of most gliders then. That year Melitta was seconded to the Luftwaffe’s Technical Academy at Gatow to develop “bomb-aiming devices and dive-sights for Stukas, the planes in which Udet had invested all his hopes for the Luftwaffe”; a contentious statement, at the least. When very astute aerial photo interpretation revealed that Peenemunde was the research (and manufacturing) centre for the V weapon programme, the resulting RAF raids were large –scale. According to Mulley the 597 aircraft on the raid in August 1943 “was almost the entire bombing fleet” – this is surprising given the RAF’s ability to mount its vaunted 1000 bomber raids the previous year. “Once fed and briefed, the RAF pilots had been sworn to secrecy and locked in their hangars” – Mulley is misleading the reader here since this was standard practice in Bomber Command.
Other errors should have been spotted by even a non-specialist editor. After these successful raids “some testing moved west – out of reach of Allied bombers”. Er no – if they made Peenemunde, they would make a location further West! The manned V1 prototypes had “no engine but ailerons controlled by joysticks (sic) and foot pedals”. A FW 190 had “baggage space” (in which a second seat, in this instance, was fitted). ff
Instrument panel of a Thirties German glider such as those in which Hanna learned to fly