Dead­lier than the male

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

What was it like for the women who flew in Hitler’s air force or served the Red Army as snipers? Anne Sebba in­ves­ti­gates

Should women serve in com­bat roles? Only last year Bri­tain lifted the last re­stric­tions, mak­ing all com­bat jobs open to women, even those de­mand­ing great phys­i­cal strength. Gen­eral Sir Peter Wall, for­mer Chief of the Gen­eral Staff, ob­served that the re­form “would make [the Army] look more nor­mal in so­ci­ety – but there will al­ways be peo­ple who say the close bat­tle is no place for fe­male sol­diers”.

In many other coun­tries, that is ex­actly what is still said, but the de­bate is fierce. Does hav­ing women on the front cre­ate more dan­ger – partly be­cause of the sex­ual ten­sion? On the other hand, does treat­ing fe­male re­cruits dif­fer­ently, or low­er­ing stan­dards in their train­ing, re­in­force age-old cul­tural myths – which in turn en­cour­ages a cli­mate in which sex­ual vi­o­lence can flour­ish?

It is per­haps sur­pris­ing to find that in pre-war Nazi Ger­many, where moth­er­hood was so fetishised that medals were awarded to women with more than five chil­dren, two of the most coura­geous and tal­ented pi­lots were child­less women: the mid­dle-class Hanna Reitsch and the aris­to­cratic Melitta von Stauf­fen­berg. As Clare Mul­ley

The Women who Flew for Hitler (Macmil­lan, £20),

ex­plains in

nei­ther could of­fi­cially join the Luft­waffe even though both were des­ig­nated Flight Captains, and so were em­ployed only as test pi­lots and barred from wear­ing uni­form.

Von Stauf­fen­berg, though, was a bril­liant aero­nau­ti­cal engineer who worked on the de­vel­op­ment of bomb-aim­ing de­vices and dive sights for Stukas. Con­fi­dent that her years of math­e­mat­i­cal work would help her pre­dict how each plane would per­form dur­ing nose dives, she un­der­took her own test flights, in the face of her male col­leagues’ de­ri­sion. So im­pressed was the head of her depart­ment by her fly­ing that he be­gan to spec­u­late on “the blood com­po­si­tion of women – per­haps the ra­tio of white to red blood cor­pus­cles… is more favourable for such dives than that of males, so that ac­tu­ally women are bet­ter fit­ted for such tests than men”.

Oth­ers con­cluded that von Stauf­fen­berg must be a very mas­cu­line type of wo­man, to which an­other col­league re­sponded that she was, on the con­trary, “a highly strung artist” in her pri­vate life – proof, ap­par­ently, that she was re­ally quite fem­i­nine.

Von Stauf­fen­berg dis­cov­ered only as an adult that she was part-Jewish, with two Jewish grand­par­ents, an ances­try that im­per­illed her en­tire fam­ily. This, al­lied with a nat­u­ral mod­esty, meant she never courted celebrity. When asked to give a speech, she was care­ful to frame her­self as a pa­triot rather than a Nazi, “a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the thou­sands and thou­sands of Ger­man women who, to­day, are in­volved in fight­ing and dan­ger, and… an am­bas­sador of my peo­ple in arms”.

Her great ri­val, Hanna Reitsch, was mo­ti­vated by pa­tri­o­tism, too, but a pa­tri­o­tism over­laid with an un­shake­able faith in Na­tional So­cial­ism. Fear­lessly, she even pro­posed to Hitler that if jet air­craft were not yet ready for mil­i­tary use, then Ger­man pi­lots pre­pared to un­der­take sui­cide mis­sions in ex­ist­ing planes should be en­cour­aged. The in­her­ent de­featism in such an idea, against all Euro­pean mil­i­tary tra­di­tion, was of­fi­cially re­jected, but the un­mar­ried Reitsch – a vi­va­cious blonde so pe­tite that a glider spe­cially con­structed for her had such a small pilot’s seat that no one else could fit into it – saw her own safety as noth­ing when the wel­fare of her coun­try was at stake.

The two women, both awarded the Iron Cross, were never friends. Their ri­valry was based partly on Reitsch’s re­sent­ment of von Stauf­fen­berg’s so­cial sta­tus as a count­ess, as well as her in­tel­lec­tual su­pe­ri­or­ity. Reitsch rarely lost an op­por­tu­nity to be­lit­tle her, once

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