Deadlier than the male
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),
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