Saffron Walden author Clare Mulley explores tale of female pilots who flew for Hitler in latest book
PUBLISHED: 18:00 17 July 2017
They knew each other and they loathed each other. That's how award-winning Saffron Walden author Clare Mulley describes her two latest anti-heroines in her book The Women Who Flew for Hitler.
The Third Reich had just two women test pilots – women were not allowed to join the Luftwaffe so officially they were civilians. If they had been flying for the RAF, which did have female pilots, we might have said that the war could not have been won without them. Perhaps without them, Hitler would have lost sooner.
They could not have been more different. Pilot Hanna Reitsch was a Nazi to her bones and adored the Fuhrer. At the end of the war she tried to persuade him to leave the bunker and let her fly him to freedom. She wanted to save his life.
Pilot Melitta von Stauffenberg was involved in the failed plot to kill him. Melitta, who discovered that her father’s family was Jewish, made herself so indispensable to the German war effort that she managed to get “Equal to Aryan” status for herself and all her siblings.
Author Clare, who lives with her artist husband Ian Wolter and their three daughters, said: “Hanna and Melitta were both skilled engineers and pilots but that was all they had in common. When you look at women involved in the war, it’s a rich seam of untold stories.”
Her book details these women’s lives from early childhood and gives the setting for the lead-up to the Second World War and an insight into to what it meant to be German in the 1930s.
No-one is born a Nazi. German life was uber-civilised on the surface, a place of learning and science and music. Clearly it is what is under the uber that counts. In a sense, Hanna and Melitta were two women working in Hell. One of them had quite a taste for it and was enjoying holding the pitchfork, the other was secretly shuddering.
Clare said: “This book is not designed to honour these women but to try to look at the other side and see how Hitler rallied them to use for his terrible purposes.
“They both won the Iron Cross. They were testing prototype machines. They both learnt to fly before the war and performed in displays at the 1936 Olympics and ended up on the opposite sides of history.”
In 1938, Melitta and another German female pilot Elly Beinhorn were in Chigwell, Essex.
They were chosen to be the two German representatives at the grand opening of Chigwell aerodrome. The airfield was put at the disposal that year of the British Women’s Air Reserve. Some 20,000 people immediately signed up for training courses and women were encouraged to enlist on equal terms with men.
Hanna and Melitta were more magnificent than the men in their flying machines.
Hanna tested the Komet, a rocket-powered plane that involved diving straight down causing the pilot to black out. She was able to come round again before hitting the ground.
As part of her research, Clare accessed the women’s handwritten letters and diaries. We have their testimony.
This is her third book, all biographies. Her first began on maternity leave for her first daughter, now aged 15. She was working for Save the Children and decided to research the life of the charity’s founder Eglantyne Jebb.
Called The Woman Who Saved Children, it won the Daily Mail Biography Club Prize. It meant she could become a full-time writer because publishers would take her seriously.
Her second book, The Spy Who Loved has just been optioned by Universal for a film. This is the story of Polish countess Christine Granville. Born Maria Krystyna Sharbek, she came to Britain determined to help fight Hitler and get his troops out of her beloved Poland.
She was said to be Churchill’s favourite spy and to have slept with most of the men she met. To seize a wartime phrase, she was the good time that was had by all.
Well, says Clare: “Spies’ lives were short, if you thought you were likely to die within the next six weeks, why wouldn’t you? The story was covered up at the time, possibly it was to save her reputation, perhaps some of the men were married.”
• The author will be talking about Hanna and Melitta at Harts Bookshop in King Street, Saffron Walden on Thursday, July 20. She will be interviewed by Alexander Masters, author of Stuart a Life Backwards about a homeless man, which was later made into Bafta award-winning TV programme starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy.
6.30pm. Tickets, £5.