German women pilots at war, 1939 to 1945.

Air Power HistoryVol. 56 Nbr. 4, December 2009

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German women pilots at war, 1939 to 1945.


Today it is almost unknown that women pilots actively contributed to Germany's war effort during World War II, other than perhaps Hanna Reitsch (1912-1979), the exceptional test pilot of the 1930s and 1940s. But she was not the only German woman pilot flying between 1939 and 1945. At the onset of the war, women pilots had trained alongside men to become ferry pilots for the paramilitary NS Flying Corps (Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps, NSFK). The Flying Corps also employed women pilots as managers of its aircraft repair yards, and in other auxiliary functions. Towards the end of the war, at least five women worked as ferry pilots within the Luftwaffe, holding a captain's rank and wearing uniforms. Women also worked as company test pilots, and two of them were experimental test pilots, receiving their assignments from the Luftwaffe. They performed stunning flights to test novel dive brakes, cut the cables of barrage balloons, test pilot visibility, and improve bombing accuracy. In 1944, after the Luftwaffe had lost the air superiority contest, at least sixty women were recruited by the NS Flying Corps and were employed as glider instructors to advance training for Luflwaffe recruits. By war's end, in May 1945, many more women were still in instructor training, waiting for their chance not only to be employed, but also to regain access to flying--a privilege they had been denied since the war had started in September 1939.

The number of German women involved in aerial warfare seem meager when compared to their American counterparts. But in the context of the National Socialist state which had long tried to cement traditional gender role assignments, and to relegate women strictly to the functions of wives and mothers, these numbers are significant. (1) The story of the German women's readiness, their employment and motivation sheds an interesting light not only on the military history of World War II, but also on the workings of gender issues, in Nazi Germany as well as in traditionally "male" fields of technology, aviation, and the military.

Reconstructing the history of German women pilots in World War II presents some difficulties. The most significant one, of course, is the dearth of sources. German women sport pilots had made many headlines in the years around 1930. But by the mid-1930s, most of them faded out of public awareness and sank into obscurity, as a direct result of gender role pressure by the Nazi regime. Also, they were replaced in media headlines by the newly founded Luftwaffe, which better represented Germany's eager militaristic agenda than did smiling women pilots. (2) For war purposes, the potential of female pilots was mostly ignored; no serious effort was made to utilize it until very late in the war. Few records regarding concepts and practices of the deployment of women pilots survived. Most of these records were lost due to Allied bombing and their destruction by Luftwaffe at the end of the war. The Deutsche Dienststelle/Wehrmachtsauskunftsstelle in Berlin, in charge of maintaining the documents of all former members of the German Armed Forces until 1945, and the German Federal Military Archive (Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv) in Freiburg, contain almost no information on women's activities with or for the Luftwaffe. Also lost is all documentation of the NS Flying Corps in the framework of which women had worked as ferry pilots and glider instructors. After the war, the exceptional position of wartime women pilots, so contrary to their traditional gender stereotypes, was quickly forgotten: The professional ...

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