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. 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 line create more danger for everyone – 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 fetishized 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 explains in her compelling double biography, The Women who Flew for Hitler (Macmillan), neither could officially join the Luftwaffe even though both were designated Flight Captains, and therefore were employed only as test pilots and could not wear 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.
She so impressed the head of her department 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 especially 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 commenting savagely that von Stauffenberg did not actually test planes, only instruments; or describing how she suffered from her “racial burden”. Reitsch, an unrepentant apologist for the Nazi regime whom Mulley valiantly tries at least to understand, remains hard to like.
The disparity between the characters of the two women is vividly drawn, but above all this is a thrilling story, as thrilling as the sport at its heart which flourished in Twenties Germany thanks, ironically, to the Treaty of Versailles, which forced the defeated nation to demobilise its air force and destroy its military aircraft. But while the manufacture of engine-powered planes was temporarily forbidden, gliders were exempt, and both Reitsch and von Stauffenberg grew up at a time when gliding became an aspirational sport for the young in Germany. Mulley has unearthed some wonderful details about the early aeronautical industry and its impact on Germany, which transforms her biography of these two intriguing, very different women into a rich and dramatic social history.
By 1945, with the war almost over, both Reitsch and von Stauffenberg found themselves on repeated hazardous flights, which gives the final part of Mulley’s narrative a compulsive drive. Von Stauffenberg was desperate to locate and rescue her husband and the 14 von Stauffenberg children imprisoned after the failed July 1944 assassination plot; Reitsch was just as determined to find her beloved Fuhrer in his bunker and fly him to safety. Both women encountered tragedy; to say more would be to spoil Mulley’s story.
In Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (MacLehose, £xx), Lyuba Vinogradova details a different experience of war. The Soviet Union employed more women in combat – according to some estimates as many as 800,000 – than any other nation has before or since. The female soldiers she writes about were mostly teenagers, children with little or no experience of life, conscripted but nonetheless eager to play a role in defending their country, and often inspired by revenge for the killing of a brother or father. But many were killed during their first days at the front before they had learned caution. Vinogradova describes how Anya heard a crack and when she saw her friend Masha collapse in front of her wondered at first: ‘Oh my god, why has Masha fallen down?’ Minutes later she too was hit: Masha died but Anya survived.
The tales of hardship here, from extreme hunger and crawling through snow to going for weeks without water to wash, are almost unimaginable. In January 1945, Lida Bakieva went out on her own in the snow one dawn and shot a Nazi officer, but was then trapped as the Germans launched a mortar bombardment in retaliation. She had to lie in the snow without moving until dusk, eventually wetting herself, until in the twilight, numb, her clothing frozen solid with icy urine, she crawled back to her trench to face angry comrades who had had to put up with German shelling all day. But she was exultant and elated. She went on to become a decorated sniper with a tally of over seventy kills to her name and continued shooting as a sport after the war.
One of the most shocking parts of this story is the culture of rape these girls encountered in the Soviet army. Zina, for example, was kept imprisoned for days by her battalion commander, escaping with the help of her friends by climbing out of the window down a knotted sheet. Afterwards, they dared not complain for fear that the officer might just shoot them.
Vinogradova’s stories, more a catalogue of suffering and inhumanity than a narrative, are often derived from interviews with veteran snipers. Many of them suffered enormously after the war, physically as well as emotionally. They were treated with suspicion and hostility, with some Russians even insinuating that they’d behaved like prostitutes in the war. Often they were granted no pension and advised by husbands, parents or friends that the less they mentioned their front line past, the better. Others felt a survivor’s guilt that so many of their comrades had been killed. “Still very young, they bore a terrible legacy they could not share,” writes Vinogradova.
Hanna Reitsch, too, felt she could not speak openly about her experiences – but her reasons were very different. In 1978, she told an American interviewer: “Many Germans feel guilty about the war… but they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost.”
Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Weidenfeld & Nicolson Pbk £9.99)