Monday 24 September 2012

Germany’s ‘other’ WWII female test pilot - Melitta Schiller, Gräfin (Countess) von Stauffenberg

I picked up the latest Classic monograph this weekend - Eddie Nielinger Creek’s superlative history of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. I was particularly interested in the brief pilot bios dotted throughout the book and especially the profile devoted to Germany’s ‘other’ WWII female test pilot - Melitta Schiller, later the Gräfin (Countess) von Stauffenberg.

Schiller was born in 1903 in the then-German province of Posen, now in Poland, the daughter of a Jewish civil engineer. She studied maths, physics and engineering, eventually specialising in aeronautical engineering at the Technical University of Munich. She worked as an engineer for DVL in Berlin and started flying lessons. She then worked for Askania developing navigation and steering systems for seaplanes such as the Ha 139 and the Do 18. In 1937 she married the historian Alexander Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg – an event that would have dramatic consequences later in the war. Alexander was the brother of Claus von Stauffenberg....

However throughout the pre-war and early war years Melitta’s career was essentially a programme of intensive test flying -  spending up to ten hours per day in the air, flying literally thousands of sorties, principally in dive bombers, where she contributed to the development of the Stuka’s automatic pilot and pull-out. For her work on these programmes Melitta Stauffenberg was one of the rare recipients of Goering's own award, the Goldene Flugzeugführerabzeichen mit Brillanten - the pilot's badge in Gold with diamonds.

And then in July 1944 Claus von Stauffenberg triggered operation “Valkyrie” the failed Hitler bomb plot, thereby setting in motion a train of events that would apparently lead directly to Melitta Schiller’s death.

As news of the failed putsch came through she and her husband resigned themselves to ‘Sippenhaft’(imprisonment) as family members of an ‘enemy of the Reich’ - and worse. Both were arrested along with others in the Stauffenberg family. However in late August 1944 Melitta Schiller's release was secured by Hajo Herrmann so that she could pursure her work, described as ‘kriegswichtig’ – important for the war effort.  This suggests there was no real suspicion of involvement in the conspiracy with her brother-in-law to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  However according to Gerhard Bracke in his book “Das Leben einer Fliegerin” ( 'The life of an aviatrix') Melitta Stauffenberg had been approached to participate in the assassination plot. She was to fly von Stauffenberg directly back to Berlin after the bomb had gone off but had been unable to get directly involved (rather than refusing outright) as she was not able to gain access to a suitable aircraft..( Bracke p. 178) Following her release from 'Sippenhaft' she was able to visit her husband and sister-in-law in prison while continuing her flight testing for the regime...

Writing in Aeroplane magazine in June 1999 Barbara Schlussler stated that ‘confusion surrounds Melitta’s death’The ‘accepted’ version of events is that she was shot down by American fighters. During early April 1945, with the collapse of the Third Reich imminent, Melitta set out to locate her husband who was still languishing in jail. On 8 April 1945, while at the controls of a Bücker Bü 181 Bestmann trainer en route to Schoenberg - perhaps to rescue her husband-  and navigating along a rail track running near the Danube in the vicinity of Strasskirchen, Bavaria, she was bounced by a P-51. According to eye witnesses she managed to successfully crash-land the aircraft, but apparently later died from her injuries in hospital in Straubing. 

In the last chapter of his biography Gerhard Bracke looks at the ‘conspiracy’ theories surrounding Melitta Stauffenberg’s final hours. He presents evidence to suggest that the aircraft that shot down Melitta Stauffenberg were Me 109s (there were matching no US fighter claims) and looks at Gestapo involvement in her death. Bracke quotes at length another eyewitness who helped Melitta Stauffenberg out of the wreckage of her aircraft-  “ her injuries amounted to no more than a broken leg and were in no way life threatening”. Melitta Schiller must rank as one of the leading female test pilots in aviation history but her record as a test pilot is over-shadowed by the manner of her death. She will probably be best 'remembered' - if she is at all - as the sister-in-law of Claus von Stauffenberg, instigator of “Valkyrie”, the failed Hitler bomb plot.

 Model by Ed Russell

“...SF+WR is but one candidate for the Bu181 Melitta Stauffenberg was flying that day but it's one of the few documented to be attached to Fliegschule A/B 23. This is the old but neat Huma kit. The only additions were some sheet plastic card to the underside of the centre section which is rather flat on the kit but convex on the Bu181, a little detail in the cockpit. I also added the front engine cylinder, replaced the exhausts with cored-out solder and replace the tiny semi-circular windows with clear PVA. Paint is standard Model Master 70/71/65. I used some of the kit decals and some done on an Alps. The camera is cruel and emphasises the minimal silvering...”