A Woman Pilot: Melitta Schiller

Melitta Schiller was born in West Prussia, January 9 1903. She was awarded her Engineering Certificate in 1927 at the Munich Institute of Technology, and went to work for the DVL in Berlin (Deutsche Versuchanstalt für Luftfahrt e.V. Berlin-Aldershof, German Research Institute for Aviation). She worked there for over eight years on aerodynamics and the new technologies of jet and rocket propulsion.

In 1929 Melitta used all of her resources to pay for flight training at a school that would accept female pilots. At the age of 26 she became both a qualified engineer and a pilot.

When attending a wedding in April 1931 she met the Stauffenberg family, the twins Alexander and Berthold, and their younger brother Claus. Alexander was a historian, and although he and Melitta had very different interests, there was a great attraction between them.

In 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor and by 1935 all Germans had to present proof of their Aryan status. Schiller’s father was born Jewish. The family applied for "equal to Aryan" status and presented Melitta’s parents’ marriage certificate listing them as Lutherans. This was not enough to secure "Aryan status" and Melitta was removed from her government position in the DVL in October 1936. Her sister Klara said that the family’s non-Aryan status "hung like a sword of Damocles over us all" during that time.

She then was hired by Askania-Werke in Berlin-Friedenau, producers of aviation instruments. During this time Melitta continued to develop her skills by taking instrument flying courses for night and bad weather flying, from 1935 through 1937.

In August 1937 Melitta married Alexander Schenk von Stauffenberg. At work she retained her maiden name. Her husband Alexander worked in Würzburg and Melitta worked in Berlin; weekends were the only times they could be together. The test flying became more arduous with dive-bombing research on the Junkers Ju-87 (Stuka) and Heinkel He-118. In September 1939 Melitta asked for a transfer to the Red Cross, which was denied. She was sent to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s testing station. The pace of test flying now increased to 15 missions a day. Between October 1939 and February 1942 she made over 900 dives from 15,000 feet.

In 1941 Alexander was activated for military service and sent to the Russian Front. He served three tours of duty and by 1944 had been wounded three times.

In 1943 Melitta met Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, who awarded her the Iron Cross. By the end of 1943, having reached a career mark of 2,000 bombing tests, she was awarded the Military Flier’s Badge in gold with diamonds.

By testing German bombers Melitta was obviously a patriotic German if not an honorary Nazi. However, she was probably unsympathetic to Hitler, given her background. What happened next changed her life. On July 20 1944 news came of a failed assassination attempt on Hitler. Her brother-in-law Claus von Stauffenberg, a leader of the resistance who also worked as an officer in the high command, had placed the bomb. He was arrested and executed the next day. Berthold was executed soon after. Within a week all the Stauffenberg family were arrested, including Alexander, serving in Greece.

Melitta was released on September 2 to resume her essential test work and night flying of aircraft prototypes. Allowance was made for her to visit her husband and family in the various prisons. This concession was no small achievement.

In 1990 the son of Claus von Stauffenberg, Franz Ludwig Schenk, gave an interview to writer Gerald Posner. After the family was arrested the children were moved to a camp in Bad Sachsa, in the Harz mountains near Gottingen. Franz Ludwig remembers Christmas of 1944, when his aunt Melitta visited. He was six years old.

"She was a flyer, a pilot, which was not that common a profession for a woman to have at that time. She was not merely an adventurer, but she was also an engineer and had invented a number of quite important gadgets for night flying. Now, Goring was an extraordinary personality, with the most peculiar aspects, and you can hardly understand how Hitler or Himmler even tolerated him. Well, he was a grotesque type of man. Around him, there was a very special core of people all attached to flying, with a kind of team spirit and camaraderie – not necessarily Nazis. Quite a number of them found a way to live near him without becoming too infected with Nazi ideology. Some of them had nothing in common with National Socialism, but they were avid flying enthusiasts.

"Now this aunt was known to every flyer, to everyone who had anything to do with aviation. She had a number of personal friends in that crowd. When her husband was arrested she tried to do something about it. She was arrested herself. Her friends, in the loyalty of the crew, tried to get her out, and they succeeded. They told the Gestapo that she could have had nothing to do with the Stauffenberg plot, that she was only married to a Stauffenberg, and that in addition she was irreplaceable and was badly needed to the aviation effort: no one else could fill her position. And when released she said fine, but she wouldn’t go to work unless they met two conditions. First, she would always know where her husband and the rest of her family was, and she regarded all of us as her family. Second, that she would have the opportunity to visit all of us. She was granted both of these requests. She was very courageous. She took a great risk and succeeded. Not only was she promised the information, but she got it. She knew where we were taken, and where my mother was taken, and where all the family was, and she visited everyone.

"So as a surprise, she came to us during Christmas 1944. On the holiday, we were asked to the house of the camp director, a woman, and we went over and there was Aunt Lita. As a result of this visit, she also could tell my grandmother where we had been and that we were well. We adored Aunt Lita and found her very exciting. She told the most wonderful stories of her flying and her planes. Christmas was great with her that year."

In January 1945 Melitta visited Franz Ludwig’s mother Nina in a hospital in Potsdam. The Countess had delivered a child but had encountered difficulties, and both were recuperating. Melitta informed the Countess that the rest of her children were safe. Melitta and Nina had something in common in that they were both Lutherans who had married into the Catholic Stauffenberg family.

Bad Sachsa was liberated by the Americans in April 1945, and the von Stauffenberg children continued to stay there until June. The children were rescued by their great-aunt, who had been told of their whereabouts by Melitta, and who traveled more than three hundred miles through two Allied zones (French and American) to get there. They persuaded the local French commander to lend them his official car to pick up the children and take them to their grandmother’s home in Lautlingen. During this car trip Franz Ludwig learned for the first time what his father Claus had actually done.

Meanwhile, the Countess Nina had escaped from an elderly guard in Berlin just before the Russians arrived there. She took an overcrowded train to Saxony, and then she walked, carrying her baby in her arms, until she reached Bavaria and some relatives.

Franz Ludwig only heard about his mother’s escape in July. Before that his other aunt (the wife of Berthold), and his uncle Alexander (Melitta’s husband) arrived at his grandmother’s house in Lautlingen. "They arrived in a great Mercedes car, and we were very impressed. It belonged to the cardinal of Munich; he had offered his personal car for this transport back to the house. But we received very bad news from my aunt. Melitta did not survive the war. She was shot down in her small airplane during the last days of the war. We now know she was purposely shot down in Bavaria by German troops. The officer who was in charge of the anti-aircraft guns was told who she was. They said she was trying to get away to Switzerland with the Stauffenberg family jewels."

A second version of Melitta’s death was given by her husband. In April 1945 Alexander had been transferred from Dachau to Schoenberg prison, in Southern Germany, and Melitta planned a visit flying a Bücker Bestmann two-seater aircraft. According to Alexander’s account she wasn’t shot down by the Germans; she was intercepted by an American Mustang and shot down before she reached Schoenberg. She managed to land the aircraft, but died soon after. On her body the local authorities found a visitor’s pass to the prison, jewelry, and money from her bank accounts.

Alexander later wrote: "I have to conclude she was trying to find me, and would have tried to escape with me to Switzerland." She died April 8 1945.

Posner, Gerald. Hitler’s Children, Berkley Publishing, 1991
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