Nazis

Over Washington?

By Chas Downs

I

n the years shortly before America’s involvement in World War II, a graceful, creamcolored glider could often be seen soaring above Washington, D.C., and vicinity.
Since gliding was a popular sport in the 1930s, a glider was not an unfamiliar
sight, except that this one flaunted a red tail band with a Nazi swastika in the center.
This is the story behind that glider and its pilot.

After World War I, the German government encouraged
the sport of gliding as a way to train pilots and participate in
aviation, since the German aircraft industry was severely limited by the Treaty of Versailles. After their assumption of power in 1933, the Nazis enthusiastically continued this support
as a way to make Germans “air-minded” and rebuild Germany into an air power. It was also source of national pride, given
that Germany had become a world leader in the sport of gliding and soaring, and German pilots held many world records.
One of the most renowned of these record-setting pilots
was Peter Riedel. Born in 1905, Riedel studied engineering and became a commercial pilot, worked at the Meteo-

20 Prologue

rological Institute of Röhn-Rositten Company, and toured
South America with the institute’s head, Dr. Walter Georgii, to promote the sport of gliding.
After working as a pilot for Lufthansa, and briefly undergoing reserve training in the German military, Riedel took a
job with the Colombian airline SPACDA. He claimed to
find life in the Third Reich to be too confining and sought
broader horizons. In any case, he had become romantically involved with a married Argentinian woman and crossed
the Atlantic to be closer to her. In 1937, Riedel, sponsored
by the German Aero Club, competed at the Soaring Society of America national competition. Flying a DFS Sperber

Fall 2011

Peter Riedel stands next to his Kranich
(Crane) glider with its Nazi swastika
insignia, ca. 1938. The German text on
the tail gives the glider’s maker and
place of manufacture and notes that
it was the property of the German
embassy in Washington, DC.

Nazis Soaring Over Washington?

Prologue 21

Riedel’s German glider pilot’s license. Riedel had
been an airline pilot for Lufthansa and a German-supported Colombian company, SCATA. He had briefly
trained for the German military, but his Nazi Party affiliations seemed to have been pro forma.

Riedel’s two-seat Kranich being towed aloft. Note
the glider’s wheels falling to the ground in the lower right of the photograph. They were jettisoned after takeoff, and a fuselage skid was used when it was
time for the glider to land.

glider, with German registration and swastika national markings, he won the Bendix
gold trophy for the longest distance flight,
133 miles from Elmira, New York, to Elizabeth, Pennsylvania.
While at Elmira, Riedel met the German military attaché in Washington, D.C.,
Col. Friedrich von Boetticher, who was impressed enough with Riedel to offer him a
job as technical assistant for aviation matters
at the German embassy in Washington. At
first Riedel refused, but he subsequently accepted the position in order to stay in America. After a replacement for his airline job arrived, he then traveled back to Germany to
be vetted by the Air Ministry.
In Berlin, he was interviewed by the
Abwehr, the Germany military intelligence
agency headed by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris.
The Abwehr played by its own rules and was
distrusted by other German military and intelligence organizations. While later in life
Riedel denied being a Nazi or ever having
been a NSDAP member, records show that
he had joined the Nazi Party twice, in 1931

and 1933, letting his membership lapse
both times. According to State Department
sources, Riedel was by all appearances a confirmed Nazi while in the United States, but
his affiliations seem to have been more of
convenience than conviction. He was probably too much of a free spirit to be a good
party man.

22 Prologue

The Swastika over Washington:
Crossing the Mall before Landing
Before starting his duties at the German embassy in Washington, Riedel stopped by Elmira to participate in the 1938 American
national soaring competition under the auspices of the German Aero Club. His twoseat DSF Kranich glider again carried full
German national markings, including a red
band with a swastika on its rudder. Riedel’s
ground crewman also briefly displayed a
Nazi flag, which drew unfavorable attention
to his glider’s Nazi markings.
Reflecting a changed political climate
since 1937, the swastika insignia caused Riedel
considerable embarrassment in 1938. Regis-

tered in Germany in order to avoid U.S. import duties, his glider displayed the Nazi markings that were required on all German military
and civil aircraft. Once it became known he
was working for the German embassy, however, this explanation did not convince many of
Riedel’s acquaintances, who began to assume
he was a confirmed Nazi.
The 1938 soaring competition had fewer but more experienced pilots than in 1937.
Riedel took an early lead with successful flights
to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington,
Delaware. He was determined to do something
spectacular to publicize the sport of soaring—
fly from Elmira to Washington, D.C. Such a
feat would also win a thousand-dollar prize.
On the morning of July 3, after determining
that conditions would be favorable, Riedel was
launched in his Kranich at 10:30 a.m. He soon
found a strong thermal and reached an altitude
of 6,000 feet, high enough to clear the 3,000foot ridges he was crossing, but he often needed to fly on instruments through cloud formations. By 5 p.m., Riedel had reached Baltimore, but the strong thermals that gotten him
that far were failing. Despite his knowledge
and skill, he was losing altitude too quickly.
Pulled toward the ground by the cooling
air, he spotted the familiar environs of Washington D.C. He passed over College Park Air-

Fall 2011

port, hoping that the sun-warmed streets of
Washington would give him just enough lift
to make it to Hoover Airport (now Ronald
Reagan Washington National Airport), just on
the other side of the Potomac River in Virginia. He crossed the Mall and skimmed 200 feet
above the Washington Monument.
Just when he no longer needed it, he found
another thermal, circling to gain altitude in order to do some acrobatic turns and loops before landing at Hoover Airport at 6:20 p.m. In
this remarkable flight, Riedel set a national and
international distance record of 227 miles for a
flight to a predeclared target.
After returning to Elmira, Riedel made another long-distance flight, 196 miles to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. As he
had been in 1937, Riedel was the highest scoring pilot in the 1938 Elmira competition and
would have been U.S. national champion but
for the fact that he was not an American citizen.

Nazi Leaders Reject Warnings
About U.S. Aviation Industry
At the height of his gliding career, Riedel’s fame, training, connections, and background were all helpful to him in carrying

out his new duties at the German embassy,
which were to collect, organize, and evaluate
information on American military aviation.
Youthful and convivial, Riedel did not
get along well with his new boss, whom he
found stiff, humorless, and pompous. On
his part, von Boetticher, who was vehemently opposed to German diplomatic personnel
engaging in espionage activities in the United States, may have suspected that Riedel
had a relationship with the Abwehr.
Riedel himself claims to have used no undercover agents but extrapolated quite accurate statistics on American aviation industry production and expansion from published sources, both governmental and commercial. He managed to tour various American aircraft manufacturing facilities in person, but most of his efforts were directed at
reviewing and analyzing the massive files of
clippings and publications readily available
from the American media.
Once World War II broke out in Europe
in September 1939, Riedel’s task was to determine when American aircraft production
would be substantial enough to adversely affect the military operations of the Axis pow-

Col. Friedrich von Boetticher (left), the German military attaché in Washington, with Riedel.
Their relations were sometimes strained, as von Boetticher mistrusted both Riedel’s data
collection methods and his conclusions on the American aviation industry’s potential
expansion and future aircraft production.
Right: A State Department translation of Riedel’s brief resume. He noted his prewar gliding
achievements and technical experience, as well as his service in the German Army.

Nazis Soaring Over Washington?

ers. He predicted that by 1942 Americanbuilt aircraft could be supplied to the Allies in
such quantity that they would dominate the
war in the air. Riedel’s superiors at the embassy did not fully support his reporting and estimates even though they were reasonably accurate. Since they contradicted the Nazis’ unrealistic but unquestioned views of America,
Riedel’s projections were ignored or dismissed
by the German leaders in Berlin.

Riedel Flies for Fun,
Takes Friends on Rides
But Riedel still lived to fly.
The German embassy kept a two-seat
Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug
(D.F.S.) G-27 Kranich glider at College Park
Airport, in suburban Maryland, for his use.
In an era when aeronautical feats were an almost daily news staple, Riedel and his glider
received their share of attention.
A September 26, 1938, article in the Washington Post described how Riedel had taken
off from College Park Airport to watch the
President’s Cup regatta. After staying aloft
for three hours, he was forced to land at
nearby Hoover Airport because of cool air

Riedel at his desk at the German embassy. His
prediction that by 1942 American-built aircraft could
be supplied to the Allies in such quantity that they
would dominate the war in the air was not wellreceived by the German High Command.

Above: In a September 1938 letter to the War Department’s foreign liaison officer, von Boetticher asked for
permission to store a Kranich glider “on Bowling [sic] Field or any other place near Washington.”
Below: Riedel’s Kranich glider was a familiar sight at College Park Airport in nearby Maryland. Despite his
official duties as air attaché, Riedel found time to fly it often and participated in various soaring events and
demonstrations around the United States. The tri-motored aircraft at right is a Stinson
SM-6000B, which was used as an airliner and executive transport in the 1930s.

24 Prologue

currents above the Potomac and had to be
towed back to College Park.
“It was just for fun,” Riedel is quoted as saying.
“When I haven’t flown for 14 days, I feel bad.”
Since the Kranich held two, he was able to
give glider rides to friends and colleagues. Riedel
also participated in various soaring events and
demonstrations around the United States, including the 1938 Cleveland Air Races, where his
longtime friend and fellow glider pilot Hannah
Reitsch dazzled the crowds with her acrobatics.
Riedel normally based his glider at College
Park Airport, although he flew out of other area
airports, including Hybla Valley in Virginia.
When it was not in use,
he was allowed to store
his Kranich at the U.S.

Army Air Corp’s Bolling Field, in southwest
Washington, D.C.
In 1939, Congress authorized the War Department to provide supplies and services to aircraft used by accredited foreign military attachés,
so the U.S. Army ended up defraying much of
the expense of maintaining Riedel’s glider.

Now Married, Riedel is FBI Target;
An Assault Incident Is Disregarded
After war broke out in Europe, German diplomats fell under greater scrutiny. On November
11, 1939, Riedel was involved in an “alley argument,” which became an international incident
and generated stories in the Washington papers.
This incident began innocently enough,
when Riedel borrowed a friend’s Buick automobile in order to retrieve his glider trailer from Skyline Drive in Virginia. The Buick
was housed in a garage in Northeast Washington, D.C. While picking up the car, Riedel
inadvertently parked on a neighbor’s flower
bed. The neighbor, an auto mechanic and exboxer named Frank Werner, became enraged
and assaulted Riedel, leaving him bruised and
bloody. Police eventually arrived but did not
issue any citations since all those involved gave
conflicting stories.

Both parties were summoned to the assistant district attorney’s office the next day, but
Riedel never appeared, probably because the
German embassy was not contacted through
proper State Department channels, and the
embassy did not want him to appear in any
case. Since no complaint was filed against Werner, he was never charged.
The German embassy did lodge a formal
protest of the “incident” with the State Department. Dr. Karl Resenberg, first secretary
of the German embassy, was quoted as saying,
“We do not consider the affair a personal controversy between Riedel and Werner, but rather an issue between two governments.”
In any event, the State Department turned
it over to the Justice Department, which quietly closed the case.
In 1940, Riedel was promoted from technical
assistant to assistant air attaché, with an increase
in salary and status. His personal life also underwent a major adjustment. Riedel had taken up
horseback riding as a diversion, and on one of his
rides in Rock Creek Park, he met and fell in love
with a beautiful American of German descent,
Helen Kluge, who worked as an art teacher in
the District of Columbia public schools.
Riedel met resistance from von Boetticher when he requested permission to marry Helen. After Berlin officially approved the

match, the two married in July 1941. Von
Boetticher’s initial disapproval then evaporated, and he warmed to the relationship, arranging for a lavish reception at the embassy.
Leaving on a cross-country trip for their
honeymoon, the newly married Riedels were
followed by FBI agents. After some initial antagonism, they and the agents became solicitous of one another. Once, Riedel waited for
the G-men, as FBI agents were known in the
slang of the day, to catch up when they were
delayed by heavy traffic, and later, the FBI
agents informed the Riedels when they had
missed the turn to their destination.
In 1940, an unwanted burst of notoriety for
German diplomats in America only indirectly
affected Riedel. Shot down over England and
captured, the Swiss-born Luftwaffe ace Baron Franz von Werra escaped his guards while
en route to a POW camp in Canada, crossed
to the United States, and turned up at the German embassy in Washington in January 1941.
Determined to get back to Germany, the
flamboyant von Werra made life difficult for
the German ambassador and for von Boetticher. Riedel finally took von Werra aside and explained how he could covertly enter Mexico,
then travel to South America, and from there
fly back to Europe.

Prologue 25

Riedel with his wife, Helen Kluge, an American
of German descent. They married in July 1941,
and with the outbreak of war and expatriation
of German diplomats, Helen accompanied him
to Germany in 1942
In October 1938, the Chief of the Air Corps informed the Adjutant General that he had no objection to housing a German glider at Bolling Field in
“appreciation for the courtesies extended by the
German Government to our Attache abroad.”

Von Werra followed Riedel’s advice and successfully made his way back to Germany in
April 1941. He returned to active service, only
to die when the engine of his new Bf-109F
failed in a routine patrol over the North Sea on
October 25, 1941.

As War Begins, Riedel Returns
To Germany, Is Later Betrayed
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor. Hitler declared war on the United
States. on December 11, 1941. Subsequently, U.S. authorities rounded up and interned
German diplomatic personnel and sent

To learn more about
• The International Civil Aeronautics
Conference of 1928 held in Washington, D.C., go to www.archives.gov/
publications/prologue/2003/winter/.
• The early days of flight and a race to circumnavigate the globe by air, go to www.archives.
gov/publications/prologue/2010/summer/.
• Using State Department records for research,
go to www.archives.gov/research/foreign-policy/.

26 Prologue

them to the Greenbriar resort in West Virginia for safe-keeping. Riedel’s glider became
U.S. property and apparently was allowed to
“rot to pieces” at College Park Airport, according to a history of the Skyline Soaring
Club. U.S. authorities also confiscated a
trunk full of 8mm movies Riedel had taken while flying his glider around the country. German and Italian diplomats were put
aboard the old Swedish liner S.S. Drottingholm for repatriation.. It sailed from New
York on May 7, 1942, and arrived in Lisbon
on May 16. The Riedels arrived in Frankfurt-am-Main on May 25, 1942.
Helen Riedel, as the American wife of an
Axis diplomat, made the difficult choice to
accompany her husband back to Germany. There she contracted a lung disease and
eventually had to go to a sanitarium in Switzerland for her health. While separated from
his wife, Riedel, an inveterate womanizer, engaged in several romantic relationships with
other women. After being debriefed by German authorities, Riedel began working for
the German Air Ministry. While there he
tried to convince the Nazi leaders in person
of the growing power of the American aircraft
industry, again without success.

Riedel managed to obtain an assignment to
Sweden as air attaché, all the while working for
the Abwehr. Disillusioned by official indifference to his warnings about the American aircraft production and by published reports of
Nazi atrocities, he tried to contact Office of
Strategic Services chief Bill Donovan, whom he
had met in New York before the war, but the
OSS was uninterested in him.
Betrayed to German authorities by a confidant of his current lover and recalled to Germany, Riedel instead went into hiding in
Sweden, with the help of his female friends.
After the war, he fled Sweden only to be imprisoned by the French in Casablanca before
escaping on a yacht to Venezuela. There he
was joined by his faithful wife, Helen, who
had reclaimed her American citizenship after
returning to the United States from Switzerland. Leaving Venezuela, they went to Canada, and when Riedel was expelled by the Canadians, to South Africa.
Finally able to return to the United States
in 1955, he worked as an engineer for Trans
World Airlines and Pan American Airlines. In
retirement, he wrote a three-volume history of
the prewar German gliding movement and collaborated with fellow gliding enthusiast Martin
Simons on his biography. Riedel died in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 1998. His devoted wife,
Helen, died in a Texas retirement home on December 11, 2000.
Riedel was a larger-than-life character who became a world-renowned glider pilot, setting many
German, American, and international records.
Nominally a Nazi, he joined the party largely out
of self-interest and probably denied his membership for the same reason. The intelligence that he
gathered while in Washington certainly could
have proved valuable to the Nazi leadership if
they had acted on it. As for his adventures and romances, Riedel certainly told a good story, which
he was not above embellishing.
Probably the greatest glider pilot of his
time, he ranks among aviation’s most outstanding pilots.
One thing is undeniable: Peter Riedel really
knew how to fly his Kranich. P

Fall 2011

DFS G-27 Kranich
Based on the Rhönsperber, his recordbreaking single-seat glider, Hans Jacobs
designed the DFS G-27 Kranich (Crane)
for the Deutsche Forschunganstalt
Für Segelflug in 1935. A two-seater, the
Kranich became the standard German
high-performance gliding trainer because
it allowed dual instruction in almost every
element of flying. Used to set numerous
world and national records, it showed itself to be the best two-seat glider of its
time. Remaining in production into the
late 1950s, hundreds of Kranichs were
built in Germany and in other countries.
National Markings
Registered in Germany to avoid paying
U.S. import duties, and because it participated in international competitions
in the United States, Riedel’s glider bore
the Third Reich’s swastika insignia on its
vertical stabilizer and the German registration number, D-4-620, on the fuselage. D stood for Deutschland, 4 signified the Berlin district where it was registered, and 620 was the individual aircraft number.
In 1934, the Nazis required that all
German military and civil aircraft, including both powered aircraft and sailplanes,
display the swastika-bedecked national flag of the Third Reich. The regulations
mandated it to appear on the left side of
the vertical stabilizer, with black, white,
and red horizontal bands of the national
colors on the right side. In 1936 the regulations were amended to require display
of the swastika insignia on both sides of
the vertical stabilizer.
Generally a red band went across the
entire vertical tail surface, with the white
circle and swastika centered on the tail.
Some necessary variation was allowed,
and Kranich gliders normally carried the
marking only on the movable portion of
the rudder, possibly because the manufacturer’s markings appeared on the

Nazis Soaring Over Washington?

fixed part of the glider’s vertical stabilizer.
The basic color scheme of German gliders was overall pale cream (FAS 1), but a
number of other colors were authorized,
including medium blue, medium brown,
medium gray, light green, and chrome yellow. Individual marking variations included a sunburst pattern on the wing upper
surfaces. Some gliders appeared with oth-

er markings on the nose, including Nazi
organization symbols, the name of the
glider type, individual aircraft name, or
the five Olympic rings, honoring of the
1936 Berlin Olympics.
See Erik Mombeek, Jagdwaffe: Birth of
the Luftwaffe Fighter Force (Luftwaffe
Colors, Volume One, Section 1). East Sussex:
Classic Publications, 1999, pp. 26–27.

Note on Soures
At the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State, Decimal
Files covering the years 1939, 1940, and 1941, contain several references to Peter Riedel. The most voluminous records,
concerning his altercation with Frank Werner, can be found
in the 1930–1939 Decimal Files, 701.6211-1110. Other references are 701.6211-1031 and 1042. 811.7961/328, and
811.796 Sca 2/415. For 1940 and after, references to Riedel appear in Decimal Files 701.6111/1134, 701.6219/54,
701.62701.6211-111011/1134, 800.20211/767 and 776,
and 811.7961/1439, 1501, 1541, 1558, and 1658.
OSS records relating to Riedel can be found in Record
Group 226, Records of the Office of Strategic Services, Classified Sources and Methods Files, “Withdrawn Records”
(Entry A-1, 215), File W21062; Records of Other Field
Bases, Field Station Files—Stockholm-X-2-PTS-2-7 (Entry 125), Folder 2; and Field Station Files—Stockholm-X2-PTS-5 (Entry 125A), Folder 367. The latter folder contains a good photograph of Riedel standing next to the tail
of his glider.
Several references to Riedel and his activities as air
attaché may be found in Record Group 165, Records
of the War Department General and Special Staffs,
G-2 (Military Intelligence Division), Foreign Liaison
Branch, “Attaché Military, German in Washington”; see
the Index, and especially the following files: 343-B-21,
343-D-3, and 343-W-162.
Several articles concerning Riedel appeared in the Washington Post. A number relate to his accomplishments as a
glider pilot: July 11–12, 1937, July 5, 1938, and September 26, 1938. Stories on December 4 and 5, 1939, cover
his “scrape” with Werner and its aftermath. Riedel’s alley
confrontation is also mentioned in a commentary column
“Over the Coffee,” by Harlan Miller, December 13 and 20,
1939. Several articles about von Werra appeared in the Washington Post during 1941, including one with a comment by
Riedel, April 23, 1941. The fate of Riedel’s Kranich glider is
mentioned by Jim Kellett in “Skyline Soaring Club in the
Twentieth Century,” January 2000 (http://skylinesoaring.org/
HISTORY/history-1.html).
A series of three articles about the Riedels by Mike
McCormick appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star
(www.Tribstar.com/history), June 18, July 7, and July 14,
2007; “Historical Perspective: Pilot under Vigilant Eye
of FBI made Trip to Terre Haute, Part I”; “Historical
Perspective: The Continuing Story of Peter and Helen
Riedel. Part II”; and “The Story of Peter and Helen Riedel, Part III.” Helen Kluge Riedel was a Terre Haute na-

tive, and she and Peter visited her relatives there when
they were being trailed by the FBI.
Not readily available in the United States is Martin Simons’s German Air Attaché: The Thrilling Story of German
Ace Pilot and Wartime Diplomat Peter Riedel (Ramsbury,
UK: Airlife, 1997). Simons, a British author and glider
pilot, based this book on a typescript written by Riedel
and tape recordings of their conversations, as well as other
material provided by Riedel. Written in the first person, it
reads as if it were Riedel’s autobiography and is the source
of information for most secondary works on Riedel.
A scholarly biography of the German military attaché
in Washington, Alfred M. Beck’s Hitler’s Ambivalent Attaché: Lt. Gen. Friedrich von Boetticher in America, 1933–
1941 (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2005), puts
Riedel’s activities in the context of his position in the German embassy and with the German government in Berlin, as well in as sketching out the diplomatic atmosphere
of prewar Washington, D.C. A former Army historian,
Beck had access to some of Riedel’s papers and photographs provided by the executor of his estate.
A curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Von
Hardesty puts Riedel into a different context, that of outstanding pilots and historic flights. Von Hardesty. Great
Aviators and Epic Flights (Southport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 2002). In the chapter “Riedel:
Soaring to Washington,” pp. 142–153, of this well-illustrated coffee-table size book, Hardesty provides a detailed
account of Riedel’s 1938 flight from Elmira, New York,
to Washington, D.C., which closely follows Riedel’s own
description in Martin Simons’s book. While unfootnoted, this account was apparently based on Riedel estate archival materials currently in Hardesty’s possession.
An entertaining book based on Luftwaffe ace von
Werra’s exploits, The One that Got Away, by Burt Kendal
and James Leasor, came out in 1956. A movie of the same
name, starring Hardy Kruger, appeared in the next year.

Author
Chas Downs is an artist, researcher, and archivist living in Howard
County, Maryland, with his wife
and cat. Retired after a career with
the National Archives, he is an active NARA volunteer
at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Prologue 27

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