- On 10 May 1941, Rudolf Hess made his daring flight from
Germany to Britain in a vain bid to stop the tragic conflict between two
nations he admired and loved. When Hitler's Deputy parachuted to earth
from a Messerschmitt fighter over south Scotland, Germany and Britain had
already been at war with each other for twenty months.
- It is well known that Hess made this unprecedented move
to impress on Britain's war leaders just how earnestly Germany desired
peace. But even after the passage of forty years, much about the famous
episode remains shrouded in mystery. The biggest question is whether Hitler
knew in advance about the flight. Did he even order Hess on this mission
of peace, as some insist? We cannot be sure if Hess would reveal the truth
if he could. His ardent loyalty to Hitler might keep him from telling the
whole story even if he were able. The truth may not be known until the
secret British government documents on the matter are one day finally removed
from the closed archives and made available to the world in uncensored
- Still, there is strong evidence that Hess risked his
life for peace under orders from Adolf Hitler himself. In its issue of
May 1943, the American Mercury published "The Inside Story of the
Hess Flight," a remarkable article which self-assuredly reported that
the flight was personally directed by Hitler and completely expected by
- In 1943 the American Mercury was a popular, highly successful
and very "establishment" monthly. It was quite different from
the iconoclastic journal that H. L. Mencken had founded and edited many
- Although the article on the Hess flight appeared anonymously,
the magazine's editors vouched for its accuracy: "The writer, a highly
reputable observer, is known to us and we publish this article with full
faith in its sources." The Reader's Digest published a condensed version
of the piece in its July 1943 issue and likewise declared it accurate:
"According to Allan A. Michie, The Reader's Digest's London correspondent,
this account of the Hess flight corresponds to the version accepted by
well-informed journalists in Britain."
- Written in the midst of war, the author's bellicose joy
at the failure of the Hess peace venture may appear regrettable and even
contemptible today. Still, the information it contains (if correct) puts
both Germany and Britain in a very different light than the one originally
intended by the author. Because of its unquestionable historical importance,
this article deserves serious consideration today.
- -- Mark Weber
- Why Rudolf Hess took the sky road to Scotland has never
been revealed officially, principally because two leaders of Allied strategy,
Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, believed at the time that
no useful purpose could be served by the telling. Hess was consigned to
the limbo of hush-hush and all attempts to probe the craziest episode of
the war were resolutely suppressed.
- Today, two years after, many Englishmen and a few Americans
know exactly why Hess came to England, and most of those in possession
of the true story feel that it should now be told. For one thing, it would
place before critics of Anglo-American policy towards Soviet Russia the
vital and silencing fact that at a difficult moment, when he might have
withdrawn his country from the war at Russia's expense, Churchill pledged
Britain to continue fighting as a full ally of the newest victim of Nazi
duplicity. There would have been some semblance of poetic justice to such
a withdrawal-was it not Stalin who set the war in motion by signing a friendship
pact with Hitler in 1939? But the British Prime Minister never even considered
- A few details are still unclear-only British Intelligence
and several top- flight officials, know them; a few facts must still be
kept dark for reasons of policy. But the essential story can be safely,
and usefully, told. It makes one of the most fascinating tales of superintrigue
in the annals of international relations. It adds up to a supreme British
coup that must have shattered the pride of the Nazis in their diplomacy
and their Secret Service. In that domain, it is fair to say, the Hess incident
is a defeat equivalent to Stalingrad in the military domain.
- Rudolf Hess did not "escape" from Germany.
He came as a winged messenger of peace, and no Parsifal in shining armor
was ever more rigorously and loyally consecrated to his mission. He came
not only with Adolf Hitler's blessing, but upon Hitler's explicit orders.
Far from being a surprise, the arrival of Hess was expected by a limited
number of Britishers, the outlines of his mission were known in advance,
and the Nazi leader actually had an RAF escort in the final stage of his
- On the basis of reliable information since obtained from
German sources and from indications given by Hess himself, it is possible
to reconstruct the situation in Berlin that led to the mad Hess undertaking.
- By the beginning of 1941 Hitler, in disregard of the
advice of some of his generals, had decided that he could no longer put
off his "holy war" against Russia. The attempt to knock out the
Western democracies before turning to the East had failed. The alternative
was an understanding with Great Britain which would leave Germany free
to concentrate everything against Russia-a return, in some measure, to
the basis of co-operation set up in Munich. Whatever Chamberlain and Daladier
may have thought, the Germans had interpreted the Munich deal as a carte
blanche for Nazi domination of Eastern Europe. The Allied guarantees to
Poland and Rumania thereafter and their declaration of war, were indignantly
denounced in Berlin as a democratic double-cross.
- Hitler put out a tentative feeler in January 1941 in
the form of an inquiry regarding the British attitude towards possible
direct negotiations. It was not directed to the British Government but
to a group of influential Britishers, among them the Duke of Hamilton,
who belonged to the since discredited Anglo-German Fellowship Association.
An internationally known diplomat served as courier. In the course of time
a reply arrived in Berlin expressing limited interest and asking for more
information. Tediously, cautiously, without either side quite revealing
its hand, a plan was developed. When the German proposal of negotiations
on neutral soil was rejected, Berlin countered with an offer to send a
delegate to England. After all, had not Chamberlain flown to Germany?
- A delegate was selected-Ernst Wilhelm Bohle, Gauleiter
of all Germans abroad. Handsome, South African-born, Cambridge educated
Willi Bohle was actually a British subject, though his passport was considerably
out of date, and he seemed ideally suited for the mission. Several important
foreign journalists in Berlin were let in on the secret that Bohle was
being groomed for a very big and mysterious job abroad, and the story was
planted in Turkish and South American papers to test British reaction.
When weeks passed and the British press did not pick up the story, thus
indicating an indifference to Bohle, Berlin became worried.
- It was then that the Führer came through with one
of his "geniale" ideas. Bohle was not the right man, he said.
He did not have the national stature to impress the British. A really big
Nazi would have to go, one whose name was inseparably linked with Hitler
himself and whose presence could not possibly fail to command attention.
He must be one, said Hitler, who would represent the "goodness"
of the German race, one whose sincerity was unquestionable. What is more,
he must be able to speak officially for the German Government and to give
binding commitments on the behalf of the Führer. Providence, Hitler
pointed out, had given Germany just the man-Walter Richard Rudolf Hess,
Nazi Number Three, who in addition to fulfilling the other qualifications
had grown up in the English quarter of Alexandria, spoke fluent English
and "understood the British mind."
- After Hitler transmitted his supreme and final offer-to
send his own Deputy and closest friend directly to England-there was a
long delay in replying. Possibly the imperturbable British required some
time to recover from their astonishment. But finally Adolf's intuition
was justified -- an acceptance of the proposal came through, details were
arranged, and on May 10 Hess flew into the twilight.
- Four months of intricate negotiations had preceded the
flight. The Germans had pushed their proposal in the name of peace and
Nordic friendship. Their British "friends" were co-operative
without being too eager or too optimistic -- there was no use overlooking
the difficulties. As was only natural, progress was made slowly; there
were ups and downs in the fortunes of the enterprise.
- The one thing the Germans did not know was that they
were negotiating with agents of the British Secret Service using the names
-- and the handwriting - of the Duke of Hamilton and other gentry of the
Anglo- German Fellowship Association! The fact is that the initial communication,
in January, brought personally by an eminent diplomat, never reached its
destination, having been intercepted by the Secret Service. From then on
the correspondence was handled entirely by astute British agents. Replies
designed to whet the German appetite, replies encouraging the supposition
that Britain was seeking a way out of its military difficulties, were sent
to Berlin. The hook was carefully baited that caught the third largest
fish in the Nazi lake.
- It was perhaps his perverted love of Wagnerian contrast
that led Hitler to choose the night of his Deputy's fateful flight for
unloading five hundred tons of noisy death on London.
- That night the subterranean plotting room of the RAF
Fighter Command was static with activity. The heaviest Nazi bomber force
ever sent to Britain was pounding the capital, and new waves of planes
were crossing the coast every fifteen minutes. When a report from an outlying
radiolocation station on the Scottish coast announced the approach of an
unidentified plane, the receiving operator at Fighter Command checked it
off as "one of ours" and promptly forgot it. On the tail of the
first report came a second: the plane had failed to identify itself properly
and its speed indicated that it was a fighter. Methodically, as one immune
to surprises, the operator sent his flash to the plotting room and a hostile
plane was pinpointed far up on the eastern coast of Scotland with an arrow
to indicate that it was moving west.
- By now inland stations were also picking up the mystery
plane, obviously a fighter from its speed, although Scotland was far beyond
the normal cruising range of any fighter. Consulted, the commanding officer
at Fighter Command reacted in a manner that Fighter Command personnel still
discuss with varying degrees of puzzlement. "For God's sake,"
he is reported to have shouted, "Tell them not to shoot him down!"
In a matter of seconds a fighter station in Scotland received a flash and
two Hurricanes took off to trail the mystery plane with orders to force
it down but under no conditions to shoot at it. While the small red arrows
on the plotting table crept across Scotland, high officers at Fighter Command
watched with absorbed interest. Near the tiny village of Paisley, almost
on the west coast, they stopped. "Made it," the commanding officer
is reported to have grunted. "Thank God, he's down!"
- In Lanarkshire, Scotland, David McLean, a farmer, watched
a figure parachute into his field, and by the time the man had disentangled
himself from the shrouds of his parachute, Farmer McLean was standing over
him with a pitchfork. "Are ye a Nazi enemy, or are ye one o' ours?"
he asked. "Not Nazi enemy; British friend," the man replied with
some difficulty because he had wrenched his ankle and was in extreme pain.
Helped into the farmer's kitchen, he announced that his name was Alfred
Horn and that he had come to see the Duke of Hamilton, laird of the great
Dungavel estate ten miles away. The man talked freely, and to local Home
Guardsmen Jack Paterson and Robert Gibson, who had arrived in the meantime,
he admitted that he had come from Germany and was hunting the private aerodrome
on Hamilton's estate when his fuel gave out and he had to bail out. "My
name is Alfred Horn," he repeated frequently as though seeking recognition.
"Please tell the Duke of Hamilton I have arrived."
- With their instinctive distrust of aristocracy, the canny
Scots became suspicious of the whole situation, and the parachutist was
bundled off to the local Home Guard headquarters, where an excited, argumentative
crowd soon gathered. Meanwhile, a kind of official reception committee
composed of Military Intelligence officers and Secret Service agents was
waiting at the private aerodrome on the Hamilton estate. The forced landing
ten miles from the prearranged rendezvous was the only hitch in the plan.
It was the hitch, presumably, which broke to the whole world sensational
news which otherwise might have been kept on ice for a while if not for
- When the "reception committee" heard of the
accident and finally found their visitor, he was being guarded by over
a dozen defiant Home Guardsmen who were determined not to relinquish him.
It took lengthy assurances that the man would remain safe in their custody,
plus the arrival of Army reinforcements under instructions to co-operate
with the "committee," to persuade the Guardsmen to give up their
- Still declaring that his name was Alfred Horn, Hess was
placed in a military motorcar and driven to Maryhill Barracks near Glasgow.
There he changed his story. "I have come to save humanity," he
said. "I am Rudolf Hess." And he indicated that his visit was
being expected by influential Englishmen -- a statement that was truer
than he as yet suspected. His identity checked, Hess was taken to a military
hospital to have his ankle treated, and with a Scots Guardsman on duty
outside his door, spent his first night in the British Isles.
- In the village of Paisley and many other parts of the
Highlands, Scotsmen divided into factions-Scots nationalists and British
loyalists, royalists and socialists-and throughout that night and for several
days broke heads and knuckles over the issue of the German who came to
Scotland. The loyalists and socialists suspected that either the Scots
nationalists or royalists had been guilty of some treasonable skullduggery.
- Hess passed a good night, and when his nurse brought
breakfast on a tray the next morning at 8 a.m. he reminded her that on
the continent one breakfasted later. She left the tray and departed, while
he went back to sleep. When she returned at nine for the tray, the breakfast
had not been touched, so she removed it, with the result that Hess spent
his first morning in Britain without breakfast. Thereafter he breakfasted
- Hitler's friend and deputy had come prepared for an indirect
approach to the British Government through the Anglo-German Fellowship
Association, to which a surprising number of prominent Britons adhered
before the war. The actual approach, as planned by Winston Churchill, was
exceedingly direct. Ivone Kirkpatrick, an astute super-spy in World War
I and Councillor at the Berlin Embassy during the intervening years, flew
to Scotland to receive the Hess plan for direct transmission to the British
Government. Even Hitler could have asked no greater co- operation. Despite
the absence of the Duke of Hamilton, Hess at this stage was still convinced
that he was dealing with the Fellowship intermediaries.
- It was to Kirkpatrick that the Nazi first poured out
the details of Hitler's armistice and peace proposals. He was enthusiastic
and voluble -- the stenographic report filled many notebooks. And he was
most optimistic, since he was fully convinced that Britain was licked,
knew it, and must therefore welcome the Führer's generous offer of
amity. His tone throughout was that of a munificent enemy offering a reprieve
to a foe whose doom was otherwise sealed.
- The terms of Hitler's peace proposal have been discussed
up and down England not only in well-informed political circles but in
pubs, bomb shelters and Pall Mall clubs. It was too elaborate a secret
to be kept. Cabinet members presumably told their friends in Parliament
and the MP's told their club colleagues and the news percolated down. The
filter of time, plus such cross-checking as is possible on a subject that
is officially taboo, enables the writer to give the general outline, withholding
- Hitler offered total cessation of the war in the West.
Germany would evacuate all of France except Alsace and Lorraine, which
would remain German. It would evacuate Holland and Belgium, retaining Luxembourg.
It would evacuate Norway and Denmark. In short, Hitler offered to withdraw
from Western Europe, except for the two French provinces and Luxembourg
[Luxembourg was never a French province, but an independent state of ethnically
German origin], in return for which Great Britain would agree to assume
an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards Germany as it unfolded its
plans in Eastern Europe. In addition, the Führer was ready to withdraw
from Yugoslavia and Greece. German troops would be evacuated from the Mediterranean
generally and Hitler would use his good offices to arrange a settlement
of the Mediterranean conflict between Britain and Italy. No belligerent
or neutral country would be entitled to demand reparations from any other
country, he specified.
- The proposal contained many other points, including plans
for plebiscites and population exchanges where these might be necessitated
by shifts in population that has resulted from the military action in Western
Europe and the Balkans. But the versions circulating in authoritative circles
all agree on the basic points outlined above.
- In a prepared preamble, Hess explained the importance
of Hitler's Eastern mission "to save humanity," and indicated
how perfectly the whole arrangement would work out for Britain and France,
not only from the ideological and security angles but also commercially.
Germany, he pointed out, would take the full production of the Allied war
industries until they could be converted to a peacetime basis, thus preventing
economic depression. As Hess and his Führer saw it, England and France
would become, in effect, the arsenals of free capitalism against Asiatic
communism. The actual slaying of the Bolshevik dragon Hitler reserved for
Germany alone, so that by this act he could convince a doubting world of
his benevolent intentions. Hess gave no information on the military plans
for Eastern Europe and would not be drawn out on that point, since it was
a problem for Germany alone.
- For two days Hitler's emissary unfolded his proposals
and Churchill's amanuensis made notes. Hess was certain his plan would
be accepted; it is characteristic of German thinking that it never foresees
the possibility of another point of view. He emphasized that his Leader
would not quibble over details -- Britain could practically write its own
peace terms. Hitler was only eager, as a humanitarian, to stop the "senseless
war" with a brother nation and thus incidentally guarantee supplies
and safeguard his rear while fighting in the East.
- With the prepared plan and the emissary's annotations
in his notebooks, Kirkpatrick went to 10 Downing Street. The plan was communicated
to Washington for an opinion, and the President, of course, confirmed the
Prime Minister's decision. The answer would be a flat "No," but
the two statesmen are reported to have agreed that open discussion of such
a sensational offer would be undesirable at that time. They decided that
the insanity explanation fed to the German people would also suffice for
the rest of the world. Unlike the Germans and some Americans, no single
Britisher believed a word of that story. Both London and Washington made
repeated efforts to warn Russia of the coming German blows. The Russian
leaders would not believe it-or pretended not to believe it-and certain
Soviet diplomats insisted that the warnings were democratic "tricks".
until the actual invasion took place.
- Hess was not told of Churchill's decision and was permitted
to assume that his proposals were under ardent discussion. At the hospital
he rested easily and talked freely with his doctor, nurses and guards.
He was tolerant and friendly until his doctor one morning made a typical
British comment on Adolf Hitler, Hess thereupon staged a scene and remained
surly and sulking for a week. When he was able to walk, he was flown to
London, where he talked to Lord Beaverbrook, Alfred Duff Cooper and other
government leaders. But Churchill refused his repeated requests for a meeting.
- Only after he had talked himself out and could provide
no further useful information, was Hess informed that his plan had been
entirely rejected and that Britain was already Russia's ally. By that time
he was aware, too, that the negotiations which preceded his flight had
short-circuited the Fellowship crowd -- neither Hamiliton nor any of the
others had known anything about the Hess visit until all of England knew
it. Hess's shock and dismay resulted in a minor nervous breakdown, so that
for a while the Nazi lie about his insanity came near being true. The news
of the sinking of the Bismarck shook Hess so that he wept for an entire
- Hess demanded that he be sent back to Germany, because,
having come as an emissary, he was entitled to safe return. The British
Government reasoned differently -- after all, he came as an emissary to
private individuals, not to the Government directly -- and he became a
special prisoner of war. He spends his existence in the manor house of
a large English estate, with considerable freedom of movement on the well
guarded grounds. His appetite is reported to be good. He spends most of
his time reading German classics and perfecting his English. A book- dealer
in London recently wrote to several of his customers who had purchased
German books from him, inquiring whether they would care to resell them
to another client: the client's name was given as Walter R. R. Hess.
- This was not the first time England reduced a German
stronghold by audacious Secret Service work. It was reported unofficially
in Berlin that the Graf Spee was scuttled on orders sent over Admiral Raeder's
signature by the cloak-and-dagger experts in the British Secret Service.
Whether there is any truth to that or not, there is no doubt that when
the whole story can be told the achievements of that Secret Service will
astound the world. And the Hess episode is certain to stand out with a
glory all its own among them.