Many attempts were made to rid Germany of its worst menace, Hitler. The most famous of these took place in the securest place of all, the renowned “Wolfschanze” (Wolf’s Lair), in East Prussia, specially built in 5700/1940, in preparation for Germany’s attack against Russia.
Aware that the war depended on his survival, Hitler took massive measures to ensure the place’s security. To reach “Sperrkeis I” (Restricted Zone I) where he spent his time, a visitor had to pass up to four checkpoints, and another one inside. A Polish laborer, who once accidentally crossed the outermost fence, was shot dead on sight. Anti-aircraft batteries dotted the encampment and gas-proof bunkers were constructed in case the enemy turned to non-conventional warfare. Hitler’s personal bunker was shielded by a seven-meter thick ceiling, massive enough to resist the most powerful aerial bombs, while 1,567 officers and soldiers constantly prowled the sprawling complex on the lookout for intruders.
But all these efforts threatened to be useless because Hitler’s greatest danger was not from an enemy plane or saboteur, but from his closest colleagues and generals. Despite years of propaganda, a small number of top army personnel were violently anti-Nazi. As an example of this, two famous spy rings, the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) and the Rado-Rössler group, apparently obtained their secret information from sources inside the Führerhauptquartier (Fuhrer’s Headquarters) itself, and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Abwehr (Military Intelligence), was an anti-Nazi who constantly plotted against the regime behind the scenes and helped a few Jews escape the Holocaust. By mid-5704/1944, it was obvious that Germany was in danger of annihilation from Allied bombing, and even more top echelon officers decided that it high time to get rid of Hitler – before Germany was bombed out of existence.
A daring assassination attempt had already been made on March 13, 5703/1943, when Hitler flew in to Smolensk, Russia, to discuss the upcoming summer battles against Russia. As usual, security was tight. Hitler used his own car driven by his private chauffer and rail traffic in the area was suspended, as bodyguards and soldiers cordoned off his route. It is claimed that even his hat was lined with almost two kilos of armor plating!
All these efforts were useless in deterring his real enemies. Top brass conspirators planned to booby-trap his Condor transport plane on his way back to Germany. Major-General von Tresckow was given the job of organizing the smuggling of two packages of explosives, disguised as bottles of brandy, aboard.
British bombs were used because German fuses made a low hissing noise and might have been detected. As Hitler climbed aboard, a conspirator broke the fuse capsule that was set to go off in half an hour, and handed the “bottles” to a passenger to deliver to a friend.
The idea was to make the incident appear like an accident because, as a conspirator explained, “The semblance of an accident would avoid the political disadvantage of an assassination. For in those days, Hitler still had many followers who, after such an event, would have put up a strong resistance to our revolt.”
Nothing happened as the bomb failed to work. Two hours later, Hitler landed safely at Rastenberg airfield on his way to the Wolf’s Lair, and von Tresckow had to dash madly to East Prussia to exchange the incriminating bottles with the genuine article. Examining his bomb, he discovered the problem.
“The mechanism had worked,” he reported. “The small bottle had broken, the corrosive fluid had consumed the wire, the striker had hit forward, but the detonator had not fired.”
This may have had something to do with the freezing temperature on board the plane.
Over a year later, the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, and it became clearer than ever that Germany was doomed.
Now the most famous conspirator of all sprang into action. He was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who had served in all the major campaigns of World War II from Poland to France, and in North Africa. In April 5703/1943, he was seriously wounded in the Kasserine Pass in the North African desert when Allied aircraft strafed his convoy after Rommel’s defeat at El-Alamein. He suffered hearing damage and lost an eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand. Soon afterwards he became the leader and chief actor in the conspiracy that came closest to toppling Hitler.
“I feel that I must do something now to save Germany,” he told his wife, during his recuperation. “We, German staff officers, must all accept our share of the responsibility.”
Another conspirator was the renowned Desert Fox, Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel, the most popular military man in Germany. Stauffenberg’s opportunity came in June 5704/1944, when he was promoted as Chief-of-Staff to General Fromm, the Commander-in-Chief of the home army, and gained access to Hitler’s top-security briefing sessions.
“Fate has offered us this opportunity and I would not refuse it for anything in the world,” Stauffenberg announced. “It must be done because this man is evil personified.”
Although Hitler was compulsively suspicious, he never dreamed that his top officers were planning to assassinate him, so they were allowed to attend his sessions without being searched. As Nazi investigators reported afterwards, no measures had been taken to prevent such an assassination attempt “because the possibility had never been taken into consideration that a General Staff officer who was summoned to the situation conference would lend his hand to such a crime.”
Stauffenberg made three bombing attempts within ten days. His first attempt, on July 11, was in Berghof, Hitler’s mountain residence, sometimes known as the Eagle’s Nest. This was canceled because of circumstances beyond his control.
Four days later, Stauffenberg flew to the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia, determined to make a second attempt, but he was ordered to desist after his fellow conspirators discovered that the S.S. police chief and Air-Marshal Goering were absent from the briefing. By the time he decided to go ahead anyway, the last briefing was over.
In the meantime, conspirator General Friedrich Olbricht in Berlin was so certain that Stauffenberg would strike that he had placed the Valkyrie forces (code name for soldiers and police under the conspirator’s control) under high alert and sent troops towards the center of Berlin with instructions to occupy the top military headquarters. He subsequently had to race through Berlin to ensure that all the alerted troops returned quietly to their barracks, and camouflage the alert as an exercise.
On July 20, Stauffenberg flew once again to the Wolf’s Lair. At 10:15 a.m., his plane landed at the Rastenberg airport and, within 20 minutes, he was inside the Wolf’s Lair. At 12:15 p.m., he met with a fellow conspirator, General Erich Fellgiebel, who was in charge of communications at the Wolf’s Lair and would cut off communications with the outer world while the conspirators in Berlin and Paris seized the reigns of power.
About 15 minutes later, General Heusinger arrived from the Eastern Front with the latest battle reports and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel leapt up and announced that it was time to start a briefing. As the officers entered the briefing hut, Stauffenberg requested permission to change into a clean shirt and entered a private room to activate his two time-bombs. They were identical to the “brandy bottle” bomb planted in Hitler’s plane, a year earlier, except that this time, the fuses were set to go off in 10 minutes.
Using a pair of pincers specially bent so that he could manipulate them with his three fingers, Stauffenberg broke the fuse-capsule on one of his bombs. Suddenly, an orderly opened the door and yelled at him to hurry up. The generals were getting impatient.
“Stauffenberg! Do come along now!”
Stauffenberg hurried out with no chance to activate his second bomb. In the conference room, Stauffenberg requested to be seated close to the Fuhrer because of his impaired hearing and was placed two seats away. After carefully placing his briefcase under the big map table, supported on two massive legs almost as wide as the table itself, Stauffenberg mumbled something about making a telephone call and left.
Minutes later, General Heusinger was delivering his report about the Eastern Front. As usual, he was trying to persuade Hitler to authorize a strategic retreat instead of fighting to the last bullet.
“West of the Dvina, strong Russian forces are driving northwards,” he said. “The spearheads are already southwest of Dvinsk. Unless, at long last, the Army group is withdrawn from Lake Peipus, a catastrophe will…”
He never finished the sentence. At that moment, about 12:50 p.m., there was a huge blast. Passing the hut, a few minutes later, Stauffenberg saw a huge cloud of smoke and dust and was certain that no one could have survived. How did Hitler escape this time?