Hitler & the Bomb Plot Part I: In the Wolf 's Lair
John Wheeler-Bennett's account, with many illuminating details, of the attempt that nearly put an end to the Third Reich.
Or who ...
Steps, with five other Generals
Who simultaneously take snuff,
That each may have pretext enough
To kerchiefwise unfold his sash
Which, softness’ self, is yet the stuff
To hold fast where a steel chain snaps,
And leave the grand white neck no gash?
Robert Browning, Waring.
Very early on the morning of July 20th, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg and Werner von Haeften motored to the Rangsdorf airfield, to the south of Berlin. Fromm’s Chief of Staff had been summoned to F.H.Q. to give a detailed report on the progress made in creating the new front-line divisions from the man-power of the Home Army in order to stem the tide of the Red Army’s advance, which was then but fifty miles distant from the Fuhrerhauptquartier. With the two officers was Werner’s brother, Bernd, a lieutenant of the Naval Reserve, who, having been warned of the mighty things which were to come to pass that day, had secured leave of absence to be in Berlin for the occasion and had come to see his brother off on the first lap.
At the airport they were joined by Helmuth Stieff and his A.D.C., Major Roll. “The Poison Dwarf,” whose task it was to supply the explosives, had the night before produced a two-pound bomb with a time fuse for delayed action. The explosion was effected by causing a glass capsule containing acid to break in a chamber in which a taut wire was so fixed as to hold back the firing pin from the percussion cap, and the thickness of the wire determined the time required for the acid to eat through it and release the pin. This ingenious piece of destructive mechanism, wrapped in a shirt which also hid the little pair of tongs which were necessary for his crippled fingers to break the capsule, were concealed in von Stauffenberg’s brief-case, together with his official papers. For though, because of his injuries, he was entitled to have the services of an A.D.C. wherever he went he knew well that the security regulations would never permit him to take Werner von Haeften into the conference room with him, and that he must be entirely independent of all assistance.
The special plane supplied by the First Quartermaster-General, Edward Wagner, touched down at the airfield nearest Rastenburg at 10.15 a.m. and the remaining nine miles of the journey were completed by car. As they neared F.H.Q. they passed from the sunny expanses of the East Prussian countryside into the gloomy confines of a forest, so deep and dark that the light of day rarely penetrated the leafy fastness. Here, remote from human habitation and surrounded by only those who would either tell him what he wished to know or else keep silent, Adolf Hitler directed his war in macabre and inglorious seclusion.
Fear, hate and suspicion predominated. No one from the outside world was trusted and not all those within this evil orbit of abnormality. Master and minions were held prisoner for weeks and months within the great and darksome wood, prisoners as much as anything of their own fears. Numerous electric fences and much barbed wire obstructed the approach. There were blockhouses and checkpoints on all the roads and in the middle was Security Ring Number 1, commonly called the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfschanze), to which holy of holies there were no personal passes, not even for Keitel or Jodi, and guards checked the coming and going of all officers at the entrances. “It was a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp,” was Jodi’s description later at Nuremberg.
Having the necessary passwords and countersigns, von Stauffenberg and his companions passed through the outer compound and then separated, they going to the huts provided for Army officers and he to the Wolfschanze, where, by arrangement, he was to breakfast with the Headquarters Commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Streve. There followed at 11.30 a short conference with General Buhle, the Chief of the Army Staff at F.H.Q., and with General von Thadden, Chief of Staff to the G.O.C. of the Königsberg district, at which von Stauffenberg gave a preliminary report on the defence preparations by the Home Army. At noon Buhle took him to Keitel and here he received the first check to his plans.
The Führer’s morning conference, Keitel told them, which was normally held at 1 a.m., had been put forward to 12.30 as Hitler was expecting Mussolini to arrive at the secret railway station of “Görlitz” at three o’clock. Moreover, it was not to be held in the usual underground bunker but in the Gastebaracke (hutment for guests) annexed to the Führer’s quarters. The change of location, which was due partly to the repairs being carried out in the dug-out and partly to the intense heat of the day, was to have a material effect upon the subsequent events.
Before leaving Keitel’s office to walk the short distance across to the Gästebaracke, von Stauffenberg made an excuse and went with his brief-case, from which he was never parted, to an adjoining room where, with the assistance of the little tongs, he broke the acid capsule which in time should set the fuse. Brief though his absence was, it was long enough for Keitel to remark it. A few minutes later they all walked out into the gloomy twilight of the forest and Keitel made a gesture of offering to carry the brief-case, a gesture which was at once repeated by one of his adjutants, Lieutenant-Colonel von John; but von Stauffenberg insisted that, despite his disability, he needed no help.
The Gästebaracke was a large wooden hut built upon concrete and stone pillars and having a roof of tarred felt. There were three windows and at each end a small table, one bearing writing materials, the other a radio-phonograph. In the centre of the room, which was some 12.5x5 metres, was a large table covered with situation maps.
When Keitel and von Stauffenberg entered the conference room at about 12.40 there were a score of persons standing around the table. Only the stenographer and Berger, who took notes for Hitler’s personal war diary, were seated. Neither Himmler nor Goring nor Ribbentrop were present.
General Heusinger, the Director of the Military Operations Branch and Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Army, had already begun his report on the situation on the Eastern Front, and Hitler, standing with Jodi on his left and Heusinger on his right, his back to the entrance, was following attentively on the maps spread upon the table before him. Keitel interrupted the proceedings to present von Stauffenberg, who, he said, would give them details of the formation of the Sperrdivisionen which Fromm was building up, as it seemed, with painful slowness. Hitler greeted the tall young Colonel, glanced significandy at his mutilations and the black patch which covered the empty eye-socket, said that they would take his report next, and turned back to the table. Keitel took up his position on Jodi’s right, next to the Führer.
Von Stauffenberg moved to the right-hand comer of the table and saying, “I will leave this here for the moment, I have to make a telephone call,” he placed his brief-case with its lethal contents to the right of the officer sitting there and left the room. Ironically , enough, this officer was none other than that Colonel Heinz Brandt, Heusinger’s G.S.O. into whose unsuspecting hands von Tresckow had put the brandy-bottle bomb which was intended to destroy Hitler in his aircraft as he returned to Rastenburg from von Kluge’s headquarters at Smolensk on March 13th, 1943. Now, equally unsuspicious, Brandt found himself left in charge of a brief-case, which, as, it seemed to be in his way, he pushed away from his chair farther under the map-table, so that it rested against the heavy upright support on the side farthest from Hider.
Heusinger showed signs of concluding his report and Keitel turned to look for the man who should take up the next item on the conference agenda. “Where’s Stauffenberg?” he said to Buhle. “It is his turn now.” Buhle rose and went to look in the ante-room, then he returned. “I can’t find him',” he reported. “He went to make a telephone call:”
A shadow of suspicion as to that unaccounted-for moment of absence before they had left his office mingled in Keitel’s mind with the anger occasioned by an unanticipated hitch in the proceedings of the conference, on the smooth running of which he prided himself. The Führer was always annoyed if there was an interval between the reports. Where was Stauffenberg?
Heusinger had reached the final phase of his gloomy and discouraging report: “Der Russe dreht mit starken Kraften westlich der Diina nach Norden ein. Seine Spitzen stehen bereits sudwestlich Diinaburg. Wenn jetzt nicht endlich die Heeresgruppe vom Peipussee zuriick-genommen wird, dann werdeti zoir eine Katastrophe. ...”
It was at this moment (12.50 p.m.) that the bomb exploded. “It was as if a great chandelier were coming down on your head,” said Jodi later. A roar as of thunder shook the room, blew out the windows, wrecked the ceiling and shattered the central table. There were three detonations, and then thick clouds of smoke, shot with yellow flame, belched from the ruined hut. Shouts of alarm mingled with the groans of the wounded and the cries of the dying. Colonel von John was the first outside. Standing at the comer diagonally opposite to Brandt and near a window, he was literally blown through it by the force of the explosion, and, escaping unhurt, ran toward the guard-house, shouting : “Attentat! Attentat!”
Within the hut Keitel was the first to recover himself. “Wo ist der'Führer?” he called, as reeling through the smoke, he turned to where he had last seen Hitler.
And Hitler was, miraculously enough, alive.
Colonel Brandt’s unconscious action in pushing the brief-case away from his chair and farther under the table had undoubtedly saved the Führer’s life. When the explosion occurred Hitler was leaning over the table with his right arm resting on it and his left extended over the map as he followed the details of Heusinger’s report, which concerned at that moment the movements of Army Group North, whose positions were shown at the far end to the left of the map. The brief-case was propped against the right side of the heavy partition which ran across the long table as a support, and thus Hitler’s body, and to some extent his legs also, were protected from the full blast of the explosion. His hair was set on fire, his right arm was partially and temporarily paralysed, his right leg was badly burned. Both ear drums were damaged and his hearing' affected. His trouser-legs were blown off at the belt, and a heavy object from the roof had fallen across his back and buttocks, tearing a great piece of cloth from his tunic and so bruising him that, as he later announced, he had “a backside like a baboon.”
Hitler’s first impression was that they had been bombed from the air, then that the bomb had been thrown from outside through the window or that it had been planted under the floor. According to all accounts, he behaved with calmness. Having extricated himself from the debris of the table and put out the flames in his hair and clothing, he allowed himself to be led by Keitel from the shattered hut to his own quarters, his right arm hanging slack at his side, his hair singed and a livid scarlet burn upon the sallow pallor of his face.
In the meantime the would-be assassin and his accomplice had escaped. As soon as von Stauffenberg had entered Keitel’s office, von Haeften had betaken himself to the quarters of General Erich Fellgiebel, head of the Communications Branch of F.H.Q., in Bunker 88, there to arrange for a car to be in waiting for their departure, and together he and Fellgiebel watched the little group of Keitel, von Stauffenberg and von John enter the Gästebaracke.
Fellgiebel himself had a vitally important role in the plot. His task was to telephone to Olbricht in the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin as soon as the bomb had exploded and then to put out of action the whole communication system of the Führerhauptquartier so that, even if the assassination were not a hundred per cent successful, F.H.Q. would be isolated for a period from contact with the outside world, thereby giving the conspirators in Berlin a start in getting their activities under way and in securing the co-operation of the field and district commanders.
Von Stauffenberg and von Haeften drove off immediately after the explosion of the bomb. They had seen the conference hut go up in smoke and flame. They had heard the shouts and cries of the occupants. It was their conviction that Hitler was dead at the moment that their car moved off. They were challenged both at the inner and the outer barricades, for the alarm had been flashed at once to all posts and extreme security measures were supposed to be in force. On each occasion von Stauffenberg bluffed his way through by saying that he had an urgent order from the Führer to fly to Berlin at once, and, such was the confusion, that this statement appears to have been taken very largely at its face value. The Feldwebel at the outer barricade did check the statement with the Deputy Commandant, Rittmeister von Möllendorf, who, being a member of the conspiracy, at once ordered that von Stauffenberg and his A.D.C. should be allowed to proceed without further let or hindrance. Their plane took off from the Rastenburg airport at 1.15, three hours after their arrival there that morning, and less than half an hour after the bomb had exploded. They arrived at Rangsdorf airfield in Berlin about 3.15, with a conscious sense of pride in “mission accomplished.”
But this was far from being the case. In the first place, Adolf Hitler had miraculously survived, and, in the second, General Fellgiebel had failed lamentably in the execution of his task. Whether indeed he lost his nerve when from his office window in Bunker 88 he saw that little procession of injured, blackened and bleeding men, headed by Hitler and Keitel, emerge from the shattered Gästebaracke, or whether in his excitement he failed in some technical respect, will never be known, for he himself was executed for treason shortly thereafter; but the fact remains that no telephone call reached the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin from the Wolfschanze and that the communication centre remained intact. That Fellgiebel failed to blow it up was a major disaster for the conspirators, for unrestricted and undamaged communications were to be a vital factor in quelling the revolt.
Had the conference been held in the usual concrete bomb-proof dug-out, the effects of the explosion of the bomb would have been such that none could possibly have survived; but the initial disadvantage to the conspirators of the survival of the Führer might well have been overcome had it been impossible for Hitler, Keitel, Himmler and others to communicate direct with Berlin. The failure of Fellgiebel to carry out his assignment was therefore as disastrous for the success of the revolt as the survival of Hitler.
Almost at the moment at which von Stauffenberg’s plane touched down at Rangsdorf, the Führer was standing, enveloped in a great cloak despite the heat of the day, upon the platform at “Görlitz” to receive Mussolini. Pale he was, and visibly shaken, his right arm in a sling and his hair trimmed to hide the traces of the fire. But his greeting to the Duce was warm and his smile as unfrozen as it ever was in those frost-bitten days of his life. In all the ten years of their relations there could have been no stranger meeting than this between the two Dictators. The Axis which they had forged was already broken. Mussolini, a dethroned tyrant rescued from the hands of his enemies by Hitler’s desperadoes, had become no more than the Gauleiter of Lombardy. His sallow, shrunken face and close-cropped skull bore little resemblance to the dashing figure of the thirties who had dazzled multitudes and kept all Europe in a whirl. Hitler had changed perhaps the less of the two, for he had never had personal glamour or dignity to lose. But nevertheless he had retained something which Mussolini, perhaps, had never possessed, a power to dominate circumstances and men even in defeat. Throughout his career he had remained as he had begun, an artisan striving to become a white-collar worker, with all its bitter class inferiority.
Now they met for the last time, under the shadow of tragedy and impending disaster. Hitler at once took his guest to the scene of his escape and, standing amid the ruins, delivered himself of an outburst of rhetorical eulogy and self-laudation rarely surpassed in even his experience. “Having now escaped death so miraculously,” he concluded, “I am more than ever sure that the great destiny which I serve will transcend its present perils and that all will be brought to a triumphant conclusion.”
Mussolini was deeply moved. He had obviously been appalled at the fact that an attempt of this kind could be made within the sacred precincts of a Dictator’s Headquarters. Perhaps for the first time, his egregious self-confidence deserted him and he realized that within that shattered room wherein he stood were entombed alike the hopes and glories of the New Roman Empire and of the Thousand Year Reich. But he rallied somewhat under the tonic of the Führer’s elation and conceded that though the position was bad, he might almost say desperate, after the miracle which had occurred there that day it was inconceivable that their cause should meet with misfortune.
On this note, for it was now five o’clock, the Führer and the Duce adjourned for a cup of tea, and there followed one of the most remarkable of scenes. By this time it was known that the attempt on the Führer’s life was no isolated incident but that revolt and mutiny had occurred in Berlin and perhaps elsewhere. A stream of telephone calls poured in upon the Wolfschanze giving graphic indication of the chaos which prevailed in the Reich without. Hitler had at once despatched Himmler to Berlin to take charge of the suppression of these outbreaks and was awaiting a report from him with nervous anxiety. His paladins, meanwhile, had rushed to his side, as much to establish their innocence of complicity as to express their congratulations on their Führer’s escape. Dönitz had flown from Berlin; Ribbentrop had driven post-haste from Schloss Steinort, where he had established his headquarters, and Goring, whose relations with the Führer were now far from good, was lurking in his special train, the “Kürfürst,” at the nearby station of Goldap, in the hope of being summoned to Rastenburg. When the news reached him he seized the opportunity and went uninvited. All now met for tea with Hitler, Mussolini and Graziani.
It was not a gay party. The Führer, exhausted by his burst of elation, sat silent and abstracted, sucking from time to time the brightly coloured lozenges which his infamous quack, Dr. Theo. Morell, prescribed for him. The Duce, too, had relapsed into depressed forebodings, and though Marshal Graziani did his best to relieve the general gloom by regaling them with stories of his African exploits, he can have had but an unresponsive audience. By contrast, the remainder of the party was a riot. The conversation quickly turned from expressions of grateful satisfaction, in varying degrees of sincerity, on the escape of the Führer, to mutual recrimination. Ribbentrop and Donitz accused the Army of betraying Germany to England, and, while Keitel sought to defend the Officer Corps against these attacks, Goring, launching an offensive of his own against Ribbentrop, came under fire from the Grand Admiral for the failure of the Luftwaffe.
In the course of the ensuing verbal fracas someone mentioned the Blood Purge of June 30th, 1934, with sudden and hideous effect. The calm with which Hitler had described his escape to Mussolini, the rhetorical spate in which he had extolled his own destiny, now gave way to the outburst of hatred and revenge and fury which had been simmering since the moment of the explosion. He leapt to his feet and paced the room in a screaming, raging frenzy; foam flecked his lips and gathered at the comers of his mouth. He was a man possessed with a passion for rancorous vengeance. He would root out all these traitors and utterly destroy them—their women and children with them. None should be spared who raised their hand against that divine Providence which had demonstrated once again that he, Adolf Hitler, was chosen to shape the world’s destiny. Not one should escape him—not one! It was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
The flood of imprecation was interrupted, but by no means checked, by a telephone call from Berlin to the effect that order had not yet been restored. In a further fury Hitler seized the receiver and screamed his orders over the wire, orders to the SS to shoot everyone and anyone who might be remotely suspected of complicity. Where was Himmler? Why had he not arrived?
Slowly the storm subsided. Sheer physical exhaustion supervened, and with it came that maniacal change from denunciation to self-pity. “The German people,” said Adolf Hitler, “are unworthy of my greatness. No one appreciates what I have done for them.” At once the Umgebung of Nazi hierarchs, who had sat mutely with the appalled Italians through the preceding tirade, broke into an antiphony of loyal protest. Göring extolled his own exploits for the Nazi cause and the Luftwaffe. Dönitz expatiated on the glories of the German Navy. Keitel, not to be outdone, spoke in terms of unusual warmth of the achievements of the Army. Almost at once Göring began a fierce quarrel with Ribbentrop, and in the general hubbub the Foreign Minister’s high voice could be heard shouting: “My name is von Ribbentrop!” When Göring was seen to threaten him with his Marshal’s baton, Dollmann felt it time to take his shocked and bewildered Italian visitors away.' No one noticed their departure.
Yet while this Mad Hatter’s tea-party was in progress in the gloomy heart of an East Prussian forest, the conspiracy was afoot in-broad daylight in Berlin, though it was rapidly approaching its final conclusion.
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