This week in the War, 5–11 May 1941: Rudolf Hess parachutes into Scotland on the night of 10/11 May 1941

The wreckage of Rudolf Hess's Messerschmitt 110, after crashing on Bonnyton Moor, Scotland, on the night of 10/11 May 1941 [Public domain, Ian Dunster, wiki]

The wreckage of Rudolf Hess’s Messerschmitt 110, after crashing on Bonnyton Moor, Scotland, on the night of 10/11 May 1941 [Public domain, Ian Dunster, wiki]

Deputy Fuehrer, Rudolf Hess, dropped by parachute into Lanarkshire, Scotland, not far from Dungavel House, the country home of the Duke of Hamilton. It was the night of 10/11 May 1941—the night that London suffered its heaviest air raid of the Blitz.

Messerschmitt 110 [Public domain., wiki]

Messerschmitt 110 [Public domain, wiki]

Hess had a keen interest in aviation and was an accomplished pilot. His Messerschmitt 110 was specially adapted for a solo flight. The crew would normally have been three. Leaving from Augsburg in southern Germany, Hess flew to Holland and then across the North Sea. Using the German beam navigation system, he crossed the British coast between Berwick and Newcastle and flew inland at low altitude.

He passed over Dungavel House and was nearing the western coast of Scotland before realizing he had gone too far. Hess flew back towards Dungavel. Mysteriously, the landing lights at Dungavel airstrip were turned on, but then turned off again before Hess had time to land. (So it is reported, in some accounts).

It is well known that Hess baled out by parachute (rather than face an impossibly difficult landing in the dark?), that he was arrested by the local Home Guard, and that he asked to be taken to the Duke (whom Hess claimed he had met at the Olympics in Berlin). Hess informed his captors that he was the bearer of a plan to bring peace between Germany and Great Britain. His astonishing appearance made world-wide news.

Hitler disavowed all prior knowledge of Hess’s flight or of any plan for peace. Official announcements from Berlin maintained Hess had a mental disorder and had acted on his own. The British went along with the idea that Hess was crazy, and his flight entered the annals of history as one of the strangest and most inexplicable events of World War II—fuel for numerous conspiracy theories that were to follow. Perhaps a few of them are true.

Hess: The Fuhrer's Disciple --- by Peter Padfield (Papermac, 1993) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Hess: The Fuhrer’s Disciple — by Peter Padfield (Papermac, 1993) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The opening of once-classified files have led to books galore about Rudolf Hess. The one by Peter Padfield, Hess: The Fuehrer’s Disciple (Papermac, 1993), is an example of a well-researched monograph by a well-established historian. The book by Martin Allen, The Hitler/Hess Deception (Harper, 2004), being more recent, is able to draw from newly available sources. These are two of the many books.

There are points on which all agree: Hess was carrying an offer of peace; Hitler wanted peace with Britain, thereby freeing his forces for the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).

Many books maintain that Hess went with Hitler’s full knowledge and approval, and that the Fuehrer was offering numerous concessions: peace with Britain, preservation of the British Empire, return by Germany of all conquered territories in Western Europe (namely France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway—but not Poland).

The Hitler/Hess Deception --- by Martin Allen (Harper Perennial, 2003) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The Hitler/Hess Deception — by Martin Allen (Harper Perennial, 2003) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Some books (such as the one by Martin Allen) point out that British intelligence was well aware of Hitler’s desire for peace, that he was anxious to invade the Soviet Union, and that Britain had an active peace movement. The latter reached into the highest echelons of society and government, including the British Royal Family.

Churchill seemed to be the odd-man-out, intent on continuing the war despite of the certainty of German victory. Allen explains how British intelligence launched an operation to stall for time, giving the impression that the peace movement was a viable alternative to Churchill’s government, that Churchill might be deposed and the British agree peace. According to Allen (and some other authors), British intelligence sent bogus messages—as if coming from highly-placed members of Britain’s peace movement—and invited Hitler to send an emissary to Scotland. It is unclear whether or not the British knew the emissary would be Rudolf Hess. So what happened next?

Britain’s situation was hopeless. Germany controlled the resources of continental Europe. Italy was Hitler’s ally. Britain had lost all of her allies, including Greece, and Rommel was on the rampage in North Africa. As for America: the USA was unlikely to enter the war on Britain’s side. Even Lend-Lease might not last forever. Britain was surviving on borrowed time.

And so if Hitler could be persuaded that Britain was no threat, was on the verge of making peace, he would likely begin his next adventure: a full-scale invasion of the USSR—Operation Barbarossa.

Of course, if Hitler’s proposal to guarantee Britain her Empire and to return the conquered territories became know to peace-inclined members of the British government and to the governments-in-exile of defeated countries (France, Holland,…), how then would Churchill justify his determination to fight on?

And so Hess was muzzled and locked away.

He was a prisoner in the Tower of London and, after the Nuremberg trials, was sent to Berlin’s Spandau prison.

He lived there until 17 August 1987, when he was found hanging from an electrical extension cord. His death was declared a suicide, but again the conspiracy theorists came to the fore, claiming he had been murdered, strangled by the British to ensure his silence.

Of course, if Hess’s flight to Scotland was really the result of a sting orchestrated by British intelligence with Churchill’s blessing, and if the result was to persuade Hitler to leave Britain alone and to embark on Operation Barbarossa, then the British would understandably be reluctant to fess up to triggering a Soviet death toll of 20 million people.

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