Saturday the 13th: Tale of another failed Hitler assassination

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the question: “why didn’t anybody try to kill Hitler” (y”sh), I’d have a tidy sum of money. In truth, depending on how you define an attempt, there have been over forty events that may qualify, over a dozen of which became serious. Four of the latter came within a hairbreadth of succeeding. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • the July 20, 1944 plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie)
  • Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
  • Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943, about which today’s blog post
  • Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which a future blog post

All would-be assassins had to find ways to circumvent elaborate security measures, that only got more stringent with every known attempt. By the time of the war, there were three concentric protection circles — not counting ad hoc deployment of Gestapo, SS, and SD:

  • outer perimeter security of the Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair and other forward headquarters was assured by a battalion from the elite Grossdeutschland motorized infantry division: this Führerbegleitbatallion (Leader escort battalion) grew into a regiment with tanks, armored carriers, and anti-aircraft guns, and eventually (after Hitler holed up for the last time in his Berlin bunker) was sent to the front as a division.
  • inner security was provided the Reichssicherheitsdienst  (RSD) of up to a few hundred trained police and security personnel (not to be confused with the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, which was the SS’s domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus), which protected not just Hitler but other top Nazi functionaries. Its commander  Hans Rattenhuber was also the overall security chief.
  • finally, 8-12 trusted bodyguards recruited from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (the 1st Waffen SS regiment, later a division) provided the closest-in security, and did double duty as valets and messengers. This Führerbegleitkommando answered to the Führer directly, in practice to his chief adjutant Julius Schaub. A number of those stayed with their master in the bunker to the last.

Gersdorff recalls in his memoirs, Soldat im Untergang/Soldier In The Downfall, that, when a senior officer pulled out his handkerchief as he had a cold, an RSD agent grasped his hand while it was in his pocket and brought it up very slowly, then only let go when he was certain it only contained an innocuous object.

Col. (GS) [**] Henning von Tresckow, the Ia Staff Officer (Operations) of Army Group Center, and his adjutant, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who happened to be Tresckow’s cousin), had been convinced since the autumn of 1941 that Hitler had to be removed, if need be by assassination. While they were unabashed German nationalists and outright anticommunists, the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by SS “task forces” (Einsatzkommandos) had been a bridge too far — especially once Tresckow and his aide discovered that these were not isolated war crimes by rogue units, but part and parcel of a systematic policy handed down from the top itself. Gradually and carefully, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff gathered a group of conspirators around them, with the Ic Staff Officer (Intelligence) Col. (GS) von Gersdorff as an early recruit.

When the Führer was to fly to Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) headquarters near Smolensk, a plan formed in the conspirators’ minds. If only they could smuggle a bomb with a time fuse on board of the Führer’s personal FW 200 “Condor” before it flew back, that could circumvent many of the problems with a shooting or grenade attack.

Gersdorff, via his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters (where another group of conspirators went all the way to the top), had managed to get hold of a stock of captured British “Nobel 808” plastic explosives — more powerful and reliable than anything in their own arsenal — and of so-called “time pencil” detonators, which make no sizzling or ticking noise. The available time pencils came in 10 minute, 30 minutes, and 2 hours variants. The image below, from the US National Archives, illustrates their mechanism:


Briefly: on the inside of a soft metal housing was a glass vial with a strong acid. The pencil was primed by bending or applying strong pressure, which crushed the vial. The acid would burn through a thin metal wire that held back a spring, to which a striker pin was attached. The striker pin would hit a detonator cap, which finally would set off the explosive. The duration of the process will be determined by the concentration of the acid and the thickness (and composition) of the wire. In cold weather, of course, the chemical reaction will be slowed down…

Tresckow and Schlabrendorff did do their homework: in between their extensive staff officer duties, they managed to carry out thorough experiments with the explosives and fuses. They discovered that cold weather could extend the stated time of the time pencils by over 100%, but that they were otherwise quite reliable, and that about a kilogram of explosive should be adequate to blow the Condor’s fuselage to bits.

They prepared an explosive parcel disguised as two bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which contained about 2 kg of Nobel 808.

At any rate—while Hitler (and/or Rattenhuber?) were notorious for changing movement plans at the last minute, two planes carrying Hitler, his entourage, and his close-in protection detail did duly land on Saturday, March 13, 1943. (One was the dictator’s personal Focke-Wulf 200 Condor illustrated below — not the Junkers 52 shown in the opening scenes of the movie “Valkyrie”. [*])

FW 200

Schlabrendorff, in his memoirs Offizieren gegen Hitler (see also here in English), recounts  that during the dinner following the briefing, the dictator would only eat food prepared by his own cook, then taste-tested before his eyes by his personal physician Theodor Morell. “The proceedings reminded one of an oriental despot of bygone ages.” (F. v. S.)

Tresckow approached one of Hitler’s closest aides, Col. Heinz Brandt, if he could do him a favor: he owed his friend Gen. Hellmuth Stieff two bottles of liquor because he had lost a bet with him, and if Col. Brandt would be so kind as to deliver it to him? This being a not uncommon request among staff officers, Brandt agreed. Schlabrendorff, being Tresckow’s aide, was asked to bring the liquor to the plane.

Once Schlabrendorff saw Hitler board the plane, he surreptitiously primed the 30-minute time pencil he had earlier selected, and handed the package over to Brandt — who boarded the same plane as Hitler (otherwise Schlabrendorff would have had to come up with a last-minute excuse that it wasn’t the right parcel, or something).

The plane took off for Rastenburg, East Prussia (presently Ketrzyn, Poland) — the location of the Wolf’s Lair — and the conspirators gave a coded heads-up to their co-conspirators in Berlin. The next code word would follow once a signal had come to the HQ’s communications room that the plane had crashed.

The pair waited anxiously — then a signal came in that the plane had duly arrived at Rastenburg.

Gen. Stieff would later join the conspirators, but was not (yet) in on the plan, so if he started opening the bottles, he would be in for quite a ‘spirited’ surprise. So Schlabrendorff traveled to Rastenburg himself and told Col. Brandt that there had been a mixup: he had been given the wrong bottles (Cointreau), so if he wouldn’t mind giving them back and trading them for the right bottles (Cognac)?

Brandt suspected nothing, and the substitution was made with a smile. Schlabrendorff made his way to the nearby railroad exchange, and there caught a night train to Berlin.

Once in his sleeper compartment, he locked the door and very cautiously, with a razor blade, excised the failed detonator from the explosive charge and started disassembling it.

As it turned out, the glass was broken, the wire had been eaten through despite the cold, and the striker had been released.

Only the percussion cap, for the first time ever in all their experience, had failed to fire.

The English school children’s rhyme of old comes to mind:

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,
and all for want of a nail.

Or “all for the want of a percussion cap”, the war dragged on for two more years and many millions more were slain.

[*] Update: according to “Guarding Hitler” by Mark Felton, the second plane was also a Condor, but without the armored compartment (12mm steel, 50mm bulletproof glass) and parachute seat for the Führer.

Apparently, the first plane was taken up for a 10- or 15-minute test flight before every trip with the Führer. This would also have set off any bomb with a barometric fuse, had one been smuggled aboard.

[**] Note about ranks: Both Tresckow and Gersdorff’s formal ranks were Oberst i. G., in full Oberst im Generalstabsdienst: Colonel in General Staff service. I have rendered this as Col. (GS). Permanent assignment to the general staff was indicated by red vertical trouser stripes (“Lampassen”) in the uniform.


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