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:

bombe-s-zuenderk

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.

Advertisements

Hiroshima Day post: Rush, “Manhattan Project” and Iron Maiden, “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns”

This powerful Rush song about the Manhattan Project begs to be shared on this day.

Imagine a time
when it all began
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
would be sure to do their worst
They always had before…

Imagine a man
where it all began
A scientist pacing the floor
In each nation
always eager to explore
To build the best big stick
To turn the winning trick
But this was something more…

[…]

Imagine a man when it all began
The pilot of “Enola Gay”
Flying out of the shockwave
on that August day
All the powers that be, and the course of history
Would be changed forevermore​…

As a bonus, here is a video of another, heavier song about the same subject, named after the first published account of the project: Robert Jungk’s “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (original German title: Heller als tausend Sonnen)

Valkyrie Day post: “The Tenth Righteous Man”

Sixty-four years ago to this day, a German general staff officer named Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg led an attempt to assassinate the Führer (y”sh) and effect regime change. His attempt was the last of many, and failed through a minor coincidence. The former Bendler Street in downtown Berlin, where once the plotters worked, is today known as Stauffenberg Street: a memorial to the German anti-nazi resistance stands there now. The biography by McGill U. historian Peter Hoffmann makes for fascinating reading.

Many had tried and failed before Stauffenberg: three came within a hairbreadth of succeeding, as he himself would.

The “lone wolf” carpenter and master clockmaker Georg Elser managed to install a powerful time bomb behind the speaker’s rostrum at the hall where his target was scheduled to give an annual memorial speech for the ‘old comrades’ who fell in the attempted 1923 “Beer Hall Putsch”. (Elser had gone to work at a quarry so he could gradually purloin the required dynamite.) Only a last-minute  schedule change because of predicted foul weather thwarted the attempt: the bomb went off twelve minutes after the speaker had left, and killed at least a dozen people.

Later, two general staff officers succeeded in smuggling a time bomb aboard the Führer’s personal plane, disguised as a gift of liqueur from one general staff officer to his colleague in Berlin. The detonator failed, presumably because of the cold weather: the plotters were able to extricate their own bomb and go undetected.

The third, the attempted suicide bombing by Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, was unique in that, if it had succeeded, it would have been a ‘decapitation strike’ against nearly the entire apex of the Nazi state. I wrote a fictionalized version of this incredible tale as the first story in this anthology:

(the entire story appears in the preview). It is a classic illustration of the adage that history can be stranger than fiction. In brief: an exhibit of captured Soviet armaments had been organized in Berlin (at the building that today houses the German Historica Museum). As an additional morale booster, the grand opening was to be attended not just by the Führer himself but by Goering, Navy commander Adm. Doenitz, and SS-chief Himmler. Gersdorff (the intelligence officer of Army Group Center) managed to get himself assigned as the senior guide to the exhibition, and carried two captured British time bombs in his pocket. He set off the fuses and started guiding the VIPs on their tour, expecting the fuses to go off, killing his guests and himself. However, whether from boredom or through a long-standing habit of throwing wild-cards into his schedule and movements, Hitler left the exhibit after a few minutes. Gersdorff was quite willing to die but not to throw away his life for nothing, and thus excused himself to a bathroom where he managed to defuse his two bombs just in time. Unbetrayed by his comrades even under the vilest tortures, Gersdorff survived the war and lived to tell the tale, and to become the founder of Germany’s largest volunteer ambulance service.

[He had actually] offered his services to the Bundeswehrafter the war, but was blackballed as a ‘traitor’, being as he had sworn personal allegiance to the man-monster he had tried to murder. By our lights, he had merely tried to defend ‘against all enemies, foreign and domestic’.

[…]Gersdorff was no plaster saint: he loved the good life, particularly horseback riding, and appears to have taken the trappings of his aristocratic background for granted. On the other hand, noblesse obligewas clearly no mere phrase for him, but an ideal for which he was prepared to pay the ultimate price.

He was not merely a nobleman in title. More importantly, he was a man noble in spirit.

Cast a Giant Shadow: David “Mickey” Marcus (1901-1948), the IDF’s first general

Continuing in a Remembrance Day vein, a few words about the American Jewish army officer who ended up being the first aluf (“general”, in modern use Maj.-Gen.) of the IDF.

col_marcus_in_israel_1948

David Daniel Marcus, known to all as “Mickey” Marcus, was born on the Lower East Side in 1901. Bright as well as athletic, he acquired his higher education in what then (as now) was an unusual fashion for an American Jewish boy: he applied to the US Military Academy at West Point and was accepted in 1920, graduating with the Class of 1924.

After completing his active duty requirement, he went to law school and spent most of the 1930s fighting organized crime as an Assistant US Attorney in New York. In 1940, mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed him Corrections Commissioner, thus placing him in charge of the city’s prisons. Simultaneously, he served in the Army National Guard as the Judge Advocate of the 27th Infantry Division, by now at the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Pearl Harbor and the US entry in World War II made him rethink his judicial career path, and he organized a ranger combat training school on Hawaii. Despite his hopes for a field command, however, he ended up being assigned to the Civil Affairs Division. (The assignment came with a promotion to full colonel.) Among other things, Col. Marcus was involved in drafting the 1943 surrender terms of Italy and the organization of the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences.

Despite having no paratrooper training, on D-Day he jumped with the 101st Airborne Division (he had pulled in a favor from its commander, his onetime classmate Gen. Maxwell Taylor) and informally commanded a battle group made up of stragglers.

After VE Day he was placed in charge of the DP camps in the US occupation zone of Germany. A tour of the Dachau concentration camp shocked him to the core: subsequently, he would head the Pentagon’s War Crimes Division and select prosecutors and lawyers for the major war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

On six different occasions he was nominated for promotion to Brigadier General, the last time together with the position of military attaché at the US Embassy in Moscow. He declined the appointment and promotion and returned to civilian practice in 1947.

Shortly after, Maj. Shlomo Shamir of the Haganah approached him to help him find a military expert to assist in organizing and training what was to become the IDF. Soon, it emerged that Marcus himself was the prime candidate. Marcus flew to the Land of Israel under the cover name ‘Mickey Stone’, where he was the first Jew in 2,000 years to bear the rank of aluf (general).[*] His exploits in organizing the Haganah guerilla fighters into an army, and in lifting the siege of Jerusalem through an improvised ‘Burma Road’, are recounted in great detail here.

On June 10, 1948, the night before the cease-fire in Israel’s War of Independence was to end, this “reverse Lafayette” met his end — through friendly fire. Being unable to sleep, he had gone for a walk, covered in his blanket against the cold. When the sentry saw the ‘Arab in a cloak’ approach, he challenged him in Hebrew. Marcus answered in English and kept coming despite a warning shot. The sentry fired again and killed Marcus. Once he realized what he had done, the sentry tried to take his own life, but his comrades stopped him —  it would not bring their commander back.

Colonel / Aluf Marcus’s remains were shipped to the USA and buried in the West Point military cemetery, as many Academy graduates are. He is, to my knowledge, the only person buried there who fell in a foreign uniform.

marcusdavid

His story was turned into a Hollywood movie Cast A Giant Shadow starring Isser Danielovich — better known by his stage name Kirk Douglas, and still alive and kicking at age 101!

The Silver Platter (Natan Alterman)

And the land grows still,
the red eye of the sky
slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises,
Torn at heart but breathing,
To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise,
standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass
and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear,
dirty, shoes heavy with grime,
they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time.
Still bone-weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly,
“We are the silver platter
on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel

 

[*] in the modern IDF table of ranks, aluf corresponds to Major-General. The highest rank, rav-aluf (corresponding to Lieutenant-General) is reserved for the Chief of Staff (rosh mate ha-clali, or ramatca”l for short), who is the IDF’s overall military commander.

Mordechai Frizis, the “Greek Lion of Judah”

Today is Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) in Israel, which we mark the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day). Somebody with a better way with words than me quipped that there is a reason Israel has two memorial days: one to remind us of the cost of having a state, the other to remind us of the truly terrible price of not having one.

Yet there are also the Jewish military heroes in uniforms other than our own. One amazing story I learned during a recent visit to Greece is that of colonel Mordechai Frizis (Greek: Μαρδοχαίος Φριζής).

Frizis was born in 1893 to a large Jewish family in the Greek city of Chalkis (a.k.a. Negroponte), which sits at the bridge between the large island of Euboea and the Boeotia region of the Greek mainland. The town’s Jewish community were Romaniotes,[*]  Greek-speaking Jews whose ancestors had come to Greece in pre-Christian days.

From childhood, his dream was to become an army officer. He applied to the military academy  but did not pass the entrance exam — some sources claim his Jewishness was a factor in that. At any rate, he started studying law school as Plan B. When the Balkan Wars broke out, he was drafted and admitted to NCO training. There, because he also had gone to college, he was made a 2nd Lt. in the reserves.

During the Russian Civil War (where he was part of the Allied troops fighting on the side of the Whites) and the Greek-Turkish War, he distinguished himself on the battlefield through bravery as well as ingenuity.[**] When taken prisoner by the Turks in 1922, he was offered his freedom as the only non-Christian among the captive Greeks, but refused, saying his place was with his men. He shared their privations for 11 months until they were released and repatriated when the Lausanne Treaty ended the Greek-Turkish War.

Upon his return, his reserve commission was ‘regularized’ and he himself was sent to France to go study at the Ecole Militaire in St.Cyr (the West Point of France). After graduating with high honors, he was posted to Thessaloniki. He rose gradually through the ranks: the outbreak of WW II found him a Lt. Col. with the 8th Division in Ioannina, the largest town in the northwestern region of Epirus.

At this point Mussolini, displaying his typical level of contact with reality, issued a 3-hour ultimatum to the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas.[***] According to Greek popular legend, Metaxas just answered “Ochi!” (“No!”), but his actual words, the French “alors, c’est la guerre!” (“well, that means war!”) boil down to the same thing.

The Italian army had bitten off more than it could chew, and got its nose bloodied severely by the Greeks. At one particular battle, Lt. Col. Frizis and his battlegroup of two battalions and an artillery company blocked the Italian advance by denying them the bridge across the Kalama.

The Greeks not only threw the Italians out but counterattacked into Italian-held Albania. It was then that an aerial strafing attack took place on Frizis’s regiment. Seated on horseback, he kept on pressing his men to seek cover, while galloping all over to make sure they did. The planes’ machine guns hit home, and Frizis was mortally wounded. Legend has it that the Greek Orthodox army chaplain said the Shema Yisrael over his dead body.

Both the Greek king and dictator Metaxas eulogized Frizis (posthumously promoted to full colonel) and personally condoled his widow.

Sadly, Mussolini’s senior ally decided he needed to pull his chestnuts out of the fire, and while most of the Greek army was tied up in Epirus, the Wehrmacht invaded from Bulgaria, with tragic consequences for Greek Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Swedish power metal band Sabaton writes most of its songs about war heroes of renown. They never wrote one about Frizis, but they do have one about the Greek resistance to the Italians.

[*] The name comes from their association with the [East]-Roman Empire. They are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, as the community predates that split. The oldest verifiable sign of their presence is a gravestone from 300-250 BCE to a “son of Moschion the Jew”. The community in Chalcis had a tradition of having arrived even earlier: in the 6th Century BCE, after the victory of the Persians over the Babylonians put an end to the Babylonian Exile.

[**] One anecdote has is that, while fighting with the Whites near Kishinev/Chisinau, the Greek troops were in need of supplies. Frizis sought out his coreligionists in their stores and addressed them in Hebrew (being Romaniote, he did not speak Yiddish nor Russian): reportedly they were so amazed to see a fellow Jew as a Greek officer that they gave him everything he asked for and refused payment.

[***] Metaxas was a royalist, monarchist, and antiparliamentarian Greek nationalist, but (like most Greeks) saw Greekness in cultural rather than genetic terms. He saw the Greek Jews, particularly the Romaniotes, as partners in the “Third Greek Civilization” he sought to foster, and had a close personal relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Thessaloniki.

Memorial Day: “Myrmidon Tears” by Jonathan LaForce

Fellow Dinerzen, writer, and former Marine Jonathan LaForce posted this poem some time ago, then reposted it on his FB wall in honor of Memorial Day.

MYRMIDON TEARS

“Parade rest!”

At once, 600 pairs of boots stamp into the grass,
Palms crossing in the small of our backs.
7 months and 2 weeks after it started,
This is how we end the deployment.

“Murderous muscle-bound myrmidons!”

Two hours under the sun,
Performing a final act to honor a good man.
And though we’d rather leave
Discipline demands we stand,
As if performing the Birkenhead Drill.

“Jack-booted gun-toting thugs!”

The man’s name is stated,
His deeds recounted, and of him,
No foul word nor claim can be said.
A genuine truth this, for he was
In all regards a Christian gentleman.

“War criminals! Baby killers! Rapists!”

He was twenty-one that day
Old enough to drink, to vote, to shave
Old enough to pick up a rifle
Old enough to start a family
Old enough to wear the symbols
Of an American Marine.

But Death cares not for such things
And a roadside bomb laid him low.
It’s why we’re here today,
Listening to his mother plea for her baby.

El D-io, Mijo, Padre Celestial.

“First Sergeants, call the roll!”
We brace ourselves, knowing what’s on the way,
Sure as G-d, sure as death.
“PFC Josue Ibarra! PFC Josue Ibarra! PFC Josue Ibarra!”
Not once, not twice, but thrice his name’s repeated,
A white hot brand searing into our minds.

The boots come out, placed with care,
Then a rifle, held in place by the bayonet
Stabbed deep into the soil.
Finally a helmet to cap it all off.
This is the marker of a man who fell in battle.
It dates back to earlier days,
Tarawa, Belleau Wood, Chapultepec.

They escort his mother up first
We watch as she faints,
Falling over unable to contain the grief.
And all of it makes us angry.

Rage and grief combine as we approach that marker.
Paying our respects to the fallen.
Wishing for one awful moment to trade him places
Before we send him on to the eternities.

Our society hates us…
The ruling elite despise our symbols
Celebrities mock us at every turn,
Fearing and hating our capacity for violence.

They fervently believe that all we are
Is unthinking, unfeeling, uncaring beasts of war.
They’ll never know what it means
To “stand to” by dawn’s early light;
To run up the colors each day,
Wondering if you’ll live to see them lowered,
In the southern Afghan desert;
To plug a slashed jugular
And save a young marine’s life as bullets crack over head.
To load and fire and load again
Cannons roaring like dragons.

They’ll never see the myrmidon’s tears,
Etching scars not just in our faces
But our minds, our hearts, the fabric of our souls
They never see the drinking, the grief,
The ways we harden ourselves outwardly;
They never see the guilt of surviving
Of living and wishing to die,
If only so that at one better than you could live.
Angels never cry,
We give hope to those we protect.

No one sees the myrmidon’s tears

Cpl. Jonathan LaForce, USM, 2014

In honor of Battle of Britain Day

 

The above is a montage of aerial combat scenes from the movie “Battle of Britain“, set to the Iron Maiden song “Aces High” (lyrics). Churchill’s immortal words form the intro.

Also in observance of the day, here is an interesting documentary on the Polish RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain.

“The few, the proud…”