Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff was a man with a mission. But I suppose that, for a Colonel in the German Army, having “a mission” was pretty obvious, especially in the spring of 1943. Hitler’s forces had just suffered devastating defeat along the Volga, and things were not going well in the African desert. So there were plans to make, and troops to move, and battles to fight (and from this point on, mostly battles to lose).
But this specific mission was different. For von Gersdorff, it was life-changing. In fact, it was life-ending.
You see, von Gersdorff was a conspirator. He was one of many involved in the numerous plots to assassinate Der Fuhrer. Officially, he was an intelligence officer in the Abwehr and part of Army Group Center, having been transferred there for the start of Operation Barbarossa. Army Group Center was commanded by another conspirator, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. One of von Bock’s officers was Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, yet another conspirator who happened to be von Gersdorff’s cousin…you now see how Gersdorff ended up where he did.
These men, who correctly believed that Hitler was leading the nation to humiliation and defeat, had put together several plans to either arrest or kill Adolf Hitler. To this point, none of them had succeeded.
On March 21, 1943 (which happened to be Germany’s Memorial Day to those killed in WWI), they tried again. Each year, the German leader attended a memorial service. But rather than arrest him or – what was tried on other occasions – place a bomb where Hitler would be, it was decided to carry the bombs right to the man. Von Gersdorff volunteered to a suicide mission. He placed bombs, each with a ten-minute fuse, in his pockets. During Hitler’s stroll among the memorials, von Gersdorff would get close and detonate the bombs.
It was a good plan, until he arrived at the museum. He got near Hitler, started the fuses, and waited for the bang. Unfortunately, the German dictator was in a tremendous hurry and stayed at the museum for just eight minutes before being whisked off. With the opportunity gone, and not wishing to blow himself to smithereens for nothing, Von Gersdorff quickly excused himself to the restroom, where he worked feverishly and successfully defused the bombs.
Freiherr von Gersdorff escaped detection and arrest. But even more miraculous than that, he was not implicated in the famous July 20 assassination plot, which nearly succeeded. His role in that attempt was to hide the explosives that Count von Stauffenberg eventually carried in his briefcase.
One other interesting note about Col. von Gersdorff. Less than one month after he successfully defused the bombs in his pockets, he discovered the remnants of the Russian massacres in the Katyn Forest.
Recommended Reading: Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler