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Posts Tagged ‘Adolf Hitler’

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

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Happy May Day!!  It’s hard to believe we’re already beginning 2011’s fifth month.  For Today’s History Lesson, this year has been really out-of-sorts as compared to years past.  Pieces have been few and far between.  Where most months would see 15 to 20+ articles, the last 3 months have seen 10 or fewer.  A heavy workload at the office, slow progression through Madison’s biography, and maybe even a bit of burnout have all combined to create something of a writing drought.  But May is here and the big project at work is nearing completion.  I finished the year-long slog through Madison’s bio, and “refreshed” myself with a bit of fiction, so hopefully things can get back on track.

Joseph Goebbels’ tenure as Chancellor of Germany was incredibly short, easily measured in hours.  The world around him was crumbling in more than one sense.  Literally, the incredible rain of bombs, bullets, and artillery pieces were turning the heart of Berlin (and much of the rest of Germany) to dust.  Figuratively, the last vestiges of the Third Reich and its National Socialist platform were being blown to smithereens.  His boss, Adolf Hitler, was now mostly ashes outside the Chancellery, having committed suicide with his new wife.

But still, in the flickering light of May 1, 1945, Germany’s new Chancellor was able to conduct business, though there were just a couple of tasks to complete.  First, there was ordering General Krebs to take a message to Russian General Vasily Chuikov informing him that Hitler was dead and requesting a ceasefire.  That probably wouldn’t have taken too terribly long since the Russians were, at this point, just down the street.

And second, there was settling his own disposition and that of his family.  He had decided to follow Hitler’s example and commit suicide.  His wife had decided to do the same.  But their children?  The parents reasoned that, as survivors of the parents, the kids would be subject to all sorts of terrible things.  So Frau Goebbels, with help from Hitler’s doctor, injected the children with morphine as they slept and then crushed cyanide capsules in their mouths.

And then husband and wife took care of their last act.  It gets a little fuzzy here since, in the confusion of battle (and the remaining Germans attempting to escape), the true account has been lost.  But the best evidence points to Joseph Goebbels shooting himself while his wife took cyanide, duplicating the deaths of Hitler and Eva Braun.  An attempt to burn their bodies was made, but poorly executed, and they were identified within days.

But of course, the next day would see (and hear) the gunfire end at 3:00pm.  For the Allies (and the Russians in particular) however, the biggest prizes had escaped the hangman’s noose.

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Well, winter has come to Iowa with a gale.  Yesterday, it was 53°F and gorgeous.  Today, it’s about 15 with 45mph wind gusts, blowing snow, and super-icy streets.  I’m glad I got a good bike ride in yesterday…it’ll be a few days before I get another opportunity.

It’s a quickie this evening.

On December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States.  But Germany didn’t necessarily have to do so.  The U.S. hadn’t declared war on Germany, nor had either country attacked the other.  And what’s more, though Germany and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact the previous year, Germany was only obligated to come to Japan’s defense, not back her aggression against Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Rim.

Members of the German High Command also believed a declared war with America was dangerous ground.  It’s true that the U.S. was openly assisting Germany’s enemies through the Lend-Lease program, and German U-boats were clashing with the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic.  But this was a far cry from open war, where the full weight of America’s military potential would be brought to bear.

But Adolf Hitler made the declaration anyways.  With his successes to date, he believed in the might of his military and the ability of his country’s industries to fuel it.  He also believed in Japan’s ability to defeat America, even though some in Japan’s own leadership, particularly Isoroku Yamamoto, pretty much knew the score.  And he thought that America lacked the will to fight and that it would take some time for her to put her economy on a war footing…by which time Japan would have already knocked her from the conflict.

Adolf Hitler ended up being wrong on every point…

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In July of 1944, Count Claus von Stauffenberg came within an eyelash of assassinating German dictator Adolf Hitler.  His briefcase bomb was planted under the table around which Hitler and some of his military leaders were gathered, and it detonated just as planned.  But Hitler’s position at the table meant he was shielded from much of the blast.  Hitler was given another 9 months of life.  Stauffenberg?…another 9 hours or so before a firing squad ended his.

But of course, the plotters behind Stauffenberg weren’t the only ones who wanted the hated head of state gone.  Since 1921 (when Hitler’s ascendancy had barely begun), there had been plots and plans against him.  Some had stayed just plans.  Others had progressed further.  A handful were actually attempted.  And as we know, the attempt on July 20, 1944 gets the most face time because, of all the attempts, it came the closest to actually succeeding.  It also had the biggest fallout.

But other attempts nearly succeeded as well.  On November 8, 1939, Johann Georg Elser’s shot at Hitler came within minutes of success.  This young man was dismayed by the increasing influence the Nazi Party was having in daily life.  The restrictions placed on workers and businesses, the aggressive discrimination against Jewish people and others, and just the overall brutishness of the Party’s minions convinced Elser that the Nazi party was peopled largely by thugs.  He also believed that if they were capable of this kind of violence, it would take little more to drive the nation into a war with catastrophic results.

He decided to take matters into his own hands.

Hitler returned to Munich each November to commemorate the Beer Hall Putsch.  And each November Hitler gave a speech in the basement of the beer hall (the Bürgerbräukeller).  Elser’s plan was to plant a bomb in a pillar behind the rostrum where Hitler would be speaking.  For a month leading up to the celebration, Elser managed to sneak into the building and remained hidden until it closed.  He would then come out and work on hollowing out the pillar.  As the time for Hitler’s big speech neared, Elser planted the bomb in the pillar and set its timer for 9:20pm, when the Fuhrer would normally be at full rant.

But weather conditions would lay waste to all of Elser’s daring.  Hitler wanted to head straight back to Berlin that evening.  Normally he flew, but heavy fog caused him to take the train, which is much slower than an airplane.  He wrapped up his speech early and left promptly at 9:07pm.  At 9:20pm, Elser’s bomb went off exactly as planned, making a wreck of the place and causing eight deaths and dozens of injuries.  But the primary target had left the building.

Elser was arrested later that evening as he tried to cross the border into Switzerland, and pictures of the Beer Hall were found on his person.  He immediately fell under suspicion and eventually confessed to the Gestapo.  Elser was sent to prison and very nearly survived the war.  But with the Allies bearing down on Germany in 1945, the Nazis began tying up loose ends.  One of those loose ends was Johann Georg Elser, who was shot in early April.

Recommended Reading: Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler – Though this focuses mostly on the Stauffenberg plot, Elser’s story gets some discussion time as well.

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General Student left Hitler’s presence with his mind in a blur.  Hitler’s proposal, the capture of Fort Eben Emael, was a bombshell.  To say it was a fortress was to grossly understate just how well-defended it was.  Massively thick concrete, steel-reinforced doors, and large artillery pieces made it the most impenetrable bunker on the planet.  This would not be easy, and Hitler wanted an answer quickly.

He did some good hard thinking and picked up his conversation with Hitler the next morning.  The Fuhrer had said nothing about the corresponding invasion of the Low Countries, so Student still didn’t have a very good context from which to work.  But he was ready with his answer anyways…and that answer was “yes”…with conditions.

Kurt Student told Hitler that such a difficult mission could not be done at night.  Rather, it would have to be done in daylight or (at the least) in morning twilight.  Hitler agreed quickly.  What Student had not yet voiced was his other major concern – firepower.  Eben Emael was incredibly strong.  Breaking through its outer shell would not be the work of artillery pieces, but rather of massive siege cannon, firing huge shells and point-blank range.  Siege guns couldn’t be carried on gliders, and conventional trucks or trains would immediately tip off the Belgians, ruining the surprise.

But Student didn’t have to bring it up, because Hitler already had the answer.  German munitions experts had developed an amazing new technology – the Hohladung (hollow charge).  Unlike typical shells and bombs that exploded outward, hollow charges focused their explosive potential on a central point.  The Fuhrer explained that even the super-thick concrete of Eben Emael’s cupolas could not withstand the power of these new devices.  Best of all, each one weighed just 110 pounds.  It would require the efforts of 2 or 3 men to position it, but if that could be done, it would do the job.

Kurt Student was, once again, stunned.  Here was the answer to his most pressing armaments question.  Hitler needed surprise (provided by Student’s gliders) and Student needed firepower (provided by the work of Hitler’s specialists).  Student was ready and asked, “My Fuhrer, may I now have your order?”  To which Hitler replied, “Yes.  I order you to take Fort Eben Emael!”

And so, on October 28, 1939, the plan to capture the world’s toughest military installation began.  General Student’s men would spend months in rigorous training under a blanket of utmost secrecy.  And when the time came, Adolf Hitler’s mission would be carried out in spectacular fashion.

Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael

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Kurt Student turned toward the door as it opened and glowered at the aide who entered through it.  The General, now approaching 50 years old and having just been given command of the 7th Flieger (airborne) Division, had given strict orders that no one was to disturb this meeting.  But when he read the note the aide handed him, his demeanor changed.  The single sentence read, “Marschall Goering is on the telephone about a matter of utmost urgency.”

Field Marshal Hermann Goering and General Student knew each other quite well.  The Marshal was in charge of the Luftwaffe, and Student had enjoyed a long association with aircraft as well.  In his book The Fall of Eben Emael, James Mrazek notes especially Student’s “experiments with parachuting and the transportation of units and supplies by aircraft.”  This Student was also something of a pioneer.

Anyways, Goering told Student to fly to Berlin as quickly as possible, because Adolf Hitler had requested a meeting with him at the earliest possible moment.  No, he had no idea of the subject matter, just that Student needed to get to Berlin.

And that’s how General Kurt Student found himself, twenty minutes later, in the cockpit (he was an accomplished pilot) of a plane, bound for the German capital.  And while the plane he flew was no screamer, it didn’t hold back his brain, which was probably running at warp speed in an attempt to figure out what could be so pertinent to require this kind of rapid response.

It was October 27, 1939, and the war in Poland was already over.  Things had quieted down a bit.  Was there an upcoming operation?…a clandestine mission?  Just a high-level meeting?  He had no clue…but he didn’t have long to wait.

Arriving in Berlin shortly before 2pm, he was whisked into Hitler’s presence, who dispensed with any small talk and got straight to the point.  He noted that Student had some experience with gliders and that 7th Flieger had gliders.  Student nodded in confirmation.

Hitler continued (as recorded by Mrazek), “I have a job for you.  I want to know if you can do it.  The Belgians have a fort here.”  Hitler pointed at a map.  “Do you know it?”

Student’s response:  “Yes, my Fuhrer, I know it well.  It is a tremendous fortification.”

Hitler proceeded to describe some of the particulars of the fort, and then said, “I have an idea.  I think some of your attack gliders could land on top of Fort Eben Emael and your men could storm the works.  Is that possible?”

General Student was stunned, not only by the idea’s audacity, but also by it’s almost ridiculous simplicity.  He requested a bit of time to think it over, which the Fuhrer granted.  Student returned the next day and…

Well…let’s tackle that tomorrow…

Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael

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On April 30, 1943, the battle for North Africa was winding down, and the Axis had defeat staring it in the face.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the tactical genius, had exited the theater in poor health nearly two months before.  In fact, the final offensive against the depleted Panzers (Operation Strike) was just a week away.  Tunis and Bizerte were certain to fall, and if they did, the Germans were facing a loss of men and equipment that could rival Stalingrad.

But on this day, Allied war planners weren’t thinking about the “here and now”.  They were looking ahead to the next target…Sicily.  The trick, however, was to get Adolf Hitler and his military leadership thinking about a place other than Sicily.

And that’s where Operation Mincemeat came in.  This involved making the German government believe that it had captured top-level, top-secret documents outlining a planned invasion of Greece and Sardinia.  But the Germans were pretty intelligent in their own right, and fooling them wouldn’t be easy.  Plus pretty much everyone knew that, after Africa, the next step would be Italy, and Sicily make the perfect stepping-off point.  This would have to be quite the ruse.

The idea was to have a body, dressed up like a mid-level officer, wash ashore on the Spanish coast.  British Intelligence believed that the Spanish, with their close ties to Germany, would immediately report the discovery, and things would progress.  So the body of a man that recently died of poisoning was found, and a stash of phonied documents of the operation in Greece was placed in a briefcase and strapped to him, along with a major’s uniform and some old receipts and a made-up wife-to-be.

The submarine HMS Seraph then carried the body in a canister filled with dry ice.  As the dry ice evaporated, the carbon dioxide consumed the oxygen and preserved the body without refrigeration (which would have been a dead giveaway to German doctors).

At 4:30am, the Seraph off-loaded the body and the intelligence services watched and waited to see if their trick worked.

To say it succeeded would be an incredible understatement.  The Germans bought it, hook, line, and sinker.  Field Marshal Rommel, now in better health, was sent to Greece and given overall command of its defenses.  Additional reinforcements were directed away from Sicily and to Greece and Sardinia instead.  A Panzer Division was moved from France and, more importantly, two Panzer Divisions were moved from the Eastern Front, a move that would have a big benefit for the Russians at Kursk.

And when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Sicily in July of 1943, Hitler and his generals still believed it to be a feint, and continued their focus on Greece.  By the time they figured out they had been tricked, Sicily was all but lost.

So I guess that just like Michael Knight, one (dead) man can make a difference.

Recommended Reading: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory – It’s probably dangerous to recommend a book that, as of this writing, has yet to hit the presses.  But I’m anxiously awaiting getting my hands on it.

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