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Caged Nazis: guarding Rudolf Hess

22 mins read

Historian Adrian Greaves has had a lifetime fascination for top Nazi Rudolf Hess. We asked him to explain.

For many years I have lectured on Nazism and the Holocaust. I have a special interest. I was born during the Second World War and came into the world as a direct consequence of the existence of none other than Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy.  

Towards the end of 1942, my parents had been married for just one year; my father was a junior officer in the Royal Artillery and was waiting in London for a troopship to take him to India; my mother worked as a typist in one of the government ministries in London.

Rudolf Hess.

One year earlier, at about 6pm on the night of 10 May 1941, Hess took off from Augsburg in southern Germany in a Messerschmitt Me 110. As an accomplished aviator and test pilot, Hess was completely familiar with military protocol and had access to all necessary material such as maps, radio direction beacons, and flight paths. He was also a good friend of Willy Messerschmitt, who designed many of Hitler’s fighter planes, giving him full access to the latest military aircraft.

Hess had persuaded his friend to install long-range fuel tanks into the prototype Me110, ostensibly for Hess to test the aircraft when fully laden with fuel. In reality, it was to enable him to undertake his secret flight. 

The Nazi chief flew to Scotland in a misguided mission to persuade Britain to become neutral. Hess’s plan was to fly to Scotland so that he could meet up with Lord Hamilton, whom he had met on a number of occasions prior to the war. Hess wrongly believed that Hamilton had direct access to the King, and that when he offered Britain peace, the King would accept. Had the scheme succeeded, Germany could have been able to turn its full force against Soviet Russia. But it was so far-fetched that no-one apart from Hess himself seems to have known what he had in mind when he set off. 

Flight to captivity

Hess’s flight was certainly remarkable, especially for being undertaken in darkness. He flew north across Germany, then along the Danish coast until opposite Scotland, at which point he crossed the North Sea. Flying below 100 feet, he sped on towards Glasgow.

He then gained altitude in order to parachute safely onto Lord Hamilton’s estate, leaving his aircraft to crash nearby, having successfully evaded both German and British interceptors. He emerged from his adventure completely unscathed except that he had injured his ankle on landing.

Hess was arrested and for the next few days was interviewed by military and security officials. The British government totally ignored Hess’s proposals for peace, much to his astonishment, and interned him for the remainder of the war. He was initially sent to the Tower of London and then on to Wales.

In late 1942 my father was detailed to be part of the guard party that escorted him from Wales to a secure country house in Surrey, where Hess spent the remainder of the war. With the prisoner safely delivered, my father then managed to meet up with my mother for the remainder of his weekend leave. Nine months later, with my father now in India, I was born at Caversham near Reading – in the middle of a nearby air-raid!

Eastbourne and Berlin

A few years later we moved to Eastbourne, where I grew up. In the 1950s Eastbourne was a popular town with a sizeable international student population. I met regularly with young German students. I was always curious about the material and psychological reasons for German support for Hitler’s war effort, and about the motives of people like Hitler and his top coterie of senior military officers and administrators.

I knew from my maternal grandfather, a German refugee to the UK following the First World War, that Germany was one of the most cultured of European countries in the 1930s. I later discovered that my German fiancée’s deceased father, a colonel in the German Army, had been a member of the secret circle which had tried to kill Hitler – and that he had died as a result. My life-story seemed to be intimately connected to the history of Nazi Germany.

Hess was a friend of Willy Messerschmitt, designer of the famous fighters. He made his flight in a Messerschmitt Me 110, as depicted here.

At the age of 17, I joined the Army, completing my officer training a few days following my 18th birthday – the passing-out parade was taken by the Minister for War, Sir John Profumo, accompanied by his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson. I was posted to The Welch Regiment in West Berlin.

As a young man, it was a fascinating time to be in Berlin. I was a platoon commander with some 30 soldiers, mostly National Servicemen, all older than me. The Berlin Wall had just been built to separate West Berlin, controlled by the Allies, from the Russian half of the city, much to the consternation of the Berliners and the Western powers, so we spent much of our time on patrol along the line that now divided this traditional German capital.

During my tour in Berlin, I developed my interest in German history and frequently volunteered for duty as guard commander at the nearby Spandau Prison, which housed the three remaining German war criminals from WWII, Hitler’s deputy Rudolph Hess, Baldur Von Shirach, former governor of Austria, and Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and munitions minister. Curiously, I was to learn that all three had previously had strong affiliations with the British.

Hess

Rudolf Hess was born in 1894 into a respectable German family then living in Cairo. His father was an influential businessman who conducted extensive trade with both the Egyptians and British, then the colonial power in Egypt.

Below Hitler with Nazi leaders, including Rudolf Hess (second from the right), c.1923.

The young Hess learned English to the point that he became completely bilingual. Acknowledged as academically brilliant, he was offered a place at Cambridge University, but chose instead to study in Germany. During WWI, Hess fought at Ypres before joining the German Air Force.

From their earliest appearance on the political scene, Hess had been fascinated by Hitler and the infant Nazi Party. He became a member and participated in the infamous ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich that resulted in his and Hitler’s brief spell of imprisonment at Landsberg Prison in 1923.

While in prison, Hess acted as Hitler’s secretary and recorded Hitler’s Mein Kampf. From this point in time, Hess became Hitler’s most loyal follower, and in 1934 he was appointed deputy leader of the party and minister without portfolio in the new Nazi government. He 1946 he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for war crimes at the Nuremburg trials.

Von Shirach and Speer

Baldur Benedikt von Shirach was born in 1907 to an American mother, so his first language was English. He then learned German, but remained able to speak perfect English when it suited him.

The long-standing leader of the Hitler Youth, he was put in charge of Germany’s youth movements before being posted to Austria in 1942 as a Gauleiter (governor) in Vienna, where he remained until the end of the war. 

Schirach was responsible for sending 65,000 Jews from Vienna to concentration camps in Poland, and in a speech on 15 September 1942 he mentioned their deportation as a ‘contribution to European culture’. At the Nuremburg trials, he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, avoiding a death sentence probably because he was one of only two of Hitler’s henchmen to denounce the Führer (the other was Albert Speer). Shirach died 8 August 1974.

Spandau Prison. The building was razed to the ground in 1987, and the rubble dumped in the North Sea to avoid its location being used as a Nazi shrine.

Albert Speer, born in 1905, was a brilliant but struggling architect when, at the age of 30, he was selected to design homes and offices, firstly for Goebbels, then for Hitler himself. Speer afterwards became the designer chosen to implement Hitler’s vision for Germania, the new Nazified Germany.

In February 1942, due to his proven organisational abilities, Hitler appointed Speer Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich. At the Nuremburg trials, Speer was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, mainly for the use of forced labour. He escaped the death penalty by accepting moral responsibility for complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime. He died on the 1 September 1981 in London while visiting his young mistress.

Talking to Speer

During my tours of duty in Spandau Prison, and because of my interest in German history, I was able to gain access to all three inmates, and I spent many hours discussing various aspects of the war with, especially, Albert Speer. Hess was deranged, which made any conversation with him impossible – he would howl like a dog and walk away from me. Although Shirach was half-American, he immediately made it clear that he did not wish to talk with me.

Speer was totally different. He was already in his 60s when I was posted to West Berlin; he had been a prisoner at Spandau for 15 years, with another five years of his sentence remaining, and prison visits from his family were severely restricted.

Baldur von Schirach at the Nuremberg Trials (second row, second from the right).

Over a two-year period we developed a strong rapport. It became almost a friendship, and he seemed to enjoy our long conversations. We discussed everything from world politics to his proposed life on his eventual release from prison.

Speer was kind to me; he appreciated that I was still in my late teens and he willingly endured my constant questions. For me, it was like being able to speak to a figure from a history book, which of course Speer was, having been Hitler’s constant advisor and his armaments minister during the war – though he regularly reminded me that he had never been a member of the Nazi Party.

At the time of our conversations, I knew I was in a unique position and made as much of the opportunity as I could. Speer wanted to know about my home town at Eastbourne, and he took a keen interest in my education, limited as it was. Having left school aged 16, Speer would regularly remind me that it was ‘far too young to leave school’.

Atrocities

At the time of our conversations, just 16 years after the war, I was aware of German wartime atrocities and we touched on this subject on a number of occasions. We also discussed in some depth the difficult subject of the German peoples’ acquiescence with Nazism from 1932 to 1939.

Albert Speer as an old man. He died in 1981 in London.

He was prepared to discuss his relationship with Hitler, and, even more delicately, the ‘final solution’, though he was reluctant to talk about the Jews per se. He once remarked that the Holocaust had happened only as a result of a meeting at Wannsee in Berlin. 

At this infamous meeting, unanimous agreement at the highest level was reached to co-ordinate the ‘final solution’. Those present included German government ministers and high-ranking officials; the meeting was chaired by the infamous Heinrich Heydrich. Speer always maintained to me that Heydrich was acting on his own behalf and not for Hitler.

Speer had not attended the meeting and always maintained he had no direct knowledge of the Holocaust. It was only after his death in 1976 that I discovered photographs of him visiting a concentration camp – proving what I had always thought, that he had lied to me. Indeed, as armaments minister, his factories had employed concentration-camp prisoners right up to the final German defeat in 1945.

Our conversations were not always easy as, unusually, they frequently involved high-speed walking. To maintain his sanity during his 20-year sentence, Speer set off to ‘walk round the world’, and he did this by marching along a well-worn track within the large walled prison gardens. He would meticulously record the length of his daily walk and plot his imagined ‘progress’ on a map of the world in his cell. We regularly discussed his progress, and I was occasionally tasked with ascertaining the dimensions of mountain ranges and deserts. He believed his project would keep him both fit and sane; he was probably right, though his ‘walk’ remained unfinished at the time of his release from prison in 1970.

Eva Braun

On a number of occasions we discussed Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-term mistress, who Hitler married at the war’s end just days before the pair committed suicide to avoid capture by the Russians. At Speer’s suggestion, I tried to visit the remains of Hitler’s bunker, where Hitler and Eva Braun had died, a ruin that was still visible from the west just across the Berlin wall. On my next official visit to East Berlin I deviated from my route to the site, only to find it guarded by a VOPO officer (East German Volkespolizei). I was permitted to look into the entrance but no more; which was probably just as well, for it was blackened and derelict.

Eva Braun with Adolf Hitler at the dining table during the war.

From our conversations, it was clear to me that Speer had had a soft spot for Eva, even though he was married with six children. He spent much time with her at Berchtesgarten, Hitler’s mountain retreat. He recalled that she frequently went on holiday with the Speer family ‘as Hitler was too busy’. Contrary to popular belief, Eva was an attractive young lady, and photographs of her with Speer indicate a strong relationship. Due to his enthusiasm to discuss his memories of Eva, I presumed she was an important part of his life. 

Speer was released from Spandau Prison on 1 October 1970, but, because I was then a serving police officer, I had no further contact with him. He became an instant media figure and concentrated on his extensive memoirs.

As is now known, although seemingly a devoted family man, Speer entered into a strong, secret relationship with a young German woman living in London (the pair had initially corresponded before meeting at his home town of Mannheim). Who she was and what she was doing in London remains unknown. Speer visited London on a number of occasions and used the opportunity to meet her. It was during one of these visits that he suffered a heart attack and died in his London hotel room – leaving the distraught young lady to telephone his wife with the news!

I visited Germany and Poland last year to conduct further research. In Berlin there was no sign of Spandau Prison. The whole building had been razed to the ground in 1987. Every brick had then been transported by train to be dumped in the North Sea to prevent the prison location being used as a Nazi shrine. Today the site is occupied by a supermarket.

I still remember Speer with some fondness for having taken such an interest in me and indulging all my teen-age questions. I am possibly the only surviving person who had such access to Albert Speer and who was able discuss his role in history with the man himself in such detail.

After military service, Adrian Greaves worked as police officer in Kent. Since retiring due to injury, he has worked as a military historian, publishing some 20 books, mainly about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and Lawrence of Arabia.


This is an article from the June 2013 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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