Earlier this week the Daily Mail reignited the controversy over Rudolf Hess’s secret wartime flight to Britain, publishing recently obtained photos of him in Spandau Prison, West Berlin. The Mail’s timing is interesting. As revealed in Spyhunter there is a dark secret behind the flight. The splendid movie Darkest Hour has reminded everyone that Churchill faced powerful opposition from the pro-German element inside the Tory Party, led by Viscount ‘von’ Halifax.
Everyone knows the Official Version of Events (OVE). On May 10 1941 our community partner Reichsminister Rudolf Hess, third in the Nazi Party hierarchy after our community partners Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring, bailed out of a Messerschmitt Bf 110 over Eaglesham, Scotland, on a ‘peace mission’. The Deputy Führer allegedly wanted to see the Duke of Hamilton, Lord High Steward and a personal friend of King George VI, with a view to negotiating a peace between Britain and Germany.
According to the OVE, Hess had flown non-stop from the Messerschmitt works at Augsburg and was intending to land at the small private airstrip at the Duke’s hunting lodge, Dungavel House. The OVE has him flying to Scotland on the off-chance of bumping into the Duke. Officially Hess was insane, a point of view pushed by both the Nazi Government’s chief spin doctor, Dr Goebells and the Cabinet Office.
The OVE also has Hess, the most famous Rudolf since the red-nosed reindeer, committing suicide by hanging in the summer house built for him in the grounds of Spandau Prison. According to the OVE, Hess was fanatically loyal to the Führer, whom he adored, and not just because they had been shagging each other in Landsberg Prison.
There’s just one wee, tiny, technical flaw with the OVE. It’s boll…s.
For one thing, there are very few insane pilots. Even Southwestern’s medical personnel certify surprisingly few of the airline’s pilots in the course of an average year as insane. When was the last time you boarded an aircraft and heard the pilot babbling on the public address about man-made global warming or the need to vote Liberal Democrat, or displaying other signs of insanity? If you saw one of your plane’s pilots being taken off in a strait-jacket, would you think ‘poor chap, there goes another one’?
Flying an aircraft requires thought, by which I mean rational thought. There is no doubt that Hess flew the Bf 110 solo – the observer’s cockpit canopy wasn’t opened and there was no body in the wreckage. An insane man couldn’t have flown solo all the way from Augsburg to Eaglesham in the middle of a war, indeed a madman would have had trouble baling out. It’s not that easy to do on a Bf 110 – it’s best done with the airplane upside down, or vertical.
The Hess Plane
Remarkably, confusion over which aircraft Hess flew to Scotland persisted into the 1990s. Not until John Harris and Richard Wilbourn published their ground-breaking work Rudolf Hess: A New Technical Analysis of the Hess Flight May 1941 in 2014 (reviewed in this column) was the confusion cleared up. Their book was the first serious published analysis of the flight itself.
Hess’s aircraft was a Bf 110E, with Daimler-Benz 601N engines, radio code VJ+OQ, works number 3869. The traditional view was that fitted with drop-tanks the plane could have made the flight, which lasted 5 hours 24 minutes, non-stop.
Did Hess fly non-stop?
The problem is that everyone focused on fuel. Piston aero-engines require another type of hydrocarbon to keep on turning however – oil. The Bf 110E’s oil capacity was only 70 liters (around 7.7 Imperial gallons in each of the two tanks). The powerful 601Ns consumed oil at a rate of 7.5 liters an hour, each, at cruise settings. Unless an auxiliary oil tank was fitted Hess could not have made the flight non-stop.
There wasn’t enough oil on-board to have made the flight non-stop even at low power settings, and we know that Hess crossed the British coast at full power, diving under our radar off Northumberland. He continued to fly at high speed. You will not be surprised to hear that Messerschmitts with black crosses on them tended to get noticed if they started to waffle around Britain at low altitude in 1941.
The 110E could be fitted with a 75 liter reserve oil tank, indeed such a tank was essential for long-range flights. As Harris and Wilbourn demonstrated, after painstaking and brilliant research, including an examination of the preserved wreckage, Hess’s plane was not fitted with a reserve oil tank.
Hess had to have landed somewhere between Augsburg and south-west Scotland. Harris and Wilbourn’s analysis is unlikely to be contradicted. He landed at a Luftwaffe base in northern Germany.
This in turn implicates Göring. You’re a community partner and you’re in charge of a Luftwaffe base in Hunland in the middle of World War II, near the North Sea. A lone Bf 110 rolls up, complete with the Deputy Führer of Germany, wanting to top up his fuel and oil tanks, and he’s not using American Express. He hasn’t even got a Mastercard. What do you do? Top up the tanks and ask if he’d like his windshield washed as well? Or check in with the chain of command?
There is no way that Göring, as commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, did not know what was happening. His nominal boss, the Führer, may have been out of the loop, but as I reveal in Spyhunter, Herr Reichsmarschall reported to Admiral Canaris, not Adolf Hitler. Herr Admiral not only knew all about the flight, he set it up. Willi Messerschmitt would hardly have made a modern combat aircraft available, complete with test pilots to train Hess, without checking in with his biggest customer. Aside from the Luftwaffe there weren’t a lot of customers in Germany in 1941 for Bf 110s.
It is highly improbable that the heavy Luftwaffe air raid on London that night, in which the Palace of Westminster was targeted (our community partners missed with one bomb and hit the Abbey instead, annoying the Dean) was a coincidence. Something big was happening.
What was Hess’s destination?
You can forget Dungavel House. Hess made a lot of noise after being captured about needing to go to Dungavel to talk to the Duke. This is strange. Not only did he not know the Duke (they had only met once, at a party at the 1936 Berlin Olympics), His Grace was a serving officer in the Royal Air Force. He was actually on duty that night, at RAF Turnhouse, near Edinburgh, miles away from Dungavel, which is almost due south from Glasgow.
It is not even clear that the Duke knew that Hess was coming. He played a part in standing down our air defenses that night, but that must have been on orders from the Air Ministry. Other attempts to intercept the Hess flight, including a couple of Spits from RAF Aldergrove near Belfast, were also stood down. The Air Minister at the time, Sir Archibald Sinclair, was a German agent, reporting to Canaris. Sir Archibald was a Liberal, after all. His fellow Liberal, David Lloyd George, backed caving in to the Germans and was keen to replace Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.
The Duke moreover lacked influence. He could, and did, have lunch with the King, but that was about it. He had little influence with the government and was certainly in no position to negotiate a peace treaty between Britain and Germany. The most he could have done was to forward the draft peace treaty which Hess had brought with him (it was recovered from the wreckage) to Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office.
Harris and Wilbourn put paid to the Dungavel House nonsense in their book. Apart from anything else they actually visited Dungavel, which other authors about the Hess affair appear not to have done. Had these other authors troubled to do so they would have found that the airstrip (abandoned in 1947 when the Hamiltons left Dungavel) was too short. A Bf 110E needed a landing strip about 600 yards long to get down safely.
The airstrip at Dungavel could handle a Tiger Moth and that was about it. Moreover it wasn’t lit and Hess arrived at night. Authors pushing the Dungavel theory without checking their facts tended to assume that the airfield was lit, because they assumed it was the destination. The possibility that meeting Hamilton, or stating a desire to see him, was Hess’s Plan B in case he was shot down, or ran out of fuel, or oil, or both, seems not to have occurred to them.
Harris and Wilbourn have done the fact-checking. There is no evidence that the tiny airstrip had an electricity supply, let alone landing lights. Hess actually flew over Dungavel, heading west, without apparently seeing it. Since it was at night and the airstrip wasn’t lit, that isn’t too surprising. RAF Dundonald, as suggested by Harris and Wilbourn, makes much more sense.
RAF Stations Pretwick and Ayr are credible, but less likely, alternatives. Two things are perfectly clear – Hess’s destination was an RAF airfield equipped with at least basic runway lighting and baling out was never in the plan.
Only skydivers, Special Forces and paratroops deliberately dive out of serviceable aircraft, and you won’t see many skydivers doing it at night. I’ve worn a chute and been trained how to use one, but never seriously contemplated jumping out of an airplane.
Hess was aged 47 when he made his first jump. That’s right – he’d never used a parachute before. His flight was meticulously planned, he’d never done a trial jump in daytime, let alone at night, and that was the plan? Forget it.
Aside from anything else, he’d have chosen a different aircraft. The Bf 110 was not without its faults. It was hopeless in the Battle of Britain. One of its most grievous faults, shared with the single-engined Bf 109, was a sideways opening canopy. It also had a twin tail, i.e. twin fins and rudders. This made it a difficult plane to bale out of. As pointed out above it’s best done with the plane inverted or vertical. If you ever need to bale out of a 110 flip it over before exiting the airplane. Even then your problems aren’t over because you’ve got to avoid that big tail.
Hess didn’t. He injured his foot striking the tailplane. So far as we know, the plane was vertical, in a stall, with no forward motion, when he jumped out with his brolly. This almost certainly made it easier, since slipstream is one reason many 110 pilots baling out didn’t make it. I rather suspect that one of Messerschmitt’s test pilots (the flight had been planned since about August and more than one test pilot trained Hess on the 110) had suggested this radical maneuver to Hess.
He had been a combat flier in World War I, BTW, one reason Canaris thought him ideal for the mission. He was by means a bad pilot. The Me boys wouldn’t have let him fly solo in one of their brand new airplanes, not least as he was officially banned from flying, if he had been.
So who was doing the meet and greet?
This is the $64,000 dollar question. We can rule out the Duke of Hamilton. He was miles away. We can also rule out Hess landing unannounced, in the middle of a war, at an operational RAF station. That’s the sort of thing that tended to get you shot down in World War II.
Peter Padfield (see below) suggests that HRH the Duke of Kent, the King’s youngest brother, might have been in the party. The Duke died the following year in the unexplained crash of a Sunderland flying boat, which might well have been set up by Sinclair. Generally speaking it’s a bad idea to have an enemy agent running your air force in the middle of a war.
Since the Duke was close to his eldest brother, King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 and married a German spy, it is not possible to rule him out. A shameful peace with Nazi Germany really required the return of Edward VIII to the Throne of England, so the Duke cannot be ruled out.
Britain in 1941 was not run by the King however, nor the government. As now the country was run out of the Cabinet Office. The most powerful person in the kingdom wasn’t the King, or Churchill. It was the sinister and supercilious Sir Edward Bridges, the War Cabinet Secretary. Scarcely heard of by the general public, Bridges’ profile was recently raised by his appearance in the movie Darkest Hour, although Demetri Garitsas isn’t a particularly good baddie. Bela Lugosi would have been a better bet, but sadly he’s no longer around.
I doubt that Bridges himself would have flown up to Dundonald to meet Harris. He would have sent a senior Cabinet Office official however. Sinclair might also have been there. There are a number of senior officials and Cabinet Ministers whose whereabouts that night cannot be accounted for. The Abwehr’s top agent in MI6, Sir Stewart Menzies, would certainly have sent a fellow Abwehr agent to represent him, possibly Major Frank Foley, who was to play a key role in the cover-up after the coup failed.
Nearly all writing on the Hess flight has obsessed on the Royal Family. The King clearly didn’t know that Hess was coming and after the Battle of Britain was firmly behind Churchill. The Duke of Kent would not have been a central figure, although he might have agreed to his brother the Duke of Windsor resuming the throne.
It’s typical of Abwehr/DVD plots that Good Guys are roped in without knowing the full details. Bridges and Canaris were clearly planning a coup. Each was a consummate b……d, no offense intended, and ruthless with it. The plan no doubt involved regicide and the assassination of Winston Churchill, possibly using the attack on the House of Commons as cover. Churchill would probably have been replaced by the pro-German Lord Halifax, with Sir Samuel Hoare (‘Slippery Sam’) as Foreign Secretary.
Hess, who was close to Canaris and had ghost-written Mein Kampf, was to have replaced Hitler. Canaris’s asset, Stalin, would have been left in place in Moscow. It was a tragedy for Britain that Bridges, Halifax, Hoare and Menzies were not given a fair trial at the Bar of Parliament, sent to the Tower of London and beheaded, in the nicest possible way of course.
Tune in same time, same place, for next week’s instalment of this gripping drama!
My reading this week: Hess, Hitler & Churchill,
By Peter Padfield (Icon Books, 2013)
Coincidentally, or not, I have been reading this informative and well-written history by respected historian Peter Padfield. The book is subtitled “The Real Turning Point of the Second World War – a Secret History”. It definitely sheds new light on the Hess mystery.
Padfield is not an intelligence historian. He’s smart enough, however, to realise that narrative historians like him are essentially limited to what other people want them to find out. Diaries, memos and minutes are often written with a view to distorting history in favour of the person writing them.
Hess comes across as vain and manipulative, pretending to have amnesia when it suited him, for example. He never told the truth, or anything like it, about his flight. Till the day he was murdered (a topic for next week) he never admitted working with Canaris, nor that the plan involved a Whitehall coup, led by Bridges, against Churchill. There weren’t going to be negotiations. The one-sided ‘peace’ treaty, drafted by the German Foreign Office, was effectively non-negotiable. Like Theresa May 77 years later, Halifax was essentially going to cave in to unreasonable demands from across the water.
Padfield concludes that Hess intended to return to Germany within 48 hours. I’m sure that was the plan – as the new President of Germany. Padfield doubts that the Führer knew in advance about the mission. He is intellectually honest enough, with respect, to acknowledge the importance of the research by Harris and Wilbourn, which rules out Hess having acted alone and eliminates Dungavel House as Hess’s destination that night.
The book acknowledges that official records have been weeded and that there is probably a dark secret behind the flight. Indeed there is! I respectfully reject two of the book’s fundamental conclusions – that Hess was loyal to Hitler and that Sir Robert Vansittart, who carefully cultivated an anti-German image, was working for us. Indeed, since Vansittart had been Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, the suggestion that he was working in the British interest surely enters the realms of fantasy.
Nonetheless, Hess, Hitler and Churchill is an important addition to the literature about the Hess flight.