Several of Adolf Hitler’s generals conspired to rid Germany of their Führer during the war.
By far the best-known attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life, known as Operation Valkyrie. occurred on July 20, 1944. Count Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb under a table at Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters. By chance the briefcase containing the bomb was moved to the opposite side of a table leg, directing the force of the bomb away from Hitler and saving the Führer from death that day.
Afterward, Stauffenberg and others were summarily shot, and eight more conspirators were hanged. A total of about 5,000 people were eventually executed in the wave of retribution that followed. But although Operation Valkyrie is the most famous, it was only one of more than adozen attempts on the life of Adolf Hitler.
Aside from the July 1944 attempt, perhaps the closest anti-Hitler conspirators came to success was on March 13, 1943. With German Army Group Center locked in a death struggle with the Red Army on the Eastern Front, Hitler planned a visit to the army group’s headquarters at the Russian city of Smolensk. The assassination plan, code-named Operation Flash, included a coup d’état, which was to begin with the signal that Hitler was dead. A detachment of escorting cavalry was to shoot Hitler at an opportune moment. If that failed, an alternate plan would be set in motion, and Hitler’s plane would be blown up in midair by a bomb.
Major General Henning von Tresckow had been one of the earliest participants in the 1943 conspiracy to rid Germany of Hitler. For the alternate plan, he and his aide, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, obtained sufficient quantities of the unstable compound Plastic C. Its only identifiable drawback was its occasional failure to explode at temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Tresckow and Schlabrendorff fashioned a package to resemble two square bottles of Cointreau, containing the bomb and a 30-minute fuse. To detonate the device, someone would crush a small vial of acid, which would cut through a wad of cotton and then through a trip wire that released a plunger, driving the detonator into the Plastic C.
In their 1992 book Target Hitler, James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci provide a detailed account of the events of March 13, 1943. Hitler often changed plans suddenly or postponed travel for security reasons, and he altered his ground route that day. The Army Group Center cavalry troops, which had sworn to kill Hitler, never got their chance.
While Hitler and his entourage ate lunch, Tresckow approached Colonel Heinz Brandt, a member of Hitler’s staff who had flown on the Führer’s plane. Tresckow requested that Brandt deliver a package of two bottles of Cointreau as a gift to Colonel Helmuth Stieff at high command headquarters. Brandt agreed, and when Hitler was ready to depart, Schlabrendorff pressed a key against the package, crushing the vial of acid. He handed the bomb to Brandt.
It was expected that Hitler’s plane would explode in flight near the Russian city of Minsk. The conspirators were shocked when word came instead that Hitler had landed safely. They knew they had to retrieve the package quickly, before it was given to Colonel Stieff.
Tresckow telephoned Brandt, who said that he had not yet had time to deliver the package, and Tresckow explained that he had given him the wrong package. The next day Schlabrendorff took a courier flight to high command headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, and exchanged a package with two bottles of Cointreau for the bomb. Schlabrendorff found that the fuse had worked as it should have, but the detonator left only a black mark instead of igniting the bomb. Duffy and Ricci speculate that Brandt probably had placed the package in the unheated luggage compartment of Hitler’s plane, rendering the bomb useless.
Just a week after the failed attempt of March 13, Maj. Gen. Rudolph von Gersdorff volunteered to kill Hitler with a suicide bomb while the Führer inspected captured Soviet arms and equipment. Gersdorff planned to hug the Führer and explode a bomb in his greatcoat, but Hitler rushed through the exhibit before Gersdorff could detonate the bomb.
History many times turns on luck. A few fleeting seconds or degrees in temperature can have a far-reaching impact. Had one of the assassination attempts against Hitler been successful and World War II subsequently shortened, we can only speculate as to the number of lives that might not have been lost.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II