Saturday May 10, 1941, dawned bright and clear. Rudolf Hess, deputy führer of Nazi Germany, awoke at his villa in the Munich suburb of Harlaching knowing that this was the day. His astrological adviser had recommended this date as most favorable for a journey in the interest of peace; six planets were in Taurus, and the moon would be full. Karl Haushofer, a friend and mentor, had told Hess that he saw him in a dream walking through the tapestried halls of English castles, bringing peace to two great nations.

Hess spent the morning with his 3-year-old son Wolf, nicknamed Buz. He then had lunch alone with Alfred Rosenberg, a racial ideologue of the Nazi Party. After Rosenberg’s departure, Hess changed into a blue Luftwaffe shirt and tie and breeches, and looked in on his wife, Ilse, who had stayed in bed that morning. He found her reading The Pilots’ Book of Everest by the Scottish Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale, the first man to fly over Mount Everest. English friends had given the book to Hess, with the inscription: “With all good wishes and the hope that out of personal friendships a real and lasting understanding may grow between our two countries.” This had been one of Hess’s main aims before the war.

Shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon, Hess and his adjutant were driven off to the Messerschmitt aircraft works at Augsburg, where his personal Bf 110 fighter-bomber was on the apron. It had been fueled and fitted with drop tanks for an extended flight. He shook hands with the Messerschmitt staff and climbed into the cockpit. At 5:45 p.m. he took off, setting a northwesterly course toward Bonn, then following the Rhine River to the West Frisian Islands off the Dutch coast. There he made a dogleg to the right to distance himself from British radar before resuming a northwesterly course up the North Sea. Later, in a letter to Ilse, he would describe an overwhelming feeling of loneliness mixed with awe at the “fabulous beauty” of the evening light over the sea.

Hess’s destination was Dungavel House in Scotland, home of the Duke of Hamilton—formerly the Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale, whose book Ilse had been reading that morning. Hamilton had London establishment ties and, like Hess, he had worked for Anglo-German friendship before the war.

Reaching the latitude of Dungavel, Hess turned west and, after making landfall on the Northumbrian coast, dived to just above sea level. He had been detected by radar but flew in so low that he was not seen by three Spitfire pilots vectored onto his track. It was 10:25 in the evening. Hess steered west but, despite a full moon, failed to find Dungavel, and flew on and out over the Firth of Clyde coastal waters before turning back inland. By then his fuel tanks were dry; he had to bail out. He floated down on a moonlit Scottish field barely 12 miles from the duke’s estate, overcome, he later wrote, with “an indescribable sense of elation and triumph.” His plane crashed a short distance away and burst into flames.

Hess’s flight was a feat of courage, skill, and endurance. But why had he made it? More than 70 years afterward, this remarkable event continues to provoke questions. Had Adolf Hitler sent Hess on a mission to make peace with his sole remaining enemy in the west, in order to avoid a two-front war when he turned east on his real ideological enemy, the Soviet Union? The German assault on Russia was scheduled for the following month. Hess always denied that the führer knew anything of his mission. Did the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) lure Hess to Britain with the bogus prospect of peace talks? There is plenty of evidence that supports the theory.

Both British prime minister Winston Churchill and Hitler promoted the story that Hess was deranged and acted alone, and that is the consensus among historians in Britain and Germany. British historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, for example, concludes “there is not a shred of compelling evidence” to suggest that Hess acted with Hitler’s knowledge or encouragement. Instead, he writes, Hess acted “in deep (if confused) belief that he was carrying out his wishes.” Kershaw is equally certain there was no British plot to lure Hess to Britain. The best German study of Hess’s mission, by historian Rainer F. Schmidt, also concludes that Hitler had no influence on or knowledge of Hess’s flight. But Schmidt and other researchers, this author included, do believe that British
intelligence duped Hess into making his flight—and there is evidence to support that assertion. Still other credible tidbits point to a story even more complex and surprising.

The clues to Hess’s motivation begin with his personality and his career. He had fought as an infantryman in World War I, and—unlike Hitler—gained rapid promotion. After receiving a serious wound, he trained as a pilot and qualified just in time to engage in the final aerial battles over the Western Front. The Armistice left Hess disillusioned and bitter about the lost war, but in 1920 he heard Hitler speak in Munich and was enthralled. This was the man who would restore German pride. Hess attached himself to Hitler body and soul, with the aim of becoming his most loyal aide and interpreter. After the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, the two were imprisoned together and Hess helped Hitler write his defining manifesto, Mein Kampf. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he made Hess his deputy.

The characters of the two men were profoundly different, however. One of Hess’s adjutants referred to his “almost feminine sensitivities”; the chief of the organization representing Germans abroad called him “the biggest idealist we have had in Germany, a man of a very soft nature.” Hitler, on the other hand, was ruthless and destructive. Hess recognized this, but his loyalty prevented him from intervening. The resulting stress affected him physically. He suffered stomach pains and sleeplessness, and turned increasingly to herbalists, spiritualists, and astrologers for relief and guidance. This may help to explain his flight. Karl Haushofer seemed to imply it when he said after the war that his friend had flown to Britain because of “his own sense of honor and his desperation at the murders going on in Germany”—likely a reference to routine atrocities against Jews and Poles in German-occupied Poland.

Hess conceived the idea of his peace mission after France fell to Germany in 1940. That August, he asked Haushofer’s son Albrecht, who served as his principal expert on England, to devise ways of contacting those British circles in favor of negotiated peace. There were many, including the great landowning aristocracy, captains of finance in London, media barons, and military strategists—all of whom viewed the Soviet Union as a greater threat to the British Empire than Nazi Germany. Most British politicians—save those committed anti-Fascists on the left—knew Britain was in a hopeless military position, and many believed the only way out was to settle with Hitler and allow him to smash his real enemy, Bolshevism, at its source in Russia.

Winston Churchill and his followers viewed these “wobblers” as craven defeatists. Churchill detested Hitler and all that Nazism stood for. He knew the island kingdom had dispatched many continental tyrants over the centuries, and hoped and expected that—as in World War I—the United States would enter the conflict on Great Britain’s side.

Albrecht Haushofer had met the future Duke of Hamilton at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and afterward both men had kept in touch. In 1940, Hamilton had been appointed Lord Steward of the Royal Household, a position that gave him direct access to King George VI—one possible reason Hess targeted Hamilton for his peace mission. Hess asked Haushofer to write to Hamilton, and drafted another letter himself. But Haushofer’s letter, mailed through an intermediary on September 23, 1940, was intercepted by British censors. They forwarded it to the Security Service (MI5), which began an investigation into Hamilton’s loyalty. Hess’s own letter to Hamilton has disappeared. Ernst Bohle, who translated it for Hess into English, said after the war that he had gained the impression that Hess wanted to meet Hamilton in Switzerland, and that Hitler was aware of the plan.

Meanwhile, Hess was honing his piloting skills. He had acquired a two-seat twin-engine fighter-bomber from his friend, Willy Messerschmitt, and had begun making practice flights with guidance from Messerschmitt’s chief test pilot.

The first man to approach Hess when he fell to earth near Hamilton’s estate was a farmer who had heard the plane overhead. Hess introduced himself in English as Hauptmann (“captain”) Alfred Horn, and asked to be taken to Dungavel House; he had an urgent message for the Duke of Hamilton. Instead, the man escorted Hess to his nearby cottage and offered him a cup of tea.

Home Guards and police soon burst into the house. Hess repeated his request to be taken to the duke at Dungavel, unaware Hamilton was not at home. The duke was the commanding officer of the Edinburgh air base, RAF Turnhouse, and was on duty that night. The police informed Hamilton by telephone of the German aviator’s strange request; meanwhile, Hess was taken to the local Home Guard headquarters. There he was interrogated by a German-speaking Pole, who later described conditions as chaotic, with Home Guards, police, and Royal Air Force officers “inspecting the prisoner and his belongings at their leisure,” and shouting questions from all corners. Hess remained calm. Asked why he had come, he replied he had a message for the Duke of Hamilton—one “in the highest interest of the British air force.” He would say no more, and was eventually driven to an army hospital in Glasgow.

Hamilton visited Hess at the hospital at 10 the next morning. Hess told him he had come on “a mission of humanity.” The führer was convinced that Germany would win the war, but he had never wanted to fight Britain. For his part, Hess said, he wished to stop the unnecessary slaughter that would occur if the fighting continued, and he asked Hamilton to gather leading members of his party to discuss peace proposals.

Hess had erred on a number of points. He believed, as he later wrote to Ilse, that when he made himself known to Hamilton as a Parlamentär—a negotiator—coming under a flag of truce to talk peace, he would be treated like a diplomat and flown back home. But since he denied that Hitler had sent him, he could not be considered a negotiator. Hess had also chosen the wrong man: Hamilton was loyal, as the MI5 investigation had concluded. He had no “party” of peacemongers. Instead, he reported Hess’s arrival to his superior officer and flew south to personally report to Churchill.

Instead of a self-proclaimed Parlamentär, Hess became a prisoner of war. Churchill turned him over to the chief of MI6, who isolated him in a specially prepared suite, bugged for sound, in a country house called Mytchett Place outside London. There he was joined by three “companions”—all MI6 German specialists whose task was to draw from Hess everything he knew of German armaments and Hitler’s plans.

In Germany, meanwhile, on the morning after Hess’s departure, his adjutant, Karl-Heinz Pintsch, arrived at the Berghof, the führer’s mountain headquarters. He had news of Hess’s flight, and bore a letter from Hess to Hitler explaining the mission. The letter ended, according to Ilse Hess: “Should, mein Führer, my project end in failure…, you can always distance yourself from me—declare me mad.”

The next day, having heard nothing from Britain, Hitler did just that. A communiqué was broadcast nationally to announce that the deputy führer had taken off on May 10 on a flight from which he had not returned, and that “a letter which he left behind unfortunately showed traces of mental disturbance which justifies the fear that Hess was the victim of hallucinations.” The following day, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels attempted to repair the shattering impression of a deranged deputy führer with a broadcast depicting Hess as an “idealist” who hoped “by personal sacrifice and by personal contact with former English acquaintances to convince responsible Englishmen of the futility of further struggle.”

The story of the lone fantasist, however, might not have been the whole truth. Hess may well have been caught up in a disinformation campaign by British intelligence, designed ultimately to deter Hitler from an invasion of Britain. Using foreign agents and contacts, MI6 had leaked false stories that the Nazi bombing campaign had demoralized the British, and that leading personalities were seeking to topple Churchill and reach a peace compromise. That’s precisely what Hitler—eager to avoid a two-front war—would have wanted to hear. Dusko Popov, a double agent for the British, acknowledged the disinformation campaign in a 1974 memoir; German foreign ministry files confirm its existence.

German historian Rainer F. Schmidt, in his 1997 book on the Hess flight, asserts that MI6 agents—operating through Switzerland—made contact with Hess’s confidants. For proof, Schmidt points to Walter Schellenberg, the German counterintelligence official charged with investigating Hess’s flight. After the war, Schellenberg described receiving a secret dossier some time after Hess’s flight that proved the de facto chief of Hess’s personal intelligence office, Kurt Jahnke, was a top-level British spy. An MI5 register of communications with MI6 seems to support this.

There are other indications of British involvement. On May 31, only three weeks after Hess’s arrival in Britain, the secretary to the Czech president in exile in London was shown a “top secret” report that led him to write in his diary: “It is clear that the Nazi No. 3 was enticed into an English trap.”

In September, a Soviet agent in France reported that MI6 had lured Hess to Britain. In October 1942, the head of Czech military intelligence in London made the same assertion in a report to Moscow: British intelligence had tricked Hess into making his trip by posing as Hamilton in correspondence with him. And when Churchill visited Moscow in 1944 and the dinner conversation turned to Hess, Stalin raised his glass to, as he put it, “the British intelligence service which had inveigled Hess to Britain.”

No one who met Hess on his arrival in Scotland questioned his mental balance. Ivone Kirkpatrick, a German specialist who interviewed Hess after his flight, wrote that he had turned over the peace initiative in his mind so much it had become a “monomania.” The first doctor who examined Hess described him as “surprisingly ordinary…, quite sane, certainly not a drug-taker, a little concerned by his health and rather faddy about his diet.” But Hess soon realized that his mission had failed, and his behavior became erratic. Hess claimed that poisons or drugs were in his food, and exchanged his plate with others at mealtimes. Perhaps he was given drugs to induce him to talk. He eventually claimed a complete loss of memory.

Increasingly depressed, Hess attempted suicide on the night of June 16–17 by throwing himself down a stairwell. He hit a railing on the way down and broke his leg. Afterward, a psychiatrist sent to monitor him concluded that he had “definitely [passed] over the border that lies between mental instability and insanity,” though others in contact with Hess did not share that view.

When the war ended, Hess was sent to Nuremberg for trial as a major war criminal. His counsel pleaded that Hess’s memory loss made it impossible for him to defend himself, but Hess rose and announced to the court that his memory was in full working order; his amnesia had been purely tactical. He was not called to testify, but at the end of the trial he made a statement declaring his devotion to his late führer, Adolf Hitler, “the greatest son my Volk has brought forth in its thousand-year history.” He would not, he said, wish to erase the time he had spent working for him. “I regret nothing.”

Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment. This may have been more cruel than the hangman’s rope, for he spent the rest of his long life inside Spandau Prison in Berlin as Prisoner No. 7, stripped even of his name. His few fellow war-criminal inmates were discharged at intervals, when their terms expired or on compassionate grounds, but the Soviets refused to sanction Hess’s release on the basis that he was a chief architect of the assault on their country. He was the sole occupant of his cell block for more than 20 years; his total time in prison, 46 years, far surpassed all norms. Churchill seemed to acknowledge that fact, saying at one point: “I am glad not to be responsible for the way Hess has been, and is, being treated. He came to us of his own free will and so, without authority, had something of the quality of an envoy.” Hess grew old and infirm—and finally, on August 17, 1987, committed suicide by hanging himself with a lamp cord from a window latch in the garden summerhouse. He was 93.

Were there secrets Hess never divulged? Probably. One could be that Hitler himself had initiated the mission, sending his deputy to start peace talks with Britain before the strike against Russia. Hess’s unswerving loyalty to Hitler may have prevented him from acknowledging that point. In 2011, a German historian discovered a 28-page report by Pintsch, Hess’s adjutant, in the Russian archives. It was handwritten in 1948, when Pintsch was a Soviet prisoner. Pintsch wrote that Hitler had approved of Hess’s flight, and that Berlin and London had been holding peace talks. Hess’s mission, Pintsch added, was to “use all means at his disposal to achieve… at least the neutralization of England.” The Soviets might have coerced Pintsch into making that assertion, but he might also have written what he thought—or knew—to be true.

Hess carried papers on his flight to Scotland, and it’s possible that a draft peace treaty was among them. There is no tangible evidence to prove it, only hints. Released MI5 files show that “documents were recovered from a ditch in the field where Hess landed.” And the wife of the farmer whose field Hess landed in wrote at the time to a friend: “The police was ordered to search for a valuable document which was missing, [and] he found it over near the wee burn in the park.”

A September 30, 1945, article in the British Sunday Dispatch—found in the Foreign Office files in Britain’s National Archives—describes how French war correspondent André Guerber discovered documents in the ruined Berlin Chancellory that “definitely established that it was Hitler himself who decided to send Hess to Britain.” In the story, Guerber claimed to have found a verbatim record of a meeting between Hitler, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, and Hess on May 4, 1941—six days before Hess’s flight. There, Hess told Hitler he was convinced England was ready to talk peace. Guerber supposedly also saw a four-part peace plan draft for Britain. No one, however, has been able to trace Guerber or the documents he claimed to have seen.

More suggestive is an October 1942 dispatch from the British Ambassador in Moscow to the Foreign Office, also found in the Foreign Office files. One passage reads: “If these [Hess’s] alleged proposals were indeed (as was suggested to me at the time) that in exchange for the evacuation of certain of the occupied countries we shouldwithdraw from the war and leave Germany a free hand in the East, our declared rejection of them should be enough to satisfy the most difficult and suspicious of the Russians.” Yet there is no mention in any other open government file of a German offer to evacuate occupied countries.

If Hess was carrying a peace proposal draft that offered Britain a way out of its dicey military situation, and, if the terms included a German offer to evacuate certain occupied countries, Churchill almost certainly would have had to conceal it to hold his government together. He could not have risked the offer leaking to British peace advocates, to the heads of occupied European governments in exile in London, and—above all, perhaps—to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was arming Britain. Churchill was determined to fight on.

Unless the relevant MI6 files are released, which is unlikely, there cannot be a definitive account of the Hess mission. What is certain is that Hess tried to bring peace. In a suicide note to Ilse, penned in 1941 at Mytchett Place before he threw himself down the stairwell, he expressed his desperate hope for the final success of his mission: “Perhaps despite my death, or indeed through it, there will be peace as a result of my flight.” Hess remained proud of his effort for the rest of his life, and his cemetery headstone was inscribed with his own evaluation of his feat: ICH HAB’S GEWAGT—“I have dared.”

Peter Padfield is an established naval historian and biographer. His interest in Nazi history was sparked by writing a biography of Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Since then he has written biographies of Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess, which have been translated into most European languages. He lives with his wife in Suffolk, England.