VII: Rudolf Hess

While the war was still going on my parents subscribed to a weekly part-work called Pictorial History of the War (edited by Walter Hutchinson, published by Library Press). You can still find bound copies in secondhand shops. It’s not much good as history because everything in it was subject to wartime censorship, but it represents an interesting snapshot of what the public actually knew about the war at the time. I loved browsing through the copies while I was a child and even today many of its images still hang around in seminal memory. It was in these pages that I first heard about Rudolf Hess and his flight to Britain in search of peace.

The photos show Rudolf Hess before and after the war. The first is undoubtedly the real Hess, the second shows the man who appeared at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. His identity is still not known for sure. His physical resemblance to Hess is startling, but there are enough contradictions, mysteries and official evasions about what happened to this man before he appeared on trial that doubt remains.

Even as a pre-teen child, I was puzzled by the story of Hess. It was clearly a mystery (Pictorial History used the word even before it had seemed to become one), and it was a baffling one. Pictorial History contains only two references to the entire incident in its daily record of the war’s progress.

The first, on 10th May 1941, says: “The sensation of the war is the escape from Germany of Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuehrer, in an aeroplane piloted by himself. He lands at night on a farm in Scotland and gives himself up under a false name. It transpires that he was hoping to land on the Duke of Hamilton’s estate.

“The next day, 11th May, it adds: “The Rudolf Hess mystery deepens. He is taken to a hospital, having been slightly injured, and is there seen by a hospital official who identifies him as none other than Rudolf Hess. Meanwhile, the Germans are in a quandary. Before any British announcement is made, they say that he has gone up in a plane and not returned. As soon as it is known that he is in Britain they say that he has for some time been mentally deranged.”

There are also three photographs: one blurry one of someone who looks a bit like Hess in the cockpit of an unidentifiable plane, another of the farmer and his mother who witnessed the arrival, and the third is of the wreckage of Hess’s plane. The caption to this last one says: “The war’s biggest surprise was provided by the arrival in Scotland on 10th May, 1941, of Rudolf Hess. He flew solo from Augsburg, a distance of more than 800 miles and landed by parachute. Wreckage of the plane, a Messerschmitt 110, is shown.”
That’s all there is. Hess is never mentioned again.

To my young but logical mind, the brief story cried out for more details to be told, for some explanation to be offered. At the very least, I wanted to know what happened next. Did Hess stay in hospital? Was he imprisoned? Was he sent back to Germany? What did his plan for peace consist of? Did Churchill ever talk to him? If not, why not? Was Hess mentally deranged, as the Germans claimed?
And then there was the aircraft. As any pre-teen boy in the 1950s knew, the Messerschmitt 110 was a two-seat fighter, crewed by a pilot and a rear-gunner. The comparatively slow 110 was vulnerable to attack from behind, so pilots rarely flew without a crewman. Why wasn’t the other man mentioned, and if there hadn’t been a second man aboard, why not? Finally, if Hess flew from Augsburg (a quick look at the atlas revealed it to be in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, not far from Munich), why did he fly to Scotland? Could a twin-engined fighter fly all that way without refuelling?

I later found out that at the end of the war Hess had been convicted of war crimes and was serving a life sentence in Spandau Prison, West Berlin. Even that seemed a bit odd: surely the fact that he had tried to make peace would have counted in his favour? Later on, the mystery deepened still further: all the other Nazi war criminals who had been jailed with Hess were released one by one, as their sentences were completed. By the end of the 1960s they had all gone, but Hess remained. He was alone in the prison. Every now and again you would hear of some human rights campaigners demanding his release on compassionate grounds, but these calls were always ignored, or rejected without explanation.

Here I can return to the bibliography, because it is in the following books that the story continues.

64. The Murder of Rudolf Hess by Hugh Thomas.

65. Hess: A Tale of Two Murders by Hugh Thomas (revised edition of the previous book)

Hugh Thomas was a surgeon serving in the British army during the early 1970s. After a tour of duty in Northern Ireland he had developed a specialist medical interest in bullet wounds. When he was posted in 1972 as a consultant surgeon to the British Military Hospital in West Berlin, he discovered that Rudolf Hess (now officially known only as Prisoner No. 7) would come under his care. Thomas had a professional interest in Hess, because during the First World War Hess had been shot and badly injured. His wounds had been tended by a surgeon called Sauerbruch, who, like Thomas, had had to develop surgical techniques for dealing with traumatic bullet wounds. On the only occasion he was able to examine Hess medically, Thomas discovered that apart from one tiny mark on his chest, there was no sign anywhere on Hess’s body of the scars made either by the bullet or by the radical surgery that Sauerbruch would have carried out. As Thomas says, scars will fade slightly with age, and sometimes shrink, but they never disappear entirely. On this clear medical evidence, Thomas came to the firm conclusion that the man being held in Spandau Prison was not Hess and could not be. It had to be someone else.

Hugh Thomas’s book is the story of his investigation into this mystery, and although it raises almost as many new questions as it answers, it makes a fascinating read. He addresses, for one thing, the unexplained nature of the long flight across the North Sea, which had always puzzled me. Churchill’s silence and refusal to meet Hess is discussed and partly explained. The theory of Hess’s alleged derangement is also investigated in depth. Thomas’s forensic investigative skills are impressive.

The book is in two editions: the first came out while Prisoner No. 7 was still alive in Spandau, the second appeared after his death in 1987. In the first book Thomas concludes that the real Hess must have been murdered soon after his arrival, possibly by members of British Intelligence. An impostor was then put in his place. (Why and how this should have happened, and why the alleged impostor did not come clean as soon as the war was over, are some of the extra questions the theory raises.) The second edition, with its title referring to two murders, contains the additional allegation that the prisoner did not die of natural causes, but was murdered in mysterious circumstances while still inside Spandau. Again, Thomas supports this with a great deal of convincing evidence, but does not really explain why it happened.

The germ of the idea for The Separation arose from these two books: not so much from the books themselves as in the way they first satisfied and then amplified my own intrigue about the story. Although I have never really believed in conspiracy theories, I always enjoy reading about them and this account of Hess’s fascinating story is one of the best. However, more was to come.

66. Hess: The British Conspiracy by John Harris & M.J. Trow.

The conspiracy theory thickened noticeably with this book, based on an earlier pamphlet I had read after coming across it through internet sources. John Harris is the main author (I assumed Trow was brought in to clean up Harris’s poor writing style). Harris is suspicious of everybody and everything, a classic conspiracy theorist, and he approaches the Hess mystery from the principle that he couldn’t have made such a daring flight without advance cooperation from the British. So he scours through what MI6 sources he can find, trying to show that Hess was gulled into the flight. As usual with these things, various new facts and pieces of intriguing information emerged, but I remained unconvinced and unimpressed.

67. Hess: The Führer’s Disciple by Peter Padfield.

This book is in a different class from Harris’s rather frenetic effort: Peter Padfield is the respected author of numerous books of military and naval history, and his work is a thorough examination of all the various aspects of the Hess story. (He discounts Thomas’s theories about an impostor and believes there is insufficient evidence of the murders.) Ultimately, the conclusion Padfield draws is that Hess was set up by the other Nazis, perhaps by Heinrich Himmler, but that he was also a pawn in a larger game being played at the time by Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Hess’s flight took place just over a month before the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

By the time I read Padfield’s book I had written much of the first draft of The Separation, and therefore knew that although Hess was going to come into the story he would be playing only a fairly minor part. Hess had been a crucial element in my early plans for the novel, but as so often happens he had been overtaken by the sheer momentum of writing the story. Unless I were to abandon almost everything I had written, and make Hess into a major character, there was little I could use from all the research material I was coming across. The original mystery, as I first discovered it, was still enough of a puzzle to stir the creative juices. When you do so much research, it always comes as a refreshing blast of reality to realize that in fact you end up throwing most of it away.

So, there was Hess about to go. Then I came across:

68. Double Standards: The Rudolf Hess Cover-Up by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior, with Robert Brydon (Little Brown, 2001; first edition)

The provenance of this book was not encouraging. The authors had in my view previously spent a bit too long on the familiar loony fringes of investigative writing: the Knights Templar, the Turin Shroud, pyramids, esoteric societies and all that. And why should it take four people to write a book? However, it was about Rudolf Hess so I thought I’d spring for it. At this point I was close to finishing The Separation and did not think I needed anything more to add to the Hess mystery, or conspiracy, or cover-up.

I started reading. The authors had clearly done their homework and were well briefed on all the various facts, contradictions and theories of the Hess story. Every aspect of the story, from Hess’s early days, his war record, his ascendancy as Hitler’s secretary and deputy, his power and influence within Germany (or otherwise, as is often alleged), the flight, the imprisonment in Britain, the behaviour at his trial, his long incarceration in Berlin, his death, it is all rigorously examined. The impostor theory is revived and made almost respectable: the authors believe that there was a double, one who was intended at first to act as a decoy, allowing the real Hess to move about more freely in high British circles in pursuit of his peace aims. Every incident, no matter how apparently trivial, is questioned, checked and re-examined. It is a marvel of investigation; gripping, plausible, well supported with evidence and interviews with surviving witnesses, long-lost files opened and examined. You finish the book believing … well, believing that so many mysterious events have been confirmed or invalidated by the authors’ researches that from now on any attempt to solve the Hess enigma will at least have to incorporate the mass of intriguing material that has been set out in this book.

Questions remain, as usual, but there are fewer of them and one of the most important of all now seems to have an answer. The government files on Hess have been closed for seventy years. Even today, a wall of official silence surrounds the story. The only papers released into the public domain explain nothing. Why should this still go on, even now? Surely there could be no one whose reputation might be harmed by revelations about the Hess enigma? Well, the authors of Double Standards suggest, indirectly, that there was one such person, close to the centre of the conspiracy (although patently not involved in it), whose standing with the public is such that a long time will have to pass before even general hints can be made that she was close to the events. It remains likely that we will have to wait until 10th May 2011 to be told the whole story.

Where did this amazing book leave The Separation? Exactly where it was, as a matter of fact. I read most of the book purely for entertainment, the enjoyment of a great story told well. If there was anything that rubbed off from it on to the novel, it was the reassurance that The Separation’s central themes – identical twins being taken for each other, politicians and soldiers using doubles and decoys, bouts of déjà vu and amnesia, impostors, mistaken identity, confusion of roles, and all that sort of thing – had abundant correlatives in the real world, to such an extent that I did wonder for a while if I had actually understated the theme.