Military history

OPERATION FLASH

In February 1943, Goerdeler told Jakob Wallenberg in Stockholm that “they had plans for a coup in March.”

They had.

The preparations for Operation Rash, as it was called, had been worked out during January and February by General Friedrich Olbricht, chief of the General Army Office (Allgemeines Heeresamt) and General von Tresckow, chief of staff of Kluge’s Army Group Center in Russia. Olbricht,a deeply religious man, was a recent convert to the conspiracy, but, because of his new post, had rapidly become a key figure in it. As deputy to General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Replacement Army, he was in a position to rally the garrisons in Berlin and the other large cities of the Reich behind the plotters. Fromm himself, like Kluge, was by now disillusioned with his Fuehrer but was not regarded as sufficiently trustworthy to be let in on the plot.

“We are ready. It is time for the Flash,” Olbricht told young Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a junior officer on Tresckow’s staff, at the end of February. Early in March the plotters met for a final conference at Smolensk, the headquarters of Army Group Center. Although not participating in the action, Admiral Canaris, the chief of the Abwehr, was aware of it and arranged the meeting, flying Hans von Dohnanyi and General Erwin Lahousen of his staff with him to Smolensk ostensibly for a conference of Wehrmacht intelligence officers. Lahousen, a former intelligence officer of the Austrian Army and the only plotter in the Abwehr to survive the war, brought along some bombs.

Schlabrendorff and Tresckow, after much experimenting, had found that German bombs were no good for their purpose. They worked, as the young officer later explained,6 with a fuse that made a low hissing noise which gave them away. The British, they discovered, made a better bomb. “Prior to the explosion,” Schlabrendorff says, “they made no noise of any kind.” The R.A.F. had dropped a number of these weapons over occupied Europe to Allied agents for sabotage purposes—one had been used to assassinate Heydrich—and the Abwehr had collected several of them and turned them over to the conspirators.

The plan worked out at the Smolensk meeting was to lure Hitler to the army group headquarters and there do away with him. This would be the signal for the coup in Berlin.

Enticing the warlord, who was now suspicious of most of his generals, into the trap was not an easy matter. But Tresckow prevailed upon an old friend, General Schmundt (as he now was), adjutant to Hitler, to work on his chief, and after some hesitation and more than one cancellation the Fuehrer agreed definitely to come to Smolensk on March 13, 1943. Schmundt himself knew nothing of the plot.

In the meantime Tresckow had been renewing his efforts to get his chief, Kluge, to take the lead in bumping off Hitler. He suggested to the Field Marshal that Lieutenant Colonel Freiherr von Boeselager,* who commanded a cavalry unit at headquarters, be allowed to use it to mow Hitler and his bodyguard down when they arrived. Boeselager was more than willing. All he needed was an order from the Field Marshal. But the vacillating commander could not bring himself to give it. Tresckow and Schlabrendorff therefore decided to take matters into their own hands.

They would simply plant one of their British-made bombs in Hitler’s plane on its return flight. “The semblance of an accident,” Schlabrendorff later explained, “would avoid the political disadvantages of a murder. For in those days Hitler still had many followers who, after such an event, would have put up a strong resistance to our revolt.”

Twice that afternoon and evening of March 13 after Hitler had arrived the two anti-Nazi officers were tempted to change their plan and set the bomb off, first in Kluge’s personal quarters, where Hitler conferred with the top generals of the army group, and later in the officers’ mess where the gathering supped.* But this would have killed some of the very generals who, once relieved of their personal oaths of allegiance to the Fuehrer, were counted upon to help the conspirators take over power in the Reich.

There still remained the task of smuggling the bomb onto the Fuehrer’s plane, which was due to take off immediately after dinner. Schlabrendorff had assembled what he calls “two explosive packets” and made of them one parcel which resembled a couple of brandy bottles. During the repast Tresckow had innocently asked a Colonel Heinz Brandt of the Army General Staff, who was in Hitler’s party, whether he would be good enough to take back a present of two bottles of brandy to his old friend General Helmuth Stieff, who was chief of the Organization Branch of the Army High Command. The unsuspecting Brandt said he would be glad to.

At the airfield Schlabrendorff nervously reached through a small opening in his parcel, started the mechanism of the time bomb and handed it to Brandt as he boarded the Fuehrer’s plane. This was a cleverly built weapon. It had no telltale clockwork. When the young officer pressed on a button it broke a small bottle, releasing a corrosive chemical which then ate away a wire that held back a spring. When the wire gave out, the spring pressed forward the striker, which hit a detonator that exploded the bomb.

The crash, Schlabrendorff says, was expected shortly after Hitler’s plane passed over Minsk, about thirty minutes’ flying time from Smolensk. Feverish with excitement, he rang up Berlin and by code informed the conspirators that Flash had begun. Then he and Tresckow waited with pounding hearts for the great news. They expected the first word would come by radio from one of the fighter planes which was escorting the Fuehrer’s plane. They counted off the minutes, twenty, thirty, forty, an hour … and still there was no word. It came more than two hours later. A routine message said that Hitler had landed at Rastenburg.

We were stunned, and could not imagine the cause of the failure [Schlabrendorff later recounted]. I immediately rang up Berlin and gave the code word indicating that the attempt had miscarried. Then Tresckow and I consulted as to what action to take next. We were deeply shaken. It was serious enough that the attempt had not succeeded. But even worse would be the discovery of the bomb, which would unfailingly lead to our detection and the death of a wide circle of close collaborators.

The bomb was never discovered. That night Tresckow rang up Colonel Brandt, inquired casually whether he had had time to deliver his parcel to General Stieff and was told by Brandt that he had not yet got around to it. Tresckow told him to hold it—there had been a mistake in the bottles—and that Schlabrendorff would be arriving the next day on some official business and would bring the really good brandy that he had intended to send.

With incredible courage Schlabrendorff flew to Hitler’s headquarters and exchanged a couple of bottles of brandy for the bomb.

I can still recall my horror [he later related] when Brandt handed me the bomb and gave it a jerk that made me fear a belated explosion. Feigning a composure I did not feel I took the bomb, immediately got into a car, and drove to the neighboring railway junction of Korschen.

There he caught the night train to Berlin and in the privacy of his sleeping compartment dismantled the bomb. He quickly discovered what had happened—or rather, why nothing had happened.

The mechanism had worked; the small bottle had broken; the corrosive fluid had consumed the wire; the striker had hit forward; but—the detonator had not fired.

Bitterly disappointed but not discouraged, the conspirators in Berlin decided to make a fresh attempt on Hitler’s life. A good occasion soon presented itself. Hitler, accompanied by Goering, Himmler and Keitel, was due to be present at the Heroes’ Memorial Day (Heldengedenktag) ceremonies on March 21 at the Zeughaus in Berlin. Here was an opportunity to get not only the Fuehrer but his chief associates. As Colonel Freiherr von Gersdorff, chief of intelligence on Kluge’s staff, later said, “This was a chance which would never recur.” Gersdorff had been selected by Tresckow to handle the bomb, and this time it would have to be a suicidal mission. The plan was for the colonel to conceal in his overcoat pockets two bombs, set the fuses, stay as close to Hitler during the ceremony as possible and blow the Fuehrer and his entourage as well as himself to eternity. With conspicuous bravery Gersdorff readily volunteered to sacrifice his life.

On the evening of March 20 he met with Schlabrendorff in his room at the Eden Hotel in Berlin. Schlabrendorff had brought two bombs with ten-minute fuses. But because of the near-freezing temperature in the glassed-over courtyard of the Zeughaus it might take from fifteen to twenty minutes before the weapons exploded. It was in this courtyard that Hitler, after his speech, was scheduled to spend half an hour examining an exhibition of captured Russian war trophies which Gersdorff’s staff had arranged. It was the only place where the colonel could get close enough to the Fuehrer to kill him.

Gersdorff later recounted what happened.7

The next day I carried in each of my overcoat pockets a bomb with a ten-minute fuse. I intended to stay as close to Hitler as I could, so that he at least would be blown to pieces by the explosion. When Hitler … entered the exhibitional hall, Schmundt came across to me and said that only eight or ten minutes were to be spent on inspecting the exhibits. So the possibility of carrying out the assassination no longer existed, since even if the temperature had been normal the fuse needed at least ten minutes. This last-minute change of schedule, which was typical of Hitler’s subtle security methods, had once again saved him his life.*

General von Tresckow, Gersdorff says, was anxiously and expectantly following the broadcast of the ceremonies from Smolensk, “a stop watch in his hand.” When the broadcaster announced that Hitler had left the hall only eight minutes after he had entered it, the General knew that still another attempt had failed.

There were at least three further “overcoat” attempts at Hitler’s life, as the conspirators called them, and each, as we shall see, was similarly frustrated.

Early in 1943 there was one spontaneous uprising in Germany which, though small in itself, helped to revive the flagging spirits of the resistance, whose every attempt to remove Hitler had been thus far thwarted. It also served as a warning of how ruthless the Nazi authorities could be in putting down the least sign of opposition.

The university students in Germany, as we have seen, had been among the most fanatical of Nazis in the early Thirties. But ten years of Hitler’s rule had brought disillusionment, and this was sharpened by the failure of Germany to win the war and particularly, as 1943 came, by the disaster at Stalingrad. The University of Munich, the city that had given birth to Nazism, became the hotbed of student revolt. It was led by a twenty-five-year-old medical student, Hans Scholl, and his twenty-one-year-old sister, Sophie, who was studying biology. Their mentor was Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy. By means of what became known as the “White Rose Letters” they carried out their anti-Nazi propaganda in other universities; they were also in touch with the plotters in Berlin.

One day in February 1943, the Gauleiter of Bavaria, Paul Giesler, to whom the Gestapo had brought a file of the letters, convoked the student body, announced that the physically unfit males—the able-bodied had been drafted into the Army—would be put to some kind of more useful war work, and with a leer suggested that the women students bear a child each year for the good of the Fatherland.

“If some of the girls,” he added, “lack sufficient charm to find a mate, I will assign each of them one of my adjutants … and I can promise her a thoroughly enjoyable experience.”

The Bavarians are noted for their somewhat coarse humor, but this vulgarity was too much for the students. They howled the Gauleiter down and tossed out of the hall the Gestapo and S.S. men who had come to guard him. That afternoon there were anti-Nazi student demonstrations in the streets of Munich, the first that had ever occurred in the Third Reich. Now the students, led by the Scholls, began to distribute pamphlets openly calling on German youth to rise. On February 19 a building superintendent observed Hans and Sophie Scholl hurling their leaflets from the balcony of the university and betrayed them to the Gestapo.

Their end was quick and barbaric. Haled before the dreaded People’s Court, which was presided over by its president, Roland Freisler, perhaps the most sinister and bloodthirsty Nazi in the Third Reich after Heydrich (he will appear again in this narrative), they were found guilty of treason and condemned to death. Sophie Scholl was handled so roughly during her interrogation by the Gestapo that she appeared in court with a broken leg. But her spirit was undimmed. To Freisler’s savage browbeating she answered calmly, “You know as well as we do that the war is lost. Why are you so cowardly that you won’t admit it?”

She hobbled on her crutches to the scaffold and died with sublime courage, as did her brother. Professor Huber and several other students were executed a few days later.8

This was a reminder to the conspirators in Berlin of the danger that confronted them at a time when the indiscreetness of some of the leaders was becoming a source of constant worry to the others. Goerdeler himself was much too talkative. The efforts of Popitz to sound out Himmler and other high S.S. officers on joining the conspiracy were risky in the extreme. The inimitable Weizsaecker, who after the war liked to picture himself as such a staunch resister, became so frightened that he broke off all contact with his close friend Hassell, whom he accused (along with Frau von Hassell) of being “unbelievably indiscreet” and whom, he warned, the Gestapo was shadowing.*

The Gestapo was watching a good many others, especially the breezy, confident Goerdeler, but the blow which it dealt the conspirators immediately after the frustrating month of March 1943 during which their two attempts to kill Hitler had miscarried came, ironically, as the result not so much of expert sleuthing but of the rivalry between the two intelligence services, the Wehrmacht’s Abwehr and Himmler’s R.S.H.A.—the Central Security Office—which ran the S.S. secret service, and which wanted to depose Admiral Canaris and take over his Abwehr.

In the autumn of 1942, a Munich businessman had been arrested for smuggling foreign currency across the border into Switzerland. He was actually an Abwehr agent, but the money he had long been taking over the frontier had gone to a group of Jewish refugees in Switzerland. This was the height of crime for a German in the Third Reich to commit even if he were an Abwehr agent. When Canaris failed to protect this agent, he began to tell the Gestapo what he knew of the Abwehr. He implicated Hans von Dohnanyi, who, with Colonel Oster, had been in the inner circle of the plotters. He told Himmler’s men of the mission of Dr. Josef Mueller to the Vatican in 1940 when contact was made with the British through the Pope. He revealed Pastor Bonhoeffer’s visit to the Bishop of Chichester at Stockholm in 1942 on a false passport issued by the Abwehr. He hinted at Oster’s various schemes to get rid of Hitler.

After months of investigation the Gestapo acted. Dohnanyi, Mueller and Bonhoeffer were arrested on April 5, 1943, and Oster, who had managed to destroy most of the incriminating papers in the meantime, was forced to resign in December from the Abwehr and placed under house arrest in Leipzig.*

This was a staggering blow to the conspiracy. Oster—“a man such as God meant men to be, lucid and serene in mind, imperturbable in danger,” as Schlabrendorff said of him—had been one of the key figures since 1938 in the attempt to get Hitler, and Dohnanyi, a jurist by profession, had been a resourceful assistant. Bonhoeffer, the Protestant, and Mueller, the Catholic, had not only brought a great spiritual force to the resistance but had given an example of individual courage in their various missions abroad—as they were to do in their refusal, even after the torture which followed their arrests, to betray their comrades.

But most serious of all, with the breakup of the Abwehr the plotters lost their “cover” and the principal means of communication with each other, with the hesitant generals and with their friends in the West.

Some further discoveries by Himmler’s sleuths put the Abwehr and its chief, Canaris, out of business altogether within a few months.

One sprang out of what came to be known in Nazi circles as “the Frau Solf Tea Party,” which took place on September 10, 1943. Frau Anna Solf, the widow of a former Colonial Minister under Wilhelm II who had also served as ambassador to Japan under the Weimar Republic, had long presided over an anti-Nazi salon in Berlin. To it came often a number of distinguished guests, who included Countess Hanna von Bredow, the granddaughter of BismarckCount Albrecht von Bernstorff, the nephew of the German ambassador to the United States during the First World War, Father Erxleben, a well-known Jesuit priest, Otto Kiep, a high official in the Foreign Office, who once had been dismissed as German consul general in New York for attending a public luncheon in honor of Professor Einstein but who eventually had got himself reinstated in the diplomatic service, and Elisabeth von Thadden, a sparkling and deeply religious woman who ran a famous girls’ school at Weiblingen, near Heidelberg.

To the tea party at Frau Solf’s on September 10 Fräulein von Thadden brought an attractive young Swiss doctor named Reckse, who practiced at the Charité Hospital in Berlin under Professor Sauerbruch. Like most Swiss Dr. Reckse expressed bitter anti-Nazi sentiments, in which he was joined by the others present, especially by Kiep. Before the tea party was over the good doctor had volunteered to carry any letters which Frau Solf or her guests wished to send to their friends in Switzerland—German anti-Nazi émigrés and British and American diplomatic officials—an offer which was quickly taken up by more than one present.

Unfortunately for them Dr. Reckse was an agent of the Gestapo, to whom he turned over several incriminating letters as well as a report on the tea party.

Count von Moltke learned of this through a friend in the Air Ministry who had tapped a number of telephone conversations between the Swiss doctor and the Gestapo, and he quickly warned his friend Kiep, who tipped off the rest of the Solf circle. But Himmler had his evidence. He waited four months to act on it, perhaps hoping to widen his net. On January 12, everyone who had been at the tea party was arrested, tried and executed, except Frau Solf and her daughter, the Countess Ballestrem.* The Solfs were confined at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp and miraculously escaped death. Count von Moltke, implicated with his friend Kiep, was also arrested at this time. But that was not the only consequence of Kiep’s arrest. The repercussions spread as far as Turkey and paved the way for the final liquidation of the Abwehr and the turning over of its functions to Himmler.

Among Kiep’s close anti-Nazi friends were Erich Vermehren and his stunningly beautiful wife, the former Countess Elisabeth von Plettenberg, who like other opponents of the regime had joined the Abwehr and who had been posted as its agents in Istanbul. Both were summoned to Berlin by the Gestapo to be interrogated in the Kiep case. Knowing what fate was in store for them, they refused, got in touch with the British secret service at the beginning of February 1944 and were flown to Cairo and thence to England.

It was believed in Berlin—though it turned out not to be true—that the Vermehrens had absconded with all the Abwehr’s secret codes and handed them over to the British. This was the last straw for Hitler, coming after the arrests of Dohnanyi and others in the Abwehr and coupled with his growing suspicion of Canaris. On February 18, 1944, he ordered that the Abwehr be dissolved and its functions taken over by R.S.H.A. This was a new feather in the cap of Himmler, whose war against the Army officer corps went back to his faking charges against General von Fritsch in 1938. It deprived the armed forces of any intelligence service of their own. It enhanced Himmler’s power over the generals. It was also a further blow to the conspirators, who were now left without any secret service whatsoever through which to work.*

They had not ceased trying to kill Hitler. Between September 1943 and January 1944 another half-dozen attempts were organized. In August Jakob Wallenberg had come to Berlin to see Goerdeler, who assured him that all preparations were now ready for a coup in September and that Schlabrendorff would then arrive in Stockholm to meet a representative of Mr. Churchill to discuss peace.

“I was awaiting the month of September with great suspense,” the Swedish banker later told Allen Dulles. “It passed without anything happening.”9

A month later General Stieff, the sharp-tongued hunchback to whom Tresckow had sent the two bottles of “brandy” and whom Himmler later referred to as “a little poisoned dwarf,” arranged to plant a time bomb at Hitler’s noon military conference at Rastenburg, but at the last moment got cold feet. A few days later his store of English bombs which he had received from the Abwehr and hidden under a watch tower in the headquarters enclosure exploded, and it was only because an Abwehr colonel, Werner Schrader, who was in on the conspiracy, was entrusted by Hitler with the investigation that the plotters were not discovered.

In November another “overcoat” attempt was organized. A twenty-four-year-old infantry captain, Axel von dem Bussche, was selected by the conspirators to “model” a new Army overcoat and assault pack which Hitler had ordered designed and now wanted to personally inspect before approving for manufacture. Bussche, in order to avoid Gersdorff’s failure, decided to carry in the pockets of his model overcoat two German bombs which would go off a few seconds after the fuse was set. His plan was to grab Hitler as he was inspecting the new overcoat and blow the two of them to pieces.

The day before the demonstration an Allied bomb destroyed the models, and Bussche returned to his company on the Russian front. He was back at Hitler’s headquarters in December for a fresh attempt with new models, when the Fuehrer suddenly decided to leave for Berchtesgaden for the Christmas holidays. Shortly afterward Bussche was badly wounded at the front, so another young front-line infantry officer was pressed into service to substitute for him. This was Heinrich von Kleist, son of Ewald von Kleist—the latter one of the oldest conspirators. The demonstration of the new overcoat was set for February 11, 1944, but the Fuehrer for some reason—Dulles says it was because of an air raid—failed to appear.*

By this time the plotters had come to the conclusion that Hitler’s technique of constantly changing his schedules called for a drastic overhauling of their own plans. It was realized that the only occasions on which he could definitely be counted to appear were his twice-daily military conferences with the generals of OKW and OKH. He would have to be killed at one of them. On December 26, 1943, a young officer by the name of Stauffenberg, deputizing for General Olbricht, appeared at the Rastenburg headquarters for the noon conference, at which he was to make a report on Army replacements. In his briefcase was a time bomb. The meeting was canceled. Hitler had left to have his Christmas on the Obersalzberg.

This was the first such attempt by the handsome young lieutenant colonel, but not the last. For in Klaus Philip Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg, the anti-Nazi conspirators had at last found their man. Henceforth he would not only take over the job of killing Hitler by his own hand in the only way that now seemed possible but would breathe new life and light and hope and zeal into the conspiracy and become its real, though never nominal, leader.

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