How did Hitler’s deputy come to be piloting an unarmed fighter-bomber at high speed in fading light over Southern Scotland in the middle of a world war?
Was he duped by the British into attempting the solo peace mission that landed him in prisons for the rest of his long life?
Or was the daring 900-mile flight part of a misfiring coup d’état by certain well-known high Tories attempting to achieve a ceasefire with Nazi Germany by removing Churchill as war leader?
The events of May 10, 1941, six weeks before the German invasion of Russia, remain so murky that professional historians usually give the affair a wide berth, seeing the disastrous peace mission by Rudolf Hess as an elephant trap of the kind that had wrecked the careers of men as respectable as Hugh Trevor Roper and men as devious as David Irving.
The fate of Rupert Murdoch’s bogus Hitler Diaries and the outcome of the Irving libel trial, as told in the new film Denial, remind us what happens to a historian when the world learns, beyond all doubt, that he told it wrong.
Stalin’s disastrous misreading of the meaning of the Hess Flight undoubtedly led to the death of most of the 23 million Soviet citizens who died in the war that Hitler unleashed on June 22.
Churchill was in a jam. He had just survived a dangerous Commons confidence motion on May 7, 1941.
When asked in the Commons, three days after Hess crash landed in Scotland, why the minister of information was not handling with skill and imagination the news of the flight to this country of this very high and important Nazi leader, the most eloquent of all British war leaders could only give a cryptic reply: ‘I think this is one of these cases where imagination is somewhat baffled by the facts as they present themselves.’
The post-war Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev [left], political commissar at the Battle of Stalingrad, said he had dared to discuss the Hess mission with Stalin by suggesting:
‘The Germans are hiding something. I don’t think Hess’s flight to England is really an escape from Germany at all. I think he must actually be on a secret mission from Hitler to negotiate with the English about cutting short the war in the West to free Hitler’s hands for the push East.’
‘Stalin heard me out and then said, “Yes, that’s it. You understand correctly.” He didn’t develop his thoughts on the subject further. He just agreed. We had long since become accustomed to the practice that if you weren’t told something, you didn’t ask.’
At a 1944 meeting in Moscow, Stalin taunted Churchill. When Stalin suggested Churchill had known about the Hess flight before it happened, Churchill snapped: ‘When I make a statement of facts within my knowledge I expect it to be accepted.’
Stalin grinned and said, ‘There are lots of things that happen, even here in Russia, which our secret service does not necessarily tell me about.’
When the Cold War warmed in the first days of Gorbachev’s perestroika, historians criss-crossed the old Iron Curtain, mounting research expeditions into each other’s archives.
For the British, the evidence in their archives of a conspiracy behind the Hess Flight was an unexploded bomb, quite as dangerous as the NKVD archive on the mass murder of Polish POWs in the Katyn Forest, or the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, or the FBI and CIA records on conspiracies before the assassination of JFK.
John Costello, backed by a New York budget, was first into the KGB archives, working with former KGB colonel Oleg Tsarev to deliver in 1991 Ten Days That Saved The West a book in which Costello supported the Russian suspicions that the British had plotted to lure Hitler into attacking Russia.
The book sold well in the USA with a sub-title, The Secret Story of the Hess Peace Initiative and British Efforts to Strike a Deal With Hitler. Four years later Costello, 52, was found dead in his airline seat, flying home to Miami from London. Shellfish poisoning was suggested but the Dade County toxicology tests were inconclusive.
In the opposite direction came Professor Oleg Rzheshevsky, president of the Russian Association of World War II Historians. I can remember seeing the professor in a London hotel after he asked to meet Hugh Thomas, the former British army surgeon whose daring 1979 book The Murder of Rudolf Hess had ingeniously argued that the lonely last prisoner of Spandau in Berlin was not in fact Hess, but a double, substituted with the connivance of British intelligence.
Rzheshevsky seemed scandalised that unlike the files of the KGB, the British files on Hess were by act of parliament closed for research until 2017.
To be in that international pre-internet group of self-appointed investigators was often exciting. Censored wartime pictures and documents were turning up in newspaper offices. Former fighter pilots were still around, telling stories that didn’t fit the shaky official version. MPs frequently accused the Foreign Office minister Lynda Chalker of obsessive secrecy.
Doug McRoberts, official historian of 602 City of Glasgow fighter squadron, reported that a Spitfire scramble by the RAF fighter ace Al Deere recorded in his pilot’s log book on May 10 was unrecorded in the squadron operations record book.
Between 1973 and 1978 the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6, the man then known only as ‘C’, was a real historian.
Maurice Oldfield had studied history under A.J.P. Taylor at Manchester, earning a fellowship in mediaeval history before being diverted into spying by the onset of the Second World War. The former mediaevalist once admitted being a socialist ‘of the Piers Plowman kind.’
Brewesters and baksters, bochiers and cokes
For thise are men on this molde that moost harm wercheth?
To the povere people
When the British army bullet wound surgeon Major Hugh Thomas was serving in Northern Ireland, Oldfield took him as his assistant on dangerous secret negotiations south of the border.
In return Sir Maurice removed a most secret Foreign Office file on Hess and passed it to Thomas to ‘save it from the weeders for the sake of the historians’. The Dutch film maker Karel Hille took the file abroad for safety.
There were many setbacks. The late Roy McHardy of BBC Scotland found a Scottish doctor who had been asked by Churchill to check for First World War bullet wound scars on the chest of the German pilot. A lorry on a roundabout killed the old doctor and his wife as they drove into the Glasgow studio to record an interview.
McHardy battled on, gathering new Scottish eyewitnesses until the BBC ordered a London team from Timewatch to take over the project. They too had their problems. A freelance producer cracked under political pressure and had to be replaced by the Official Historian of the Security Service (MI5).
Dr Matthias Uhl of the Deutsches Historisches Institut Moskau unveiled in 2011 a chilling document found in the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The Russians had been hiding for 63 years a 28-page notebook said to have been hand-written in captivity by Hess’s adjutant Karlheinz Pintsch, the man ordered to break the news of the Hess Flight to Hitler. Pintsch had been arrested at Berchtesgaden, interrogated in Berlin by ‘Gestapo’ Muller, jailed by the SS, sent to the Russian front in 1944, captured by the Russians and betrayed by a fellow POW. In the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow the NKVD broke all his fingers to make him talk. The words in the 1948 notebook, translated for the attention of Stalin, say ‘Hitler calmly listened to my report and dismissed me without comment.’
The notebook says Hess flew ‘by prior arrangement with the English’ to ‘use all means at his disposal to achieve, if not a German military alliance with England against Russia, at least the neutralization of England.’
But some phrases in the notebook have an ominous ring of the jargon used by Russian torturers:
The facts I am reporting confirm that England, by promoting Hitler’s aggression against Soviet Russia, acted in accordance with its old principle of using foreign hands to remove the chestnuts from the fire.
In 1955 James Leasor, Lord Beaverbrook’s private secretary and foreign correspondent, found Pintsch among 600 newly-released POWs at Camp Friedland in West Germany. But during several interviews Pintsch, a man with broken fingers, appears to have said nothing to Leasor about Hitler being involved in the planning of the Hess mission.
The popular historian Peter Padfield stepped into this dangerous minefield in 1991 with Hess: Flight for the Führer and in 2015 with Hess, Hitler and Churchill: the real turning point of the Second World War.
Padfield found an un-named academic who had worked during the war at the BBC in Portland Place. The man had analysed documents found in a field after Hess crashed the plane near Glasgow. The academic told Padfield there had been a draft peace treaty, typed on Reichskanzlerei paper with numbered clauses and an attached English translation.
‘This was not a renegade plot. Hitler had sent Hess and he brought over a fully developed peace treaty for Germany to evacuate all the occupied countries in the West.’
But Roger Moorhouse, author of Killing Hitler, concluded rather sadly in History Today:
Padfield argues that this approach was ruthlessly covered up, largely for fear of undermining Britain’s moral case and scuppering Churchill’s efforts to bring the US in to the European theatre.
This is broadly plausible. However, in building his case, Padfield is forced to rely almost exclusively on circumstantial evidence. Understandably, perhaps, he has the barest scraps of archival sources, but the evidence that he presents is largely a melange of lost letters, missing documents, anonymous informants and unreliable witnesses.
Padfield also examined fresh evidence gathered by Tony Marczan in post-Communist Prague where air historian Jirí Rajlich discovered from log books and interviews that two Czechoslovak RAF Hurricane pilots, Sgts Leopold Šrom and Václav Bauman [left & centre], reported receiving radio orders from RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland to break off their attack on Hess’s Bf110 on May 10, 1941.
Two yeoman historians have been at work in these boggy research fields for at least twenty years.
John Harris and Richard Wilbourn have defied the unexploded ordnance and conducted worldwide research, during absences from their careers in accountancy and farming, on a scale that would have bankrupted a professional popular historian.
Their fourth investigation, Rudolf Hess: Treachery and Deception, tracking the wartime activity of the art historian Carl Tancred Borenius is said to have ‘proved that no single spymaster knew the whole story’.
Tancred Borenius. I remembered that magnificent name in a sort of Adlestrop way from the spine of a heavy 1938 art history that stood unopened for decades in one of my father’s bookcases.
‘Tancred Borenius was certainly not James Bond’, says John Harris. ‘He was not even British.’
He was a Finn, born in Vyborg on the Karelian isthmus in 1885 and a friend of Queen Mary. He was hired by a ruthless MI6 spymaster for a dangerous wartime mission to Switzerland and silenced after the war in a mental hospital.
The Borenius mission to Geneva came to light in the diaries of Ulrich von Hassell, an anti-Nazi German diplomat executed after the plot to kill Hitler in 1944. Most of his diaries were buried in the garden of his house in Ebenhausen, near Munich. Some were hidden in Switzerland. Von Hassell wrote in January 1941 that Carl Burckhardt of the Swiss Red Cross had ‘looked me up in Geneva’.
Von Hassell noted in the diary that ‘very recently’ Tancred Borenius had come to Geneva to explain ‘apparently on behalf of English officials, that a reasonable peace could still be concluded’.
Burckhardt was an old friend of the German geographer and diplomat Albrecht Haushofer, a protégé of Rudolf Hess, who had been writing letters in wartime to another old friend in Scotland, at Hess’s request.
Haushofer’s old friend ‘Douglo’ was the Duke of Hamilton, a serving squadron leader at RAF Turnhouse, charged with the interception of enemy aircraft in Southern Scotland.
Hess believed he would be meeting Hamilton in Scotland if the perilous flight succeeded. But Harris and Wilbourn have new evidence to suggest that Haushofer was risking his own life by acting as a double agent for the British.
According to their earlier Technical Analysis of the Flight the three senior RAF officers in Scotland on May 10 had German and royal connections:
we can say for certain in respect of RAF command in Scotland that evening is that the commanding officer of No 13 Group was a German expert, the Duke of Hamilton in the Turnhouse sector had some significant links with Germany, and that the base commander at RAF Prestwick / Ayr was an extremely close friend of the Duke of Hamilton and the Duke of Kent, the brother of King George VI.
As Dr Albrecht Haushofer had suspected, British intelligence intercepted the letters in neutral Portugal.
At Hitler’s alpine headquarters on the morning of May 12, 1941, when neither Hitler nor Haushofer knew whether Hess had survived the flight, Hitler ordered Haushofer to write down a very long list of English Connections and the Possibility of Using Them.
The SS eventually murdered Haushofer a few days before the end of the war but his memorandum naming dozens of British aristocrats possibly inclined to striking an understanding with Nazi Germany has survived:
A leading group of younger Conservatives [many of them Scotsmen]. Among them are the Duke of Hamilton… the parliamentary private secretary of Neville Chamberlain, Lord Dunglass… Balfour… Lindsay… Wedderburn… Derby… Stanley… Astor… Samuel Hoare, at present English ambassador in Madrid.
Close ties link this circle with the Court. The younger brother of the Duke of Hamilton is closely related to the present Queen through his wife; the mother-in-law of the Duke of Hamilton, the Duchess of Northumberland, is the Mistress of the Robes; her brother-in-law, Lord Eustace Percy, was several times a member of the Cabinet and is still today and influential member of the Conservative Party [especially close to former Minister Baldwin…
There was hardly one of those named who was not at least occasionally in favour of a German – English understanding…
I wrote a letter to the Duke of Hamilton at the end of September 1940 and its dispatch to Lisbon was arranged by the Deputy Führer…
Then in April 1941 I received greetings from Switzerland from Carl Burckhardt, the former League of Nations Commissioner in Danzig and now Vice-President of the International Red Cross, whom I had also known well for years. He sent the message that he had greetings to pass on to me from someone in my old circle. I should please visit him some time in Geneva.
Reich Minister Hess decided that I should go to Geneva.
The von Hassell diaries were first published in 1948 as early evidence of the German wartime resistance to Hitler. Harris and Wilbourn were intrigued to find that the 2011 unexpurgated edition of the famous diaries revealed more about Borenius:
He has very intimate connections with the Royal House [principally with the Queen].
Harris and Wilbourn admit at first failing to perceive that von Hassell and Burckhardt were not talking about the wartime Queen of England, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, but about Queen Mary, widow of George V, an active art collector and grandmother of our present Queen Elizabeth II.
And then they got lucky. Borenius had died of a cerebral embolism and valvular heart disease in 1948 at Laverstock House, near Salisbury and when Harris examined the Salisbury phone book in 1998 he found a Borenius. It was Tancred’s son Lars Ulrich, a retired lawyer often known as Peter.
His father’s wartime trip had caused some [post event] amusement in the Borenius household on two accounts: firstly that he had been asked to deliver a ‘book’ to Switzerland, disguised as a novel, and secondly, that he had been given a poison pill the size of a golf ball.
Lars also told John Harris that he had been given the book by a ‘Claude Dansey’ prior to his departure. Upon its delivery there was much relief.
Had we been perhaps a little more alert and knowledgeable, we would of course have soon realized that Claude Dansey was the then deputy head of MI6…
After twenty years on the case, Harris and Wilbourn have drawn some important conclusions in this truly thrilling investigation.
The ‘book’ that Borenius carried to Switzerland was clearly one of the MI6 ‘one-time pads’ that the late Keith Jeffery, official historian of MI6, reported as being in ‘very short supply’ in Switzerland in 1941.
Harris and Wilbourn no longer accept Jeffery’s assurance that there were no signs in the archives of MI6 involvement in the Hess Flight. Harris told me last week:
We know that the Borenius mission was organised by MI6 under Dansey. Consequently, one can conclude that either MI6 destroyed the evidence, or Dansey operated outside his authority, or the Hess flight was an unforeseen consequence of the Borenius mission, rather than a direct result of the Borenius mission.‘
Ulrich von Hassell’s diary entry shows that Borenius delivered much more than a code book. He detailed terms under which a peace might still be possible in 1941, crucially with the restoration of some kind of Polish government in a divided Europe that would leave the British Empire untouched.
Borenius returned to London in March 1941 and lunched at the Dorchester with Colonel Victor Cazalet, MP for Chippenham and liaison officer to the exiled Polish Army in Britain, and with the Polish army’s commander-in-chief General Wladyslaw Sikorski, prime-minister of the Polish government in exile.
Secret peace talks between the British and Germans, in the absence of a Polish government, would have unnerved the thousands of exiled Poles in Britain. Many of the 40,000 Polish soldiers, airmen and sailors in Britain were stationed in Scotland.
Sikorski and Cazalet sailed for the USA soon after their meeting with Borenius. But on May 10, 1941, Sikorski took a terrible risk by flying in haste back to Britain from New York, via Gander in Newfoundland.
The general huddled aboard one of the very first operational B-24 Liberator bombers, tricky planes with a bad reputation for crashes. In July 1943 Sikorski and Cazalet were killed in a Liberator that crashed into the sea 46 seconds after take-off from Gibraltar.
On May 10, 1941, Sikorski’s new B-24 left Gander just thirty minutes after Hess took off from Augsburg in Bavaria in the modified Bf110 fighter bomber. Both were bound for Scotland.
But by the time Sikorski landed at RAF Prestwick at 11:30 on May 11, Hess had already been captured and interviewed in custody by the Duke of Hamilton.
No-one has yet explained why the first man to act as an interpreter for the as-yet unnamed pilot just happened to be Polish. The recently-appointed Polish consul in Glasgow, Roman Battaglia, turned up at the boy scouts hall in Giffnock barely an hour after Hess had fallen into the hands of the Glasgow Home Guard.
For Borenius the mission to Geneva was dangerous but probably lucrative.
Neutral Switzerland, the best gathering ground for intelligence out of Nazi Germany, was becoming increasingly isolated.
MI6 historian Keith Jeffery saw from MI6 records that the money paid to couriers prepared to cross Vichy France to reach Switzerland from neutral Portugal and Spain on neutral or forged passports was so generous that it was said to be ‘two journeys and retire for life’.
Borenius, who carried a Finnish passport but was never interned by the British, acted as guardian to Dolly Wilde, the ‘beautiful but frail’ niece of Oscar Wilde. Dolly’s biographer, Joan Schenkar, described Borenius to Harris and Wilbourn – ‘as adroit as a seal and just as slippery.’
Harris and Wilborn see Borenius as ‘a brilliant man whose story has remained uniquely hidden for over seventy years’.
It is not overstating his role to say that without it, a 1941 invasion of Britain would have been certainly more likely.
They have a shot at the vexed question of whether the British were using the slippery Finnish art historian to deceive Hitler, or whether Borenius was himself being used in a very dark British coup against Churchill, aborted only when Hess crashed the Bf110 in the wrong part of Scotland.
They argue convincingly that
There is now absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Hess was being actively ‘pulled’ to fly to Britain. The British, desperate to buy time so as to prevent invasion, had sent Borenius to Burckhardt in January 1941, under the pretext / cover of a Finnish diplomatic mission.
John Harris has found evidence of a Tory coup against Churchill and notes the cruel fate that awaited Borenius in post-war England.
In 1945 he lost the editorship of the Burlington Magazine. The mission to Geneva could never be acknowledged or honoured and the Russians had permanently occupied his native Karelia.
In the hard winter of 1946-7 a doctor sectioned him under the 1890 Lunacy Act:
Depressed, gloomy, pessimistic and apprehensive… suspicious of all those around him. I hereby certify that he is still of unsound mind and is a proper person to be detained under care and treatment.
Jema Publications £25 RRP on sale through Amazon and Ebay. ISBN:978 1 871468 94 6
Picture of Harris & Wilbourn in field by Helen Cara.