World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Assassination Attempt - The 20th July Plot
From Wikipedia
On 20 July 1944, an attempt was made to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Führer of the Third Reich, inside his Wolf's Lair field headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia. The plot was the culmination of the efforts of several groups in the German Resistance to overthrow the Nazi-led German government. The failure of both the assassination and the military coup d'état which was planned to follow it led to the arrest of at least 7,000 people by the Gestapo. According to records of the Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 4,980 of these were executed, resulting in the destruction of the organised resistance movement in Germany for the remainder of World War II
The Wolf's Lair Conference Room shortly after the explosion
Stauffenberg joins the conspirators

By mid-1943 the tide of war was turning decisively against Germany. The Army plotters and their civilian allies became convinced that Hitler should be assassinated, so that a government acceptable to the western Allies could be formed, and a separate peace negotiated in time to prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany. In August 1943 Tresckow met, for the first time, a young staff officer named Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Badly wounded in North Africa, Count von Stauffenberg was a political conservative, a zealous German nationalist and a Roman Catholic. From early in 1942, he had come to share two basic convictions with many military officers: that Germany was being led to disaster, and that Hitler's removal from power was necessary. After the Battle of Stalingrad in December, 1942, despite his religious scruples, he concluded that the Führer's assassination was a lesser moral evil than Hitler's remaining in power. Stauffenberg brought a new tone of decisiveness to the ranks of the resistance movement. When Tresckow was assigned to the Eastern Front, Stauffenberg took charge of planning and executing the assassination attempt.
Stauffenberg
Olbricht now put forward a new strategy for staging a coup against Hitler. The Reserve Army (Ersatzheer) had an operational plan called Operation Walküre (Valkyrie), which was to be used in the event that the disruption caused by the Allied bombing of German cities caused a breakdown in law and order, or an uprising by the millions of forced labourers from occupied countries now being used in German factories. Olbricht suggested that this plan could be used to mobilise the Reserve Army for the purpose of the coup. In August and September 1943, Colonel Henning von Tresckow drafted the "revised" Valkyrie plan and new supplementary orders.

A secret declaration began with words: "The Führer Adolf Hitler is dead! A treacherous group of party leaders has attempted to exploit the situation by attacking our embattled soldiers from the rear in order to seize power for themselves."
Detailed instructions were written for occupation of government ministries in Berlin, Himmler's headquarters in East Prussia, radio stations and telephone offices, and other Nazi apparatus through military districts, and concentration camps. Previously, it was believed that Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg was mainly responsible for the Valkyrie plan, but documents recovered by the Soviet Union after the war and released in 2007 suggest the plan that was detailed was developed by Tresckow by autumn of 1943. All written information was handled by Tresckow's wife, Erika, and by Margarete von Oven, his secretary. Both women wore gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. Operation Valkyrie could only be put into effect by General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army, so he must either be won over to the conspiracy or in some way neutralised if the plan was to succeed. Fromm, like many senior officers, knew in general about the military conspiracies against Hitler but neither supported them nor reported them to the Gestapo.
Friedrich Fromm
Previous failed attempts
During 1943 and early 1944 there were at least four failed attempts organised by von Tresckow and von Stauffenberg to get one of the military conspirators near enough to Hitler for long enough to kill him with hand grenades, bombs or a revolver:
    •    in March 1943 by Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff
    •    in late November 1943 by Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche-Streithorst
    •    in February 1944 by Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin
    •    on 11 March 1944 by Eberhard Freiherr von Breitenbuch
But this task was becoming increasingly difficult. As the war situation deteriorated, Hitler no longer appeared in public and rarely visited Berlin. He spent most of his time at his headquarters at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) near Rastenburg in East Prussia, with occasional breaks at his Bavarian mountain retreat Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden. In both places he was heavily guarded and rarely saw people he did not know or trust. Himmler and the Gestapo were increasingly suspicious of plots against Hitler, and specifically suspected the officers of the General Staff, which was indeed the source of many active conspiracies against Hitler's life.

By the summer of 1944, the Gestapo was closing in on the conspirators. There was a sense that time was running out, both on the battlefield, where the Eastern front was in full retreat and where the Allies had landed in France on 6 June, and in Germany, where the resistance's room for manoeuvre was rapidly contracting. The belief that this was the last chance for action seized the conspirators. By this time, the core of the conspirators had begun to think of themselves as doomed men, whose actions were more symbolic than real. The purpose of the conspiracy came to be seen by some of them as saving the honour of themselves, their families, the army, and Germany through a grand, if futile gesture, rather than actually altering the course of history.

The conspirators scored a major coup in early July when they managed to initiate Erwin Rommel, the famed "Desert Fox", into their ranks. Rommel was by far the most popular officer in Germany, and was also the first active-duty field marshal to lend support to the plot (Witzleben had been inactive since 1942). Although Rommel felt he had to, as he put it, "come to the rescue of Germany", he thought killing Hitler would make him a martyr. Instead, he wanted Hitler arrested and hauled before a court-martial for his many crimes.

When Stauffenberg sent Tresckow a message through Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort asking whether there was any reason for trying to assassinate Hitler given that no political purpose would be served, Tresckow's response was: "The assassination must be attempted, coûte que coûte [whatever the cost]. Even if it fails, we must take action in Berlin. For the practical purpose no longer matters; what matters now is that the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world and of history. Compared to that, nothing else matters."

Carl Friedrich Goerdeler
Himmler had at least one conversation with a known oppositionist when, in August 1943, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, who was involved in Goerdeler's network, came to see him and offered him the support of the opposition if he would make a move to displace Hitler and secure a negotiated end to the war. Nothing came of this meeting, but Popitz was not arrested and Himmler apparently did nothing to track down the resistance network which he knew was operating within the state bureaucracy. It is possible that Himmler, who by late 1943 knew that the war was unwinnable, allowed the plot to go ahead in the knowledge that if it succeeded he would be Hitler's successor, and could then bring about a peace settlement. Popitz was not alone in seeing in Himmler a potential ally.

At Rastenburg on 15 July 1944. Stauffenberg at left, Hitler center, Keitel on right
It is possible that Himmler, who by late 1943 knew that the war was unwinnable, allowed the plot to go ahead in the knowledge that if it succeeded he would be Hitler's successor, and could then bring about a peace settlement. Popitz was not alone in seeing in Himmler a potential ally.

General von Bock advised Tresckow to seek his support, but there is no evidence that he did so. Goerdeler was apparently also in indirect contact with Himmler via a mutual acquaintance Carl Langbehn. Wilhelm Canaris biographer Heinz Höhne suggests that Canaris and Himmler were working together to bring about a change of regime, but all of this remains speculation.

On the other hand, Tresckow and the inner circle of plotters had no intention of removing Hitler just to see him replaced by the dreaded and ruthless SS chief, and the plan was to kill them both if possible – to the extent that Stauffenberg's first attempt on 11 July was aborted because Himmler was not present.

Countdown to Stauffenberg's attempt

1–6 July
On Saturday 1 July 1944 Stauffenberg was appointed chief of staff to General Fromm at the Reserve Army headquarters on Bendlerstraße in central Berlin. This position enabled Stauffenberg to attend Hitler's military conferences, either at the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia or at Berchtesgaden, and would thus give him an opportunity, perhaps the last that would present itself, to kill Hitler with a bomb or a pistol. Meanwhile new key allies had been gained. These included General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the German military commander in France, who would take control in Paris when Hitler was killed and, it was hoped, negotiate an immediate armistice with the invading Allied armies.

7–14 July
The plot was now fully prepared. On 7 July 1944 General Stieff was to kill Hitler at a display of new uniforms at Klessheim castle near Salzburg. However, Stieff felt unable to kill Hitler. Stauffenberg now decided to do both: to assassinate Hitler, wherever he was, and to manage the plot in Berlin. On 11 July Stauffenberg attended Hitler's conferences carrying a bomb in his briefcase, but because the conspirators had decided that Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring should be killed simultaneously if the planned mobilisation of Operation Valkyrie was to have a chance to succeed, he held back at the last minute because Himmler was not present. In fact, it was unusual for Himmler to attend military conferences.[3]
15 July: Aborted attempt

By 15 July, when Stauffenberg again flew to the Wolfsschanze, this condition had been dropped. The plan was for Stauffenberg to plant the briefcase with the bomb in Hitler's conference room with a timer running, excuse himself from the meeting, wait for the explosion, then fly back to Berlin and join the other plotters at the Bendlerblock. Operation Valkyrie would be mobilised, the Reserve Army would take control of Germany and the other Nazi leaders would be arrested. Beck would be appointed provisional head of state, Goerdeler would be chancellor, and Witzleben would be commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Again on 15 July the attempt was called off at the last minute. Himmler and Göring were present, but Hitler was called out of the room at the last moment. Stauffenberg was able to intercept the bomb and prevent its discovery.

17 July: Erwin Rommel strafed
On 17 July, Erwin Rommel's staffcar was strafed by a Spitfire in France. The Field Marshal was hospitalized with major head injuries.

20 July:
Operation Valkyrie initiated

On 18 July rumours reached Stauffenberg that the Gestapo had wind of the conspiracy and that he might be arrested at any time – this was apparently not true, but there was a sense that the net was closing in and that the next opportunity to kill Hitler must be taken because there might not be another. At 10:00 on 20 July Stauffenberg flew back to the Wolfsschanze for another Hitler military conference, once again with a bomb in his briefcase.

At around 12:30 as the conference began, Stauffenberg made an excuse to use a washroom in Wilhelm Keitel's office where he used pliers to crush the end of a pencil detonator inserted into a 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) block of plastic explosive wrapped in brown paper, that was prepared by Wessel von Freytag-Loringhoven.

The detonator consisted of a thin copper tube containing acid that would take about ten minutes to silently eat through wire holding back the firing pin from the percussion cap. He then placed the primed bomb quickly inside his briefcase, having been told his presence was required. He entered the conference room and with the unwitting assistance of Major Ernst John von Freyend placed his briefcase under the table around which Hitler and more than 20 officers had gathered.

After a few minutes, Stauffenberg received a planned phone call and left the room. It is presumed that Colonel Heinz Brandt, who was standing next to Hitler, used his foot to move the briefcase aside by pushing it behind the leg of the conference table, thus unwittingly deflecting the blast from Hitler but causing his own death with the loss of one of his legs when the bomb detonated. Between 12:40 and 12:50 the bomb detonated, demolishing the conference room. Three officers and the stenographer were seriously injured and died soon after. Hitler survived, as did everyone else who was shielded from the blast by the conference table leg. Hitler's trousers were singed and tattered and he suffered from a perforated eardrum, as did most of the other 24 people in the room.

Participants at the meeting

    •    Adolf Hitler (1)
    •    Lieutenant-General Adolf Heusinger - Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Army (2)
    •    General Günther Korten - Chief of General Staff of the Air Force (3) †
    •    Colonel Heinz Brandt - Aide to General Heusinger (4) †
    •    General Karl Bodenschatz - Hermann Göring's liaison officer at Führer Headquarters (5)
    •    Lieutenant-Colonel Heinz Waizenegger - Senior staff officer to Jodl (6)
    •    General Rudolf Schmundt - Chief of the Army Staff Office (7) †
    •    Lieutenant-Colonel Heinrich Borgmann - Hitler's army adjutant (8)
    •    General Walther Buhle - Chief of Army Staff at the OKW (9)
    •    Rear Admiral Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer - Hitler's naval adjutant (10)
    •    Stenographer Heinz Berger (11) †
    •    Captain Heinz Assmann - Naval staff officer in the OKW (12)
    •    Major Ernst John von Freyend - Keitel's adjutant (13)
    •    Major-General Walter Scherff - OKW historian (14)
    •    Rear Admiral Hans-Erich Voss - Naval liaison officer at Führer Headquarters (15)
    •    Otto Günsche - Hitler's SS adjutant (16)
    •    Colonel Nicolaus von Below - Hitler's air force adjutant (17)

•    Lieutenant-General Hermann Fegelein - Waffen-SS representative at Führer Headquarters (18)
    •    Stenographer Heinz Buchholz (19)
    •    Major Herbert Büchs - Jodl's second adjutant (20)
    •    Franz von Sonnleithner - Foreign Ministry representative at Führer Headquarters (21)
    •    General Walter Warlimont - Deputy Chief of Staff of the OKW (22)
    •    General Alfred Jodl - Chief of Staff of the OKW (23)
    •    Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel - Chief of the OKW (24)
    •    Lieutenant-Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg
† = Killed


Escape from the Wolf's Lair and flight to Berlin

Stauffenberg, hearing the explosion and seeing the smoke issuing from the broken windows of the concrete dispatch barracks, assumed that Hitler was dead, climbed into his staff car with his aide Werner von Haeften and managed to bluff his way past three checkpoints to exit the Wolfsschanze complex. Werner von Haeften then tossed a second unprimed bomb into the forest as they made a dash for Rastenburg airfield, reaching it before it could be realised that Stauffenberg could be responsible for the explosion. By 13:00 he was airborne in a Ju-52 arranged by General Eduard Wagner.

By the time Stauffenberg's aircraft reached Berlin about 16:00, General Erich Fellgiebel, an officer at the Wolfsschanze who was in on the plot, had phoned the Bendlerblock and told the plotters that Hitler had survived the explosion. As a result, the Berlin cohort to mobilise Operation Valkyrie would have no chance of succeeding once the officers of the Reserve Army knew that Hitler was alive. There was more confusion when Stauffenberg's aircraft landed and he phoned from the airport to say that Hitler was in fact dead.

The Bendlerblock plotters did not know whom to believe. Finally at 16:00 Olbricht issued the orders for Operation Valkyrie to be mobilised. The vacillating General Fromm, however, phoned Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at the Wolf's Lair and was assured that Hitler was alive. Keitel demanded to know Stauffenberg's whereabouts. This told Fromm that the plot had been traced to his headquarters, and that he was in mortal danger. Fromm replied that he thought Stauffenberg was with Hitler.

Meanwhile, Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, military governor of occupied France, managed to disarm the SD and SS, and captured most of their leadership. He travelled to Günther von Kluge's headquarters and asked him to contact the Allies, only to be informed that Hitler was alive.

At 16:40 Stauffenberg and Haeften arrived at the Bendlerblock. Fromm, presumably to protect himself, changed sides and attempted to have Stauffenberg arrested. Olbricht and Stauffenberg restrained him at gunpoint and Olbricht then appointed General Erich Hoepner to take over his duties. By this time Himmler had taken charge of the situation and had issued orders countermanding Olbricht's mobilisation of Operation Valkyrie. In many places the coup was going ahead, led by officers who believed that Hitler was dead. City Commandant, and conspirator, General Paul von Hase ordered the Wachbataillon Großdeutschland, under the command of Major Otto Ernst Remer, to secure the Wilhelmstraße and arrest Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In Vienna, Prague, and many other places troops occupied Nazi Party offices and arrested Gauleiters and SS officers.

The coup fails
At around 18:00 the commander of Military District (Wehrkreis) III (Berlin) General Joachim von Kortzfleisch was summoned to the Bendlerblock but he angrily refused to obey Olbricht's orders and kept shouting "the Führer is alive" so he was arrested and held under guard. General Karl Freiherr von Thüngen was appointed in his place, but he also proved to be of little help. General Fritz Lindemann who it was intended would make a proclamation to the German people over the radio failed to appear and as he held the only copy, Beck had to work on a new one.

The decisive moment came at 19:00, when Hitler was sufficiently recovered to make phone calls. He was able to phone Goebbels at the Propaganda Ministry. Goebbels arranged for Hitler to speak to Major Remer, commander of the troops surrounding the Ministry. After assuring him that he was still alive, Hitler ordered Remer to regain control of the situation in Berlin. Major Remer ordered his troops to surround and seal off the Bendlerblock, but not to enter the buildings. At 20:00 a furious Witzleben arrived at the Bendlerblock and had a bitter argument with Stauffenberg, who was still insisting that the coup could go ahead. Witzleben left shortly afterwards. At around this time the planned seizure of power in Paris was aborted when Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, who had recently been appointed commander-in-chief in the west, learned that Hitler was alive.

As Remer regained control of the city and word spread that Hitler was still alive, the less resolute members of the conspiracy in Berlin also now began to change sides. Fighting broke out in the Bendlerblock between officers supporting and opposing the coup, and Stauffenberg was wounded. By 23:00 Fromm had regained control, hoping by a show of zealous loyalty to save himself. Beck, realising the situation was hopeless, shot himself—the first of many suicides in the coming days. Although at first Beck only just managed to seriously wound himself, he was shot in the neck by soldiers. Fromm convened an impromptu court martial consisting of himself, and sentenced Olbricht, Stauffenberg, Haeften and another officer, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, to death. At 00:10 on 21 July they were executed in the courtyard outside, possibly to prevent them from revealing Fromm's involvement.

Others would have been executed as well, but at 00:30 the SS, led by Otto Skorzeny, arrived and further executions were forbidden. Fromm went off to see Goebbels to claim credit for suppressing the coup. Goebbels' only reply to him was "You've been in a damned hurry to get your witnesses below ground." He was immediately arrested and later was executed in March 1945 on charges he had failed to report and prevent the coup on 20 July.