Rudolf Hess – Part I

The Nazi who tried to end the war single-handedly

Rudolf Hess in 1935
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Few stories of World War II are surrounded by as much mystery and as many unanswered questions as the story of Rudolf Hess (1894-1987). A true Nazi believer since the first days of the party and Hitler's right-hand man, Hess took off on an airplane on May 10, 1941, and secretly flew to Britain to negotiate a peace between the United Kingdom and the Third Reich. The mission never had a chance of producing a result, and Hess spent the rest of his life in prison.

Why did he do it? Was it an act of lunacy, or an idealistic but misguided attempt? Was he really on a secret and deniable mission given to him by Hitler, or was he entrapped by a British secret operation? We will probably never know for sure, but this article will attempt to give you the basic facts.

The son of a wealthy German family, Rudolf Walter Richard Hess was born, perhaps surprisingly, in Alexandria in Egypt, nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire at the time but occupied by and under the de facto rule of the British Empire. Growing up there instilled in him an admiration for British culture and the people, a sentiment that later assumably influenced the single most important decision of his life.

Rudolf Hess as a child with his sister
(Photo: Mauritius Images)

He was sent to a German boarding school in 1908, and later also studied in Switzerland and apprenticed at a German trading company. He had an interest in mathematics and science, but his father wanted him to join the family import business.

Hess during World War I
(Photo: unknown photographer)

When World War I broke out, Hess enlisted as an artilleryman, and fought in the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Verdun, and in Romania, receiving multiple decorations and ending the war at the rank of reserve lieutenant. He was wounded twice in 1919; on the second occasion, a bullet went through his chest and exited near his spinal column. He requested and was granted permission to enroll in pilot training, but the war ended before he could fly any combat missions.

Hess as a pilot in World War I

The Hess family's fortunes took a downward turn after the war as their Egyptian holdings were expropriated by the British, and Hess, like many Germans, turned to the "stab-in-the-back myth," the notion that the defeat was caused by socialist Jewish sabotage on the home front. Hess became involved with the right-wing Thule Society and a Freikorps, a veterans' paramilitary organization which often clashed with left-wing groups in the chaotic post-war period.

A Freikorps paramilitary unit in Berlin in 1919
(Photo: Major a. D. F. W. Deiß)

Enrolling in the University of Munich, Hess met Professor Karl Haushofer, one of the pioneers of geopolitics, the study of how geography influences politics and international relations. Haushofer was one of the pioneers of the concept of Lebensraum (“living space”), which became one of the fundamental elements of Nazi ideology. In fact, it was Hess himself who introduced the concept to Hitler, who then incorporated it into his developing worldview. Hess became friends with Haushofer and his son Albrecht while at university.  That's also where he met his future wife Ilse Pröhl, whom he eventually married in 1927 at Hitler's urging. Hitler also became the godfather of their only child, Wolf Rüdiger Hess, in 1937. The child's name was partially in honor of Hitler, who liked to use the word "wolf" as a codename.

Hess (right) with his teacher and advisor in his famous mission, Karl Haushofer
(Photo: Friedrich V. Hauser)

Hess first heard Hitler speak at a 1920 rally in Munich, and immediately became devoted to him. He joined the Nazi Party as member number 16 and started helping with organization and fundraising. He was injured in late 1921 when he protected Hitler from a bomb hidden at a party event by Marxists. He joined the Sturmabteilung (SA), the party's original paramilitary wing, in 1922 and helped recruit some of its early members.

Hitler and other early prominent Nazi Party members at a rally in 1927. Hess is second to the right from the standard, partially obscured by Himmler
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Hess participated in the Beer Hall Putsch wholeheartedly. He was there when Hitler and the SA stormed the Bavarian state commissioner's public meeting on November 8, 1923, and declared a revolution. Hess was in charge of a group of SA men who took some of the dignitaries present as hostages and drove them to a house 30 miles (50 km) from Munich for the night. The next day, he briefly left the house to make a phone call. While he was absent, the hostages convinced the group's driver to help them escape. Stranded, Hess called her then-girlfriend Ilse, who brought him a bicycle so he could return to Munich. He briefly considered escaping to Austria after the Putsch failed, but his friends, the Haushofers, talked him out of it. He was arrested for his role in the putsch and sentenced to 18 months in prison. While serving his sentence, he was one of the two people Hitler dictated his book Mein Kampf to, and also helped edit it.

Hitler, Hess (second from right) and three other Nazis who served time for their role in the Beer Hall Putsch
(Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz)

After they were released from power, Hess continued to support Hitler through the latter's rise to power (Read our earlier article), serving him as secretary, personal adjutant and confidante. He obtained a civilian pilot's license in 1929 and became a proficient pilot in the following years, winning an air race in 1934. Hess became Deputy Führer after Hitler's rise to the position of Reich Chancellor, and accumulated a variety of titles, SS ranks and important positions. He co-signed and often wrote Hitler's decrees, and was involved in passing almost every legislation. Coming from a rich family, he was Hitler's delegate to meetings with industrialists; having been born abroad, he was in charge of the Foreign Office of the Nazi Party, an organization that oversaw party members living abroad. He had authority to review court decisions related to enemies of the Party, and to increase their sentences (up to deportation to a concentration camp or even death) if he felt they "got off too lightly." His office was partially responsible for drafting the Nuremberg Laws, which were a major step in the exclusion of Jews from the social, political and economic life of Germany. Once World War II broke out, Hitler made Hess the second in line for succession, after Hermann Göring. Through the years, Hess was guided by his friendship with and loyalty to Hitler. Unlike several leading Nazis, he never pursued personal fame, wealth of power. At the same time, he also took an interest in astrology, clairvoyance and occultism, and started displaying signs of hypochondria. He was a non-drinking non-smoking vegetarian, and used to bring his own "biodynamic food" (a pseudo-scientific and esoteric organic farming movement at the time) to Hitler's holiday home in Obersalzberg until the Führer expressed his disapproval.

Hess with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1938
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Sometime in 1940, with the invasion of the Soviet Union already scheduled for the next year, Hess became alarmed at the prospect of a two-front war with both Britain and Russia at the same time. Since most of his duties did not directly relate to the war, Hess was gradually losing Hitler's attention and was being displaced by Martin Bormann, another leading Nazi, as Hitler's right-hand man. Whether out of idealistic fervor, a complete misunderstanding of the situation, a desire to find his way back into Hitler's attention, or a mix of these, Hess decided to fly to England personally and bring about a diplomatic agreement to cease hostilities between Britain and Germany.

Hess meeting disabled World War I veterans to give them winter aid packages, 1936
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

He met with his old teacher, Karl Haushofer, on August 31, 1940, to ask his advice. Haushofer believed that King George VI was opposed to Churchill's insistence on war, and would be willing to dismiss him if a suitable alternative appeared. Karl's son, Albrecht, had met the Duke of Hamilton at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Read our earlier article), and had kept in touch with him since. He believed that Hamilton was a prominent member of a party that was willing to negotiate a peace with Germany; additionally, Hamilton had been appointed Lord Steward of the (Royal) Household the same year, and had direct access to the King. Hamilton was also an aviator, which Hess probably hoped might give them some common ground. In fact, it's possible that Hess and Hamilton had already met once at a Berlin dinner party which we know both of them had attended. If they did, Hamilton later denied it.

Albrecht Haushofer, who advised Hess to contact the Duke of Hamilton. Haushofer is now remembered as a member of the German resistance.

Hess asked Haushofer to write a letter to Duke Hamilton, while himself wrote another one. We don't know what happened to Hess's letter, but the one written by Haushofer was caught by British censors and forwarded to the Security Service (MI5), which, in turn, launched an investigation into Hamilton's loyalty.

In October 1940, Hess started training in the two-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter-bomber, and secured a specific aircraft for his personal use, kitting it out with a radio compass, an oxygen system, and external fuel tanks for long-range flight.

A Bf 110 similar to the one Hess flew to Britain in
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

At 5:45 p.m. on May 10, 1941, Hess put on a flying suit displaying the rank of captain and took off in his Bf-110 from an airfield at Augsburg, not far from Munich in South Germany. His plane was armed with four machine guns, but had not been loaded with any ammunition. Hess flew northwest towards Bonn in West Germany, navigating by landmarks, then turned north, flying over a part of the Netherlands. He veered slightly to the east over the North Sea to stay out of the range of British radar. At 8:58 p.m. he turned west and headed for Northeast England. He reached the coast some time before sunset, so he turned back and zigzagged around for 40 minutes to wait for the dark. Before continuing inland. At around 10 p.m., the British Chain Home radar system detected his plane and reported it to the Filter Room, the heart of the British air interception system. (Read our earlier article)

Three Spitfires (Read our earlier article) were directed to intercept the incoming plane, but they failed to find Hess, as he was flying under the cover of darkness and at an extremely low altitude of 50 feet (15 m). He continued to be tracked by Royal Observation Corps posts as he headed on towards Scotland, flying fast and low, his destination Dungavel House, the Duke of Hamilton's residence, to the south of Glasgow. He couldn't find the building, so he headed on west to Britain's western shore, oriented himself there, then turned back for a second attempt. On his last drops of fuel and pursued by a fourth plane directed to intercept him, he bailed out of his fighter-bomber at 11:06 p.m. He injured his foot, either while exiting the plane or when hitting the ground, but he landed in a field a mere 12 miles (19 km) from Dungavel House, finishing an indubitably remarkable feat of navigation. 

Dungavel House, residence of the Duke of Hamilton, and Hess’s intended destination
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Hess was discovered by David McLean, a local ploughman, while he was still getting out of his parachute. Introducing himself as "Captain Alfred Horn," Hess told McLean that he had an important message for the Duke of Hamilton. McLean took Hess to his cottage, where his mother put some tea on for the unlikely guests while McLean contacted the Home Guard. Once the Home Guard showed up and arrested Hess, he was taken first to their headquarters, then to a nearby police station, where he was searched, and his possessions confiscated. When interrogated by a German-speaking soldier, Hess kept asking to speak with Hamilton. Once the questioning concluded, he was taken to a barracks in Glasgow where his injury was attended to. By this point, his captors had started suspecting his true identity, but he kept insisting he was "Alfred Horn."

Parts from the wreckage of Hess’s plane after it crashed in Scotland
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Just as Hess requested, Hamilton turned up at the barracks the next morning and spoke with him. Hess immediately revealed his identity and told Hamilton that he was on "a mission of humanity," and that Hitler wanted to stop fighting with Britain. Unfortunately for Hess, his friend Albrecht Haushofer made a grave miscalculation. Far from the leader of an anti-war faction, Hamilton was, in fact, a wing commander in the Royal Air Force (RAF) stationed near Edinburgh, who came through the previously mentioned MI5 investigation cleanly. (Coincidentally, his station was one of those that tracked Hess's plane during the night). Hamilton examined the wreck of Hess's plane, then flew to South England to personally report the developments to Churchill. (When the prime minister received the initial news, he was preparing for a film screening at his summer house, and declared "Well, Hess or no Hess, I'm going to see the Marx Brothers.")

The Duke of Hamilton during World War II
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Hamilton and Churchill went back to London the next day, then Hamilton returned north to Scotland alongside foreign affairs expert Ivone Kirkpatrick, who had met Hess before and could identify him for certain. By this point, Hess had been taken to another location: Buchanan Castle, which was used as a hospital at the time.

During their second meeting, which Hess prepared for with extensive notes, the Deputy Führer offered an agreement: Britain would get to keep her overseas territories if, in exchange, it gave Germany a free hand in Europe. Hamilton returned to his duties after this meeting, but Kirkpatrick had two more talks with Hess over the following days. Obviously, the talks were completely fruitless, since Churchill had no intention of making peace.

1944 photo of Ivone Kirkpatrick, who helped identify Hess and had two more talks with him
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Over and above believing that a peace agreement was possible, Hess also made another strategic blunder. He expected that he would be considered an official diplomat who had the authority to propose and talk about international agreements. He did, however, also say that he undertook his mission without Hitler's knowledge. However, if he was acting without Hitler's knowledge and approval, he could and would not be an official diplomat and could not expect any assurances of diplomatic protection.

Read the second part of our article for the conclusion of Hess's incredible and poorly understood mission and its consequences.

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