Eighty years ago this May, we were several months into World War II…
Adolf Hitler had already unloaded havoc across the European continent since September 1939. By the first half of 1941, the Nazis had invaded every country in the mainland except Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal. It was a dangerous time for the British. They were standing alone, wishing the Americans were there with them to face the onslaught. But they weren’t. Not yet.
On May 7, the leader of the opposition, David Lloyd George, stood in the British House of Commons and bellowed, “He have a terrible task in front of us. No one man, however able he is, can pull us through. I invite the Prime Minister to see he has a small war cabinet who will help him--help him in advice and help him in action.”
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in a pickle and he knew it. He glared over at David Lloyd George as he sat down across the aisle. The political battle lines had been drawn. A crucial non-confidence was sure to follow before the day was out.
Churchill was the first one to admit that things looked bad. Germany’s Irwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” reigned invincible in North Africa. He was threatening the Suez and her oil supply. In the Mediterranean, Malta was under a terrible siege. On the Atlantic, the enemy U-boats continued to destroy Allied Shipping from Canada and the United States by torpedoing one in ten vessels, on the average, to the bottom of the sea. At home, the relentless bombing of Britain’s cities continued unabated. Any positive news was hard to come by.
Waiting for other leaders to speak, Churchill finally had his chance. The House turned deathly quiet as he slowly stood. He spoke of cooperation and the dangers facing them as a nation. Nothing would come easy. But they couldn’t give up. The longer he spoke, the more bolder he became. He concluded by exclaiming, “When I look back on the perils which we have been over, upon the great mountain of waves on which the gallant ship has been driven, I feel sure we have no need to fear the tempest. Let it roar and let it rage. We shall come through!”
Then Churchill sat down to thunderous applause. A vote was taken and he won by a miraculous margin of 447-3. Churchill lived to fight another day.
In the midst of this, three days later, Germany’s Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess--for some bizarre reason--left a military base at Augsburg, Germany, flew across the North Sea, and parachuted over Eaglesham, Scotland, near Glasgow, the night of May 10-11 on a personal peace mission flying his modified Messerschmitt BF 110 to reach alleged Nazi appeasers--in particular Wing Commander Duke of Hamilton who lived nearby at Dungavel Castle--whom he thought were ready and able to overthrow Churchill despite his recent House of Commons victory.
As the aircraft crashed in an adjacent field, Hess came down hard near the farmhouse of ploughman David Maclean, who took him in. Inside, Hess claimed to be Captain Alfred Horn, demanding to be taken to the Duke. Instead, Hess, to his surprise, became a prisoner-of-war and was later tried for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg, Germany where he received a lifetime sentence in 1947, along with six others to be carried out at Spandau Prison in Berlin.
For the rest of his life, all behind bars as Allied Prisoner No.7, Hess claimed amnesia. He died in August 1987, the last remaining prisoner at Spandau, an apparent suicide by hanging. So far, that’s the quick official story of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the screwy “peace” flight that made world headlines.
So, what really happened?
One view is that the man who landed in the Scottish countryside was not the real Rudolf Hess at all, but an imposter. And that’s when it gets interesting. This prognosis is presented in two books written by a Welsh doctor named Hugh Thomas. His first publication was released in 1979, The Murder of Rudolf Hess, when Hess was still alive. Then shortly after Hess “allegedly” committed suicide, Thomas updated his first book by calling it, Hess: A Tale of Two Murders.
In 1972, during Hess’ imprisonment at Spandau, Dr. Thomas had been posted to Berlin as the Consultant in General Surgery to the British Military Hospital. As a result, he learned that he might have to treat Allied Prisoner No. 7 as part of his duties. At that time, Hess was 69. As a precaution, Thomas studied Hess’ known health records and discovered that he had suffered a World War I gunshot wound in the chest that reached deep into a lung, the kind of wound that he said would leave a lasting scar, the same type of scars that he saw on many occasions during the IRA violence in Belfast, Ireland a few years before during his time there.
A year later, September 1973, , along with doctors representing the three other Allied powers, Thomas got his chance on behalf of the English government to examine the prisoner up close at a hospital near to Spandau where he was arranged to be treated for a burst ulcer. There, Thomas had a clear view of Hess’ bare chest, front and back at close range. The doctor found no scars, leaving him puzzled.
A few days later, a return visit for Hess was needed to the same hospital in which Thomas and the other doctors were once again asked there for Hess’ treatment which included a series of x-rays. When Thomas asked where the prisoner’ World War I chest wounds were, and why they weren’t even skin deep, the prisoner turned white and began to shake so violently that Thomas thought his patient would have a heart attack. Hess then stumbled his way to the change cubicle, leaving behind a trail of diarrhea on the floor. After that, the prisoner wanted nothing to do with Dr. Hugh Thomas. As a result of that day, Thomas went back to where he was staying and sought out everything he could find on the Rudolf Peace Flight thirty years before.
Through his research, Thomas discovered several strange details. According to the stats on the Messerschmitt BF 110, it did not have the range to reach Eaglesham, Scotland from Augsburg, Germany, not even with drop tanks. Also, the prisoner refused to permit visits from his wife, Ilse, and son, Wolf (four years old at the time of the 1941 flight), until 1969. At the Nuremberg trials, Hess could not recognize two of his secretaries. During the actual trials, he sat beside Luftwaffe Herman Goering who continually laughed at Hess, and his apparent amnesia, telling him: “Stop it. You’re embarrassing us.” Goering also said to Hess, within earshot of Allied officials and reporters, “Why don’t you tell the court your little secret?”
In writing his second book on Hess, Thomas even doubted the 1987 suicide. Hess was 93 at the time with hardly any strength in his body to kill himself. Did he really hang himself--the official death notice--or did someone do away with him before he could talk? If so, who was it? The British? The Soviets? The Americans?
To 2011 where, oddly enough, Hess’ body was disinterred and cremated for fear of Neo-Nazi crackpots digging it up and using it in strange rituals or worshipping it, or whatever. Who knows? Or was there another reason? Do away with the evidence?
Then eight years later…
January 2019, the English daily newspaper, The Guardian, released a news story claiming that a group of scientists had found a 1982 blood sample from Spandau’s Prisoner No. 7 that had been hidden for decades and that they had matched it to a Hess relative whose identity could not be disclosed. Really, not disclosed? Does this spell the end of the imposter conspiracy?
In 1941, the Churchill government placed a 100-year Secret Stamp on the Hess flight, although some details--not all--have been released over the years. Nothing mind-boggling, though. So, what’s to come in 2041? I hope it’s good. I’ll be 89, if I live that long and still have my wits about me.
I have my own personal connection to this crazy Hess episode. I wrote a book called The Hess Papers back in 1996, a novel about my take on the Hess imposter theory. Shortly after the book’s release, I spoke before a group of a dozen or so aircraft enthusiasts interested in World War II at a small municipal airport in Burlington about the Hess flight.
After I was done, an elderly gentleman approached me.
“My uncle was one of the backroom lawyers at the Nuremberg Trials,” he said. “At a family picnic in the 1960s, several of us were talking about World War II, and someone mentioned that it was too bad we didn’t catch Hitler, the guy who had started it all.”
To which my uncle replied, “We didn’t get Hess either.”
I said, “What do you mean? He’s in prison.”
“That man at Nuremberg is not the real Hess. And a lot of us knew it.”