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A Failed Assassination Attempt on Hitler

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Before he joined the conspirators against Hitler, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was a staff officer in North Africa where he led the 10th Panzer Army. In the spring of 1943, his command station was attacked by fighter-bombers. The doctors believed that he would not last the rest of the night because he had major injuries. As a result of the attack he lost his left eye, his right hand, and several fingers on his left hand.

After numerous surgeries, he was discharged from the hospital three months after his injuries and he joined the Reserve Army staff, which was based in Berlin. Stauffenberg was a very proud and strong man, even when he was in the hospital he wanted to button his own shirt just to prove that he could do it.

Many men thought very highly of him, even Hitler who took a liking to him the first time he met him. His appearance alone gained respect. The first time that General Walter Warlimont, a member of the Third Reich, saw Stauffenberg he stated that he was the classic image of the warrior through all of history. I barely knew him, but as he stood there, one eye covered by a black patch, a maimed arm in an empty uniform sleeve, standing tall and straight, looking directly at Hitler…he was…a proud figure, the very image of the General Staff officer…of that time.

Stauffenberg had the warrior-like characteristics and the charisma that was needed to develop the plan to assassinate Hitler. Stauffenberg joined the conspiracy leaders because like many others he believed it was best for the national interest. He was very determined to assassinate Hitler and every failure only made him more determined. Stauffenberg was an important part of the conspiracy; it was his plan, Operation Valkyrie that took place on July 20, 1944.

Operation Valkyrie was originally written by Hitler in 1943 to protect Germany from a SS revolt, a revolt within the foreign labor in Germany, or in the case of foreign enemy paratroops landing in Germany. Stauffenberg’s Operation Valkyrie required changes to the original plan. The original Operation Valkyrie was meant to be a quick assembly of military defenses if any attack were to occur on Germany’s territory.

If it was necessary to operate this plan, only the “Supreme Army Command in Berlin” could initiate it. Stauffenberg’s plan had one very important change, which was that the plan could be activated if Hitler were to be assassinated and the “loyal and dutiful troops of the Wehrmacht would seize control of the Reich in unwitting support of the resistance.”

In reality, the conspirators would seize control of the Reich while it was in a state of confusion to form a democratic socialist state. Any changes in Operation Valkyrie had to be signed by Hitler himself, and fortunately for Stauffenberg Hitler signed the improvements without question. After receiving Hitler’s signature for Operation Valkyrie, the conspirators were able to continue planning his assassination. The assassination plot included Operation Valkyrie, a “shadow government,” and a well-planned “coup d’état,” but the conspirators felt that they were missing people who were vital to the plot.

The next step was to find someone who had personal access to Hitler. This person needed to be fully committed to the assassination of Hitler. They also needed the assistance of senior army personnel. Other major participants in the conspiracy were Friedrich Olbricht, the Director of the General Army Office, and Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, a very close friend of Stauffenberg.

Claus von Stauffenberg (far left) meeting Adolf Hitler at the Wolfsschanze five days before the 20 July plot in 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146–1984–079–02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Olbricht’s job was to launch Operation Valkyrie if Hitler was assassinated. Mertz was to be with Olbricht to help make the decision of whether or not to issue Valkyrie. Another important man to the plot was Fellgiebel because his job was to prevent any communication in or out of the military quarter after the assassination attempt.

The conspiracy leaders realized that there was not anyone who had access to Hitler, as a result, Stauffenberg was promoted to the chief of staff of the Reserve Army to aid the conspiracy. He was responsible for replacements needed in the Army as well as other tasks but, as chief of staff, Stauffenberg had access to Hitler.

He was the only one among the conspirators that had personal access to Hitler; therefore, he was the only one that could kill him. Stauffenberg himself was highly valued by the conspirators. General Beck, who was to become the President of Germany if Operation Valkyrie had been successful, told Stauffenberg, promise me that you will leave before the explosion. You’re indispensable here, as you know, if the Valkyrie plan is to be carried out. You’re the only one who knows how our liaison with the army is going to be worked out in detail.

Claus von Stauffenberg was to be responsible for placing the bomb at the meeting in Wolf’s Lair and for operating military movements of Operation Valkyrie in Berlin after the explosion killed Hitler.

Stauffenberg was convinced that only he could perform the task because the earlier plans of Valkyrie had failed because of complications with other assassins. Colonel Helmuth Stieff, “the diminutive head of the General Staff’s organization branch” had planned on killing Hitler but had changed his mind by the time the explosives for the assassination had arrived.

After Stieff had refused to perform the task, Stauffenberg was contacted by Axel von dem Bussche, who wanted to help the conspirators. Bussche did not get the opportunity to kill Hitler because the military clothing that he was going to wear at a “demonstration” for Hitler was annihilated by a British air raid.

Bussche was sent to the front in Eastern Europe and soon became a wounded veteran when he lost his leg. These early attempts were hindered by unfortunate luck, but Stauffenberg believed it would be successful if he became the assassin.

Stauffenberg had attempted to detonate the bomb two separate times before he was able to do so successfully. July 11, 1944, Stauffenberg was ordered to meet with Hitler and had planned on planting the bomb, but on arrival, he noticed that Goring and Himmler were absent. The conspirators had hoped to kill three birds with one stone when all the leaders of the Reich could be eliminated. Stauffenberg was convinced by Colonel Stieff to postpone the assassination.

The second failed attempt by Stauffenberg took place on July 15th of 1944, when he was again summoned to meet with Hitler. Stauffenberg had to enter and leave the meeting room several times without arousing suspicion. He had to make sure that Hitler was at the meeting, and then he had to leave to detonate the bomb. When he returned he had to place the bomb as close to Hitler as possible and then he needed to leave before the bomb exploded.

The reason this attempt failed is unclear, but there are theories, such as Stauffenberg being unable to excuse himself. The conspirator’s cover had nearly been blown after this attempt because Olbricht had issued the warning orders for Operation Valkyrie.

He was not aware that Stauffenberg had decided not to plant the bomb as planned. They had to find an excuse to tell the confused commanders. Their excuse was that it was only a practice drill and there was no reason to worry. The fact that the earlier attempts of Operation Valkyrie had failed should have been a warning sign that it would not succeed, but Stauffenberg was determined to accomplish the assassination. When Stauffenberg was called to meet with Hitler on July 20, 1944, he decided that it would be the day he killed Hitler, but he had no idea that ultimately his attempt would fail.

On July 20th Stauffenberg arrived at the Wolf’s Lair, a highly protected military quarter in East Prussia, with anticipation. He knew that if Hitler was not assassinated that evening after the explosion, he and everyone he worked with would be dead.

Upon arrival Stauffenberg was told by Hitler’s assistant, Field Marshal Keitel the chief of staff, that the conference was pushed forward to 12:30. Five minutes before the meeting was supposed to begin, Stauffenberg asked to freshen up with his assistant’s help. His assistant, Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, who was a wounded veteran just like Stauffenberg, helped to prime the bombs in a side room.

The type of bomb being used was two 1-kilogram slabs of plastic explosives that could only be activated by a time-pencil. There were two time-pencils, one for each slab. Once pressed into the slap, pressure needed to be exerted on them with pliers to crush a glass vial so that the acid would be released. The bomb would explode when the acid that was released deteriorating a wire that held a spring-loaded detonator.

This type of bomb gave Stauffenberg about ten minutes to plant it, but because a time-pencil was unpredictable, the amount of time until the bomb exploded was unknown. The time-pencil could be affected by temperature, so the bomb could go off several minutes early or several minutes late. That day, in particular, had been very hot and humid meaning the bomb could go off at any time. This shortened the amount of time Stauffenberg would have to fuse the bomb and plant it close to Hitler; all before escaping to a car Haeften had waiting for him.

While priming the bombs in the side room, Stauffenberg and Haeften were interrupted by a sergeant, asking them to hurry because the conference was starting. Stauffenberg had given the unprimed bomb to Haeften to dispose of, rather than placing it in the briefcase with the set bomb.

This was interference to the operation because they had only had time to prime one bomb before Stauffenberg was rushed to the conference room. If the second bomb had been in the briefcase, the size of the explosion would have been roughly doubled even though it was not detonated by a time-pencil. It would have been possible for Stauffenberg to successfully assassinate Hitler, even with the physical barriers and poor time management, if he had placed the second charge into the briefcase.

The conference took place in a barrack, rather than a bunker, where they normally take place. The barrack was made of plaster, wood, and fiberglass, and a roof that was reinforced with concrete pillars. Since the conference had taken place in a barrack the blast was able to escape through the windows and because there was only one charge in the explosion, it was much weaker than it should have been. There was a large oak table inside the room, which was covered with maps and surrounded by the other generals and commanders.

When Stauffenberg entered the barrack room he claimed a seat next to Hitler, after stating that he was still having a hard time hearing from the attack in Africa. He quickly set down the briefcase behind a table leg before exiting the room; it was about three feet from Hitler.

The large oak table became a lifesaver for Hitler. He was protected because at the time of the explosion he was leaning over the table looking at maps and because the location of the bomb also provided a barrier. The men standing around the table, nearest Hitler, also created a blockade that protected Hitler from the bomb.

If Hitler had not been leaning over the table, if there had not been men standing close to Hitler, and if the bomb was not placed behind a leg, there would have been a greater chance that the explosion would have created more damage that would have led to Hitler’s death.

The explosion that happened around 12:40 caused minimal damage compared to what it could have done. The windows of the barrack-room were shattered, the floor buckled, the ceiling collapsed, and parts of the walls exploded.

Hitler emerged from the room virtually untouched by the bomb except for a few cuts, bruises, and splinters. As for the other men in the room, several died, some had major injuries such as the loss of a leg, but others escaped with only shattered eardrums and a few minor injuries.

While the men were taking in the aftermath of the explosion, Stauffenberg was making his way to Berlin to carry out Operation Valkyrie. He saw the explosion and believed that no one could have survived. It was a big mistake to assume this because the one person he had wanted to kill had survived.


Hitler’s survival only allowed several hours of confusion, which did not help the conspirators. If Hitler had been killed, then there would have been several days of confusion that would have helped the democratic socialist government take hold of Germany.

“Valkyrie began to die almost as soon as it was born.” The commands made by the conspirators were immediately countermanded by Hitler’s orders coming from the Wolf’s Lair. Officers in the army were forced to face a decision, follow the commands of the conspirators and lose their lives or to follow the commands of Hitler.

Men were confused and scared and as a result, delayed any action at all. Otto Ernst Remer stationed his men around the city of Berlin as he was told to do when the orders for Operation Valkyrie went out, but he was not part of the conspiracy because the plotters had not had enough time to replace him and hoped that he would remain on their side.

After a phone call with Hitler, Remer quickly realized what was going on and rejoined his side. It was becoming more and more inevitable that this plot would fail, but after Remer removed his troops from protecting the conspirators it was clear that the conspirators were condemned. Soldiers in Berlin were unaware of the situation but were still loyal to Hitler.

The confirmation of Hitler’s’ survival from the explosion made the soldiers fear any association with the conspirators and Valkyrie. This led to the end of the conspirators and to the end of Valkyrie. Before midnight on July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg, Mertz, Olbricht, and the other members of the conspiracy were killed.

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