80 years on: the mysterious flight of Rudolf Hess
Intrigue, propaganda and conspiracy theories - Dr James Crossland, reader in international history at LJMU, looks back at one of the most bizarre episodes of the Second World War.
On the evening of 10 May 1941, a Messerschmitt Bf-110 swooped over the skies above Floors Farm in Eaglesham, a village south of Glasgow. The plane was low on fuel. So low, that its occupant was forced to take the bold step of turning the plane upside down, popping the canopy and releasing himself into the air.
Untrained in this manoeuvre, the pilot landed awkwardly in a field with an injured ankle.
As the plane continued past the treeline and careened into the ground, a farmer approached the pilot, who, gingerly regaining his footing, introduced himself as Captain Horn.
Knowing that he had a German airman on his property, the farmer escorted the pilot into Floors Farm cottage, where he was offered – of course – a cup of tea. Refusing the tea on the grounds that it was too late at night, the pilot added further unreality to the scene by insisting that he needed to speak to the Duke of Hamilton, an RAF commander and resident of Dungavel House, an estate that lay not far from Floors Farm.
This demand was repeated throughout the night by Horn as he was moved into the hands of the Home Guard, before finally meeting with Hamilton the following morning, at which point he revealed his true identity – he was Rudolf Hess, Deputy Further of the Third Reich, and he had flown to Scotland in the midst of the war to broker a peace deal between Nazi Germany and Britain.
A ‘fascinatingly bizarre story’
When I first heard this story I was a history undergraduate, enrolled in a class called Historical Mysteries of the Modern World.
Despite sounding like a jolly, the class had a serious purpose. This was to instruct would-be historians in how to properly analyse evidence, understand context and, through sound reasoning and empirical processes, reach as informed a conclusion as possible as to what actually happened, particularly in histories where circumstantial evidence and assumptions had been used to fill gaps in our knowledge.
It was engagement in this process, particularly as it pertained to the fascinatingly bizarre story of Hess’ flight, that led me to a career-defining thought – ‘I’d like to do this for a living’. Although my research has moved far away from the history of the Second World War and the flight of Rudolf Hess in the 20 or so years since then, my interest in the story has never truly waned. In part this has been for sentimental reasons – it was the involvement of a Red Cross official named Carl J. Burckhardt in Hess’ flight that led me to the question at the heart of my PhD thesis, the completion of which guided me into academia.
A ‘veil of mystery’
Beyond this personal attachment, the veil of mystery cast over the flight has ensured that there is always a new book or theory to read up on. Some of these theories are absurd, whilst others are intriguing but are supported by problematic evidence.
These theories include the idea that British intelligence lured Hess across the Channel in order to capture him, that a ‘peace party’ determined to oust Churchill (led, depending on the version of the theory, by the Duke of Hamilton, the Duke of Kent or King George himself) summoned Hess for serious peace talks, or that the man who was taken into custody at Floors Farm, kept a prisoner of war until 1945, tried at Nuremberg and put behind the walls of Spandau Prison until his death in 1987 was not Hess, but someone who looked and acted like him.
This last theory has been amongst the most enduring. As late as 2019, scientists were tackling the doppelganger idea, using DNA evidence to confirm, once and for all, that the man known as Prisoner #7 at Spandau was, indeed, Rudolf Hess.
Beholden to the same basic principles of historical investigation that excited me years ago, historians of the Second World War have mostly refrained from engaging in the other theories – born as they are of gaps in the archival record, forged documents, dubious personal accounts, inaccurate newspaper reportage and propaganda.
Despite this, the persistence of fantastic explanations for Hess’ flight has recently led one of the more eminent historians of the Third Reich to tackle the story in a book on Nazi conspiracy theories.
Hess and Hitler
Any attempt to unravel the mystery has to begin with an assessment of the known facts of both the flight and its architect. Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1894, Hess served as a pilot in the latter stages of the First World War and, in its aftermath, become one of Hitler’s earliest and most devout followers.
Indeed, for a time, Hess was the nearest Hitler had to a genuine friend, enjoying the ear and confidence of his Führer in a way few others did. By the time of the invasion of France in the summer of 1940, however, Hess’ star had waned.
Even amongst the Reich’s leadership, Hess stood out as an oddity – his awkward social mores and interests in astrology, Aryan mysticism and organic food earned him ridicule from many within Hitler’s inner circle.
Compounding this was the fact that Hess was always more a party bureaucrat than a military leader. This led to him being increasingly removed from Hitler’s orbit as the war progressed and issues of strategy and war economy moved to the forefront of the Führer’s mind.
In addition to lamenting his personal circumstances, Hess – beholden as he was to the idea that the German and British peoples shared bonds of blood and race – despaired that the war between the “brother” Anglo-Saxons was continuing with little end in sight.
The ‘peace party’
In the late summer of 1940, Hess took this grievance to his friend and advisor Albrecht Haushofer, who informed the Deputy Führer that there were some Britons who felt that, with the United States and the Soviet Union still sitting on the war’s side-lines and the Luftwaffe routinely bombing Britain’s cities, a peace with Hitler needed to be made.
This was no fantasy of Haushofer’s. From the outset of the war, peace feelers were exchanged between political figures in Britain and Germany, some of whom were very influential, such as Hermann Göring and Lord Halifax. By the autumn of 1940, however, Churchill was in power and most of the peace feelers had abated.
Despite Haushofer alluding to this breakdown in communications between British and German peace-seekers, Hess was excited by his friend’s suggestion that some kind of British “peace party” existed and, moreover, that its members were unconvinced by Churchill’s insistence on continuing the war. This train of thought led to Hess asking Haushofer to contact a pre-war friend of his, the Duke of Hamilton. This was significant, as the “peace party” was believed to be comprised chiefly of the aristocracy.
The letter Haushofer sent to Hamilton in September 1940 was intercepted by MI5, who, concerned that Hamilton was involved in an illicit exchange with Nazis, summoned the duke for questioning. It was at this interview that a suggestion was made to Hamilton that he respond to the letter and arrange a meeting with Haushofer, in order to gather intelligence. However, Hamilton’s reluctance, coupled with the fact that too much time had elapsed since the letter had been sent, led to MI5 deciding that the lead was not worth pursuing.
During the delay between the interception of the letter and MI5’s meeting with Hamilton, Hess had continued to prepare for his flight, ignoring the lack of a reply and instead succumbing more and more to the fantasy that he could change the course of the war through a single, dramatic action.
By the end of April, however, even Hess was having trouble sustaining this delusion. Desperate, he contacted Haushofer for confirmation that the “peace party” still existed. It was at this meeting that Haushofer made the fateful decision to inform Hess of a recent meeting he had with Carl J. Burckhardt – the Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Burckhardt had connections to peace-seekers, and was suspected by British intelligence of having pro-German sympathies. He had been talking to a Finnish art historian named Tancred Borenius, who claimed to have contacts with the British “peace party”. It was Borenius’ information, imparted to Burckhardt and then through to Haushofer and Hess, that convinced the latter that his mission would succeed.
Flight to catastrophe
This led, in the early evening of 10 May, to Hess lifting off from Augsburg in southern Germany on his flight to catastrophe.
This story of aborted intelligence operations, roguish peace-brokers, rumours and desperation on the part of the play’s central character is by no means complete. There are still gaps in the archival record, many of which have been seized on and exploited for the purposes of furthering the various theories posited to explain Hess’ flight.
As the years have passed, however, these gaps have narrowed. The 2004 declassification of files relating to Haushofer’s letter revealed that MI5 never initiated an operation to lure Hess. This revelation came at a time when the National Archives in Kew was investigating the mystery of how forged documents – some of which had been used to validate Hess conspiracy theories – had been smuggled into their collections.
The suggestion that a genuine “peace party” existed and that its members were expecting Hess has also been damaged by recent declassifications. One of the key planks to the argument that Hess possessed dangerous knowledge of an anti-Churchill conspiracy of peace-seeking elites was the fact that he was kept in Spandau until the day he died.
The protracted nature of his incarceration contrasted with that of his fellow prisoners, some of whom were released early on grounds of poor health. Not so for Hess, who, after Baldur von Schirach and Albert Speer completed their sentences in 1966, was left alone to denigrate mentally and physically for the next 21 years. Although many assumed that this was owed to the British government wanting to keep a lid on Hess’ knowledge of how close Britain came to making peace, files released in 2017 confirmed that it was the Soviet Union that insisted on Hess ending his days behind bars.
Indeed, successive British governments from the 1970s onwards petitioned Moscow – which, along with Britain, France and America, jointly administrated Spandau – to release Hess.
This attitude on the part of the British government aligns with what we know of how Hess was treated during his years of wartime incarceration. Having been interrogated in order to extract whatever information he had on Hitler’s plans, it did not take long for intelligence officers and psychiatrists to conclude that Hess was not a legitimate peace envoy and, mentally, was somewhat unbalanced.
This view of Hess was re-enforced by his frequent bouts of depression, tendency to claim that his food was being poisoned, personal eccentricities and his attempt, in June 1942, to commit suicide by throwing himself down a staircase – all of which led to the British viewing Hess as more a curious liability than an intelligence asset.
80 years on, this assessment of the man and his actions remains entrenched in the historical record, despite the persistence of theories that seek to portray Hess’ mission as something more than one man’s confused and misguided whim.
If recent declassifications are anything to go by, this official story will only be further confirmed as years go by and more documents are released. I doubt, however, that these declassifications, the work of DNA scientists or the assessments of Third Reich experts will do much to end the myths that surround the story of Hess and his ill-fated flight.