Ride of the Valkyrie part II
The Black Orchestra Mission to Kill Hitler
Part Two: Valkyrie (read part 1)
By August of 1943, the was a real sense among the schwarze kapelle that time was running out if there was going to be much of post-Hitler Germany to salvage. Operation Citadel, the final German offensive on the Eastern Front had ended in a devastating loss at the Battle of Kursk. That same month the Allies had successfully invaded Sicily, so the reserve troops earmarked for the east had to be sent south into Italy,
As proven by earlier attempts, lack of planning is one of the leading causes for any coup to fail. One of the best things about Operation Valkyrie was that it had been thought out, and put to paper years earlier by General Olbricht and his staff – and signed off by no other than Hitler himself. It its original form, Valkyrie was a contingency plan in case of some catastrophic event, say the revolt the 7.5 million slave laborers in the country, for the reserve army in Berlin to maintain public order – another key in a successful coup. While it was originally thought that Stauffenberg did the bulk of the rewriting of Valkyrie, documents captured by the Soviets – and later returned to Germany – show that it was, in fact, Tresckow. The brilliance of what he did to Olbricht’s existing plan was that by amending only the top level a plan of action designed to secure the capital in the event of an uprising was reworked to pull off the coup it was created to stop. Because the order had been signed by Hitler, and the reserve army had trained for it, they’d follow orders.
Ironically, this was the biggest blind-spot as well: Soldiers (especially German ones) follow orders, and if Hitler were still around shouting countermanding directives, all bets were off. For the plan to work, Hitler couldn’t be arrested or overthrown, the man had to die. For that matter, so did Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, and the drug addled Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffen (air force) and Hitler’s appointed successor. Practically, it was more crucial to kill the lower ranking Himmler. Germany basically had two armies: one for the state (the Heer) and another one, the SS, for the Nazi fanatics. For coups to work they need to be short and decisive, they rarely survive a civil war. Which was Field Marshal Kluge’s main objection to Operation Spark. Leaving the SS without its head would allow the reserve army would secure Berlin.
It was a good plan, the onion was that all three were rarely actually together, for obvious reasons. Hitler didn’t send much time in Berlin at all, for the most part hopping between his Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg in East Prussia (now Kętryzyn, Poland) and Berghof, his vacation home in the Bavarian Alps which offered a great view of the small part of Europe that he hadn’t destroyed.
So, a “two out of three ain’t bad” approach had to be adopted. Then Tresckow was then sent back to the Eastern Front, leaving Stauffenberg as the main actor, but neither he nor Olbricht had any access to Hitler. Fortunately, General Freidrich Fromm, the head of the reserve army in Berlin, however, did. Both of offices were housed in a building called the Bendlerstrasse, so what Olbricht was able to do was get Stauffenberg the job of Fromm’s Chief of Staff. Fromm was a slippery character: he was absolutely determined to come down on the winning side and was less concerned with which side that was. As such he was willing to go along with the coup so long as he thought it would be successful. He was the only one who could mobilize the reserve army in Berlin, and yet didn’t want his name on the order without confirmation that Hitler, were dead. I trust you see the issue. At the first hiccup, he’d bolt.
For his part, Tresckow kept trying to get himself transferred from Poland to Hitler’s HQ to kill the man himself. Why he was unsuccessful is anyone’s guess, but Hitler did have a social chip on his shoulder and was never fully comfortable with aristocrats. He hated the “vons.” So Tresckow pressed General Helmuth Stieff, the supposed recipient of that faithless bottle of Cointreau into the plot. Stieff did have access to the target, enough for the two form opinions about each other: He was disgusted with Hitler, who thought the general was a “poisonous little dwarf.” Still, proximity is proximity. Stieff also had access to the explosives and he would semi-regularly supply to other assassination attempts as they came along. On 7 July, during a separate attempt to kill der Führer with a suicide bomb, Stieff’s nerves failed him, and he was unable to trigger the bomb. He backed out of Valkyrie.
Stauffenberg decided to do it himself. This made the timing tricky as the plan required him to be in two places at once: Blowing up Hitler in a bunker on the Eastern Front and coordinating the coup from the Bendlerstrasse some 300 miles away in Berlin. Should you find yourself orchestrating a coup d’etat, understand that this is not a good starting off point.
The first attempt was on 14 July, but was called off because neither Himmler nor Göring were there. Stauffenberg made did make a thorough recce of the compound, sorted the timing for the fuses and found was that the conference room in which Hitler had his briefings was a virtually impenetrable fortified concrete bunker. It offered great protection from outside bombs, but if one went off inside, the force of the contained blast would be turned in on itself killing everyone inside.
The Best Laid Plans
On 20 July 1944, Stauffenberg returned to the Wolf’s Lair with his adjunct, a lieutenant also in on the plot. General Wilhelm Keitel, who was to escort Stauffenberg, explained that the former dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, would be arriving soon, so the meeting was moved up. Stauffenberg asked Keitel if he could change shirts before the briefing to get some privacy to set bomb fuses. Now that the timing had been thrown into chaos, Keitel was impatient and kept trying to come into the room to tell the two to hurry up. Keitel’s impatience stemmed from the fact that Hitler liked to keep people waiting for dramatic effect but was a real bitch when others were late. In light of the man’s other flaws it seems petty to mention it, but there we are. In the end they only set one.
En route to the briefing, Keitel unexpectedly took Stauffenberg away from the bunker, explaining that because of the summer heat it would cooler in the a mostly wooden hut they were now heading. Undeterred, Stauffenberg then asked to stand as near to Hitler as possible, due hearing loss from the North Africa injuries. A man with one hand, three fingers and no left eye complains about faulting hearing, you really can’t question him.
The officer he moved out of the way was Colonel Heinz Brandt – also of Cointreau bomb fame. Stauffenberg was standing close to Hitler when he set his briefcase under the heavy oaken table, leaning against its heavy support. Had the plan required Stauffenberg to be a suicide bomber, it very well might have worked. As it was, he had to get back to Berlin. He excused himself to “take a phone call.” Brandt moved closer to Hitler, and moving the abandoned briefcase to the other side of the solid table support. It was later determined that the heavy oak table did, to a lesser degree, what the concrete wall of the bunker was supposed to do and direct the force of the blast. In this case, away from the intended target. The officers who were killed and mortally wounded were all to Hitler’s right, so were the walls that were blow out. Brandt, who’d earlier been spared a death by plastic explosive on a plane by sheer dumb luck, died the next day.
Stauffenberg made it out of the compound and onto his flight back to Berlin thinking that the job was done. While in flight, however, the officer tasked with cutting off communication to and from the Wolf’s Lair long enough for the coup to take control, phoned the Bendlerstrasse to tell the plotters that Hitler had, in fact survived the blast.
Things Fall Apart
Stauffenberg arrived Berlin at about 3:00pm to find that Operation Valkrye had not been implemented. General Fromm, feet getting colder by conflicting reports regarding Hitler’s pulse, called the Wolf’s Lair directly. Keitel told him that Hitler was alive and just where in the hell was Stauffenberg? Fromm ordered the conspirators arrested, so Stauffenberg arrested Fromm instead. Or at least overpowered him. Fromm was locked in a closet, and the reserve army was mobilized. Stauffenburg, still convinced that Hitler was dead, carried on phoning leaders across Berlin and Germany that Hitler was dead by the hands of the SS, who were attempting to seize the government, but that the army was now in control.
Meanwhile, at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler welcomed Mussolini by pointing out the destroyed hut: “You see, the building is destroyed and yet I get out with barely a scratch.” Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He’d injured his shoulder. The man already had delusions of fated grandeur and surviving a bomb blast – physics aside – only fueled the concept that fate had spared him for greater things.
As Radio Berlin announced the failed assassination attempt, and that der Führer would address the nation later than night, the Nazis began to reassert control. Himmler issued orders countermanding Valkyrie and in the general confusion, things started to come apart. Carl-Heinrich Stülpnagel, the military governor of France, did manage to round up and arrest some 1,200 SS and SA leadership and troops. He went to the headquarters to General Kluge – who’d told Tresckow not to shoot Hitler in the mess hall – and asked him to contact the Allies, who were headed that way on any account. On hearing that Hitler was still alive, Kluge said: “Gentleman, as long as that pig lives, I can’t.”
When the reserve army in Berlin realized they weren’t preventing a coup, but were the coup, they stood down. General Fromm was released and arrested Stauffenberg along with the rest of the conspirators. As the conspiracy had been traced back to the Bendlerstrass, Fromm was certain that an interrogation would follow. Despite orders to keep Stauffenberg alive, Fromm had him, Olbricht and several others shot that night.
Ultimately Valkyre was foiled by a fatal combination of bad luck and jellied spines. When Tresckow got the news of the failure in Poland, he killed himself. With Hitler still raging, the war would carry on for another pointless 10 months. In which time Fromm would be tried and shot for his involvement in Valkyrie. Yet the end for the Nazi was coming to a merciful end.
On learning later that Hitler was planning succeed where so many others had failed and kill himself, second in command Hermann Göring requested permission to take control of the Reich in his name. Despite it being Hitler’s plan, he considered this treason to ask. One of his last acts before snuffing himself was to strip Göring of all titles and rank, expel him from the party, and order his arrest.
As it was Göring was arrested, not by the feeing SS, but by the allies. At his trial in Nuremberg he was sentenced to death by hanging. But saved the Marshall plan one distressed rope by taking a suicide pill before the sentence was carried out.