In 1941 Hitler’s deputy, the man second in rank only to the Fuhrer himself, did quite a strange thing. He flew right to the end of the fuel in the tanks of a twin-engined plane he’d been flying, right over Germany, the North Sea and most of Scotland and parachuted out to land in a field near Hamilton.
He announced himself to the farmer who held him at bay with a pitchfork as Captain Albert Horn and said he’d come to talk to the king. The farmer’s exact words are not recorded.
In 1945 Hitler was so annoyed with Goering asking if he should act on the order Hitler had given him that he ordered that he should be rounded-up and shot, along with his whole family. So it was a little surprising that Hitler’s reprisals against the Hess family were nothing at all.
Sitting in the dock at the Nuremberg Trials, Goering fell about laughing at Hess sitting next to him. Hess, for his part, totally failed to recognise someone who had worked with him daily. His wife had trouble recognising him although his handwriting matched pre-war Hess papers. This was the man who designed the final solution. Goering was sentenced to death and killed himself with cyanide. Hess was imprisoned for life. Over forty years later and although crippled with arthritis, he officially hanged himself with a piece of electric flex suspended 1.4 metres off the ground. Not high, but high enough for a man who couldn’t raise his arms above shoulder height.
Fourteen years before this suicide a British Army doctor made a quite astonishing assertion. He claimed that in his professional opinion, as someone who had seen more than enough bullet wounds in a medical career in Northern Ireland, whoever was the last prisoner in Spandau jail definitely was not the same person who had been shot through the chest in 1917, the way the records said Hess was.
If he didn’t believe it to be true then it was an odd thing to say, given it would finish his career in the Army and any future one in medicine.
I don’t know what is true and what isn’t in this story. Captain Horn, who didn’t seem to exist, made great play on his flight plan, flying rectangles in the North Sea, but seemed vague on why he had. What was more certain was that Horn asked to see the Duke of Hamilton, who he seemed to think had access to a network of British aristocrats who would one way or another side with Hitler and bring the war to a close.
Not entirely surprisingly, Hess/Horn found himself bundled off first to Warwick Castle en route to Trent Park interrogation centre, then to the tower of London, then to Spandau for the rest of his life. The very few people who ever saw him again had mixed reactions to him. His wife was surprised that his voice had got deeper. Not least that as men age their voices get higher. His interrogators worried that the prisoner was so unstable that he might well kill himself, which wouldn’t look good on their watch.
What was un-arguable was that there was a network of sympathisers with Hitler, which it didn’t suit anybody in England to be reminded of at the time. The Earl of Halifax, tipped for the Prime Minister’s job was a major figure arguing for an agreement with Mussolini. Prime Minister Chamberlain was instrumental in the annexation of Czechoslovakia. When Unity Mitford had a crush on Hitler and shot herself in Munich she magically and inexplicably to many turned up for treatment in hospital in England. Her sister Diana was more successful, marrying Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists.
Reading about Unity Mitford today, I found some odd similarities with what her family said about her after the shooting and what Hess’ family said about him, when eventually, after years, they were allowed to see him: “Not only was her appearance shocking, she was a stranger, someone we did not know.”
Her sister continued “We brought her back to England in an ambulance coach attached to a train.” As one does, in the middle of WW11. It happened all the time, obviously. If they’d just stuck an Enigma machine on the train as well then it would all have been over by Christmas.
Every word of that is true. Hardly any word of that is remembered in a world where every plucky Tommy had the backing of the whole country behind him.
Every time I read it I think of Johnny Rotten kneeling at the edge of the stage, somewhere in America on a tour he hated, sneering “Ever get the feeling you’ve been had?” I do. So it seems do the Pathe News archivists, who have put inverted commas around Hess name on their website.
In another, rare colour recording, Hess disconcertingly talks of what he would have wished if he had known he would meet ‘ a fiery death.’ The kind you might meet in an airplane for example. Which is odd, given he was never in the airforce at all.
Hess’s story stuck in my mind for years. It’s just so odd, with so many loose ends, or apparently loose ends. Yesterday I decided, out of the blue, to write a version of it. The first two scenes are done, in a single afternoon’s work, even if that did turn out to be an eight-hour stretch.
It was and will be worth it. Writing it feels right. It’s about the only thing about the story that does.