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World War Two: Operation Valkyrie
At midday on the 20th July 1944, Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg walked uneasily through the heavily guarded forest complex of FeildMarshall Keitel at the Wolfschanze, Hitler's headquarters for the eastern front in East Prussia. he was scheduled to report to Hitler on the readiness of the home German Army.
Keitel informed Stauffenberg and his aide that the breifing had been moved from it's usual place in the complex's bunker to a nearby conference room at the situation barracks. he then asked the officers to follow him, but Stauffenberg stopped and asked if he could be shown to a room where he could change his shirt. While he was changing, the phone rang for him and he informed Keitel's aide he would be ready shortly. Keitel at this point was becoming impatient.
Finally Stauffenberg emerged and the officers continued to the conference room on the other side of the inner security zone. At 12:35pm, Stauffenberg entered the conference room, exactly seven minutes later the world would be forever changed.
One of the most amazing chapters of the second world war had begun, in an attempted assassination on the Fuhrer by a group of senior German officers at the very height of the German military.
By 1944, there was over 7,500,000 foreign workers in Germany and the Germans were worried that there may be a civil uprising by these people against them. The plan, under the name 'Operation Valkyrie', was a contingency plan in the event of an uprising of these foreign workers forced to work in Germany.
There were many such workers in almost all sectors. If such a labour revolt occurred, it would be suppressed by Operation Valkyrie. Every corps had prepared for this eventuality and the Reserve Army troops with headquarters in Berlin, were the force designated to execute Operation Valkyrie.
Also in Berlin was a young officer serving on the General's staff at the German High Command, Claus Von Stauffenberg. His family was one of the oldest aristocratic dynastys of southern Germany and Claus's mother and father were both high-ranking nobility.
Hitler's rise to power, Jewish persecution and the S.S.
In 1914, Germany had declared war on both France and Russia and Claus's mother Caroline attended to the German troops with tea and first aid, along with Claus and his two brothers. In his spare time Claus learnt to play the cello, so that he and his brothers could play sonatas as a trio, performing works by Mozart and Hyden. The day they learnt that Germany requested a truce, Claus was in tears, the country saw it as a national humiliation.
Germany was under seige by various factions vying for power, including communists and right-wing mobs. This turmoil and uncertainty paved the way for the rise of the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and this political upheaval made a lasting impression on Claus Von Stauffenberg. He was determined to become an officer as he thought the 'Officer Class' had a stabilising and powerful force in German life.
In 1926, he joined the family's traditional regiment, the 17th Cavalry Regiment in Bamberg. Claus had grown into a tall, dark and striking young man with a certain charisma and was open to whomever he came into contact with. A devout catholic, he always attended mass on Sunday. In 1930, at the young age of 23, he proposed to a young 16 year old girl called Nina from a local boarding school. On the 26th September 1933, they were married at the Saint James church in Bamberg. He was in uniform and wore his steel helmet to the ceremony. He told Nina, "to wed is to be on duty".
In 1936 he took the entrance exam to a prestigious military academy in Berlin. His military carreer progressed rapidly, in 1937 he was promoted to Cavalry Captain and in 1938 he became a General Staff Officer assigned to the 1st Light Division, later to be known as the 6th Panzer Division. That same year, the S.A. and the S.S. launched the infamous 'krystalnacht' raids, where homes and shops owned by Jews were smashed and many synogogs were burnt to the ground, plundering everything as they went.
Stauffenberg had supported the notion of restricting Jewish influence in the arts and public life, but he strongly condemned this action. His gradual disillusionment with the Nazi regime had begun.
He was serving as a quartermaster for the 1st Light Division when Hitler's forces invaded Poland in 1939. Stauffenberg's ethos at the time, was that the German Army were there to uphold and defend Germany and therefore was a very loyal member of the army that entered Poland that year.
By this time, Hitler planned to invade the low countries of Holland, Belgium and France. On the 10th May 1940, Stauffenberg was with the 6th Panzer Division as it's tanks stormed into Luxembourg and then Belgium, creating the spearhead of the 6th Armoured Divisions' race across France. French resistence crumbled quickly and one week later Stauffenberg was withdrawn from the front and promoted to the Army General Staff. He was now the proud father to three children, with a fourth child on the way.
Fom his position at the Army General Staff, Stauffenberg witnissed the invasion of the Soviet Union, but it was not unti later in 1941, that news of the systematic massacre of Jews and Gypsies by S.S. troops reached the higher levels of the Weirmacht.
Major General Henning Von Tresckow, who was serving on the eastern front had been plotting to overthrow Hitler since the 1930s. Within Army Group Centre, he formed a circle of people whom he could trust, strangely, that was well-known. In those days they had a code to find out if someone was a Nazi.
Tresckow was no Nazi, he was highly intelligent and an avid late night chess player. He understood that the Weirmacht on the eastern front had a perfect opportunity to exact an assassination of Hitler, due to it's independance from the S.D., the Gestapo and the S.S.
In July 1941, Von Tresckow was visited by Stauffenberg from the general staff. He agreed with Von Tresckow that Hitler was a danger, but was not yet ready to join with the conspiracy. In the second half of 1942, during a fact-finding tour in the Ukraine, Stauffenberg remained convinced that the eastern front could be held. But in that same year, he received reports of the mass murder of Russian Jews by S.S. special forces.
Astonished and horrified by this news, it is believed that this act was to be the turning point in Stauffenberg's conversion to the cause. Because of his catholic background and belief in a higher being (than that of his Fuhrer in particular), this turned a loyal member of the 'Officer Class', into, effectively, a rebel. He then began a one-man campaign to convince commanders at the eastern front to confront Hitler and wrestle control from him.
In the winter of 1942, the German Army was halted at the gates of Stalingrad. Hitler refused to withdraw even though defeat seemed inevitable. In effect, an entire army was sacrificed, just for reasons of prestige. This convinced Stauffenberg that Hitler had to be removed from power.
He was so vocal in his criticism, that his fellow officers became concerned and it was decided that he should be transferred, far away to the 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia.
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Wounded in North Africa
In Libya and Tunisia, the victories of the famous Afrika korps under Erwin Rommel had been reversed as the Americans landed in North Africa during 'Operation Torch'. Rommel launched an audacious Panzer attack against the skilled and experienced Americans, driving them all the way to the Kasserine Pass.
However, the victory was short-lived as they were forced back in a fighting retreat and on the 7th April 1943, Stauffenberg was leading his column through a narrow pass when they came under attack from fighter bombers. Stauffenberg was badly wounded and was taken to a nearby field hospital. He lost his right hand, two fingers on his left hand and his left eye.
He made a slow, but steady recovery, and on the 5th July began a month-long convalescence. Here, he was reunited with his wife Nina and his children. At around this period, the position of Chief of Staff of the General Army Office in Berlin became available and Stauffenberg was quickly offered the post, to which he immediately accepted.
The Valkyrie Plot
In August 1943, Stauffenberg arranged a meeting with Henning Von Tresckow to discuss implementing the Valkyrie plan. They started to draught up an outline of the new government that was to take charge immediately after the coup. General Ludwig Beck would become Head of State, Karl Freidrich Gordeler would become Germany's new chancellor, Von Tresckow would take control of all Germany's security services, General Hoepner would become head of the Ministry of War, and either General Olbricht or Stauffenberg himself would become State Secretary. The only minister in Hitler's governmemnt that the plotters planned to retain was the Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer.
Speer was already aware that he had been pencilled in as Minister of War had Hitler been assassinated. Stauffenberg increasingly became the central figure in the Valkyrie plan, but one major obstacle remained. Neither Von Tresckow or any other conspirators had actual access to the Fuhrer. But in June 1944, Stauffenberg was appointed as Chief of Staff to General Frohm, who was head of the Home Army.
Hitler always wanted to be informed of the Home Army's readiness to engage in combat should the occasion arise. This meant that Stauffenberg suddenly found himself in a position where he would be close to Hitler on a regular basis and he was now best placed to become the assassin.
At the same time, Field Marshall Rommel, commander of Army Group B in France, had finally agreed to cooperate with the conspiracy, which in the west was headed by the Military Governor of France, General Von Stubnuckle. The success of Operation Valkyrie would rest heavily upon him and his deputy, Stauffenberg's cousin, Cesar Von Hofacker.
Another key figure in the conspiracy was General Von Hase, city commander of Berlin. He was one of the Valkyrie commanders and he had troops under his command who would arrest Goebbels. In order to execute this task he charged one of his officers Major Rehmer to take Goebbels into custody once the coup had been launched.
Unfortunately for Stauffenberg, he could not be in two places at once. He was instrumental in organising Operation Valkyrie in Berlin, so he needed to be there in order to convince all German forces to act upon his command. But at the same time he realised that he had to be the actual assassin as well, 300 miles to the east, planting the bomb in the map room in Rastenberg.
As Stauffenberg had to remain alive and return to Berlin to command the coup, he had to use a timer in the form of a fuse. They tested dynamite from all over Europe, including Danish, French, Belgian and British, and found the British to be the most effective. These worked best as the explosives. especially the fuses, were silent and the other fuses hissed.
Stauffenberg's co-conspirator Helmut Steiff, secured the necessary bombs and fuses. The Valkyrie plans' objective was to decapitate the German leadership. Field Marshall's Von Kluger and Rommel insisted that not only Hitler, but also Himmler, head of the S.S. and Herman Goerring, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler's designated successor, should be eliminated too.
The problem was that these three men were rarely together at the same time. On the 11th July, Stauffenberg travelled to the Berghoff, Hitler's mountain retreat, with Steiff. They were ready to detonate the bomb, but neither Himmler, nor Goerring were present and Steiff decided to call it off.
The Wolfschanze (Wolfs Lair)
Three days later on July 14th 1944, Hitler moved his headquarters from the Berghoff to the Wolfs Lair (Wolfschanze). originally built in 1941 in preparation for Operation Barbarossa - the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wolfschanze comprised of a vast complex with three security zones.
The first complex was known as security zone 2 and contained barracks, facilities for the staff as well as guests, a communications centre and a mess hall. To the northeast was security zone 1 containing the offices of top figures in the Nazi leadership. To the left of zone 1 was another sector containing a highly guarded bunker reserved only for the Fuhrer, as well as air raid shelters and barracks, one of which contained a map situation room.
On the 14th July, Stauffenberg and General Frohm were summoned to appear at the Wolfschanze the next day. Back in Berlin, General Olbrecht was already issuing orders for Operation Valkyrie. However Stauffenberg was once again prevented from setting the bombs, because Himmler and Goerring were not present. But it did give Stauffenberg the opportunity of a dress rehearsal. He noticed that actvating the bomb in the Fuhrerbunker was slim, so he would have to break the fuses somewhere else, preferrably in the office complex.
He also noticed that the distance between the two buildings was about 400 metres, which would roughly take around 10 minutes to walk. A 10 minute fuse would not do, so he would need a 30 minute fuse.
Carrying out the plot.
20th July 1944, Rastenberg, 10:15 am.
A Heinkel 111 carrying Stauffenberg and Von Heffden arrived at Rastenberg, the small airfield serving the Wolfschanze, security was extremely tight. The situation was critical, also the weather was very hot and humid, conditions Hitler didn't like, this made the overall mood at the Wolfschanze very tense.
Stauffenberg sat down for breakfast at security zone 2, shortly after 11:00 am, he and Von Heffden proceeded to the office of Willhelm Keitel for preparation of the presentation to the Fuhrer. Here, Stauffenberg received some disturbing news, that the conference would not take place in the bunker as per usual, but would be moved to the Situation Room, a wooden room surrounded by concrete.
Keitel was then informed that the breifing had been rescheduled to 12:30 pm, given the pending visit of Mussolini. Stauffenberg decided to get to the conference room as soon as possible. The bomb needed to be activated immediately. Stauffenberg asked if he could change his shirt, they were escorted to a nearby room, once inside Stauffenberg and Von Heffden set to work to quickly actvate the bomb.
They were then almost interrupted as an aide tried to enter the room to inform them of a phone call for Stauffenberg. Von Heffden had just finished activating the first bomb, but the second had not been made ready. Keitel was becoming impatient outside, they had run out of time and one bomb would have to do.
On the way to the conference room Keitel's aide offered to carry Stauffenberg's breifcase, but was shunned by Stauffenberg who informed him that he wanted to sit as close to the Fuhrer as possible, exaggerating that his hearing was very bad.
When they reached the conference room, Hitler was listening to a report by Adolf Huesinger, a friend of Von Tresckow's and the only General present who was aware of the impending bomb plot. Neither Goerring or Himmler were present, but Stauffenberg knew he must proceed with the plan.
Stauffenberg stepped forward and placed his breifcase under the table directly to Hitler's right. With the bomb in place, Stauffenberg told Keitel's aide that he had to make a phone call and left the room.
Fatefully another german officer took his position by the briefcase. Once outside, Stauffenberg quickly made his way out of the Fuhrerzone to the adjutant's building, where he knew another General would be waiting for him. Back in the conference room, Heusinger's report to Hitler continued and the seconds ticked by. Suddenly, a thunderous explosion rang out, glass and wood splinters shot through the air, as the large map table containing all the situation maps collapsed. After a few seconds of silence, the officers called out for the Fuhrer.
In the turmoil that folowed, Stauffenberg and Von Heffden made their escape. As they passed the site of the situation barracks, they saw a body being carried out draped in Hitler's long overcoat. At the two checkpoints they were allowed to proceed, but the Wolfschanze Commandant had issued a total lockdown of the site and at the final gate, Stauffenberg's car was stopped.
He decided to call the Commandant himself and got through to the Commandant's Captain who gave them the go-ahead to leave the compound. On the way back to the airfield, Von Heffden opened his briefcase and threw out the second unused bomb into the woods. Their Heinkel took off at 1:15pm, back at the Wolfschanze a rumour was going around that Hitler was still alive and only slightly injured.
Although a communications blackout was in effect, news reached Berlin quickly that the plot had failed. General Olbrecht waited to launch Operation Valkyrie until Stauffenberg reported personally to him. When Stauffenberg landed in Berlin, he found that nothing had been done.
Precious hours had been wasted during which the conspirators had lost the element of surprise. General Frohm, who said he had just spoken to Keitel and been informed that Hitler was alive, refused to launch Operation Valkyrie. Stauffenberg thought he had seen Hitler's corpse with his own eyes, and thought that the news from the Wolfschanze was a trick. Anxious to distance himself from the conspirators, Frohm attempted to place all the conspirators under arrest. But Stauffenberg put Frohm under arrest instead, together with General Olbrecht, Stauffenberg frantically began to telephone all the various army units with the Valkyrie orders, assigning them to their planned locations.
In Paris, everything went according to the plan and all the major Gestapo and S.S. officers were arrested. However, Radio Berlin then issued a communique that there had been an attempt on the Fuhrer's life, but that he had survived and would speak on the radio shortly.
Not one, but a series of events had doomed the conspiracy, the officer who took the position where Stauiffenberg had been standing in the situation room, inadvertently kicked Stauffenberg's breifcase that was secreted under the map table. He then moved it to the other side of one of the table legs which sheilded Hitler from the blast. If Stauffenberg had been placed to Hitler's left instead of his right, the blast could have fatally wounded the Fuhrer, as four officers to the right of the breiefcase unshielded by wooden table legs were killed instantly.
Also the failure to activate the second bomb, because of the interrruption by Keitel's aide, plus Keitel's impatient hurrying of Stauffenberg and Von Heffden meant that if both bombs had been placed in the conference room, the likelyhood would be that Hitler would most certainly have been killed.
But the most important factor was to move the meeting from the usual bunker to the wooden confernce room. Had the bomb exploded within the concrete confinds of the bunker, the blast would have been contained and everyone in the room would have been killed.
Hitler was convinced that he had been saved by an act of 'Divine Providence', as he showed his guest Mussolini the remains of the bombed barracks he said "you see, there is nothing left of it, and yet I got out without a scratch".
Everyone was convinced that it must have been one of the labourers working on the barracks that had planted the bomb, until the sudden disappearance of Stauffenberg put things in an entirely different light. By that same evening, Hitler knew that that group of army officers had been responsible.
Rounding up the conspirators
Back in Berlin, the final act had begun, Major Rehme who had defied Von Hase's orders had arranged his troops around the Bendlestrasse, soon after Rehme's forces were relived by the S.S....the Valkyrie plot was lost. Frohm was released and promptly arrested all the conspirators. Eager to cover up his own complicity, he decided to dispose of the conspirators immediately, in case any of them should implicate him in the investigation that was sure to follow. Stauffenberg, Von Heffden, Olbricht and Kurnheim would be condemned to death. An execution firing squad was formed and late at night, lit by the headlights of S.S. vehicles, they were marched to the Bendlestrasse courtyard.
At the same time, Hitler was broadcasting his radio address from the Wolfschanze, "I am absolutely without injury, save for some scratches and minor burns. I see my survival as the confirmation of the task that Providence has given me, to continue my life's goal, as I have done before".
At 1:00am in the morning on the 21st July 1944, Stauffenberg was executed, fate had maybe been merciful to Claus Von Stauffenberg, many other senior officers were not so lucky. The attempt had convinced Hitler that the Weirmacht leadership could not be trusted. he therefore launched a purge on the officer corps, and used the shock of the attack to round up all the surviving members of the old opposition in the Rheichstag. Those officers who had been injured or killed by the bomb, were hailed as heroes. Hitler went in person to Rastenberg hospital to pay his respects to them.
Hitler also ordered a series of show trials in the Peoples Court presided over by notorious Nazi judge Roland Weissler. Even high ranking officers were dressed for trial in shabby, ill-fitting clothes in order to strip them of their dignity.
The war itself would continue for another 10 months, the remains of Claus Von Stauffenberg were exhumed by the S.S. and burned, the final resting place of his ashes is unknown to this day.