Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassinaton of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In Part 1 of this series we recalled the death of Adolf Hitler in the July 20th bombing and Hermann Goering’s takeover as new chancellor of the Third Reich; we also looked at how the Führer’s demise affected his Axis partners along with its impact on Allied war planning. This installment will focus on the first days of the Anglo-American drive to liberate Paris and SS C-in-C Heinrich Himmler’s secret machinations with Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels to oust Goering from power.
On July 25th, five days after Hitler was killed, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden; three British and four American divisions, supported by a Canadian infantry division and various Free French units, smashed head-on into the weakest sections of the Wehrmacht lines west of Paris. Their swift advance was also aided by lethal tactical and strategic air strikes along with a team of OSS commandos who, disguised as German soldiers, disrupted Wehrmacht and SS command/control by issuing false orders and seizing a number of vital communications outposts.
In North Africa and southern Italy, Allied troops began final preparations for Operation Anvil, the campaign to liberate southern France; meanwhile, the US 15th Air Force unleashed its full force against German bases in northern Italy.
General Dietrich von Cholitz, German military governor for Paris and its suburbs, was understandably anxious about this turn of events. He knew that the closer Anglo-American soldiers got to the city, the more likely it was that Chancellor Goering would order him to level it. "Paris," Goering had said in a phonecall the day before, "is not to be given to the enemy except as a heap of rubble.1" And in fact, no sooner had the first shots been fired in Operation Market-Garden than the new Führer ordered a Wehrmacht demolitions crew rushed to the city to start making tentative preparations to blow up its major buildings.
General Charles de Gaulle, the de facto political leader of the Free French movement as well as its military leader, was quick to act to make sure the demolitions crew was prevented from doing its job. Two days after Market-Garden began, he secretly made contact with Maquis cells inside Paris and authorized them to begin a campaign of sabotage against the Wehrmacht engineers; he also sanctioned a small-scale guerrilla offensive against regular soldiers and SS units. Together, these twin campaigns would give Cholitz unending headaches and make the Anglo-Americans’ job of liberating the French capital that much easier.
Back in Berlin, Goebbels, Himmler, and Bormann were busy lining up support for their planned overthrow of Goering. Otto Skorzeny, the commando who had organized the successful 1943 rescue mission that spirited Mussolini out of Allied territory, was to be their most effective ally in their impending coup d'état. Besides being highly trained in unconventional combat, Skorzeny was also deeply loyal to Himmler; with Skorzeny’s backing, Himmler had little trouble in persuading his fellow SS senior officers to side with Goebbels and Bormann.
Goebbels, meanwhile, bribed Luftwaffe fighter corps commander General Adolf Galland to join the conspiracy by promising to name him as new Luftwaffe commander-in-chief after Goering’s ouster. Not that Galland needed much coaxing— he’d long been critical of Goering’s refusal to give fighter production top priority in the German aviation industry’s war efforts. He also loathed Goering’s new chief of staff, Robert Ritter von Greim, regarding him as nothing more than an obsequious Goering toady. The only thing Galland asked in return was that, as his first official act, he be allowed to personally sack von Greim.
Under the pretext of training for a raid on Allied Supreme Headquarters, Skorzeny and fellow SS officer Colonel Joachim Peiper drilled a handpicked team of 40 men on the tactics that would be needed to take control of the Reichschancellery and arrest Goering. Skorzeny had offered to execute Goering once the Reichsmarschall was overthrown, but Himmler ruled that out for fear it might prompt too many awkward questions; instead, it was decided that Goering would be quietly packed off to a lunatic asylum whose staff could be relied on to maintain a discreet silence.
One surprising beneficiary of the Goebbels-Bormann-Himmler plot was Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the man Karl Doenitz had succeeded as commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine a year earlier. Convinced that it was just a matter of time before Doenitz had a complete psychological breakdown, Goebbels made a late revision to his plan which called for Raeder to be reinstated as Kriegsmarine supreme commander once Himmler had assumed power.
Himmler was chomping at the bit to oust Goering right away, but Goebbels counseled patience; the propaganda minister warned quite rightly that if the coup were initiated too hastily Goering’s paratroopers could squash it and Goering himself could have all three of its instigators hanged. Besides, Colonel Skorzeny had said himself that it would take at least a week for his men to be ready for it.
On July 28th, as Allied forces in France were entering Chartres and reaching the outskirts of Rouen, Himmler and his cohorts at last made their move. The first section of Skorzeny’s team broke into the Reich War Ministry and arrested Major Otto Remer2, the Wehrmacht commander responsible for overseeing the defense of the Reichschancellery; the second section disarmed Goering’s personal guard and spirited Goering himself to a waiting field ambulance that would take him to the asylum where Himmler had ordered him detained. That afternoon, Dr. Goebbels went on the radio to announce that the Reichsmarschall, unable to bear the grief of his old comrade’s assassination, had resigned both as chancellor of the Reich and commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. Himmler came on ten minutes later to proclaim himself the new Führer; in his first official act he appointed Martin Bormann as Germany’s new foreign minister and designated Adolf Galland the new Luftwaffe commander-in-chief.
The next day Rouen fell to the Allies.
On the Eastern Front, the Red Army now controlled all of Belarus and most of the Ukraine and had also made impressive progress in clearing the Germans out of the Baltic states. Preparations were underway for a massive Soviet thrust into Poland and NKVD agents in the Balkans were paving the way for pro-Soviet uprisings in Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The Kremlin had even managed to establish a new Rote Kapelle("Red Orchestra") spy team inside the Reich itself, something few people would have believed possible after the original Rote Kapelle was destroyed in 1941.
General Zhukov and his chief rival, Ivan Konev, were in a fierce if unacknowledged race to be the first Red Army field commander to have his troops raise the Soviet flag over Warsaw; for a while it looked as if Zhukov might win the race hands down. On July 30, however, his army group ran into unexpected trouble when it encountered bitter if ultimately futile resistance from pro-Nazi Lithuanian militias at the town of Ukmerge. It took Zhukov’s troops four days to break throught them and take the city, by which time Konev’s men had liberated Kiev and Bila Tserkva and reached the outskirts of Zhitomir. Consequently, Konev stole a two-day lead over Zhukov in the competition for the glory of driving the Nazis out of Warsaw.
In Warsaw itself, meanwhile, the Polish Home Army of General Thadeusz Bor-Komorowski and the Polish Communist partisan forces led by Wladislaw Gomulka were engaged in a three-way mêlée with the Germans and each other for the possession of Poland’s ancient capital. Both Allied and German leaders watched the guerrilla uprising with keen interest; both sides knew that the outcome would affect not only the end of the war, but also the shape of the post-war world.
While this was going on, Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, became the first of the Baltic state capitals to be retaken from the Germans by the Red Army; the last pockets of German resistance there collapsed on July 30th. The next day Soviet troops reached the outskirts of Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. By August 2nd the Latvian capital of Riga had also fallen, putting the Red Army in perfect position to mount amphibious assaults on both Finland and the Polish port city of Danzig.
On August 5th Soviet artillery began shelling the East Prussian capital, Konigsberg; that same day Red Army tank and infantry divisions mounted a five-column thrust on Warsaw. Hans Frank, the tyrannical Nazi overlord for the so-called ‘General Government’ in the German-occupied western half of Poland, was one of the first casualties of this thrust; a Red Air Force tactical bombing raid mounted in support of the offensive scored a direct hit on his office, killing him and most of his staff instantly.
Back at SHAEF headquarters, General Eisenhower watched these developments with mixed feelings. On the one hand he was relieved that every German killed or captured by the Russians meant one less his own troops had to fight; on the other, he worried that a successful Soviet capture of Warsaw might pave the way for the Kremlin to impose Communist rule first on Poland, then on eastern Europe as a whole.
This, in General Patton’s view, gave the Anglo-American forces that much more reason to push the Nazis out of France as quickly as possible. Thus he urged his men to keep hammering away at the crumbling Wehrmacht and SS defensive lines near Paris.
General von Cholitz’s already precarious position became even more so when he received word early on the morning of August 4th that Operation Anvil had commenced with Allied landings at the southern French ports of Marseilles and Toulon. This, coming on top of the increasingly ferocious guerrilla war French resistance cells were waging against his men and the Allied air strikes that were destroying his supply bases and airfields, made it possible or even likely that the new Führer, Himmler, would order him to level Paris— which meant he’d be faced with the dilemma of having to choose between being slayer of one of the world’s most ancient and beautiful cities or betraying his oath as a German soldier by disregarding the order.
Another German general, Erwin Rommel, had a dilemma of his own to cope with. The Desert Fox, hospitalized by an RCAF strafing attack that took place three days before Hitler’s assassination, had long been critical of the Nazi regime but at the same time was passionately loyal to Germany as a nation. This loyalty put him in a spiritual agony almost as great as the physical agony brought on by his injuries from the strafing; word had gotten to him that his aide Captain Hellmuth Lang had been among those shot on suspicion of being connected with the assassination plot and that Rommel himself might be brought before Roland Freisler’s People’s Court on treason charges.
This left Rommel with three choices: commit suicide, endure the ghastly sham trial and the disgrace such a hearing would bring on his family, or do the unthinkable and defect to the Allies. His mind was made up on August 7th, when his long time naval aide Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge sent him a letter warning him that the Gestapo planned to arrest him the moment he was released from the hospital.
In a second, Rommel’s thoughts crystallized; he made the decision to defect to the Allies and arrange his family’s escape from the Reich. Through a sympathetic fellow convalescent, he made contact with the OSS to seek their help in getting himself and his family into Allied territory. OSS director Colonel William Donovan was slow to accept that Rommel’s request was genuine, but once he had overcome his initial reservations he moved heaven and earth to fulfil it.
On August 10th, as Soviet artillery began hitting German positions inside Warsaw, two OSS special operations squads were sent into action. The first, disguised as Wehrmacht medical staff, slipped into the field hospital where Rommel was staying and smuggled him out to the Allied lines via a stolen field ambulance; the second squad, posing as Gestapo investigators, picked up Rommel’s wife and children in a phoney "arrest" and flew them to Switzerland, where they would stay at the US embassy in Zurich before being sent to London to rejoin him at his side.
Both operations were carried out to near-perfection; by the time Himmler learned about them, there was little he could do other than rage about the incompetence of his intelligence officers and sack two dozen men who’d been responsible for keeping an eye on the Rommels. Goebbels, who even at the height of his rage about Hitler’s death had never been convinced Rommel had anything to do with it, was shocked by the defection: "Not even in my darkest nightmares would I have imagined such a thing possible.3"
The little doctor would have further cause for distress the next day, when Radio Moscow triumphantly announced that Red Army troops had entered Warsaw and the BBC reported that Allied infantry and armored divisions had reached the outskirts of Versailles. General Charles de Gaulle, confident that Paris would be liberated within days if not hours, flew to Carentan to begin making preparations to establish a new provisional French government once the Germans had been kicked out of the capital.
In southern France, American and French divisions liberated Avignon and Nîmes while the British made a strong push to take Toulouse. The Allied campaign in Italy achieved a major success with the liberation of the fabled medieval city of Florence and the encirclement of Bologna.
In the Ukraine, the last remaining German occupation forces in that region were being annihilated by local partisan bands as well as regular Soviet troops. Red Air Force fighter pilots were racking up the kind of staggering double- and triple-digit scores once considered the exclusive province of the Luftwaffe. Erich Koch, the brutal Reich Commissar who had been the chief Nazi civilian authority since 1941, was caught and lynched by Ukranian guerrillas as he tried to slip across the Romanian border to reach the safety of the German embassy in Bucharest.
Even if Koch had been able to make it to Bucharest, some say it might not have been a given he would have survived long enough to reach the German embassy. Ion Antonescu, fascist ruler of Romania since 1940, was losing his grip on power now that Hitler was dead— the Führer’s backing had been vital in enabling Antonescu and his Iron Guard party to hold power. With that backing gone, Antonescu’s enemies were circling like sharks, waiting for the right moment to act against him; within a week after Hitler’s assassination, anti-Iron Guard demonstrations had become a common sight on the streets of Bucharest and Timisoara4. King Michael II, head of the Romanian royal family, twice tried to persuade Antonescu to resign from office only to be sharply rebuffed both times.
After Iron Guard thugs turned a a peace march in Timisoara on August 13th into a near-riot, King Michael decided he’d finally had enough of Antonescu and ordered his arrest for treason. The Iron Guard leader was promptly hauled off to a Bucharest prison and Michael wired the Soviet embassy in Stockholm that Romania was surrendering unconditionally to the Allies.
On August 14th, Allied and Romanian diplomats met in Geneva to sign the accord formally acknowledging Romania’s surrender and its withdrawal from the Axis. As momentous as this event was, however, it would be crowded out of public attention within 24 hours as an AP news bulletin from London signalled a crucial development in the battle for France:
FLASH—SHAEF HEADQUARTERS SAYS GERMAN GARRISON
IN PARIS TO SURRENDER
The moment Allied troops had reached Versailles, von Cholitz knew his number was up. Ordering the Wehrmacht demolitions crew in Paris to leave the city and take their equipment with them, he contacted the closest Allied advance unit outside Paris and told its commanding officer via radio that he would hand the French capital over to the Allies at noon on August 15th; half an hour later, he was notified that his surrender had been accepted and a joint delegation of American and French officers would arrive at his headquarters at the appointed time to formally assume possession of the city.
This news infuriated Himmler; he ranted that Cholitz was guilty of "desecrating our Führer’s memory just as surely as if one took a hammer and smashed his tombstone with it!5". His anger was mixed with fear of meeting his doom at the business end of either an American noose or a Soviet rifle. Luck was now working as swiftly against the Nazis as it had worked in their favor four years earlier…
To Be Continued
Footnotes1 Quoted from the book Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins & Dominque Pierre, copyright 1966.
2 Though there is little mention of him in either Allied or German literature about the July 20th bombing, Major Remer may have played a more important role than anyone else in helping Goering enforce his status as Hitler’s successor in the first hours after Hitler’s death. Among other things, Remer personally led the detail that arrested Claus von Stauffenberg upon Stauffenberg’s return to Berlin and also deployed the troops under his command to guarantee Goering’s safe passage from Karinhall to Berlin when the Reichsmarschall was preparing to announce his invocation of Hitler’s 1941 succession decree.
3 Quoted by Hugh Trevor Roper in his book Final Entries 1944:The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels.
4 Communist agitator Nicolae Ceaucescu, who would one day impose his own tyranny on Romania, organized and led many of these rallies.
5 From Alan Bullock’s Himmler: A Study In Tyranny, copyright 1951 by Harper Collins.