Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 11 May 1941… “During the evening, news kept coming in of the heavy air raid on London of the night before,” Churchill wrote. “There was nothing I could do about it, so I watched the Marx Brothers in a comic film which my hosts had arranged.” He was then informed that Rudolf Hess had parachuted into Scotland. “Tell that to the Marx Brothers!” he growled. When assured it was true he said: “Hess or no Hess, I’m going to watch the Marx Brothers.” —Churchill by Himself, 542.
Peter Padfield, in Hess, Hitler & Churchill: The Real Turning Point of the Second World War, claimed that Rudolf Hess’s May 1941 flight to Britain (generally thought the solo act of a delusional psycophant) was authorized by Hitler. Allegedly Hess had with him a proposal for an armistice with Britain. Germany would withdraw from Western Europe in exchange for a free hand to attack Russia. Is there anything to this? —R.M.N., South Dakota
Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) had been Hitler’s Deputy Fuehrer until the flight. After the Second World War he was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to life imprisonment.
According to Padfield’s book summarized by the Daily Telegraph, Hess brought with him a typewritten proposed treaty. Written on German Chancellery paper, it proposed a state of wohlwollende Neutralitat (“well wishing neutrality”) between Britain and Germany. Supposedly, it even disclosed the date for Hitler’s planned attack on the Soviet Union (22 June 1941).
Mr. Padfield is an accomplished contrarian, but this is a curious thesis. Hess himself claimed to be looking for anti-Churchill elements in Britain. He sought out the Duke of Hamilton, who was anything but, and notified Churchill.
First-person testimony from those around Hitler, such as Albrecht Speer, was to the contrary. Speer wrote that Hitler was furious when informed of the Hess flight. Hitler stripped Hess all his offices. He ordered Hess shot on sight if he ever returned to Germany. Readers of the book please comment.
This is not to say Hitler might not have welcomed an arrangement leaving him a free hand in the east. It is well known that he hoped for some kind of stand-off with Britain after the fall of France, and was never keen about invading England. But surely he was smart enough to know he’d never get that from Churchill, who was firmly in power by May 1941. (See “Churchill on Peace with Hitler, my next post, on March 25th.)
Titanic followers know Peter Padfield as author of a convincing book, The Titanic and the Californian. Defying most accounts, Padfield exonerates Captain Stanley Lord of the Leyland liner Californian, who supposedly remained immobile in an ice floe within visual range of the sinking Titanic in April 1912. Padfield used naval technology and a battery of measurements to argue that Californian was nowhere near that close. His book is the leading text of the “Lordites.” They claim Captain Lord was wronged, notably by Walter Lord (no relation), author of the 1956 bestseller, A Night to Remember.
In the 1990s I hosted a Churchill Tour visit to Lennoxlove, seat of the Dukes of Hamilton and Brandon. Visitors will find a small museum containing Hess flight memorabilia. Astonishingly, the house itself containas the death mask of Mary Queen of Scots! Click here and go to minute 24.