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The day they tried to kill Hitler

History - EY History

The attempted assassination of the Fuhrer during the July of 1944 has been well documented.

But to get what I am about to write in perspective I must of necessity briefly explore the events of the bomb plot of 20th July 1944. The chief protagonist was a Swabian aristocrat Claus Schenk Graf Von Stauffenberg who lost an eye and part of his right hand during the bitter fighting in Africa. He was the link between the idealists of the Kreisau circle and the activists of Army Group Centre.

On the fatal day it was he who flew with the time bomb to Hitler’s headquarters (the Wolfshanze) at Rastenburg in East Prussia; it was he who carried the bomb in his brief-case already ticking into the conference room; it was he who placed it under the table. Then he slipped out of the room; bluffed his way past successive SS Guards and flew to Berlin to take effective command of the next stage of the conspiracy; the seizure of power in the Reich. However, the venture failed by a whisker, a Colonel Brantd inadvertently pushed the briefcase further under the table away from Hitler. He survived the blast to live and exact a swift and condign revenge. The chief conspirators were hung on meat hooks in a cellar of the Ploetenzee prison. Stauffenburg was lucky he was shot. Many thousands more were to die.

But where do I come into these dramatic events? Simple, I was a British POW working in the railway repair works in Leipzig, a kind of German Swindon. Originally taken prisoner in North Africa in April 1941 (I think it was April Fool’s day) and shipped to Germany, when the Italians surrendered in September 1943. I had now been incarcerated for three years but was extremely fortunate in receiving quite a few cigarette parcels from home. These, plus the nominal issue of British Red Cross food parcels delivered by the Protecting Power, Switzerland made life tolerably easy in comparison to the unfortunate Russians. I always saved my dog-ends and gave them to these poor scarecrows who were being worked to death by the Germans. I built up a system of contacts and having a flair for languages soon learned the colloquial German. I kept the factory’s Gestapo agent Herr Schuster sweet with

Churchman’s No 1, the best of English cigarettes and likewise our Feldwebel (in charge of the tiny lager within the factory grounds - that in itself was against the Geneva Convention) and our two guards, Otto and “Gary Cooper” the spitting image of the Hollywood idol. I drank Schnapps with my acorn coffee and ate white bread almost unobtainable for the average citizen. I was in fact a “tobacco baron” but it allowed me to look after my mates and keep the HIERARCHY happy.

The summer of 1944 was glorious. I had just celebrated my 25th birthday on 8th July when something happened. A deadly hush seemed to descend upon the factory, despite the fact that work was proceeding normally. The reason, a rumour circulated like wildfire that the Fuhrer had been assassinated. The French got hold of it as they did most things, Auguste the carpenter whispered in my ear “ Il est mort” (he is dead). I buttonholed Schuster who was looking extremely grim and asked him if it was true. We climbed up into the cab of a convenient locomotive (it was my job to put in new windows - a “cushy old number” purchased from the meister (manager) for a few English cigarettes) and he told me what had presumably happened. “It was a group of Army Officers” he said, “but the Fuhrer is safe although a bit shaken”. Schuster then told me to keep a low profile; “You had better go easy on your English jokes, no one is safe”. This was the Official Gestapo line. I was profoundly worried because I had left a half-hundred weight of potatoes stashed away in my tool chest.

These were in short supply as potatoes were a necessary ingredient in the fuelling of rockets.

Each day the blacksmith, an old German, cooked some for me for which I ate with my soup in return for a few fags. If my hoard had been discovered I would have dangled on a rope suspended from a lamppost with old Hans alongside.

It took a few weeks for the factory to get back to normal but the war news was grim for the Germans. The Russians were into Poland and the Allies were making headway in France.

Schuster suddenly disappeared which caused me some worry; his successor was an unknown quantity as far as commerce was concerned but he was a rabid Nazi who believed that

Germany was still going to win the war contrary to the beliefs of most other of her citizens.

“There you are”, he said to me triumphantly when the Wehrmacht launched its surprise offensive in the Ardennes. It took the Americans by surprise but aided by the British and

Canadians they soon recovered. I got along with him but never attempted any deals simply giving the odd fag now and again. I still wonder today what might have happened had the bomb plot been successful. It seems to me that the conspirators might well have formed a provisional government and concluded a separate peace with the West. But the Russians would never have allowed that to happen. It was Stalin’s intention to reach the Channel Ports; now the enemy was not Germany but Russia. I recall an American Officer telling us to get behind the Allied line. Those unfortunate British POWs who were liberated by the Russians eventually came home many months later via Odessa. Russian POWs were executed or sent to the Gulags when they returned home. German POWs in Russia were simply worked to death. Of the many thousands held in Siberia only 6,000 returned to Germany.

Finally, with hindsight and in view of the Holocaust and the death camps, the knowledge of which came to light over the years, I cannot, even to this day help but shudder at the thought of the risks I took as a young man in getting mixed up in the black market. For close on forty years I had nightmares; fortunately for me my wife understood and assured me that I was not going to be tortured in a Gestapo dungeon.

JH Witte

Extract from EYA Journal 2002

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