The July Bomb Plot of 1944 was an attempt by senior German Army officers to kill Hitler and end World War Two. The July Bomb Plot was not the first attempt to kill Hitler, but it was the one that came the closest to success.
By the summer of 1944, some senior figures in Germany’s military believed that Hitler’s leadership was dooming Germany to defeat – many believed that defeat was simply a matter of time, especially after the Russian success at Stalingrad. They believed that the Allies would be open to negotiation with regards to a conditional surrender once Hitler had been killed. From this belief the Bomb Plot developed.
Hitler had frequently warned those in his inner circle that they all faced the problem of assassination attempts. Reinhard Heydrich had been assassinated in Prague and in 1942, there had been a failed attempt on Goebbels life. However, Hitler took great steps to prevent such attempts. No-one knew in advance his movements, whether it was by car, train or plane. Increasingly after 1940, he locked himself away in either the Chancellery in Berlin or his mountain home in Berchtesgaden. From 1944 on, his principal ‘home’ was the Wolf’s Lair at Rastenburg in East Prussia. Simply getting near to Hitler would have been very difficult and security around him when he did venture into the public arena was very tight. Hitler also did not allow anyone near him to carry a weapon. Therefore any attempt on his life would have had to be meticulously planned.
The principal figures in the July Plot were:
|Ludwig Beck||Former general||Aged 64|
|Wilhelm Canaris||Head of Military Intelligence||Aged 57|
|Hans Oster||Deputy Head of Military Intelligence||Aged 49|
|Helmuth von Moltke||Legal advisor to Canaris||Aged 37|
|Heinrich von Stülpnagel||Military governor of France||Aged 58|
|Carl Gördeler||Price Control Commissioner||Aged 60|
|Friedrich Olbricht||Colonel-General||Aged 58|
|Henning von Tresckow||Major-General||Aged 43|
|Claus von Stauffenberg||Colonel; Chief of Staff Army Reserve||Aged 37|
Of the above, only von Moltke was against the use of violence. However, the key figure was Count Claus von Stauffenberg as he had actual contact with Hitler on a regular basis and he could get into the Wolf’s Lair with few problems.
Stauffenberg was a career army officer. He had served in the Polish campaign, and the attacks on Western Europe in 1940. From here, he served in North Africa where, in July 1943, he was severely wounded from the gunfire of a low-flying plane. He lost his right hand and forearm and all but three of the fingers on his left hand. He had also lost his right eye. However, as Chief-of-Staff Army Reserve, he had to meet with Hitler on a regular basis. His presence there on July 20th, 1944, would not have aroused any suspicions.
In 1943, the civilian element involved in conspiracies against Hitler were under attack. Many were arrested and imprisoned. Therefore, those conspirators in the army decided that a more direct approach was needed – Hitler should be killed, and those civilians concerned with the new order after Hitler’s death could do their work once he had been killed.
There had been attempts by military personnel before July 1944. Baron Henning von Tresckow, a staff officer, had sent two brandy bottles to a friend at Rastenburg – Major-General Helmuth Stieff. In fact, the bottles disguised a bomb. Stieff was a staff officer of the Army High Command at Rastenburg. He would have had the ability to put the bombs anywhere. The bomb failed to go off and Tresckow had to spend time retrieving them. Colonel von Gersdorff, a young officer in Tresckow’s circle offered himself as a suicide bomber when Hitler was to open a museum in Berlin. This failed as Hitler could not make up his mind whether to open the new museum or not. In November 1943, Axel von dem Bussche, a young army officer, offered to blow himself up while modeling a new military great coat in front of Hitler. This only failed because Hitler, once again, cancelled the meeting. Therefore, there was a history of army officers conspiring against Hitler – Stauffenberg was certainly not the first.
After a long stay in hospital, Stauffenberg was appointed Chief-of-Staff to Friedrich Olbricht who was Head of the Supply Section of the Reserve Army. The headquarters for this unit was the War Office in Berlin – not at Rastenburg. Other conspirators worked at the War Office – Tresckow in particular. Both Stauffenberg and Tresckow had already met in 1941 and it would seem that Stauffenberg’s appointment was not a coincidence. The conspiracy against Hitler was given the code-name ‘Valkyrie’. Not long after Stauffenberg arrived at the War Office, Tresckow had to return to his unit at the Eastern Front. This left Stauffenberg and Olbricht to do all of the work in Berlin. By now, Olbricht had decided on former general Beck to be the man who would succeed Hitler as Head of State.
In June 1944, the conspiracy took a major step forward when Stauffenberg was promoted to full colonel and made the Chief-of-Staff to General Fromm. It was now necessary for Stauffenberg to attend meetings that were headed by Hitler. He first met Hitler on June 7th, 1944, just one day after D-Day. Now the German Army was faced with the probability of destruction on two fronts – something that the conspirators could not allow. Hence, speed became the essence. Tresckow sent Stauffenberg a message from the Eastern Front:
|“The assassination must be attempted, at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power in the capital must be undertaken. We must prove to the world and to the future generations that the men of the German resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it. Compared with this, nothing else matters.”|
However, in early July a series of arrests took place in Germany. Stauffenberg did not know who would be next or how much the Gestapo knew. It certainly was not unusual for the Gestapo to leave known conspirators alone and free from arrest – until they were needed. The Gestapo was far more interested in who the conspirators met with – something they would never find out if they were locked up in a cell.
July brought more problems. Sympathetic senior officers were moved posts (Field Marshall Kluge went from the Eastern Front to the Western Front – thus isolating Tresckow). Field Marshall Rommell, who had been critical of the way Hitler ran the war, was severely injured when his car was attacked by a fighter plane. With a scenario of this going wrong and getting worse, Stauffenberg decided to quickly push on. He was the perfect person to carry in a bomb – no-one would suspect the severely disabled war hero.
Stauffenberg received orders that the next staff conference was to be at 13.00 on July 20th. The start was changed to 12.30 – though the time change meant little to Stauffenberg. Having broken a capsule full of acid which would eat through a wire detonator thus activating a firing pin, Stauffenberg went into a map room with Field Marshall Keital and placed the bomb, hidden in his briefcase, against a leg of the table that supported the war maps that Hitler was using. After this was done, Stauffenberg made his excuse (he had to take a telephone report from Berlin) and left the map room.
He went to his staff car and as he got level to it, an explosion occurred in the map room. The time was 12.42. The SS guards believed that an air raid was taking place. Regardless of this, Stauffenberg bluffed his way out of the very heavily guarded Wolf’s Lair and by 13.15 was on his plane for the journey to Berlin.
Just before the bomb was due to explode, an officer attending the briefing had moved the briefcase to the other side of the table support chosen by Stauffenberg as the ideal place to put the bomb. Therefore, the blast was directed away from Hitler who survived with his clothes singed, a cut to his hand and damaged ear drums. In fact, at 16.00, less than four hours after the explosion, Hitler gave Mussolini a tour of the damage done to the map room.
|“I have escaped death miraculously.” Hitler“Heaven has held its protective hand over you.” Mussolini“I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and me.” Hitler|
The planned coup d’état in Berlin that was to follow the assassination was a disaster. It had clearly not been well thought out. The only leading Nazi in Berlin at the time was Joseph Goebbels. A major in the Guards Battalion, Otto Remer, was sent to arrest Goebbels by the conspirators directing the doomed uprising in the capital. Remer, in fact, was a dedicated Nazi and Goebbels put him in direct contact with Hitler to prove that the Führer was still alive. Promoted on the spot by Hitler to a colonel, Remer was charged by Hitler with rounding up the conspirators.
At 18.45 a radio broadcast stated that there had been an attempt on Hitler’s life but that it had failed and Hitler was alive. The radio broadcast then stated that Hitler would address the German people sometime in the evening.
The conspirators, including Stauffenberg, based in the War Office were rounded up. They went through the farce of a court martial and were then shot by a firing squad. Tresckow walked into No-Man’s-Land on the Eastern Front and was shot by Russian machine gun fire. However, this was only the start of Hitler’s revenge. Anybody who was implicated in the plot faced arrest, torture and execution. Many had to stand trial before Roland Freisler, the Nazi judge who showed no mercy to anyone.