He had chosen the date, May 10, 1941, with the help of an astrologist, who told him that the stars were in his favor on that day. At about 6 p.m., Rudolf Hess took off from the Haunstetten airfield near the Bavarian city of Augsburg.
The Nazi Party's second-in-command was a seasoned pilot and former winner of the "Rund um die Zugspitze" air race around Germany's highest Alpine peak. Hess piloted his Messerschmitt 110 airplane down the Rhine River, across the Dutch coast and out over the North Sea, before turning toward Scotland and, after a five-hour flight, parachuting onto the ground near Glasgow.
A day laborer found the German, who had sprained his ankle. Home guardsmen took him to their base, where he told them that he urgently needed to speak with the Duke of Hamilton in his home at nearby Dungavel Castle.
By the next morning Hess was sitting across from the British aristocrat, whom he had met during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Hess told Hamilton that he was on a "mission of humanity" and that the war with Great Britain had to be brought to an end, even though Germany would undoubtedly emerge victorious.
'Deep But Confused Belief'
Hess's flight to Britain almost exactly 70 years ago has remained one of the great mysteries of World War II to this day. What compelled the Führer's right-hand man to risk his life on a spring day when 500 German bombers were carrying out their heaviest attack yet on London? Why did he offer peace to Great Britain at a time when it was the Wehrmacht's last fighting enemy and Hitler was preparing to attack the Soviet Union?
Until now, historians had assumed that Hitler's deputy was acting on his own. "Hess acted without Hitler's knowledge, but in the deep (if confused) belief that he was carrying out his wishes," British author Ian Kershaw wrote in his 2008 book, "Hitler: A Biography". But now a previously unpublished document is casting Hess's notorious one-way trip in a new light: A 28-page, handwritten report that historian Matthias Uhl of the German Historical Institute Moscow discovered in the State Archive of the Russian Federation.
The document was written in February 1948 by a man who was closely associated with Hess: his adjutant Karlheinz Pintsch, a Soviet war prisoner from 1945 to 1955. Pintsch, a businessman who joined the Nazi Party early on, had accompanied Hess to the airfield. The next day he had Hitler's aides wake up the Führer at his mountain retreat in Obersalzberg to give him a letter. According to eyewitnesses, the letter began with the words: "My Führer, when you receive this letter I shall be in England."
Contrary to the prevailing view, Hitler, according to the Pintsch account, was not furious in the least when he received the news. "Hitler calmly listened to my report and dismissed me without comment," Pintsch writes. The Führer had known about Hess's flight for a while, the adjutant claims in his report, because Berlin had also been negotiating with London for some time. The flight, Pintsch writes, occurred "by prior arrangement with the English." Hess's mission, he adds, was to "use all means at his disposal to achieve, if not a German military alliance with England against Russia, at least the neutralization of England."
Does a portion of the history of World War II have to be rewritten? Was the maneuver in fact an act of official diplomacy?
Hitler's Most Loyal Servant
In any case, the new document lends new weight to those who never believed that Hess was acting on his own. For example, Hitler's valet Heinz Linge said after the war: "I didn't dare ask him whether he knew about Hess's flight to England, but his behavior told me that not only did he know about it in advance, but that he probably even sent Hess to England." Both Ernst Wilhelm Bohle, the head of the Nazi Party's foreign organization, and Hermann Göring's adjutant Karl Heinrich Bodenschatz, who were staying at the Obersalzberg house at the time when Hitler received the news about Hess's flight, gave similar accounts of the incident.
One thing is clear: No one else in his entourage was as loyal to Hitler as Hess. Hess had marched, with his pistol drawn, at the head of the group staging the infamous coup in 1923 and had later helped edit the manuscript of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" at Landsberg Prison, where both men were held after the failed putsch attempt. It was Hess who organized the Nazi storm troopers, the SA, in the party's early years and helped establish the pseudo-religious cult of the Führer. It was also Hess who, through intermediaries, had maintained contact with pro-German circles in Britain.
But his air mission was a failure from the start. When he heard about the unexpected visitor from Germany, then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who at the time was giving a dinner party at his weekend house near Oxford, was not even willing to postpone a planned film screening, saying: "Well, Hess or no Hess, I'm going to see the Marx Brothers." Why make peace with an aggressor who was determined to subjugate Europe? Hess was taken into custody.