I noticed something on the TV the other day, a preview of a documentary about Dunkirk, the World War 2 escape of the British and Allied forces across the channel back to the UK. It boasted about newly released files from the time and it made me think, just how much do we know about this conflict that ended in 1945 and how much is still secret?
Two fascinating books illustrate the point.
The Unlikely Death of Heinrich Himmler by Hugh Thomas
Anyone who is interested in history and the events of the second world war will know that Himmler committed suicide after falling into British hands. Himmler, in case you didn’t know was one of Hitler’s leading Nazis and the ruthless head of the German secret police, the Gestapo. You may even have seen the pictures of Himmler’s corpse or even the Pathe newsreel.
The dead man looks like Himmler, as much as any corpse resembles the living person it once was but are the officials telling us all they really know about the event?
To start off with the pictures, the information released by the army said they were snapped moments after the suicide. Not true. Himmler was naked apart from a pair of British issue army socks when he died. He had been separated from his German uniform in case of hidden suicide pills or weapons but he had refused to dress in a British army uniform.
When army staff suspected he had something in his mouth he clamped his teeth down on a cyanide tablet and died while desperate medical staff tried to save him. After his death he was dressed in an army shirt for the cameras and a pair of pince-nez were also clipped to his nose, so the dead body was not photographed straight away as was claimed.
Himmler had been stopped by suspicious soldiers trying to cross a bridge with a crowd of former slave labourers. The man claimed his name was Hinziger. When the soldiers questioned the man’s papers, he and two companions tried to bluster their way out. The soldiers, members of the Black Watch, became suspicious and took the men prisoner.
Was the man really Himmler?
Himmler had been discharged from his duties by Admiral Karl Doenitz who had taken over leadership of the dying Reich after the suicide of Hitler. Hitler himself had learned of Himmler’s betrayal in his last hours for Himmler had been secretly negotiating surrender terms with the allies. Himmler thought perhaps he would have a place in post war Germany or that like others, he could do a deal with the allies in return for secrets or money. Doenitz and Goring both had similar ideas however Goring was sentenced to death at Nuremberg and Doenitz to twenty years imprisonment.
Now neither side had any need of Himmler, a mass murderer, responsible for the concentration camps and the final solution, the mass murder of Jews and others decreed undesirable by the Third Reich.
When Himmler was arrested by the British at Bremervoerde on May 22, 1945, he had disguised himself by shaving off his moustache and had donned an eye patch over his left eye. He was carrying false identity papers.
Himmler succumbed to a cyanide pill on May 23, 1945 and sometime later four British soldiers took his body from a safe house in Luneburg, bundled it into an Army truck and secretly buried it in an unmarked grave on windswept Luneburg Heath. It has never been found.
The author, Hugh Thomas, tells us the story of Himmler’s life and his rise to power and puts forward a compelling case to prove that the supposed corpse of Himmler was not Himmler at all. Prior to the end of the war Himmler, whose power as head of the SS was second only to that of Hitler, transferred huge amounts of loot to foreign bank accounts and fake businesses in order to fund Nazi war criminals in South America and elsewhere. He even contends that Germany’s postwar economic ‘miracle’ was funded by SS loot.
Files on the death of Himmler have been sealed until 2045. Why? Is it because the man who died at Luneburg was an imposter, killed by the British to disguise the fact Himmler was in their hands?
All in all, a fascinating read.
Operation James Bond by Christopher Creighton.
Now with a title like that, you might automatically think this book is a work of fiction, or at least something actually about James Bond or his creator, author Ian Fleming. Well, you’d be wrong. Fleming is involved as it happens, because in WW2 Commander Ian Fleming of the Royal Navy was assigned to Naval Intelligence and Fleming came up with an ingenious plan to spirit Martin Bormann out of Berlin and into allied hands.
According to the book, the operation was given the go ahead by none other than Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the book sports a letter from Churchill to the author giving him the go-ahead to publish his story after Churchill himself was no longer alive.
‘When I die’ wrote Churchill ‘then, if your conscience so allows, tell your story for you have given and suffered much for England. Do not seek to protect me for I am content to be judged by History.’
The author, with Ian Fleming and a small commando raiding party, entered Berlin in its death throes via the rivers Spree and Havel, spirited Bormann away in a small fleet of canoes and arrived on the West Bank of the Elbe to the safety of Allied forces there on May 11th 1945. Bormann had, according to the book, agreed to free up all the Nazi funds hidden in Swiss bank accounts in exchange for his freedom and refuge in England.
Again, according to the author, 95 percent of Nazi funds were recovered and restored to their rightful owners.
Some of the book borders on the fantastic. For instance Creighton maintains that Bormann visited the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg and heard himself sentenced to death. Major Desmond Morton, the head of the secret M section of Naval Intelligence had escorted Bormann there, suitably disguised, to perhaps see for himself what the alternative was to assisting the allies. Aided by minor plastic surgery Bormann lived on until his late 50s when his health failed and he died aged 59. By then Bormann had been exiled to Paraguay. The secret service then arranged for his body to be interred in Berlin where it was found during excavations in 1972 so preserving the myth that he had died in Berlin.
A thoroughly imaginative and exciting story but whether it is true, remains to be seen.