World War II Mysteries: Himmler and Borman

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.

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A Few Unconventional Thoughts about Time

quotescover-jpg-88bTime, there’s a thing. I have a theory about time and it’s this, it’s that time flows differently in different places. OK; sounds a bit mad doesn’t it? Let me explain further. Take somewhere like France. Dotted about France are innumerable war grave cemeteries. The conflicts of the first and second world wars left their mark on the landscape in various ways and even today farmers in the Somme and other places continue to dig up artillery shells and other reminders of the past.

Batterie Todt, Pas De Calais

Batterie Todt, Pas De Calais

On many occasions when trundling through rural France I’ve come across many bunkers, fortresses and other sites. In northern France Liz and I stopped at a war grave cemetery that was picture perfect in its own way. The lawns were incredibly neat, and the hedgerows immaculately trimmed. Sadness pervaded the site like a scent coming over from the adjacent fields. Throughout there is a feeling of peace, of slowness and a feeling that time has stopped here or perhaps just slowed. That’s not strange when you think that time must have speeded up during the action of the first and second world wars, so it seems only fair that nature must compensate, that time must slow later to make up for the fast and frantic earlier time.

You can imagine the pace of things even a hundred years ago: The early morning bombardment, the whistles blowing as officers called their troops to go over the top. The advance parties who made ahead to cut the barbed wire, the troops walking apprehensively forward until they walked into the deadly machine gun fire that cut most of them down. Many found their final resting places in these cemeteries, places that are now quiet and peaceful with a silent beauty, timeless and moving with the beat of nature as a backdrop, the humming of the insects, distant cows mooing, and the birds flying past.

Many soldiers’ bodies slipped deeper into the mud of places like the Somme and remain there still. Others have no resting places, their bodies blown to pieces by artillery shells, their names marked on marble walls forever missing in action.

War memorial, France, 1940

War memorial, France, 1940

At one place, travelling from St Quentin to Soissons we stopped by the road to find a huge sword standing in the rock. Like a giant Excalibur, it stood there waiting to be pulled by some giant hand, bearing silent witness to a long ago battle from the Second World War.

We once visited Compiegne, the place where the armistice was signed at the end of the First World War. The famous railway coach there is not the authentic one. No, that one was where Hitler forced the French to surrender in the early days of World War 2. The coach was then taken away to Berlin where the Nazis destroyed it in the closing stages of the war to stop its return to France. The coach that stands here now in Compiegne is a similar one and it’s easy to imagine the scenes all those years ago, the French accepting the German surrender in 1918, then years later Hitler and his gang pressing their terms on the French.

Compiegne, France

I’ve never been to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland but whenever I look at one of those TV documentary programmes where TV cameras return to the site, it doesn’t look like a place of mass destruction. It looks calm, serene and another silent witness to the death and destruction of the past. Time ran faster here when the Nazi death machine was in full swing. Now time flows peacefully past over those who come to learn about what has gone on before. This must indeed be a sombre place to visit but Auschwitz is not only a memorial to those who had their lives snuffed out in such a terrible fashion but a reminder to all of the dangers of prejudice and hatred. Time hangs heavy over this place but the evil that built and maintained this death camp has long gone.

All the places mentioned here have had their moments in the spotlight of world history. They all lived through times of accelerated pace when time flowed swiftly. Perhaps it’s their time now for a quieter pace while time flows slowly . .

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