(W)Archives: Kill Hitler? Oh, I Guess So
Over the thirteen years since 9/11, the topic of assassination has kept coming up as a subject of debate in America. To our credit, we agonize over whether assassination is moral and whether it is effective.
It turns out that the British went through a similar exercise during World War II. Last year, the UK National Archives opened to the public Foreign Office file FO 1093/292 under the simultaneously lurid and banal name “War: General; Assassination Priorities for OVERLORD.” The documents in this file bring into sharp relief many of the issues we face today. It seems that assassination often sounds attractive but it is morally fraught, has side effects, and is difficult to do.
The file shows that the British contemplated using the French underground or other covert means to assassinate various senior German and Vichy French leaders, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in the run-up to or shortly after the D-Day landings. A variant of the idea was to assassinate lower level German transport officials whose deaths might impede the German effort to rush forces to Normandy. Apparently this was to be an adjunct to the “Transport Plan” for strategic bombing. The idea never really went anywhere, however. Certainly, some officials expressed moral distaste, but one official summed up the majority opinion as follows:
I…dislik[e] this scheme, not out of squeamishness, as there are several people in this world whom I could kill with my own hands and with a feeling of pleasure and without that action in any way spoiling my appetite, but I think that it is the type of bright idea which in the end produces a good deal of trouble and does little good.
Foremost among the aspects of that “good deal of trouble” was the prospect that the Germans would retaliate against Allied prisoners of war.
Stuff got real, however, after the landings when, on June 20, the British Ambassador in Algiers cabled to London that a French colonel had told him that Adolf Hitler was living in disguise in a house in Perpignan in southern France near the Spanish border. Allegedly the Fuehrer was making preparations to escape to Spain if the war went badly (See page 31 of the file). The Ambassador reported that he had consulted with British military authorities and they were ready to bomb the house. The Ambassador closed his telegram with the sentence, “The story is quite fantastic, but so was the story of Hess,” Hitler’s deputy who had flown to Britain in 1941 under mysterious circumstances.
Asked its opinion of the report, MI6 said it was quite confident that Hitler was actually at his headquarters and nowhere near Perpignan. Nevertheless, the chance—however remote—of getting the Fuehrer was too much to resist. The Foreign Office was convinced to take action. For their part, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s chief military assistant informed him in a June 21 note that the Chiefs of Staff unanimously thought that, “from a strictly military point of view, it was almost an advantage that Hitler should remain in control of German strategy, having regard to the blunders that he has made.” However, the note continued, “on the wider point of view, the sooner he was got out of the way, the better.”
The bombing operation was approved but Hitler, of course, was not there. He died some ten months later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his bunker in Berlin.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Recuerdos de Pandora