March 1943 – So Close….

<img data-attachment-id="12911" data-permalink="" data-orig-file="" data-orig-size="800,537" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"Bundesarchiv","camera":"","caption":"Hitler begru00fcu00dft Generalfeldmarschall von Manstein auf einem Feldflugplatz im Osten 1943n[freigegeben am 18.3.1943]","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"Ostfront, Adolf Hitler, Erich v. Manstein","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="Ostfront, Adolf Hitler, Erich v. Manstein" data-image-description="" data-image-caption="

Hitler begrüßt Generalfeldmarschall von Manstein auf einem Feldflugplatz im Osten 1943
[freigegeben am 18.3.1943]

” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ class=”size-large wp-image-12911″ src=”″ alt=”Hitler begrüßt Generalfeldmarschall von Manstein auf einem Feldflugplatz im Osten 1943 [freigegeben am 18.3.1943]” srcset=” 584w, 150w, 500w, 768w, 800w” sizes=”(max-width: 584px) 100vw, 584px”/>

On 17 February 1943, when Hitler made his sudden visit to the front, however, Army Group B and Field Marshal von Weichs had already moved from Poltava and Hitler visited Saporozhe instead of Poltava. On the third day of his visit he ran into a highly dangerous situation, although in this case the opposition had nothing to do with it. Russian tanks were driving along the road to Saporozhe which ran alongside the airfield, and were only two hours away while Hitler was still in the town. 7 Baur, his pilot, drove into town forthwith to urge him to hurry and, as the three ‘Condors’ took off, the Russians had already reached the eastern end of the airfield, where, however, they took up positions in a kolkhoz. As Hitler and his entourage flew off two six-engined German ‘Giants’ came in carrying anti-tank guns, of which there were none in Saporozhe. The Russians had not attacked the airfield because they had run out of fuel.

Meanwhile preparations had been proceeding in Berlin; Schlabrendorff had been there again in February. 8 But the measures were not yet fully decided. Olbricht hoped to be ready by 1 March but Pfuhlstein thought that it would be April. Captain Kaiser noted in his diary after a conversation with Schlabrendorff on 19 February: ‘Deadline 1 March 43’.9 Dr Gisevius spent many days in January and February 1943 in an office in Bendlerstrasse that Olbricht had made available to him and revised the old 1938 plans. 10 New data on the location of SS garrisons were procured, liaison was established with police commanders and, tentatively, with some field marshals. It made little sense now to wait, if an opportunity presented itself. To a certain extent all was, in fact, ready; postings and other developments could always upset the best-laid plans; much would have to be improvised in any case. At the end of 1942 Olbricht had told Tresckow that he wanted eight more weeks. When these were up, Schlabrendorff had a talk with Olbricht who said to him: ‘We are ready; it is time for the flash.’1’ This was at the end of February. Naturally it was true only within the limits indicated above. There had been a discussion, for instance, of the question how to cut all communications to the outside world from ‘Wolfschanze’, the Fuhrer’s headquarters, which also housed the whole of OKW and its Operations Staff when Hitler was there; General Fellgiebel, the Wehrmacht Chief Signals Officer, said quite rightly that few preparations could be made since it would be necessary to occupy the repeater stations and trunk exchanges. Without ensuring the assistance of the Post Office no preparations could be made; in this case, therefore, ‘action’ could only be taken when the ‘flash’ had taken place. 12

A certain degree of coordination and agreement, however, between the focus of action on the eastern front and headquarters in Berlin, was essential. For this purpose, on 7 March 1943, Canaris flew to Smolensk with a considerable staff on pretext of holding a general intelligence conference. He brought with him Major-General Oster, head of his Coordination Section, Colonel Lahousen, head of Section II, his special assistant, Dr von Dohnanyi – and a box of explosive. 13 This was handed over by Gersdorff to Section II of the Abwehr Detachment. 14 Tresckow and Dohnanyi talked late into the night and agreed on a code to coordinate measures taken by the Berlin group and that at the front. Tresckow declared that the ‘flash’ would take place at the next available opportunity and accepted an assurance that all necessary preparations for the coup had been made in Berlin.

So eventually Hitler arrived in Smolensk on 13 March 1943 on his way back to East Prussia from Vinnitsa. The situation at the front was so precarious and his anxiety on this score so great that he was prepared to make the journey in spite of his fright at Saporozhe. 15 He wished to discuss the Kursk offensive, both pros and cons, and, as for his visit to Saporozhe, brought with him Generals Jodl and Zeitzler together with his RSD and SS escort, doctors, photographers, aides, Party dignitaries, his personal cook and his driver.

Hitler and his entourage again arrived in three ‘Condors’; immediately on landing at Smolensk airfield he drove to headquarters Army Group Centre nearby. 16 Kluge and Tresckow had gone to the airfield to meet Hitler; he did not use an Army Group vehicle, however, but departed in his own car driven by his personal driver, Erich Kempka. During the war four motorcades were stationed at various points in Germany, in the west, on the eastern front (at this time in Vinnitsa); they were moved as necessary wherever Hitler might need them. Other security measures were very comprehensive. Rail traffic on a section of line which crossed the road between the airfield and the headquarters was halted for the duration of the visit. Wherever Hitler went SS men with sub-machine-guns at the ready were to be seen. 17

These security measures were offset by Lieutenant-Colonel von Boeselager who deployed a group of officers and non-commissioned officers from Cavalry Regiment Centre willing to assassinate Hitler. 18 Several squadrons of Boeselager’s regiment were used on that day to set up a wide security cordon around the headquarters of Army Group Centre. No. 1 Squadron under Major Konig had to guard the road from the airfield to the forest in which the headquarters buildings were situated; from the edge of the forest the visitors and their hosts proceeded on foot, and this path was also lined by men from No. 1 Squadron with sub-machine-guns. Some of these, who were led by Major Konig personally, were collectively to shoot Hitler as he walked back to his car. It is not clear why the plan was not carried out, although Konig hinted a few weeks afterwards that Hitler had not followed the path originally planned. This is not unlikely; Hitler himself claimed that this sort of thing was an effective security precaution. 19 It is also possible that Tresckow considered an attempt with explosives more promising and less incriminating for the Army.

A conference was then held at which in addition to Hitler, there were present Jodl, Zeitzler, Schmundt and others of the entourage, Kluge and Commanders of Armies included in the Army Group, with their Chiefs of Staff. Following this came lunch in the Army Group headquarters mess. According to the earlier plan Hitler was to be shot during this lunch and this would have been perfectly possible, though the others present would have been in some danger. During lunch Tresckow asked Lieutenant-Colonel Heinz Brandt of the OKH Operations Section, who was accompanying Hitler, to take a package for Colonel Stieff in OKH; Brandt willingly agreed since there was nothing unusual in this. 20 The package to be carried by Lieutenant-Colonel Brandt, however, was to contain a live bomb.

That morning, in accordance with the agreement reached with Dohnanyi on 7 March, Schlabrendorff had called Captain Ludwig Gehre, a member of the Abzvehr in Berlin, and given him the codeword indicating that the ‘flash’ was imminent. After lunch Kluge and Tresckow once more accompanied Hitler and his entourage to the airfield and this time Schlabrendorff followed with the package of explosive. He waited until Hitler was about to board his aircraft, activated the fuse by pressing the acid capsule through the wrapping with a key and, on a signal from Tresckow, passed the package to Lieutenant- Colonel Brandt who boarded the same aircraft as Hitler. After all three ‘Condors’ had taken off with their fighter escort, Schlabrendorff hurried back to the headquarters and called Gehre again; this time he gave the codeword meaning that the ‘flash’ had been sparked off. Gehre passed the information to Oster via Dohnanyi.

The ‘bomb’ constructed by Tresckow consisted of two pairs of British ‘clams’ held together by their own magnets and also bound round with adhesive tape. Wrapped up, they could pass for two bottles of Cointreau. The fuse was set for thirty minutes and it was thought that the aircraft would crash after 125-150 miles, shortly before reaching Minsk.

Hitler in fact flew first to Vinnitsa and thence to Rastenburg so that the crash might have been expected before he overflew Kiev. A few hours later, however, those waiting in Smolensk heard that he had landed in Rastenburg. 2′

Schlabrendorff at once called Genre yet again and gave him the codeword for failure of the attempt. He then discussed with Tresckow how to save the situation. The first consideration was to lay hands on the package again somehow before a catastrophe occurred; no one could tell whether it might not still explode and Stieff, its addressee, knew nothing at all. Tresckow therefore called Lieutenant-Colonel Brandt and asked him to keep the package, saying that there had been a mix-up. Next morning Schlabrendorff flew by normal courier aircraft to East Prussia, went to see Brandt in OKH’s camp ‘Mauerwald’ and exchanged the package for one really containing Cointreau. Then he took the bomb into his sleeping compartment in a train in Korschen siding which served as overnight accommodation for visitors and carefully opened the package with a razor blade. 22 He found that the fuse had functioned correctly up to the moment when the acid had eaten through the wire and released the striker on to the detonator which should have set off the explosion; the striker had struck correctly, the detonator cap was burnt and the detonator black on the outside. But the explosive had not ignited, probably due to the excessive cold. 23

Schlabrendorff kept the ‘clams’ and took the night train to Berlin where he arrived on the morning of 15 March. He went at once to Gehre and Oster and showed them the detonator. The disappointment of all those involved was great; all the dangers and nervous tension associated with keeping and transporting explosives in so mysterious and clandestine a manner and in close proximity to Hitler had been in vain. Already, however, they were thinking of some fresh occasion.

In a few days time the ceremony of ‘Heroes Memorial Day’ was due to take place; this year it was to be held on 21 March, not around the 15th as usual. On 14 March, two days before the date proposed, Hitler had postponed the occasion to the 21st. He hoped that some visible victory would be won on the eastern front meanwhile, as in fact happened with the recapture of Kharkov by SS troops.

7 On this point and below see Baur, p. 149-50; Hermann Teske: Die silbernen

Spiegel, p. 173.

8 Schlabrendorff, op. cit., p. 77; Kaiser, diary 19 Feb. 1943.

9 Kaiser, diary 19 February 1943.

10 Hans Bernd Gisevius: To the Bitter End, pp. 459-61.

11 Schlabrendorff, op. cit., p. 77; much of SchlabrendorfFs information was confirmed

and supplemented by extracts from the diary of Captain (Res.) Hermann


12 Spiegelbild einer Verschworung, p. 329; Josef Wolf (commander of the ‘Fiihrer

Signal Detachment’) verbally to the author on 27 February 1965.

13 Schlabrendorff, op. cit., p. 77; Erwin Lahousen: ‘Zur Vorgeschichte des

Anschlages vom 20. Juli 1944’, typescript, Munich 1953, IfZ ZS 652.

14 Possibly Tresckow only now hit upon the ‘clam’. At about this time thoughts

turned against a group attack. Lahousen does not think that the explosive

brought by Canaris was used in the ‘Schlabrendorff attempt’ but he is hardly in a

position to judge unless his statement is based on information from those involved

or subsequent investigations of other attempts which became known to

the Gestapo. Those of 13 and 21 March were not known, however, and the ‘clam’

was never used later. Those involved told their friends as little as possible. See

Dohnanyi, pp. 9—10.

15 Helmuth Greiner: Die Oberste Wehrmachtfuhrung 1939-1943, p. 441. It is not

clear what part Schmundt, and through him Tresckow, played in persuading

Hitler. According to Schlabrendorff, op. cit., pp. 78-9, Tresckow and Schmundt

were mainly instrumental in bringing about Hitler’s journey to the front.

16 See Kriegstagebuch, Vol. HI, p. 207; Teske, pp. 172-3; Schlabrendorff, op. cit.,

  1. 81 et seq.; Gersdorff I; Erich Kempka verbally to the author 19 August 1965.

17 They were not quite so thick on the ground as Teske remembers, however, as is

shown by photographs in the possession of Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager; see

also Hoffmann, Sicherheit, pp. 162—6.

18 Major (Cav. Res.) Gustav Friedrich (then in Cav. Reg. ‘Centre’) to the author 19

May and 24 June 1971, also applicable below.

19 Baur, p. 52; Henry Picker (ed.): Hitlers Tischgesprache im Fuhrerhauptquartier

1941-1942, pp. 244, 307, 386-7.

20 It is no longer possible to establish whether, on this day or on some other occasion,

Tresckow tried to conceal a bomb in the side-pocket of Hitler’s car. According

to Schlabrendorff (Offiziere gegen Hitler, p. 95) this method was not tried

on 13 March 1943 whereas Gersdorff in ‘Gersdorff I’ said that it was. Lieutenant

Walter Frentz, who was then a Luftwaffe film reporter in Hitler’s personal entourage

told the author on 1 June 1965 of a visit to the front by Hitler early in

1943, he thought to Minsk; on this occasion a package was handed to Professor

Karl Brandt, one of Hitler’s doctors, and he put it into the internal postal service

in ‘Wolfschanze’; it was opened and checked by the SD and a time bomb was

found. No one else of Hitler’s entourage who gave information to the author

remembers the incident which was certainly not an everyday one. On Gehre’s

role see Otto John: Twice through the Lines, pp. 106-7.

21 See Kriegstagebuch, Vol. Ill, p. 207.

22 Schlabrendorff, Revolt, pp. 83, 85 refers in both cases to bottles of brandy but in

later editions to Cointreau – in The Secret War against Hitler, p. 233 for instance,

where specific reference is made to the fact that Cointreau bottles are

square and the only ones of the same shape as the clams in their package. This

was confirmed by Gersdorff to the author on 15 Jan. 1965 and Schlabrendorff

verbally to the author on 6 August 1968.

23 Hans Baur (Hitler’s pilot) to the author on 10 January 1969: the heating system

in the cabin sometimes failed; there was no heating in the cockpit or luggage


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