Stauffenberg (right) talking to General Baron von Broich in North Africa, Kasseringe Station, 20 February 1943.

It was the utter disaster that had overtaken the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad at the end of 1942 that finally convinced Claus von Stauffenberg that Hitler must be done away with. Having observed both the vacillating timidity of top commanders in the face of Hitler’s interference in military matters and his sheer bungling incompetence, Stauffenberg was clear where the blame for the defining catastrophe of the war in the east must lie: squarely on the Führer’s own stooping shoulders. He himself had visited the Sixth Army’s headquarters in May 1942, and subsequently wrote a letter of appreciation to its commander, General Friedrich von Paulus, which hinted at his growing disillusion when he remarked:

How refreshing it is to get away from this atmosphere [at Staff Headquarters] to surroundings where men give of their best without a second thought, and give their lives too, without a murmur of complaint, while the leaders and those who should set an example quarrel and quibble about their own prestige, or haven’t the courage to speak their minds on questions which affects the lives of thousands of their fellow men.

Quite how literally true this was, Stauffenberg was about to discover. Halder, after all his hesitations about actually removing Hitler, had himself been dismissed as Chief of Staff at the end of September 1942 for repeatedly warning the Führer that by pressing on into Stalingrad in the face of steadily stiffening Soviet resistance, the Sixth Army was advancing into a dangerous Sackgasse – a cul-de-sac. The city that bore his great rival dictator’s name seemed to mesmerise Hitler, and he refused to countenance any let-up in the advance, although Halder pointed out that Paulus’s men were up against seemingly inexhaustible Soviet numbers – a superiority in men (1.5 million against about 300,000) and in matériel (Soviet tank production now totalled 1,200 a month). In addition, Kleist’s tanks, which had carried all before them on the rolling steppes of the Ukraine, were next to useless in the savage street fighting that the struggle for Stalingrad had become. For voicing such inconvenient truths, Halder had been summarily sacked.

Courageously, Stauffenberg visited the fallen general at his Berlin home in October, despite the fact that Halder was virtually under house arrest, with all his movements monitored by the Gestapo. Stauffenberg told the deposed Chief of Staff that the atmosphere at Staff Headquarters was now deeply depressing. In the wake of Halder’s fall, no one was prepared to raise his head above the parapet and speak out of turn. Any ideas that went against Hitler’s policy of stubbornly sticking to every inch of conquered ground was frowned upon. Even the former free exchange of ideas in informal discussions had vanished, Stauffenberg reported; it had been replaced by a depressing mood of silence and fear in which nemesis approached without anyone lifting a finger to stop it.

Halder’s successor as Chief of Staff, Kurt Zeitzler, was a relatively unknown officer who had been selected by Hitler as he had been impressed by Zeitzler’s optimistic reports in his previous posts. The Führer also imagined that this pastor’s son would prove more pliable than the stiff-necked Prussian aristocrats who still composed the bulk of the officer corps. He was disappointed. Zeitzler concurred with the disgraced Halder’s view that the Stalingrad pocket that the Sixth Army had been pushed into was a dangerous trap: a sack waiting for its open end to be nipped off and tied. He recommended an immediate withdrawal from the Volga to the Don River. Hitler flew into one of his increasingly frequent temper tantrums, screaming that he would not be moved from the Volga – the Sixth Army would stand or fall at Stalingrad.

On 9 November 1942, while Hitler was in Munich for the annual commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, so rudely interrupted by Elser’s bomb three years before, the Red Army sprang the jaws of the trap it had prepared. Attacking simultaneously north and south of Stalingrad, within days the Soviets had pinched off the Stalingrad pocket and the Sixth Army was encircled and cut off. By 23 November Paulus’s men were trapped like cornered rats in the shattered ruins of the city they had strived so hard to capture. Stalingrad had become a Kessel – a cauldron – in which the flower of the army would shrivel. On 2 February 1943, despite having been promoted to field marshal by Hitler because no German field marshal had ever capitulated before, Paulus emerged from his bunker and surrendered the freezing, starving, battered and bewildered remnants of his Sixth Army to the Russians. 90,000 men limped into Soviet prisoner-of-war camps from which only around 5,000 eventually emerged. 250,000 remained in and around Stalingrad as frozen corpses. Stauffenberg’s worst fears had been realised and the fortunes of war had swung irrevocably against his beloved Germany.

At last, this loyal and patriotic German soldier, with his courageous refusal to indulge in wishful thinking, was ready to take the first step down the radical path of conspiracy that others – Oster, Tresckow, Gisevius, Beck, Goerdeler and Witzleben – had trodden before him. In 1933 he had hoped, like most other Germans, that the Nazis would give a desperate and demoralised nation a new sense of discipline and purpose. In 1934 he had, like many others in the army, seen the Night of the Long Knives purge as a long overdue, if excessive, settling of accounts with the brawling thugs of the SA. In 1938, he had applauded Hitler’s tough diplomacy that had annexed Austria and the Sudetenland to the Reich without a war. In 1939 and 1940 he had taken professional pride in the rapid Blitzkrieg conquests of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and finally France. Even at the beginning of 1942, when Hitler assumed direct personal command of the army, Stauffenberg had been optimistic that this would simplify the chain of command and sweep away the confusion and muddle that his clear mind abhorred.

Now, though, his dismay and disillusionment were complete. The straw that broke the camel’s back, he told a military colleague, Werner Reerink, on 14 January, on the eve of the final surrender at Stalingrad, had been a conference in November at which the army chiefs believed that they were on the verge of persuading Hitler to order Stalingrad’s evacuation while there was still time. Even Goebbels, said Stauffenberg, had been persuaded of the wisdom of this course. Then, at the decisive moment, Goering had lumbered in and, in his habitual boastful style, assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe alone could keep the Sixth Army supplied by air indefinitely even if it were cut off. Stauffenberg saw this as more than vainglorious boasting; it was a betrayal of the army, he said bitterly, and had effectively condemned 300,000 men to a lingering death. Such criminal irresponsibility could no longer be borne. Word of Stauffenberg’s conversion to the conspirators’ cause and of his involvement in their ranks soon spread among the select few. In late January 1943, General Olbricht told his aide Hans Bernd Gisevius: ‘Stauffenberg has now seen the light and [is] participating.’

But before he could take further action, Stauffenberg was plucked from the war in the east and the sterility of an atmosphere where Hitler’s word was the only law, to another theatre where Germany was also facing a devastating defeat: North Africa. Long gone were the days when Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had carried the tide of German conquest almost to the banks of the Suez Canal and the gates of Cairo. British Commonwealth forces advancing from Egypt through Libya in the east, and newly arrived Anglo-Americans who had landed in Algeria at the end of 1942, had moved towards the Germans in Tunisia. The situation was critical and Zeitzler had personally chosen Stauffenberg, who had been made up to lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1943, to be senior staff officer (operations) to the 10th Panzer Army as one of the most able staff officers available. After the war, Zeitzler explained that he wanted to give Stauffenberg more experience of command on an active front, so as to prepare him for the future command of a corps or army. Delighted as he was by the move to a ‘clean’ war between soldiers rather than the moral quagmire that the war in the east was becoming, Stauffenberg was about to get more action than even he had bargained for.

On 2 February, the day that Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad, Stauffenberg and his wife had lunch with another army couple, Colonel and Frau Burker, at the fashionable Berlin restaurant, Kempinskis. Dining with them was Frau Beate Bremme, a friend of the Stauffenbergs from their pre-war days in Wuppertal. Frau Burker was the daughter of Field Marshal Blomberg, the war minister disgraced and dismissed in the Blomberg–Fritsch scandal of 1938: her two brothers, Henning and Axel, had both been killed in North Africa and the Middle East, and Stauffenberg could have been under no illusions as to the toughness of the assignment ahead of him. Burker had himself been summoned home from North Africa by Hitler after the deaths of his Blomberg brothers-in-law, and during the lunch briefed Stauffenberg about the job. The conversation then turned to the situation at Stalingrad, and Stauffenberg left no one within earshot in ignorance of his own views. After the war, Frau Bremme recalled: ‘They talked loudly and very critically, Stauffenberg more than Burker . . . the waiter came along and insisted that they talk more softly, but they took not the slightest notice and in fact talked even louder.’

A few days before, Stauffenberg had been equally indiscreet in urging Field Marshal Manstein to take action against Hitler while there was still an army and nation left to save. The war, he insisted, could no longer be won by military means and a diplomatic solution must be sought. So insistent did Stauffenberg become in his urgings that a nervous Manstein threatened to have him arrested. Stauffenberg was contemptuous about the field marshal’s quivering pusillanimity. He told his friend Dietz von Thungen, ‘These guys have their pants full of shit and their skulls full of straw. They don’t want to do anything.’

After a week’s embarkation leave with his family, Stauffenberg arrived in Tunis, flying via Naples, on 11 February 1943. His first duty was to visit his badly wounded predecessor, Major Wilhelm Burklin, in hospital. Recalling the visit later, Burklin remarked that he had particularly warned his successor to beware of strafing by low-flying enemy aircraft. Stauffenberg arrived at his divisional forward post on 14 February, in the very midst of battle. The previous day Rommel, who had received reinforcements and was confident of success with his battle-hardened African veterans against the green and ill-trained Americans, had launched ‘Operation Spring Breeze’ – a series of offensives in different directions designed to disrupt the Allied vice that was tightening around Tunisia, turned by the British moving up from the south, and the Americans advancing out of the west.

Despite his inexperience of desert warfare, Stauffenberg was in his element, working fourteen-hour days and demonstrating his customary ability to multi-task: doing several jobs simultaneously and chafing, charming and persuading others to do his bidding. His divisional commander, Brigadier Baron Friedrich von Broich, was new to the job too, having been appointed at the same time as Stauffenberg. Broich was a simple soldier, described later in a report by his British captors as ‘a jolly ex-cavalry man [with] a twinkle in his eye . . . not particularly intelligent but always most amusing and charming’. Broich, like Stauffenberg had ‘a horror of Nazism’ and his letters home to his wife were so anti-Hitler that she warned him to be more discreet for fear of the Gestapo. When told of Stauffenberg’s 20 July bomb by his British captors, Broich described his former deputy as ‘an excellent man . . . one of the cleverest, exceedingly well-educated, [and] a brilliantly clever fellow’. Broich’s only regret was that the bomb Stauffenberg had used had apparently been too small to kill Hitler.

Even while they had been together fighting the battle of Sidi Bou Zid – in which the old sweats of the Afrika Korps savaged the greenhorn Americans, killing 1,200 and destroying over 100 tanks – Stauffenberg, with his customary frankness-to-the-point-of-madness made no secret of his detestation of Hitler and the Nazi regime, remarking in the hearing of lower ranks that ‘That guy [Hitler] ought to be shot.’ He and Broich would sit late into the night in their mobile command post – a captured British battle bus – over a bottle of heavy Tunisian red wine setting the world to rights and deploring Hitler’s wrongs. The Nazis, they agreed, would have to be removed by force.

Operation Spring Breeze developed into a series of fiercely fought actions for control of the strategic Kasserine and Faid Passes over the Atlas Mountains in central Tunisia. At first the experienced Germans carried all before them, picking off the inferior American M3 tanks with their giant new Tiger tanks, which packed an 88-mm cannon, and putting the GIs to rout. Stauffenberg, easy, relaxed, yet efficient and always willing to speak his mind, proved both capable and popular with all ranks. For his part, he enjoyed a return of the carefree spirit of 1940, appreciating the uncomplicated joys of soldiering amid like-minded comrades.

As March turned to April, however, the effects of the Allied command of the Mediterranean became increasingly felt as supplies began to dwindle and dry up and the German offensive stalled. Rommel fell sick and was evacuated from the Africa where he had made his name, and the USAAF and RAF roared across the clear desert skies, virtually unimpeded by any intervention from the Luftwaffe. As the Americans licked their wounds and regrouped, learning the lessons of their defeat as they did so, the experienced British Commonwealth Eighth Army moved up to attack the Germans entrenched behind the Mareth Line. As in the east, the dice of war began to roll against Germany.

Early on the morning of 7 April 1943, Claus von Stauffenberg’s career as a fighting soldier came to a sudden and brutal end, and his brief life as an active conspirator – destined to end equally violently – began. He was on duty in a narrow defile near a range of hills known as Sebkhet en Noual, supervising a tactical withdrawal eastwards towards the Tunisian coast. He was uneasy and uncharacteristically tense. Before taking leave of him that morning, Broich had issued the customary warning to beware of low-flying enemy aircraft. Stauffenberg told a Lieutenant Reile, who saw him standing in his Horch jeep – a distinctive figure as he strove to direct the traffic through the dangerous defile – ‘We shall be lucky if we get out of this. As usual we disengaged twenty-four hours too late.’ Reile left him, keeping one eye on the ground, and the other on the threatening sky.

Suddenly, out of the clear morning skies, the enemy struck. Flight after flight of American fighter-bombers roared in, strafing and shooting up the vehicles in Stauffenberg’s column. Ammunition trucks exploded, lorries overturned or ran off the road; vehicles juddered to a halt as the enemy aircraft thundered in. Desperately, directing his jeep up and down the line of stricken traffic, Stauffenberg strove to save what he could from the carnage. Then a plane picked him out and screamed in to attack with all guns blazing. Instinctively, Stauffenberg hurled himself from the jeep, his hands hiding his handsome face as he hit the desert dust and stones. But the bullets killed a lieutenant sitting at the back of the jeep and found Stauffenberg too.

As the raid ended, Stauffenberg lay in helpless agony. His left eye was a mass of blood and jelly. Both his hands were in a similar state, and his head, back, arms and legs were riddled with shrapnel splinters. A passing medical officer, Second Lieutenant Dr Hans Keysser, dressed Stauffenberg’s wounds. Apparently from nowhere, an ambulance appeared, and Stauffenberg was gently lifted in. It took him to No. 200 Field Hospital at Sfax on Tunisia’s eastern coast, where his desperate condition was stabilised. From there he was taken north to a hospital outside Tunis near ancient Carthage: a pain-wracked journey. Here the remains of his left eye were removed, his right hand was amputated and all but three fingers cut from his left as well. After a fortnight he was well enough to be evacuated by sea to the Italian port city of Livorno, where he was put on a hospital train for Munich.

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