“Hitler, FDR, Churchill, Stalin and Mussolini were all targets of elaborate assassination schemes.”
TO SAY THAT the failed July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler has been well documented is an understatement. The conspiracy, which was planned to coincide with a military coup in Berlin followed by peace overtures to the Allies, has been the subject of scores of books and no fewer than six films, including the 2008 movie Valkyrie. The plot to eliminate the Fuhrer with a bomb at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia involved nearly 200 conspirators, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, more than a dozen generals and 22 colonels. While it may be the nearest anyone came to assassinating a major national leader during the Second World War, it was not the only plot of its kind hatched during the conflict. Amazingly Hitler, F.D.R., Churchill, Stalin as well as Mussolini were all targets of elaborate assassination schemes. Here are some of them.
Hitler in the Crosshairs
Hitler was the focus of 27 known assassination plots during his 12 years of rule. One of the closest calls came just weeks after the start of the war as Hitler spoke before the party faithful at the Munich pub from which he launched his famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. A one-time communist and fervent anti-Nazi named Georg Elser planted a sizable bomb near the podium where Hitler would address the crowd. It was set to go off precisely when the dictator would take to the stage. A last-minute change in travel plans forced the Fuhrer to speak ahead of schedule – Hitler finished his speech and left the hall a full 13 minutes before the bomb went off. Eight people were killed and more than 60 were injured in the ensuing blast. Elser was arrested at the Swiss border that evening. He would be held without trial for nearly six years only to die in Dachau concentration camp just days before the end of the war. Incidentally, Elser’s bomb plot is about to be the focus of a major motion picture and is being produced by the creator of the 2004 film about Hitler’s bunker, Downfall.
Perhaps the most tenacious of Hitler’s assailants was a clique of Wehrmacht officers that formed in 1940 to topple the hated Nazi regime. This secret society, which called itself the Black Orchestra, hoped that with Hitler out of the way, the regime would be easily overthrown and peace could be restored. In its four-year existence, the group drew up a number of plans to eliminate the German leader. One involved using a ceremonial “honour guard” to ambush the Fuhrer and his entourage as he visited an army headquarters on the East Front in February of 1943. Another scheme called for a lone gunman to shoot Hitler point blank as he dined at the base with his generals.
The group settled on planting a time bomb aboard Hitler’s plane as he departed the Eastern Front for Germany. The device failed to explode. An attempt a month later saw a general by the name of Gersdorff strap himself with explosives with the intention of detonating them as the Fuhrer toured a Berlin museum that was exhibiting captured Soviet military hardware. The officer planned to bear hug Hitler and then set off the bombs as the Nazi leader marvelled at the war trophies. The operation was called off when the visit was postponed.
Plans for a suicide bomb attack were revived in November when the Black Orchestra learned that Hitler, along with SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, would be viewing prototypes of new winter gear for the Wehrmacht. The conspirators arranged for a volunteer to model a new winter uniform for the trio. Hidden in the soldier’s rucksack would be a bomb big enough to kill everyone within several feet. The meeting was cancelled due to Allied bombing.
In early 1944, the Black Orchestra attempted infiltrate a gunman into a staff meeting to shoot Hitler, but being a junior officer, the volunteer was prevented entry to the conference room.
Later that same year, the group would plant a bomb in a water tower at the Wolf’s Lair large enough to kill the Fuhrer, but it failed to go off until sometime after Hitler had left the facility. After several subsequent attempts that spring, the group managed to deposit a briefcase bomb into a meeting room at East Prussian headquarters in July of 1944. It detonated killing several, but sparing the Nazi leader. The blast and subsequent military coup led to the arrest and execution of thousands of suspects both army and civilian. It would be the last known assassination attempt on Hitler.
Crazy Like a Foxley
A week before the 1944 Wolf’s Lair bomb exploded would have been the date of execution for an abortive British special operations sniper attack on Hitler. Planned for July 13, 1944, the plot, codenamed Operation Foxley, involved a two-man team being parachuted into the Bavarian Alps near the Fuhrer’s Berghof mountain retreat. The operatives, disguised as German alpine troops, would take up a concealed position approximately 300 m from an area in which Hitler was known to routinely take solitary morning strolls. A former Berghof guard captured by the Allies during the Normandy campaign confirmed details of the surrounding terrain, as well as the Fuhrer’s morning routine. Despite the fact that the British had chosen the shooters, trained them for the mission and equipped them with specially-modified German rifles, the Allied leadership actually balked at the prospect of killing Hitler. Some inside the military argued that the attack was pointless since Germany was already sure to lose the war, while others pointed out that the increasingly irrational dictator was so poor a strategist that his decisions were actually aiding the Allied cause.  The plan was abandoned.
Precision Bombing of Mussolini
Hitler wasn’t the only fascist in the British crosshairs. The Italian leader Benito Mussolini was the focus of another assassination plot — only this plan didn’t involve a sniper, it called for a massive airstrike on the enemy dictator. The scheme was put forth in the spring of 1943 by the head of RAF Bomber Command, Arthur Harris. It called for a squadron of Avro Lancasters penetrating Italian airspace at treetop level and then flying onto Rome itself. Once over the city, the formation would gain altitude and deliver their payload onto Mussolini’s headquarters. The plan was deemed too far-fetched to be plausible and was shelved.
Down With Stalin
It wasn’t just the British who toyed with the idea of assassination — the Axis had its own plots and schemes to knock off the Allied leadership. One operation, codenamed Zeppelin, involved a small but heavily armed squad of German commandos and a pair pro-Nazi Soviet defectors being landed on the outskirts of Moscow by Luftwaffe transport planes. From there, the two Russian turncoats, a male and a female, would proceed into the Soviet capital on motorcycle, gain access to the Kremlin using forged papers and eliminate the Russian leader. The plan, which was launched in early September of 1944, quickly went off the rails as the advance team of German commandos arrived outside the city and were captured by the Red Army. Despite this breech, the two Soviet conspirators managed to crash land at an alternate field after taking anti-aircraft fire and actually made it into the city. After entering the Moscow, suspicious sentries arrested the pair and the plot was foiled.
Three Birds with One Stone
The Nazis supposedly hatched an even more brazen assassination plan the previous year, one that would target not only Stalin, but Churchill and President Roosevelt as well. According to Russian accounts, Soviet NKVD agents reportedly got wind of the plan, dubbed Operation Long Jump, which was slated to take place as the Big Three met at their famous Tehran Conference in November of 1943. The mission was to be lead by, Otto Skorzeny, the celebrated commander of the German airborne rescue mission that freed Mussolini from Italian partisans earlier that year. According to Soviet spies, the decorated commando leader would head up a crack team of armed assassins that would storm the secret Allied summit and eliminate all three leaders in a hail of machine gun fire. The Germans only called off the daring gambit when Nazi moles in Soviet intelligence apparatus reported back that the Russians were aware of the plot. Many in the British War Office, unable to verify any of the details of the planned raid, doubted the Soviet intelligence. Some in London went so far as to call the claim a self-aggrandizing fabrication. “Absolute baloney,” is how one British official characterized the Russian claims.  Historians support this assertion, pointing out that long after the war, Skorzeny himself said he had only once briefly chatted with Hitler about assassinating just Churchill, but that nothing further came of the discussion. Despite these revelations, Operation Long Jump has been the subject of a number of popular books and films within Russia. A documentary about the supposed raid aired in Russia as recently as 2007.
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MHN ON DEC. 18. 2012)