“Hitler had the Devil’s own luck, but his luck ran out in the end – it’s just a pity it took so long.”
By David Lawlor
NAPOLEON ONCE SAID that he liked his generals to be lucky. Well, if Adolf Hitler somehow could have served in the Grande Armée, he would undoubtedly have become one of the emperor’s favourites. That’s because when it came to good fortune, Hitler was overflowing with the stuff. Aside from surviving four years in the trenches of the First World War (no small feat), there are at least seven other occasions in which history’s most hated dictator foiled the Grim Reaper.
Here they are. Read ‘em and weep.
The Tommy Who Couldn’t Pull the Trigger
On Sept. 28, 1918, Private Henry Tandey, a British soldier serving with the 5th Duke of Wellington Regiment near the French village of Marcoing, reportedly spied a wounded German soldier hobbling across the battlefield but decided not to fire. The native of Warwickshire and Victoria Cross winner, reported that as the enemy troops were retreating, a wounded German entered the young rifleman’s line of fire.
“I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” Tandey remembered. “So I let him go.”
The injured soldier nodded in thanks and disappeared. Some have speculated that the German in question was in fact Adolf Hitler.
Tandy, who had fought on the Western Front since 1914, once appeared in a newspaper photograph carrying a wounded comrade at Ypres. The dramatic photograph was later immortalized on canvas by the Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The painting, which became famous, was a favourite of Hitler’s, who believed that the British soldier portrayed in the image was that of a soldier who spared his life in France. When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Germany in 1938 to engage Hitler in a last-ditch effort to avoid war, he joined the Führer at his country retreat in Bavaria. There, the German chancellor showed Chamberlain his copy of the Matania painting, commenting, “That’s the man who nearly shot me.” On returning to England, Chamberlain contacted Tandey and recounted his conversation with Hitler. The authenticity of the 1918 encounter remains in dispute but Tandey would later tell a journalist: ‘If only I had known what he would turn out to be. When I saw all the people and woman and children he had killed… I was sorry to God I let him go.’ The evidence remains somewhat sketchy; the destruction of military records makes it impossible to clarify the exact location of Hitler on Sept. 28, 1918, though his regiment was in the region of Marcoing at the time of the alleged encounter.
The Irishman Who Rescued Hitler
Although an ardent Irish nationalist, Keogh nevertheless enlisted in the British army a year before the First World War. After being captured by the Germans while fighting in France, he joined the Kaiser’s Irish Brigade and then later enlisted in the German army in hopes of helping to defeat England, thus freeing Ireland. He eventually rose to the rank of field lieutenant and served in a regiment with a then obscure lance corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler.
After the war, Keogh joined the Freikorps, an early fascist organization committed to the eradication of communism. While serving as a duty officer at a Munich barracks, he was called to quell a riot that had erupted in a local gymnasium. When he got there a crowd of some 200 soldiers were beating two men to a pulp. Some of the attackers held bayonets and it seemed to Keogh that the two victims were about to be killed. He ordered his men to fire a volley over the heads of the mob. The crowd dispersed and Keogh managed to drag the two cut and bleeding victims to safety.
“The fellow with the moustache gave his name as Adolf Hitler,” recalled Keogh. “It was the lance corporal of Ligny. I would not have recognized him.”
Later in life, the Irishman wondered how things might have turned out differently that day.
“If we’d been a few minutes later or Hitler had got a few more kicks to his old wounds or he’d been shot — what would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and he’d died?”
A Near-Fatal Fender Bender
Otto Wagener, a major general and one-time economic advisor to Hitler, wrote in his book Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant, that the future dictator of Germany was almost killed in a car accident on March 13, 1930. Wagener was a passenger in Hitler’s Mercedes at the time. A heavy trailer truck collided with the vehicle, but the driver hit the brake quickly enough to avoid crushing the car. The insurance claim, which was signed by Hitler, sold on eBay in 2000. If that truck driver had braked one second later… well, who knows?
Getting Bombed in a Beer Hall
One of the Nazi Party’s oldest traditions was to hold an annual meeting at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich to celebrate the anniversary of the famous Beer Hall Putsch of Nov. 8, 1923. Georg Elser, a German-born communist sympathizer, saw the yearly event as an opportunity to try to assassinate Hitler.
Armed with a time-bomb, the 36-year-old travelled to Munich in 1939 and managed to stay inside the famous tavern after closing hours each night for over a month, during which time he hollowed out the pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum.
The evening before Hitler was slated to address the party faithful, Elser planted his bomb and timed it to go off just as the Fuhrer was to be at the podium. A last-minute change in the travel plans had the German chancellor speaking to the crowd a full 30 minutes earlier than expected.
The bomb, which exploded after he had left, killed eight and wounded 60. Elser was later detained attempting to cross into Switzerland. The contents of his knapsack, which included a postcard of the beer cellar, aroused suspicion. He initially denied any involvement in the bomb plot but eventually confessed after several witnesses identified him as being a frequent visitor to the cellar. He was finally murdered in Dachau concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
Escape from the Wolf’s Lair
On 20 July 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg entered Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair field headquarters and placed a briefcase containing a bomb beneath the map table at which Hitler was standing. The 36-year-old officer then left the room. Unfortunately, a general who was present moved the case behind one of the table’s thick wooden supports. When the bomb did explode, the frame absorbed much of the blast and Hitler escaped with minor cuts and bruises. The failure of both the assassination and the military coup d’état which was planned to follow it led to the execution of almost 5,000 people, resulting in the destruction of the organized resistance movement in Germany.
Throw Hitler from the Train
Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) had extensive experience of derailing trains using explosives. Allied high command hoped to kill the Fuhrer in just such a mission. The plan was scuttled because Hitler’s schedule was too irregular and unpredictable: railway stations were often only informed of his arrival a few minutes beforehand. Another plan was to put some tasteless but lethal poison in the drinking water supply on Hitler’s train. However, this plan was considered too complicated because of the need for an inside man. It too was dropped.
Adolf In the Crosshairs
Shortly after D-Day, British Intelligence learned from a captured German soldier who had been part of Hitler’s guard at the Berghof that the Fuhrer liked to take a 20-minute walk each morning at 10 a.m. What’s more, the closely guarded dictator liked to be left alone during this stroll, leaving him unprotected and out of sight of sentry posts. That bit of info was all the SOE needed to plan an assassination.
The scheme, codenamed Operation Foxley, involved dropping a German-speaking Pole and a British sniper by parachute into the area surrounding the compound. Both would be wearing German army uniforms. The men would infiltrate the Berghof compound before moving to a wooded spot within effective rifle range of Hitler’s route. The sniper practiced for the mission by firing at moving dummy targets with a standard German Army rifle. An inside man from Salzburg, just 20 kilometres from the Berghof, was recruited to assist in the killing. The plan was submitted in November 1944, but the top brass soon reconsidered it. Many in the high command vetoed the assassination – by that point in the war, the Fuhrer’s abysmal performance as a strategist was actually costing Germany the war. A more competent successor might emerge to forestall the Allied victory.
Seven lost chances to kill a monster. Hitler had the Devil’s own luck, but his luck ran out in the end – it’s just a pity it took so long.
David Lawlor is an associate editor with Ireland’s Independent News and Media in Dublin. He is the author of four books including Tan, a new novel about the Irish War of Independence. He lives in Greystones with his wife and four children. Follow him on Twitter or visit his blog History With a Twist.
(This article originally appeared in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Dec. 3, 2015)