Rudolf Hess lands in Scotland
What was Rudolf Hess doing in Scotland? That question will probably never be answered, and having been deemed mentally unstable, after being shot down and arrested in Eaglesham, Renfrewshire, perhaps not even Hess himself could have answered it.
That Adolf Hitler's right-hand man should fly solo to Britain with the intention of bringing a peaceful end to the Second World War does not make sense, yet he did; and it was the beginning of a long journey for a man who, at trial in Nuremberg, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau Prison. It was in Spandau, at the age of 93, that he would take his own life – an eccentric end for the Nazi Party’s deputy führer, the man who worked intimately with Hitler on Mein Kampf, and became a wholesale devotee to Hitler’s Naziism.
Some argue that Hess was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Second World War’s long, protracted conflict. His subscription to the Nazi ideal was a lot more stout when Germany was at peace, suggesting that, to him, Nazi rhetoric was more palatable than their deeds. Whatever his commitment, Hitler’s assimilation of a war cabinet saw him overshadowed by the senior military figures in the party. So in May, 1941, when he took to his Messerschmitt Bf 110, and set off for the British Isles, the only certainty was that Hess himself was uncertain of his future.
His intention was to meet with the Duke of Hamilton , a man said to be an enemy of Winston Churchill . Peace certainly was Hess’s agenda, but he was given a welcome as surprised as it was hostile. The good people of Glasgow knew better than to let a Messerschmitt pass without first taking aim at it – how were they to know that its occupant would be holding an olive branch and not a pistol? After all, the war was hardly in its infancy. Rumour, folklore, or fact; all conclude that it was a farm hand whose bullet took Hess out of the sky and onto the fields of Floors Farm. His parachute saved his life – but not his ankle; he broke that in his fall. The high-ranking Nazi was then apprehended by a farmer with a pitchfork, and taken prisoner by the army.
Transferred north of the Clyde , Hess found himself at Maryhill barracks, as the British army and Winston Churchill decided what to do with the man. Brokering some kind of peace between the Third Reich and the British did seem to be out of his jurisdiction, lending weight to the belief that he was enduring a moment of mental fragility. Hess, or as M16 dubbed him, ‘Jonathan’, was hoped to be a source of military intelligence, a goose stepping stool-pigeon. He was of little use. Hitler’s militarisation of the Nazi Party had left Hess on the outside, the tactical chicanery of the Third Reich war machine was ordered over his head.
Meanwhile, back at Berlin, Hitler was formalising Hess’ departure; he was to be amputated from the party. The reason: insanity. Sure, the British psychologists did not find his mental health in the best of fettle, but they did concur that he was not insane. Hess was held until the end of the war, after which he was tried at Nuremberg. He was found guilty of ‘crimes against peace’, ‘planning and preparation of aggressive war’, and ‘conspiracy’. On charges of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ he was found not guilty.
His subsequent imprisonment was as controversial as his landing, and a source of great diplomatic tension between Britain and the Soviet Union. The British government repeatedly expressed displeasure at his handling by Soviet troops – it was a discontent that rankled greatly throughout the Cold War. Even Churchill expressed his disappointment at Hess’ treatment, which, some observers would argue, was an injustice. The British accused the Soviets of turning Spandau into a Gulag for one; with Hess at the mercy of the drunken Soviet guards. And on 17th August, 1987, when he was found asphyxiated with an electrical cord wrapped round his neck; the debate raged on. Just as there was speculation concerning his motives on arrival, there were plenty who believed he was murdered.
Rudolph Hess remains a puzzle, an enigmatic mass of contradictions and unresolved motives. After spending his remaining years in the company of no-one bar his prison guards, those doubts will be his legacy.
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