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Kill The Führer
Section X and Operation Foxley
By Denis Rigden
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Denis Rigden
All rights reserved.
Operation Foxley – and much more
The Special Operations Executive, Britain's secret organisation aiding Resistance movements during the Second World War, plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. A small department of SOE, Section X, formed in November 1940, had the tantalisingly complex task of investigating how, when and where the deed might be done. Only the staff of that section – renamed the German Directorate in October 1944 – and a tiny minority of others working at SOE's headquarters in Baker Street, London, knew about this Top Secret project. Even some members of the organisation's governing Council were unaware of it. However, one of SOE's principal staff officers and its Chief (executive head) from September 1943, Major-General Colin Gubbins, took a close interest in the scheme.
In mid-1941 the British War Cabinet, Chiefs of Staff and Foreign Office gave SOE permission to study the possibility of assassinating Hitler, and later that year a group of SOE-assisted Polish saboteurs nearly succeeded in killing him when they derailed a train in West Prussia.
By then Winston Churchill's coalition government had good reason for wanting to remove the heavily guarded dictator from the scene, as the Nazi war machine seemed unstoppable. Its huge forces had inflicted defeat after defeat since September 1939. First, the all but defenceless Poland had been invaded and territorially divided between Nazi Germany and its communist ally, the Soviet Union. In 1940 Hitler had overrun Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and the German advance through France had resulted in more than 337,000 British, French and Belgian troops being evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches. The Führer had capped all this by forcing Marshal Pétain's French collaborationist administration to sign humiliating armistice terms. In April 1941 Hitler's forces had invaded Greece and Yugoslavia. By 1 June they had occupied Crete, with disastrous consequences for the defending British warships as well as for the British, Commonwealth and Greek troops on the island. The Nazi dictator had by then become so convinced of his own infallible judgment as a strategist that he went ahead with his long-planned invasion of Russia on 22 June.
After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the American and British political and military leaders continued to hope that Hitler could be got rid of – somehow. However, they were worried that if he were seen to have been assassinated by anybody other than one or more of his closest henchmen, the Gestapo would make the death an excuse to murder vast numbers of actual or suspected members of resistance movements. All and sundry – men, women and children – would perish in such a bloodbath.
By 1943 the tide of the conflict had turned against the Nazis and Allied assessments of Hitler's impact had changed. Allied leaders were beginning to weigh the relative merits of having either a dead Hitler or a living one: they hoped that he would continue making strategic blunders so catastrophic that he would fast convert himself into one of the Allies' greatest assets. Indeed, some Allied politicians and generals already regarded him as an unwitting 'ally', worth many army divisions. In the last year of the war in Europe, another worry in London and Washington was that Dr Josef Goebbels, the Nazis' grandly styled Minister of National Enlightenment and Propaganda, would exploit any 'martyrdom' of his 'beloved Führer' in a desperate final attempt to galvanise the war-weary German nation into fighting harder for an unachievable victory, regardless both of strategic realities and the human and material cost to everybody involved, the Allies and Germany alike.
Despite all these factors inhibiting quick decision-making at the highest political and military levels, SOE was encouraged in June 1944 – perhaps by interest shown by Churchill – to intensify the planning of Operation Foxley, the codename for the proposed assassination of Hitler. General Gubbins arranged that the SIS be involved in the plotting by providing SOE with all available information on the Führer's travel arrangements and lifestyle; no details about his daily routine were to be regarded as too unimportant to be reported.
Plans for Hitler's liquidation, either on his private estate in the Bavarian Alps, or when he was travelling by rail or road, continued to be made until he himself settled the Allies' debate on his future by committing suicide on 30 April 1945, a week before the end of the war in Europe. These unrealised schemes – often the subject of differing assessments by SOE staff officers as well as by their political and military masters – included plans to kill Hitler using SOE agents or bombing by the RAF.
Section X and its successor, the German Directorate, also plotted to assassinate selected members of the Führer's inner circle. These schemes were codenamed Operation Foxley II and informally called 'Little Foxleys'. Various Foxley II projects were considered. These included a suggestion, quickly dismissed, that chemical or biological weapons might be used in an 'attack on a single person'. Another soon abandoned idea was that Rudolf Hess might be persuaded, perhaps under hypnosis, to participate in a Little Foxley.
Those on the Foxley II hit-list at various times towards the end of the war in Europe included: Goebbels, who as well as being Propaganda Minister since 1933 had sweeping powers from August 1944 as Special Plenipotentiary for Total War; SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, leader of a ninety-member special detachment that freed Mussolini from custody in September 1943; Heinrich Himmler, head (Reichsführer) of the SS from 1929 and commander-in-chief of the Reserve Army from July 1944; and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) from January 1943.
In the course of planning Operation Foxley and the Little Foxleys, SOE's London headquarters received a vast quantity of highly classified information about the day-to-day routines of Hitler and his closest associates. This intelligence included detailed reports on where these Nazis lived and worked; on their travel arrangements; and on many other personal matters relating to their usually luxurious lifestyles, almost always heavily guarded and isolated from the German public on all but rare occasions, particularly towards the end of the Third Reich. All this information, assembled by Allied intelligence organisations, had been obtained over the war years either from prisoners-of-war, some of them former Nazis, or from many conspicuously brave men and women, Allied or German, associated with the resistance movements. If Hitler or any of his principal henchmen had been assassinated, the operatives chosen for that special Top Secret assignment would have needed an extraordinary blend of boundless courage, ingenuity and patience.
The planning of Operations Foxley and Foxley II was only a tiny part of the work done by the SOE staff officers controlling operations inside Germany and Austria. Their main task was to organise sabotage and the secret dissemination of a great variety of black propaganda literature which appeared to be German in origin and was in reality forged in Britain by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE).
Although there were a number of major operations, such as train derailments and factory wreckings, most of the industrial sabotage comprised small but frequent acts not easily detectable as having been done deliberately. These included the wastage of scarce raw materials and the misuse of machinery, eventually causing its damage or destruction. Detailed information on how workers should engage in such unspectacular routine sabotage was given in literature clandestinely distributed by SOE agents. Section X and the German Directorate also organised what was called 'administrative sabotage' – operations to cause bureaucratic chaos, such as the mass circulation in Germany of forged ration cards and coupons for food and clothing (see Chapter Eleven).
In the propaganda sphere, the main aim of PWE and SOE was to undermine the morale of the German armed forces. SOE organised the spreading of literature telling soldiers and U-boat crews how to simulate illnesses, claim sick or compassionate leave, or even desert (see Chapter Thirteen). Similar black propaganda strove to intensifying the existing uneasy relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS. The aim of yet other forgeries was to reveal the true nature of the Nazi regime to the majority of the German civilian population that still retained varying degrees of confidence in Hitlerism as late as 1944 and 1945 (see Chapter Fourteen).
Unlike the protracted discussions of the assassination schemes, there were no unduly long debates in Section X, and later in the German Directorate, over whether this or that operation involving sabotage or black propaganda could or should be undertaken. This was because SOE and the Allied leaders were agreed that these were acceptable methods of defeating Hitler which were guaranteed to be largely successful – unlike Operations Foxley and Foxley II.
Section X was set up on 18 November 1940 with extremely limited objectives: to establish channels of communication into Germany and Austria as a first step towards creating a network of agents within those countries, and to organise sabotage, initially on a small scale. This tentative planning was based on the assumption, made by the War Cabinet and the Foreign Office, that Hitler's 'Greater Germany' (Germany and Austria) possessed no effective indigenous opposition to his ruthless dictatorship. With a staff of only five, Section X could hardly have had a more modest beginning, though, if circumstances had been different, it should have been SOE's most important 'country section' with a lion's share of resources.
Section X did, however, have strong backing from SOE's first Chief, Sir Frank Nelson (1883–1966). As British Consul in the Swiss frontier town of Basle in 1939 and early 1940, he became exceptionally well informed about the Third Reich, particularly about its clandestine activities abroad. After completing his education in Heidelberg, Nelson had a highly successful business career in India, and during the First World War he served in the Bombay Light Horse. President of the Associated Indian Chambers of Commerce in 1923, he was knighted in the following year and sat from then until 1931 as the Conservative MP for Stroud, Gloucestershire.
The section was supervised for nearly a year by another informed advocate of clandestine operations: Sir Charles Jocelyn Hambro (1897–1963), a merchant banker and (only nominally during the war) Chairman of the Great Western Railway. Awarded the MC in the First World War, he joined the Ministry of Economic Warfare (or the 'Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' as it was sometimes called) in September 1939. Transferred to SOE in August 1940 he was initially in charge of operations in Scandinavia. He arranged a small amount of sabotage in Swedish harbours serving Third Reich interests, and established contacts with the Resistance in Denmark, a task facilitated by his own family being of Danish origin. From December 1940 to November 1941, he had oversight of Section X and SOE's French, Belgian and Dutch sections. After a few months as the organisation's Vice-Chief, he was its Chief from May 1942 until succeeded by General Gubbins in September 1943. Hambro's greatest contribution to the war effort – and to mankind – was to initiate Operation Gunnerside: the destruction of the heavy water (deuterium oxide) plant in the Norsk Hydro complex at Vemork, near Rjukan, on the night of 27/28 February 1943. If there had been no Gunnerside, the Nazis would have obtained from occupied Norway all the heavy water needed for the manufacture of atomic weapons. Gunnerside, together with related guerrilla actions and aerial bombing, resulted in Hitler losing confidence in his scientists' research into splitting the atom.
Lieutenant-Colonel Brien Clarke, who later in the war supervised SOE activities in Iberia and much of Africa, was Section X's first head. But he was succeeded after only a few weeks by Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Thornley, the section's guiding force from then until 30 October 1944 when, much enlarged, it became the German Directorate, with Thornley as its deputy head.
Internal SOE documentation from 1940 reflects the British authorities' prevailing lack of confidence in the fragmented German Resistance (Der Widerstand). For example, Section X minuting referred to the 'so-called anti-Nazi elements in Germany' which, it claimed, were 'in the vast majority of cases neither willing nor able to undertake any subversive activities against the German regime'. Most of the German people were judged to be 'solidly behind the Nazi leadership'. This situation contrasted sharply with that in the occupied countries. All of these had resistance movements which their respective SOE country sections assisted throughout the war in Europe, providing arms and other supplies, as well as training. Also, many nationals of the occupied countries became SOE agents.
It is clear from all this that Section X faced problems that no other SOE country section had. Trying to establish any militarily worthwhile opposition movement in Germany or Austria was considered to be impossible. It was therefore decided that the section should engage only in 'subversive activities in the real sense of the word', 'sporadic sabotage wherever possible, to alarm the enemy security services and to encourage genuine subversive elements', and 'administrative sabotage, which is always a most valuable weapon against methodically-minded Germans'.
In this early period of the war Section X also judged – probably wrongly – that it had no source of recruits for clandestine work in Germany. The estimated 70,000 Germans and Austrians living in Britain in 1939, most of them Jews, were considered unsuitable for active service because of their age or because they had no personal experience of conditions in the wartime Third Reich. Many of these refugees had fled from persecution in the early or mid-1930s.
However, Section X was given invaluable advice – mainly on sabotage and clandestine communications – by three groups of refugees, nearly all of them Germans, who were exceptionally well informed about many of the industries in Germany and the occupied countries. One of these groups, the Demuth Committee (or Central European Joint Committee) received a monthly subsidy from British secret funds – initially £150, but soon raised to £200. The committee was run by Dr F. Demuth, President of the Emergency Society for German Scholars in Exile, from 6 Gordon Square, London. He was in contact with about forty refugees, mostly German Jews, who in prewar days had held senior positions in industry, commerce or banking. His discretion in performing this go-between role deservedly earned praise from the War Office and Britain's counter-espionage service, MI5. However, his contacts were not always handled well. For example, one of them, Dr J. Seligsohn Netter, a former chairman and managing director of the Wolf Netter and Jacobi Werke, was told to visit his 'nearest labour exchange' when he offered his services to the Ministry of Economic Warfare in December 1940.
Section X's other exiled special advisers belonged either to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF) or the Internationale Sozialistische Kampfbund (ISK), a small and unusual socialist party, most of whose members were German, the others being Swiss, French, Belgian, Dutch or Scandinavian. The ITWF (called the International Transport Federation in some SOE documents) moved its head office from Amsterdam to London shortly before Hitler invaded Holland. By 1940 those German ISK members still in Germany were either in concentration camps or, if at liberty, were actively anti-Nazi whenever possible. The ISK, whose members were teetotal, vegetarian and in other ways ascetic in their personal lives, was the only mainly German political party that gave Section X any significant amount of help. Section X particularly valued the advice of two ISK leaders, René Bertholet in Switzerland and Willi Eichler in London, who had contacts with the Swiss secret service.
One of the Section X's first decisions was to appoint its own representatives in SOE missions in important neutral countries, such as Switzerland and Sweden, and to ask other country sections of SOE to assist it in penetrating Germany – clearly, something it could not do on its own. However, these country sections were preoccupied with their own efforts to establish links with resistance groups and refused to give Section X enough of the help that it needed. The section was therefore almost always forced to rely on its own limited resources – its own representatives in the neutral countries and its own agents, for a long time few in number.
Excerpted from Kill The Führer by Denis Rigden. Copyright © 2011 Denis Rigden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbbreviations and Designations,
1 Operation Foxley – and much more,
2 Hitler's train a target,
3 The Führer's mountain retreat,
4 The tea-house and road plots,
5 Foxley thoroughly re-examined,
6 Chemicals, bacteria and Hess,
7 Four Little Foxleys,
8 The Himmler problem,
9 Searching for the unfindable?,
10 The SOE plotters,
11 Sabotage without explosions,
12 Larger-scale wreckings,
13 Black propaganda,
14 Targeting the workers,
15 Ungentlemanly warfare,
Appendix A Germans opposing Hitler,
Appendix B No shortage of would-be assassins,
Appendix C The July Bomb Plot,
Appendix D The Wolf's Lair,
Appendix E Hitler's health,
Appendix F Climate and topography,
Appendix G Skorzeny's career,