The arrival of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess on the moors of Renfrewshire on the evening of 10 May 1941 has been the source of great interest and mystery amongst historians, leading to a wide variety of theories and arguments and also some farfetched conspiracy theories.  Was Hess expected by anyone? Did Hitler know of his mission? Was the Duke of Hamilton involved?  What were the implications of the flight for both axis and allied powers?

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A British officer inspects the wreckage of Hess' Messerchmitt Bf 110 after it had been removed to an RAF depot, Scotland, 13 May 1941. © IWM H 9553
A British officer inspects the wreckage of Hess' Messerchmitt Bf 110 after it had been removed to an RAF depot, Scotland, 13 May 1941. © IWM H 9553
  • Hess and the Duke of Hamilton

Through his friend and advisor Albrecht Haushofer, Hess had been putting out feelers to the Duke of Hamilton, who was a friend also of Haushofer. He imagined that the Duke had very close relationship in government and royalty and that he was a prominent member of a “peace party “in Britain.

The Duke of Hamilton had been involved with the Anglo German fellowship in the interwar years. He was at the time of the Hess flight serving in the Royal Air Force, as a station commander at RAF Turnhouse in Scotland, and there does not seem any grounds to doubt his loyalty to King and government. His title as Lord Steward of the household, that Hess set such store by, was largely ceremonial. Haushofer had sent a letter to Hamilton on 23 September 1940 which invited him to meet him in Lisbon. The letter was intercepted by the intelligence services and was not shown to Hamilton until February 1941. It has been suggested that Hamilton reluctantly agreed to meet Haushofer in Lisbon, but the events of 10 May overtook this decision.

Hess approached the East Coast of Britain via Holy Island and flew west to the Duke’s seat, Dungavel house, overshooting it in the dark and flying back from the west coast following some railway lines, before baling out a few miles short of the house  and near  Floors farm. He had been tracked by the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) since 20.00 hours.

It has been argued that Hess flight was expected and that that was the reason that his plane was not attacked. The evidence is contradictory.  Between 20.21 hrs and 22.35 hours, a Spitfire and later a Defiant were scrambled, but failed to engage the Messerschmitt. Historian Ray Conyers Nesbit disputes evidence of two Czech pilots, who after the war, claimed to having identified the plane and were then told not to attack it. Conyers disputes this on the grounds of evidence of the operational flying records that night.

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Panel cut from the wreckage of Hess' aircraft, which crashed on 10 May 1941. © IWM EPH 9433
Panel cut from the wreckage of Hess' aircraft, which crashed on 10 May 1941. © IWM EPH 9433
  • Capture, interrogation and imprisonment

At 23.00 hours the ROC at the edge of Eaglesham Moor saw Hess bale out. Moments late they heard the crash of the plane. Hess Landed at Floors farm Eaglesham and was helped out of his harness by David Maclean, head ploughman. Hess introduced himself as Hauptman Albert Horn and said he had an important message for the Duke of Hamilton. To all the people who seemed to have had contact with him that night he asked the same question, “Can I be taken to the Duke of Hamilton?“, seemingly confident that he was expected .

After being transferred by the Home guard to their headquarters, Hess was taken to Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, and the next morning the Duke of Hamilton arrived to interview him. Hess claimed that Hitler did not know of his plans, but that he “knew Hitler’s mind” and came to offer a peace proposal. He seemed convinced that there was an opposition party to Churchill and it took him a while to realise that negotiating with Churchill was the only option.

There have been suggestions that Hess carried a letter for Hamilton which set out in detail his peace proposals, but as the invoices made on that evening of his belongings are missing from the files, it is difficult to substantiate this suggestion. It certainly was not mentioned in Hamilton’s report of the interview with Hess.

It was decided that Ivone Kilpatrick, who had known Hess in Berlin when he was First Secretary to the British embassy in the 1930s, would travel to Scotland to interview the prisoner and make a positive identification, which he did. Hess subjected Kilpatrick to a 2-hour speech on Hess talking about the Treaty of Versailles and how Germany would win the war soon, and then moved on to his reasons for coming to Britain his proposals for peace. He said had come without Hitler’s knowledge to convince responsible persons that as England could not win the war, it was better to make peace. He made the proposal that Britain should give Germany a free hand in Europe and Germany would give Britain a free hand in the empire. He also added that any agreement could not be with Churchill’s government. If he was aware of plans of Hitler’s about his imminent invasion of Russia, he did not divulge them.

Churchill, on the advice of his cabinet made only a short bald statement about Hess’s arrival and so the press speculated madly. Hess’s arrival was an embarrassment to Churchill, as any suggestion that the British Government had been in prior negotiations with Germany would have ruined Churchill’s ongoing attempts to get the United States into the war.

On the evening of Friday 16 May Hess moved to the Tower of London for three nights and then on to a safe house at Mytchett Place which became known as Camp Z. While he was there he was interviewed by Lord Simon and Lord Beaverbrook, but divulged no further information which Churchill considered useful. Hess became psychotic, and convinced that he was being drugged and poisoned, attempted suicide on 16 June. The cost and inconvenience of keeping Hess at Camp Z at no benefit to Britain was questioned, and on 26 June 1942 he was transferred to Maidiff Court, Abergyfenny where the numbers guarding him and looking after him could be reduced. There he remained as a prisoner of war until 1945. 

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Hess having a meal during his trial at Nuremberg. © IWM HU 26596
Hess having a meal during his trial at Nuremberg. © IWM HU 26596

He was declared fit to stand trial at Nuremberg in 1945, although maintaining claims of memory loss.  He was sent to Spandau prison Berlin where he became the longest serving war crimes prisoner, committing suicide at the age of 93 in 1987.

  • Interpreting the events 80 years on

Theories persist that Hess was invited by the intelligence services, a peace party, or the government. His arrival, however, threatened Britain’s relationship with the United States, and also caused Russia be very suspicious for many years that Britain had attempted to enter into a peace deal with Germany. All of the documents from the National Archives have now been released and have not shed further light on the controversies. There are omissions and redactions from the files which have been used   as evidence of many theories on the part of some authors and historians. 

It is possible, and it is my own personal opinion that the British Government were aware of the possibility of further peace overtures from Germany and had considered using Hamilton to bait a trap for Hess. However, Hess' flight took them by surprise and the story was covered up to some extent out of fear that the Americans would be further away from entering the war, and that any remaining opinion in Britain in favour of peace would be strengthened.

What is certain is that Hess greatly overestimated the likelihood of any persons or parties likely to look favourably on his mission. By May 1941 it was far too late for credible peace talks, but Hess would have found it incredible that he, Hitler’s deputy who claimed to know Hitler’s mind, should have caused so little a stir with the British Government and that his peace plans would have been totally disregarded.

The evidence is huge, the books are many, and the theories are plentiful, but the truth behind Hess’s mission remains a mystery.

Read more about Rudolf Hess' role in Nazi Germany, in Katherine Quinlan-Flatter's accompanying post