By the middle of July 1944, Germany’s war situation had gone from bad to worse. The collapse of the Eastern Front and the evident strength of the Allies in Normandy meant that many senior German officers believed that the war was lost. A relatively small group of them chose to take action. It was obvious that only the removal of Hitler could bring the war to an end.
After several abortive attempts Claus von Stauffenberg, a Staff Officer with access to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair HQ Conference room came very close to succeeding. Several things went wrong. Stauffenberg only had one eye and three fingers on his left hand so could only arm one of the two bombs, then, because of the hot day the meeting was transferred from an underground bunker to a wooden hut. Finally, after depositing his briefcase bomb as close to Hitler as possible and making an excuse to leave, Stauffenberg’s briefcase was moved by another officer. It was placed on the other side of a solid wood trestle table leg, yet still only feet away from Hitler.
Heinrich Bucholz was one of the stenographers present, recording the discussions at the conference:
I remember it as a clap of thunder coupled with a bright yellow ﬂash and clouds of thick smoke. Glass and wood splintered through the air. The large table on which all the situation maps had been spread out and around which the participants were standing — only we stenographers were sitting — collapsed. After a few seconds of silence, I heard a voice, probably Field Marshal Keitel, shouting: “Where is the Fuhrer?” Then further shouts and screams of pain arose.
Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, was one of the first people to see Hitler after the explosion. He arrived to be present for Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini that had previously been arranged. Because of the heightened security, he had difficulty going into the private railway station nearby, where Mussolini was due to arrive:
I did finally succeed in getting past the sentries and reached this station, where I was to meet Mussolini on his arrival early in the afternoon. At the station, I heard what had actually happened from Hitler’s physician, Professor Morell, who had not himself fully recovered from the shock of the explosion.
He told me that Hitler had, miraculously, escaped practically unhurt, whereas other people in the room had been severely wounded. He expressed great admiration for Hitler’s complete calm; he had found his pulse quite normal when examining him for injuries.
While the doctor was telling me this, Hitler himself suddenly appeared on the platform to welcome Mussolini. There was no evidence of what had happened, except that his right arm was rather stiff. When the train came in, I noticed that he held out his left hand to Mussolini and that he moved much more slowly than usual; it was as though one were watching him in a slow-motion film.
During the three-minute drive to his quarters, Hitler told Mussolini what had just happened, quietly and almost in a monotone as though he had had no part in it. Mussolini’s naturally prominent eyes seemed to start out of his head with horror.
We went straight to the conference room, which looked like a bombed house after an air-raid. For a while, the two men looked round in silence, and then Hitler related some of the details. He showed Mussolini how he had been bending over the table to see something on the map and was leaning on his right elbow, when the explosion occurred, almost exactly beneath his arm.
The top of the table had been blown off and it was this which had hurt his right arm. In a corner of the room was the uniform which Hitler had been wearing that morning, and he showed Mussolini the tattered trousers and the slightly torn tunic, and also showed the back of his head, where his hair was singed.
Mussolini was absolutely horrified; he could not understand how such a thing could happen at Headquarters; his face expressed utter dismay. In the ruins of this office, the nerve center of the Italo-German partnership, he must have seen the ruins of the whole political structure of the Rome-Berlin Axis.
At first, he could only think of the event as a bad omen, and some time elapsed before he pulled himself together enough to congratulate Hitler on his escape.
Hitler’s reaction was completely different.
“I was standing here by this table; the bomb went off just
in front of my feet. Over there in the corner of the room colleagues of mine were severely injured; just opposite me an officer was literally blown through the window and lay outside severely injured. Look at my uniform!
Look at my burns! When I reflect on all this I must say that to me it is obvious that nothing is going to happen to me; undoubtedly it is my fate to continue on my way and to bring my task to completion. It is not the first time that I have escaped death miraculously. First, there were times in the first war, and then during my political career, there were a series of marvelous escapes.
What happened here today is the climax! And having now escaped death in such an extraordinary way I am more than ever convinced that the great cause which I serve will be brought through its present perils and that everything can be brought to a good end.”
Hitler had talked himself with these words into a state of fine enthusiasm, as he was always able to do; he had passed from the quiet reporting tone in which he had related the details of the event, into that kind of rhetoric which seldom failed of its effect on the man to whom he was talking. It was something quite different from the raging and ranting of his public speeches. Outbursts of rage like those which occurred in the speeches, which he has often been credited within private conversations, never took place at any conversation where I was present as an interpreter.
Another account comes from Hitler’s masseur, A. J. Weinert, who was tracked down by Wolfe Frank, employed by the New York Herald Tribune after the war:
I was at Hitler’s Rastenburg headquarters at the time of the attempted assassination of 20 July 1944.
I must say I haven’t much respect for the people who bungled that affair. If you plan to pull off something like that, you should go ahead boldly, prepared to go down the drain yourself. But Graf von Stauffenberg wouldn’t have it that way. He simply plonked the briefcase containing the bomb down on a chair in Hitler’s conference room and beat it.
What happened next was miraculously lucky for Adolf. He somehow pushed the chair with the loaded briefcase on it under the heavy conference table and stood behind the chair while talking to the assembled group.
At the moment the bomb exploded, Hitler’s hand was outstretched over the table, making a gesture. The top of the table was blown upward, against his arm, which was badly sprained and bruised. But that was just about his only injury.
By some freak, the main force of the explosion was directed away from Hitler and blew the legs off some of the people who were standing on the other side of the table. Four people were killed in the explosion.
I saw Adolf less than five minutes after it happened. His trousers hung in shreds. In fact, all the horizontal threads seemed to have been blown away, leaving only the vertical ones hanging down. He controlled himself pretty well, I must admit, under the circumstance. He sat on the couch and laughed and laughed for quite a long time. And he kept slapping his thigh with his uninjured arm as he laughed. All his entourage crowded around to tell him he had been saved by an act of God. He seemed to believe it…
Shortly afterward Hitler made a radio broadcast to the German nation to confirm to all that the coup had failed and that he lived:
At the very moment when the German armies are engaged in a most difficult struggle, a small group formed in Germany, as happened in Italy, which thought that as in 1918 it could now deliver the stab in the back. However, this time they totally miscalculated.
The claim by these usurpers that I am no longer alive, is at this very moment proven false, for here I am talking to you, my dear fellow countrymen.
The circle which these usurpers represent is very small. It has nothing to do with the German armed forces, and above all nothing to do with the German army. It is a very small clique composed of criminal elements which will now be mercilessly exterminated.
The strategic town of St Lo had been the American objective in Normandy for weeks. Finally, they emerged from the hedgerows of the bocage to begin the liberation of the town on the 18th of July. It was a scene of devastation, shattered by Allied bombing and shellfire. Now German shellfire added to the destruction, as they fired very close to their own troops in an attempt to assist the withdrawal.
Grenadier Karl Wegner had arrived in France in January 1944, along with a group of other 17-18 year old German youths sent to rebuild the 352nd Infantry Division. After only basic training in Germany the experienced officers and NCOs of the Division, veterans of the Eastern Front had sought to train them as best they could, despite the limitations on the equipment available to them. The young men had formed close friendships, and it was as a group of friends that they fought in St Lo:
Many times our little group had to dive for cover. Kalb was very mad about this and I knew why. The artillery was ours.
We skirted through the city, peering cautiously around every corner or pile of rubble. Often Kalb would look around a corner then pull back quickly, telling us quietly to go the back the other way. It was like a game of cat and mouse and we were the mice. Then it happened, I suppose it was inevitable.
Kalb looked around a corner and was shot at. The bullet hit him in the right hand, but it was only a scratch. I sent off a burst from the machine gun and we bolted down another alley. Kalb was in the lead followed by Willi, Gunther, then myself. We went from the frying pan into the fire.
When Kalb rounded the next corner he ran right into a group of Amis and armored vehicles. He turned and yelled for us to go back down the alley we just passed. Gunther and I were able to make the turn on the run.
The Amis were reacting by now. Willi was not able to stop quickly enough, he slid forward on the cobblestones because of those damn hobnailed boots. He bumped into Kalb, knocking him down, then tripped over him falling around the corner into the open. Gunfire pierced the air, screams and shouts followed.
Gunther and I got down behind this destroyed wall in a hole made by a shell, we then sprayed mad gunﬁre over our friends’ heads to keep anyone from coming around the corner. I watched Kalb drag Willi by his boots back around the corner. Then by the belt with his good hand, he dragged Willi towards us, both toppled over the wall.
Willi’s cries of pain sent shivers down my spine. I gave the machine gun to Gunther and told him to fire at anything that came around that corner. I went to Willi and Kalb, whose bloody hands were placing a second bandage on Willi’s chest. The Wounds were bad, through the lung and stomach. My God how Kalb tried to save him as if he were his own brother, the look on his face told me that.
I held Willi’s hand and cradled his head in an attempt to calm him. Kalb looked at me and shook his head, Willi was going to die. His face became sunken and lost its color. He knew he was finished. He stopped shrieking in pain and began to cry, softly. He looked at me with eyes one cannot I describe and said his last; I never forgot it. Willi said to me ‘Karl, through all this just to die in the rubble, it makes no sense.’
Question or statement I didn’t know, either way, it struck us both. I held him until he died. The whole event only took a few moments. Willi’s last words may have been the trigger for Kalb’s next action. He took off his helmet and placed it over Willi’s face, then broke off the bottom of Willi’s identity disc. He took this, his watch, medals, wedding ring and the pictures of his family and wrapped it all in his handkerchief, which he thrust down the front of his trousers. No one would look here. He placed his battered cap on his head and told us to do the same.
He took Gunther’s riﬂe, tied a dirty undershirt to it and waved it above the wall. He told us that he would go first if everything was OK, we should follow. He stepped over the wall with his arms held high. I looked one more time at Willi’s lifeless body lying there in the rubble, then scrambled out into captivity. Thank God it was ﬁnally over.
While some amongst the Allies started to worry that their advance was not going as swiftly as expected, the situation within the German High Command was a great deal worse. At the beginning of July, Field Marshal von Rundstedt had told Fuhrer HQ that it was ‘time to make peace’. He had promptly been relieved of his command.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had seen his predictions come true – Allied air power had severely curtailed German freedom of movement around the battlefield. While the Allies were able to make good their losses the Germans were not. He felt that an Allied breakout was imminent – but he was more circumspect about his recommendations than von Rundstedt “so the end of this unequal battle is in sight. In my view, we should learn a lesson from this situation.”
This was the report that he sent to Hitler:
ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION, JULY 15, 1944
The position on the Normandy front is becoming daily increasingly difﬁcult, and it is rapidly approaching its crisis. Owing to the fierceness of the ﬁghting, the enormous amount of material in the enemy’s possession, especially their artillery and armor, and the undisputed mastery of the air obtained by the enemy air forces, our losses are so great that the battle potential of our divisions is rapidly deteriorating.
Reinforcements from home come in very small quantities, and take weeks in arriving because of the bad transport situation. We have lost about 97,000 men, including 2,360 officers — which means an average loss of 2,500 to 3,000 men per day — and we have received until now 10,000 men as replacements, of which 6,000 have already been sent to the front.
Also, the losses in supplies for the troops have been extraordinarily high, and it has not been possible to provide more than very meager replacements, as for example 17 tanks up till now to replace about 225.
The divisions which have been newly brought in are not used to battle conditions and with their small consignments of artillery, anti-tank weapons, and means of engaging tanks in close combat they are not able to offer effective resistance to enemy large-scale attacks for any length of time, after being subjected to concentrated artillery ﬁre and heavy air raids for hours on end. It has been proved in the fighting that even the bravest unit is gradually shattered by the well-equipped enemy and loses men, weapons, and territory.
The destruction of the railroad network and the great danger of enemy air attacks on all the roads and paths for 150 kilometers behind the front has made the supply position so diﬁicult that only the absolutely essential things could be brought up, and above all artillery and mortar ammunition was at a premium.
These conditions are not likely to improve, as convoy vehicles are decreasing as a result of enemy action, and with the enemy capturing airﬁelds in the bridgehead it can be expected that their air activities will increase.
No forces worth mentioning can be brought in to the Nor- mandy front without weakening the 15th Army on the English Channel, or the Mediterranean front in southern France. The 7th Army front alone requires most urgently 2 fresh divisions, as the forces there are worn out.
The enemy are daily providing new forces and masses of materials for the front; the enemy supply lanes are not challenged by the Luftwaffe and enemy pressure is continually increasing.
In these circumstances, it must be expected that the enemy will shortly be able to break through our thinly-held front, especially in the 7th Army sector, and push far into France. I should like to draw attention to the attached reports from the 7th Army and II Parachute Corps.
Apart from local reserves of Panzer Group West, which are about to be sent to the Panzer Group’s sector, and which in the face of the enemy air forces can only march during the night, there are no mobile reserves at all at our disposal to counter any breakthrough on the 7th Army front.
Our own air force has hardly entered the battle at all as yet.
Our troops are ﬁghting heroically, but even so, the end of this unequal battle is in sight. In my view, we should learn a lesson from this situation. I feel it is my duty as C. in C. of the Army Group to point this matter out.
Whatever Hitler felt about the report he did not have to trouble himself about replacing Rommel. On the 17th July Rommel was badly injured when his staff car was attacked by an Allied fighter. He was flown back to Germany for treatment and never returned.