Scottish History and Culture

The Rudolf Hess Mystery: May 10, 1941

Rudolph Hesse, Click for Larger ImageWith the 55th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) day rapidly approaching, it seems only appropriate to discuss one of the more unusual events of World War II which took place in Scotland. The mystery of Rudolf Hess's parachuted landing near Glasgow on May 10th, 1941 remains a matter of great controversy to this day and, with some files still cloaked under the label of national security and Hess' apparent death by suicide in 1987, the true story behind his surprise flight to Scotland may never be known.

The Man

Rudolf Hess was born in Alexandria, Egypt on April 26, 1894 into a wealthy family of German Merchants. It was the outbreak of hostilities in World War I, which forever changed and helped to form many of the liaisons which would mark his life.

At the start of World War I, the family was in Bavaria and Rudolf quickly signed up for military service. He served with distinction and ended the war as a Lieutenant in the German Army. With the German defeat, Rudolf was discharged without maintenance, in other words, left without a pension with which to care for himself and his war wounds.

Post World War I Germany was a turbulent and chaotic time in which to live. Rudolf's family lost everything during the war, as the British repatriated their property in Egypt. Hess joined the Friekorps, an anti-Communist group, and later at the University of Munich, he also became a member of the Thule Society, an organization devoted to Nordic supremacy. On July 1st, 1920, Rudolf heard Adolf Hitler speak at a beer hall and became the sixteenth member of the Nazi party.

A German ME-110, the plane Rudolph Hesse flew to Scotland, Click for Larger ImageIn 1923, Hitler and the Nazis attempted to seize control of Germany in the Beer Hall Putsch. Rudolf was a participant, and ended up in prison with Hitler and many others. Here he helped to write "Mein Kampf" and after his release he served for many years as Hitler's personal secretary. In 1932, Rudolf was rewarded when Hitler appointed him Chairman of the Central Political Commission of the Nazi Party and SS General. On April 21, 1933, he was made Deputy Führer, while this was obviously a ceremonial position, his place as a select confidant of the Führer made him a man of great power. This was further reinforced in 1939, when Hitler named him his second successor after Goring.

With the outbreak of hostilities in September, 1939, Rudolf slowly lost his position as Hitler's number two man to Martin Bormann. According to historians ICB Dear and MRD Foot, editors of The Oxford Companion to World War Two, Hess may have felt unappreciated, especially as the war began to unfold and his power seemed to wither.

"It is therefore possible that he had a desparate desire to re-establish himself in Hitler's eyes and that it was this desire that partly caused him to undertake the bizarre mission to the UK for which he is best known. But he also enjoyed dabbling in foreign affairs and after trying, but failing, to make contact with British intermediaries on the Continent, he must have decided to present his plan - whereby the UK and Germany would ally themselves against the USSR - in person."
Oxford Companion to World War Two, 1995, p. 526.

The Unusual Flight

Whatever his reasons, it appears that Hess had been planning his scheme for some time. Two previous attempts were scuttled at the last minute, and finally, on May 10th, 1941, he made his infamous flight to Scotland under cover of darkness.

If one believes a conversation allegedly overheard by one of Hess' ajutants, Hitler apparently knew of the plan - but whether he actually took it serious is another matter. One thing is for certain, when Hitler found out what Hess had done, he "flew into a rage and was quick to follow Hess' suggestion, in a letter written before he left, that if his mission failed he could be disowned as being insane.

Map of Renfrewshire, Click for Larger ImageScotland

Meantime, after a five hour, 900-mile flight Rudolf Hess arrived over Scotland. While the purpose of the flight is still a matter of great controversy, we do know that Hess bailed out of his aircraft, parachuted into a field near the Renfrewshire village of Eaglesham, surrendered to farmer David McLean, and was offered tea at McLean's cottage before he was taken into custody.

Rudolf Hess was either a very good navigator, or, as some say, he had assistance in his journey from various quarters. In any case, he parachuted down a scant 14 miles from his apparent target of the future Duke of Hamilton's home. Considering that he was traveling alone and at night over a distance of 900 miles, this is excellent navigation. Rudolf's only injury from the ordeal was a broken leg which he suffered from either the jump from the aircraft or the parachute landing.

Things break up into several different schools of thought at this point, each with its own version of the why and how concerning the story. Apparently, General Hess refused to identify himself to the authorities until he was brought into the presence of the Duke of Hamilton, at which time he then identified himself and claimed his mission was one of peace. The purpose of his trip, he claimed, was to talk to King George about a settlement between Germany and Britain as fellow Nordic Nations against the USSR .

The future Duke naturally claimed he had no knowledge of Rudolf Hess, even though he had to admit he attended the 1936 Olympics where claimed to have met him. This was obviously, a very wise political move whether it was true or not. Even if he did know Rudolf, to admit to knowing the number three man in the Nazi political machine during the war would be equivalent to committing political and social suicide, especially after the "Battle of Britain". Some of the more extravagant stories about the episode even claim that Rudolf visited Scotland after the 1936 Olympics with the future Duke of Hamilton.

Castle Buchanan Today, Click for Larger ImageRudolf spent much of the next month in captivity. His wounds were tended at Buchanan Castle, in Scotland, which was serving as a hospital during the war. Over the next four years, he was transferred to the Tower of London, Mytchett Place near Aldershot and finally to South Wales. The fact that Hess appeared unstable to the pschiatrists who interviewed him and that Hitler had declared him a lunatic didn't help Hess' case. And he never did manage to reach the ear of the King: Sir Winston Churchill refused to have anything to do with him and treated him as a prisoner of state. It is even rumored that Rudolf Hess attempted to kill himself when he discovered in June 1941, that his 'peace' mission had failed.

In 1946, Hess was a defendant at the Nuremberg trials and was sentenced to life in prison for war crimes. For the rest of his long life, Hess was a prisoner at Berlin's Spandau prison, where he was the only inmate from 1966 onwards. He was found dead in his cell in 1987, the victim of an apparent suicide - although some believe he was murdered.

Theories abound about Rudolf Hess' true mission in Scotland, fuelled in part by Britain's refusal to release all the files surrounding his case. In the end, we may never know what Hess' real intentions were, but his story is an enduring mystery that is forever linked to Scotland during World War Two.

Special thanks to Quin McWhirter for permission to use his photograph of Buchanan Castle from the Buchanan Clan website.


Biography of Rudolf Hess

Secret War - Rudolf Hess

Buchanan Castle

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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