On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler fired one of the most important shots of World War Two. It was the one that ended his own life. Two days later, the Red Army captured his Führerbunker. But it was not until June 1945 when Soviet officers informed British newspapers that Hitler’s body had been found.
However, following Joseph Stalin’s claims that Hitler was still alive, Marshal Georgy Zhukov later announced that Hitler’s body had not been found and that he could have flown away at the last moment.
From this point onwards the Foreign Office, the War Office and numerous British intelligence organisations received an astonishing number of reports claiming that Hitler had survived the war and fled to locations all over the world.
The reports begin
In June Hitler was allegedly spotted in Ireland, dressed as a woman. In August, according to one 21st Army Group report, he had visited Tokyo. By October he had supposedly travelled to Egypt and converted to Islam.
The Foreign Office believed such rumours to be ‘sheer poppycock’. But their belief was based on evidence.
From May 1945, British officials had been collecting information concerning Hitler’s last days. Signals intelligence and interrogation reports all suggested that the Führer had killed himself. For example, in June, the British interrogated Hermann Karnau.
As a guard on duty outside the Führerbunker, he witnessed the bodies of Adolf and his new wife, Eva (née Braun), on fire ‘two metres’ from the bunker’s emergency exit. He drew a map showing where their bodies were buried.
In the summer of 1945, reports of Hitler’s survival were inspiring Nazi resistance movements which hindered British and American efforts to denazify and democratise Germany.
When the Soviets claimed that Hitler was hiding in British controlled Hamburg, enough was enough. The highly regarded British intelligence officer, Hugh Trevor-Roper, was assigned the task of finding out what had really happened to Hitler.
The Trevor-Roper investigation
Trevor-Roper’s investigations eventually formed the basis of his book, The Last Days of Hitler which was first published in 1947. In a remarkably short space of time, he cross-examined a plethora of eyewitnesses and discovered new documentary evidence (including a copy of Hitler’s Last Will and Testament) to provide convincing proof of Hitler’s suicide.
Trevor-Roper’s intelligence report on Hitler’s death was given to the press on 1 November 1945. In this report, he pointed out that rumours of Hitler’s survival had all been investigated and found to be ‘baseless’.
Furthermore, he concluded that it was ‘quite impossible’ that eyewitnesses had invented a ‘cover story’ or that Eva Braun could have been ‘fobbed off with the corpse of a double’ as the eyewitnesses were each questioned under ‘detailed and persistent cross-examination’. But still, reports of Hitler’s escape continued.
As a result, the British investigations continued – even after Trevor-Roper had returned to his role as a lecturer in history at Oxford University.
Fighting fake news
In September 1946, the British Intelligence Division in occupied Germany launched an investigation named ‘Operation Conan Doyle’ following ‘spiritualist revelations’ that a woman named Eva Hücker was in fact Eva Braun. When British intelligence officers managed to trace Hücker they discovered that she was a prostitute who bore no resemblance to Braun.
Two years later, the British and American Intelligence Divisions disproved a rumour which claimed that Skorzeny’s paratroops (famous for rescuing Mussolini) had rescued Hitler and other top Nazis from Berlin, taken them to a secret airfield in Hohenlychen and helped them escape.
Under interrogation, Skorzeny stated that no leading Nazis were evacuated by his unit and if Hitler had been evacuated by his men, he would have known.
By this time, rumours of Hitler’s survival had merged with those concerning the alleged escape of his private secretary, Martin Bormann, who, according to Miss Gunn of MI5, was seen ‘sitting in state on a high mountain beside his pallid Fuehrer’ or even ‘riding the Loch Ness Monster’.
But, fortunately for historians, British and American intelligence officers continued to investigate and disprove such nonsense.
Far from doubting Trevor-Roper’s findings, British intelligence officers continued to investigate survival rumours in order to acquire information about Neo-Nazi movements which sought to gain from their dissemination as well as other Nazis who may have escaped justice.
They were often more interested in those spreading the rumours of Hitler’s post-war survival, than in the rumours themselves.
Luke Daly-Groves is a PhD researcher based at the University of Leeds. His new book, Hitler’s Death: The Case Against Conspiracy, is the first attempt by an academic historian to return to the evidence of Hitler’s suicide in order to scrutinise the most recent arguments of conspiracy theorists. It was published on 21 March 2019, by Osprey Publishing.