On 20 July 1944 a clique of German officers initiated the most famous plot to kill Adolf Hitler: Operation Valkyrie. Orchestrated by Claus von Stauffenberg, a German military officer long-disillusioned with the Nazi regime, it attempted to bring an end to the war and free the German soldiers from their oath of loyalty to the Führer.
Hitler survived the bomb blast however and by the early morning of 21 July Stauffenberg and many of his co-conspirators had been labelled traitors, arrested and shot dead in central Berlin. Yet if not for a few external problems, that neither Stauffenberg nor his co-conspirators had foreseen, the outcome of this plot could have been very different.
The placing of the bomb
Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators knew that the success of the plot depended on Hitler being killed by the briefcase bomb at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s Eastern Front military headquarters. Before entering the briefing room in the compound, Stauffenberg thus asked one of the aides to place him as close to Adolf Hitler as possible, claiming that his previous war injuries had left him hard of hearing.
The aide obliged Stauffenberg’s request and placed him to the right of the Führer, with only General Adolf Heusinger, Chief of the General Staff of the Army, standing between them. Stauffenberg took the place of Heinz Brandt, Heusinger’s aide, who moved further to the right to make room.
Stauffenberg then placed his briefcase under the table and quickly left the room, with the excuse he had an urgent phone call waiting.
Yet when Stauffenberg left the room, Brandt returned to where he had been standing previously. Whilst moving he stumbled on Stauffenberg’s briefcase under the table, which he duly moved a few centimetres further to the right.
These centimetres were crucial; in doing this Brandt placed Stauffenberg’s briefcase on the right side of a thick wooden frame supporting the table.
When the bomb exploded this post protected Hitler from the full effect of the blast, saving his life. Although this action cost Brandt his life he had, inadvertently, saved the Führer’s.
Only one bomb
The conspirators had originally planned to place two bombs in the briefcase to make it certain neither Hitler, nor his senior subordinates (this included Himmler and Goering, though neither were present on 20 July), could survive the blast.
The bombs were plastique explosives, equipped with British-made silent fuses. When Stauffenberg and Werner von Haeften, his aide and co-conspirator, reached the Wolf’s Lair however, they learned from Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the German Armed Forces High Command, that the conference meeting had been pushed forwards and was starting imminently.
This pushing forwards of the meeting gave Stauffenberg and Haeften little time to set the fuses for the bombs. Keitel agreed to let them use one of his rooms so that Stauffenberg might change his shirt – or so Stauffenberg claimed. In fact it was then that they began arming the bombs.
Keitel soon grew impatient however, and his aide forced Stauffenberg and Haeften to hurry. Because of this Stauffenberg and Haeften did not have time to arm both bombs, so they primed only one and placed it in the briefcase.
The subsequent explosion did not prove strong enough to kill Hitler; only four people at the conference died from the blast.
Stauffenberg and Haeften had needed just a couple of extra minutes in Keitel’s quarters to prime the second bomb; the combined power of a two-bomb explosion would likely have killed Hitler and the rest of the officers present.
The location of the conference
This was the biggest misfortune that befell Stauffenberg on 20 July. Upon reaching Keitel’s office at the Wolf’s Lair, he not only learnt that the briefing had been pushed forwards but also that its location had been moved.
The meeting had been expected to take place in Hitler’s personal, reinforced bunker – equipped with walls, floors and ceilings of two-metre-thick steel-reinforced concrete.
Because the bunker was currently undergoing reconstruction however, the meeting was moved to a wooden briefing building, a lagerbaracke, reinforced with a thin layer of concrete.
This movement was key to the ineffectiveness of the bomb blast that followed. The conference room in the lagerbaracke was unsurprisingly, not intended to withhold an explosion and when the bomb went off, the thin walls and wooden roof shattered, ensuring that the the blast was not contained within the room.
This was why Hitler, even though still very near the bomb, did not suffer any major wounds.
Conversely, if the meeting had taken place in the bunker, the bomb explosion would have been contained by the thick steel and concrete walls, killing everyone inside.
Close, but no cigar
Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators’ plot to kill Hitler had been well-thought through and if everything had gone to plan, it should have succeeded.
Unforeseen complications however, ensured the plot did not go according to plan: Brandt’s slight moving of the briefcase, Stauffenberg and Haeften’s inability to arm both bombs and the change in both the timing and especially, the location of the briefing.
Header image credit: Hitler and Mussolini survey the remnants of the Conference Room. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.