A 1944 Assassination Plot Nearly Killed One of History’s Most Evil Leaders

A 1944 Assassination Plot Nearly Killed One of History’s Most Evil Leaders

Patrick Lynch - May 25, 2017

On July 20, 1944, a group of conspirators, led by Claus von Stauffenberg, failed in their attempt to kill Adolf Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters near Rastenburg. The apparent purpose of the plot was to assume command of the Nazi Party armed forces and bring an end to World War II. While four people died and another 13 were injured, Hitler survived with minor injuries.

Over 7,000 people were arrested, and almost 5,000 of them were executed in the immediate aftermath of the plot. The intricately planned Operation Valkyrie should have succeeded and changed the course of history.

A 1944 Assassination Plot Nearly Killed One of History’s Most Evil Leaders
Claus von Stauffenberg. Wikipedia

Background to Operation Valkyrie

There had been numerous attempts and plans by different German groups to kill Hitler since the late 1930s. As World War II raged on, members of the Nazi Party started to turn against their leader as they believed he was leading them to disaster. As early as September 1942, Claus von Stauffenberg, a colonel in the German Army, wanted to kill the Nazi leader and replace him with Hans-Georg Schmidt von Altenstadt.

However, the leader of the main conspiratorial group against Hitler was Colonel Henning von Tresckow, and he built an effective army resistance from 1942. He knew that an assassination attempt was impossible at that time because the paranoid Fuhrer had increased his level of security after previous failed plots.

By the middle of 1943, it was clear that the tide of WWII was going against Germany and the plotters became convinced that the only option was to kill Hitler and form a government that was acceptable to the Allies. Tresckow met von Stauffenberg at this time and the young colonel, who was injured in North Africa and lost an eye, his right hand and two fingers on his left hand, was a fervent supporter of the plot to assassinate Hitler. When Tresckow was assigned to the Eastern Front, von Stauffenberg became the new leader of the conspirators and began planning the assassination.

A 1944 Assassination Plot Nearly Killed One of History’s Most Evil Leaders
Von Stauffenberg and his children. BBC

Constant Changes of Plan

Perhaps ironically, Operation Valkyrie was a modification of a plan Hitler had concocted to deal with a breakdown in law and order caused by Allied destruction or an uprising of forced laborers. Along with members of the Reserve Army, von Stauffenberg planned not only to kill Hitler but also to occupy important telephone centers, buildings and signal centers in Berlin. The hope was that the death of the Nazi leader would persuade most soldiers to lay down their arms and allow a new government to make peace with the Allies.

However, the conspirators were finding it next to impossible to get close enough to Hitler to carry out the plan. There were multiple failed attempts to get near enough to the Fuhrer to either shoot him or blow him up with grenades. As the situation got worse for the Nazis in WWII, Hitler was hardly seen in public and spent the majority of his time at Wolf’s Lair. He was heavily guarded at all times and seldom saw anyone he didn’t trust implicitly.

With the Gestapo seemingly closing in on the conspirators, it appeared as if time was running out. Von Stauffenberg became chief of staff to General From on July 1, 1944, which meant he would be in attendance at Hitler’s military conferences. Finally, there was a potential opportunity to take action. Operation Valkyrie was fully prepared by July 7, and on this day, General Helmut Stieff was supposed to assassinate the Nazi leader in Salzburg at a display of new uniforms. However, Stieff announced that he couldn’t follow through with the plan, so von Stauffenberg decided to take matters into his own hands.

A 1944 Assassination Plot Nearly Killed One of History’s Most Evil Leaders
Aftermath of the bomb. Wikimedia

What Did Von Stauffenberg Plan To Do?

On July 14, von Stauffenberg was ready to complete the mission with a bomb in his briefcase, but it was aborted at the last minute because Heinrich Himmler was not present at the meeting. The plotters had decided that they wanted to kill, Hitler, Himmler, and Goering at the same time. On the following day, von Stauffenberg was again ready to carry out the plan but once more, it was aborted; this time because Hitler was called out of the room.

On July 18, von Stauffenberg heard rumors (almost certainly false) that the Gestapo knew of the plan and were about to arrest him. On July 20, he arrived at Wolf’s Lair with the bomb in his briefcase once again. He was determined that it was now or never so he arrived in the conference room at 12.30 pm. Shortly after the meeting began, von Stauffenberg excused himself and went to Wilhelm Keitel’s washroom where he used a pair of pliers to crush the end of a pencil detonator which was inserted into a one-kilogram plastic explosive wrapped in brown paper.

The detonator included a wire copper tube that contained copper chloride. The chemical would eat through the wire in 10 minutes and release the firing pin. Von Stauffenberg’s war injuries meant he didn’t have time to prime the second bomb, so he gave it to Werner von Haeften. Von Stauffenberg entered the conference room, which contained around 20 people, and subtly placed the briefcase on the floor near Hitler. He received a planned telephone call a couple of minutes later and left the room.

A 1944 Assassination Plot Nearly Killed One of History’s Most Evil Leaders
Hitler’s Trousers After the Explosion. BBC

Why Did the Plan Fail?

Given the obstacles he faced, von Stauffenberg carried out his plan well, but it failed due to a set of unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances. First of all, Hitler usually held his conferences in an underground bunker made of reinforced concrete. It only had one steel door and no windows. If a bomb went off in that room, it would cause carnage because the blast waves and shrapnel would bounce off the walls and back into the room. Even a small explosion in such a room could kill everyone inside.

Unfortunately for von Stauffenberg, the warm weather on the day of July 20 forced the Nazi officials to change the venue to a conference hut that had windows, a table and a variety of other items that would minimize the impact of an explosion. As I already mentioned, there were supposed to be two bombs, but he only had the chance to arm one of them. Finally, Colonel Heinz Brandt moved the briefcase with his foot. He inadvertently pushed the bomb away from Hitler and Brandt was one of the four people that died in the blast.

The bomb detonated at 12.42 pm and demolished the room. It killed a stenographer immediately while three officers died later from their injuries. The conference leg table shielded Hitler and others from the blast, so he suffered minor injuries including a perforated eardrum. Had von Stauffenberg been able to arm the second bomb, it would probably have killed everyone in the room.


If Operation Valkyrie had succeeded, possibly hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. Instead, the conspirators had to flee, but they were unable to escape the wrath of the Fuhrer for long. Von Stauffenberg and Haeften drove to the nearest airfield and flew to Berlin. Von Stauffenberg assumed the plot was successful and began to motivate others to join the next phase which was to take over the government. However, he heard Goebbels on the radio announce that Hitler had survived and once they heard him speak later, they knew the coup was a failure.

The conspirators were tracked to their offices and defeated after a brief shootout. Von Stauffenberg was shot in the shoulder and arrested. On the morning of July 21, he was executed by firing squad along with Haeften and two other officers. When it was his turn to die, von Stauffenberg said: “Long live our sacred Germany.” The following day, his body was dug up, stripped of its medals and burned. His family managed to escape, but thousands of others were not so lucky. It is estimated that 4,980 people were executed after being found guilty of participating in the July 20 plot in some fashion.