Historical Fiction
Eric Sturdy

Hess? Which Hess?

MAY 1952 - JULY 1953
“Hessco” is the modern-day nickname for a Tesco supermarket built in 1988 on the site of Berlin’s Spandau prison. the gaol was demolished in the autumn of 1987 on the death of its most famous, or according to divergent beliefs infamous, prisoner. Adolf Hitler’s Deputy Führer, or an impostor, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg and, of the seven senior Nazis given sentences, Prisoner No. 7 was the only one to see the end of his life in captivity. He was popularly thought to be Rudolf Hess but, over the years, suggestive evidence has accumulated to indicate otherwise and prisoner No. 7 may have conceivably been an impostor. Likewise there is considerable controversy about the manner of Prisoner No. 7’s demise. Whether he hanged himself in a garden shed in Spandau or a person, or persons, hovering in the background aided the frail 92-year-old Nazi in his terminal passage to Valhalla, remains a mystery. The prison in Charlottenberg was demolished immediately after his death to avoid it becoming a place of worship for Nazi sympathisers. Rather than referring to the supermarket at Spandau as “Hessco” it might be more aptly renamed “Prostco” by using Prost, the surname of Hess’s fictional impostor.
At the cessation of hostilities in Europe in May 1945 the four Allied Powers had agreed that Germany should be divided into two occupation zones roughly separated along the river Elbe, where the Allied armies came to rest. Much to Winston Churchill’s displeasure this meant that Berlin became an isolated enclave inside the Russian-dominated Eastern Zone, 45 kilometres inside the line of demarcation. The eastern half of the city came under Communist control and the western half of Berlin was divided into three sectors, each occupied by British, French and American forces. Access into Berlin from the west was restricted to one major highway, one rail link only used twice a week and flights along predestined air corridors to Gatow and Templehof airports. The British sector of the city was in the northwest Charlottenberg district and included the Brandenburg Gate, half of Kufurstendam Avenue, a British Military Hospital, S.S. army barracks and Spandau Prison. Built in the late 1860s the prison consisted of an outer high wall fortified by six guard turrets and separated from the main prison building by a dry moat festooned with barbed wire obstacles. The prison itself had three separate three-storied cellblocks all capable of housing 130 convicts and each with its own administrative offices. A sizeable exercise yard was situated at the rear of the cellblock and a section of the land had been cordoned-off to create a walled vegetable garden. In its heyday Spandau Prison could accommodate up to 600 inmates. Seven convicted Nazis were brought from Nuremberg to the prison in August 1947 and occupied separate cells on the first floor of the central prison block. The four Allied Powers took it in turns to mount guard on the prison for a month each quarter. The battalion designated for guard duty also supplied a medical officer to attend at the prison. The prisoners’ daily schedule, diet, and health were monitored by prison warders and, on the last Friday every month, a Four-Power administrative and medical meeting was held to discuss the prisoners’ complaints. The prison had a Commandant and in 1952, it had 22 permanent staff-warders, medical orderlies, cooks and cleaners. The average cost for running the specialised detention centre during this period was in the region of £85,000 a year.
The prisoners’ monotonous daily routine was strictly regulated by rules drawn up by the War Crimes Commissioners at Nuremberg. Reveille was at 6.00am in the summer months and half an hour later in wintertime. After their ablutions, bed-making and tidying their cells, the prisoners went down to the dining room on the ground floor for breakfast at 8.00am, usually coffee, bread and cheese and occasionally a boiled egg. Weather permitting they then spent time during the morning out of doors in the exercise compound and vegetable garden. The main meal of the day was served at noon. After lunch the prisoners were locked in their cells for an hour’s rest. Afternoons were again spent either in the exercise yard or reading and writing in a communal sitting room. At 5.00pm a light supper was served and afterwards the inmates were locked in their cells until lights out at 10.00pm. A visiting barber was on hand to shave the inmates twice a week. On Mondays they were expected to do their own laundry and on Sundays, a church service was conducted by a prison padre for the prisoners’ benefit. Strictly enforced during the Russian duty months a diet of bread, soup, potatoes and coffee was adhered to day in and day out. The other three Powers varied the prisoners’ diet and liberal protein and carbohydrate meals were on offer most days. Consumption of alcohol was strictly forbidden. The Nazi prisoners were allowed to write a censored one-page letter home per month and family visits were limited to 15 minutes every two months. A mini-library of historical, scientific and carefully selected literature and novels was available to prisoners in the Common Room. Within a few years some of these strict regulations had been relaxed by the Western Powers, mainly the edicts insisting on solitary confinement, dietary restrictions and two-hourly disturbance of their sleep at night. On their duty month Russian warders were prone to adhere strictly to the regulations laid down by the Nuremberg War Crimes Commissioners. Rudolf Hess had adhered fairly strictly to a vegetarian diet at Mytchett Place and Maindiff Court. His dietary requirements at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg were well balanced and included a liberal supply of meat and fish products. It soon became evident at Spandau that ‘Hess’ had abandoned his vegetarian regime and was now an avid protein eater whenever it was available.
At the end of World War II in Europe, on 7th May 1945, the author was 17 years of age and eligible for conscription into the Armed Forces. At that time he was a second-year medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London and the powers-that-be must have decided to let him qualify as a doctor and complete his internships before his call-up papers were issued – presumably because he would be of more value to His Majesty’s forces as a doctor rather than a squaddie. His call to arms came in October of 1951. After 10 weeks basic training at the R.A.M.C Depot in Crookham, his posting to BAOR, the British Army on the Rhine, came through a week before Christmas 1951 and, on Christmas Eve, he joined as a Regimental Medical Officer, RMO, to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards based at the time at Wuppertal. On March the 1st, 1952, his Guards’ Battalion moved en bloc to the Charlottenberg district in West Berlin. Wavell Barracks was situated in close proximity to the British Military Hospital and Spandau Prison and, in April, the author was seconded to the surgical staff at the Hospital. The Welsh Guards were allocated guard duties at Spandau Prison during the months of May and September 1952 and January 1953 and, as their RMO, the author was automatically appointed Prison Medical Officer for these periods. His first attendance at Spandau Prison was on the 2nd of May 1952. He was instructed by the Hospital Commandant that the Nazi prisoners were only to be addressed by their cell numbers, one to seven, and not under any circumstances by their proper names. It was also stressed that the author was only to concern himself with medical complaints. The best suggested times for attendance on the prisoners would be late morning or at tea break after their compulsory rest period for an hour after lunch. Weather permitting, the prisoners were up-and-about in the exercise compound and in the vegetable garden or, otherwise, in the communal sitting room. If a prisoner was unwell he was allowed to remain in his cell or nursed in a twin-bedded Medical Inspection, MI, Room.
On the author’s daily rounds to Spandau a Welsh Guards officer, usually a subaltern, and two guardsmen marched him down a short drive through the main prison gates and across a drawbridge over the moat to the prison entrance. A senior English-speaking warder then took over and led him to the Commandant’s office to sign the attendance register. They then proceeded through two locked doors into the cellblock. The inmates were either in the exercise yard or in the Common Room with the exception of Prisoner No 7 who was rarely outside his cell. The author had to ask each in turn, and by their cell number, if they had any medical complaints. The warder recorded their replies, if any were forthcoming, in a notebook. When an examination, or treatment, was required the Nazi inmate was taken to the MI Room. A visit was usually completed in half an hour and the author was then able to proceed to the B.M.H. or back to his Regimental duties.
On a typical prison ward round the first call would be on Prisoner No. 1. In 1952 Baron Constantin von Neurath was suffering from cardiac failure and under treatment by an American Army cardiologist. Von Neurath was confined to bed in a converted office on the ground floor outside the main cellblock and the MO’s daily visit was more in the nature of a courtesy call as demanded by the prison regulations. The Baron was an archetypal Prussian nobleman and had been Nazi ambassador in Britain in the 1930s. Hitler appointed him Gauleiter to Bohemia and Moravia in 1940. His influence on Hitler in instigating the Second World War and his actions against the Czech population in 1941, and early 1942, earned him a 15-year sentence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. He was released early in 1955 on compassionate grounds having served only nine of his fifteen-year sentence.
With the exception of von Neurath and Prisoner No. 7, who spent most of his time in his cell, the other five Nazi war criminals were either outside in the exercising compound and gardening in their designated plots or sitting reading, writing and listening to music in the downstairs Common Room. Two Nazi naval officers, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder (No. 2) and Admiral Karl Doenitz (No. 3) were inseparable though there was some animosity between them. They were the only two high-ranking naval officers in Spandau and stood aloof from the other five political prisoners. Raeder was jealous because Doenitz had literally replaced him as one of Hitler’s favourites in 1942. Known collectively as the ‘Admiralty’ to their fellow prisoners they were both medium-sized men and wore dark-blue naval overcoats and peaked caps even at the height of summer. The ‘Admiralty’ had no time for ‘Rudolf Hess’ and Albert Speer, both of whom had, in their opinion, deserted the Nazi cause – ‘Hess’ by his desertion and flight to Britain in 1941 and Speer by his frank acknowledgement of the failings of the Nazi Party in relation to the Jewish holocaust and Concentration Camps. Though they seemed to present a solid front the ‘Admiralty’ nearly came to blows in January 1953. Raeder was inordinately proud of a giant turnip which he had laboriously, and lovingly, nurtured in the prison’s vegetable garden through the harsh, wintry months of November and December 1952. The turnip had apparently reached its gargantuan size due to a long hot dry spring and lack of rain during the summer of 1952. One frosty night the turnip mysteriously vanished into thin air. Speer was suspected of the heinous offence and the only other dedicated gardener in Spandau was his ‘Admiralty’ colleague, Karl Doenitz. Raeder’s rage lasted for three days and then died a natural death.
In contravention of the Geneva Convention Erich Raeder had been found guilty of signing an order to execute all captured Commandos following the Royal Naval Commando’s successful raid on shipping in Bordeaux Harbour on the 7th of December 1942. In failing health Grand Admiral Raeder’s life sentence was annulled on the 26th of September 1955 on compassionate grounds.
Prisoner No. 3, Admiral Karl Doenitz, had been awarded a ten-year sentence at Nuremberg for ordering his U-Boat commanders not to attempt saving the crews of torpedoed Allied shipping sunk in the Atlantic blockade. He served his ten-year sentence in full and was released from Spandau Prison in October 1956.
Prisoner No. 4, Walter Funk, was an enigma among the Nazi hierarchy at the prison. A short, pot-bellied, balding man, Funk had been a wealthy industrialist before he joined forces with the Nazi Party and became Hitler’s Economics Minister and Director of the Reichsbank. He received a life sentence at Nuremberg for his direct orders to pilfer valuable art and jewellery from Jews and conquered races in Europe and, more incriminately, for ordering retrieval of gold dental implants from millions of victims who were murdered in German Concentration Camps. Prisoner No. 4 was a persistent whinger, ready at all times to complain about his unjust life sentence and a variety of medical symptoms. Funk suffered from “water trouble” and, once every quarter during the French duty month, a female accouchere dilated his urethra. Prisoner No 4 also became the central figure in an international incident during the French month in April 1953. An emergency committee was convened and a French surgeon announced dramatically that prisoner No. 4 was suffering from acute appendicitis and needed urgent surgery. The author’s services at the B.M.H. were offered by the Commanding Officer, but the French and Russian delegates refused permission for Funk to be moved out of Spandau. As a compromise the prison chapel was converted into a temporary operating theatre. A French surgeon was lined up to perform the operation and the author’s colleague at the B.M.H. was elected to deliver the anaesthetic. It took a whole week to set up the operation and, on the appointed day, the “little theatre” was jam-packed with observers from the Four Powers. When the B.M.H. anaesthetist, syringe in hand, advanced towards the prostrate patient on the operating table he noticed a rash on Funk’s exposed abdomen and he immediately refused to carry on with the procedure. The operation was abandoned and pandemonium broke loose. Four Power colonels, majors and captains shouted at each other and the hapless Funk lay bewildered in the middle of the arguing mob. The eventual outcome was less dramatic. Without asking anyone’s advice, or permission, a French surgeon carried out an appendectomy during their next monthly duty at Spandau in August. Whether the appendix was originally acutely inflamed, or showed evidence of previous inflammation after three months, was not recorded in Prisoner No. 4’s medical notes.
Walter Funk tried his best to be on friendly terms with all his Nazi partners in crime. He was too self-centred to be accepted by them and they were fed up with his constant whingeing and tendency to burden them with the gross unfairness of his life sentence. The Admiralty avoided Funk like the plague. Albert Speer tolerated him up to a point and, depending on his mood, Hess would converse with No. 4 for a few minutes. Funk’s only soul mate at Nuremberg and at Spandau was Baldur von Schirach, Prisoner No. 6, who was prepared to listen to his persistent whingeing with a sympathetic ear. Walter Funk’s general health slowly deteriorated rapidly after his “famous” appendix operation. His life sentence was annulled and he was released from prison on compassionate grounds on the 16th May 1957 after only serving 11 years in captivity.
Prisoner No. 5, Albert Speer, proved to be the most charismatic Nazi of the seven sorry inmates at Spandau Prison. An architect by profession, Speer had wheedled his way into Adolf Hitler’s favour in the mid-thirties by taking advantage of the Führer’s grandiose vision for creating a Gothic-style empire centred on Berlin. Speer represented the cultural face of the Nazi hierarchy and was constantly at Hitler’s side during visits from foreign dignitaries to the Reichschancellery in Berlin and at the Führer’s Berghof, a mountain retreat in Bavaria. Speer was not officially appointed within the Nazi Party until 1943 when Hitler made him Reichsminister in charge of Armaments Production and, to satisfy demands from Germany’s armed forces, he recruited thousands of foreign labourers from Detention and Concentration Camps. There is little doubt that his treatment of the conscripted labour force carried the death penalty at the Nuremberg Tribunal save for the fact he revealed in court that all top Nazis knew about the Concentration Camps and the Gas Chambers. As a result of these disclosures he was ostracised by his co-defendants at Nuremberg and most of his fellow inmates at Spandau considered he had only told the truth to save his own skin. He undoubtedly received a comparatively light sentence of 20 years considering he had been a top Nazi in Hitler’s Third Reich and a close aide to the Führer throughout the 1930s and during World War II.
At Spandau Albert Speer felt sorry for Prisoner No. 7. He was aware at Nuremberg that “Hess” had a mental problem and his amnesia served to explain his failure to recall past events, in particular their collaboration in organising grand Party Rallies at Nuremberg. In Spandau there was more to it than amnesia. No. 7’s feigned attacks of memory loss and depression led him to stay for days on end in his cell and he required assistance in cell-maintenance, laundry and personal hygiene. Speer did these chores on his behalf without complaint and urged “Hess” to join him in the exercise yard. When Speer was set free, having served his 20-year sentence on the 30th of December 1966, his concern for Prisoner No. 7 was exemplified by a request to the Prison Commissioners to release his cellmate on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.