Review: Hitler’s Hangmen: The Secret German Plot to Kill Churchill, December 1944, by Brian Lett

Brian Lett is the author of a number of excellent works of military history and I looked forward to this one, not least due to the intriguing title. Unfortunately, the title may be a bit misleading.

Lett’s book explores three parallel developments, two of them in depth. The first concerns the hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war held in Britain towards the end of the Second World War. These men, who were young, fit, and only recently captured, represented a genuine security threat to the country. Hardened Nazis in the camps kept them in line, sometimes by hanging those seen as disloyal to the Reich (hence the ‘hangmen’ in the title).

The second part is a detailed look at a number of the local British fascists and Nazis nearly all of whom were detained in 1940 and held without trial. All of these men were dangerous, in some cases armed, and they too represented a security threat. They were all released in 1944 as the war was winding down with Germany’s defeat now all-but-certain. Lett thinks that their release was premature.

Which brings up the third strand of Lett’s story: the Ardennes offensive that began in mid-December 1944, which was Hitler’s last attempt to deal a death-blow to the Allies (and a smaller, lesser-known offensive in northern Italy). Though the Ardennes offensive started relatively well for the Germans, it quickly ran out of steam.

Lett attempts to bring all three strands together, arguing that a number of escape attempts from POW camps in Britain, the presence of British fascists now at large, and the offensive on the continent were all linked. The POWs were to seize American arms, uniforms and vehicles from nearby hospitals (Lett makes a parallel to Skorzeny’s Nazi commandos who dressed up as Americans in the Ardennes). The British fascists were to provide assistance once the men were out of the camps. And it was all timed to result in a dash to London to decapitate the British government by killing the Prime Minister — while at the same time, Skorzeny’s men would rush to Paris to capture or kill General Eisenhower.

It’s a great story and fascinating to contemplate, but I’m not sure it all works. Lett was a lawyer and surely understands that the evidence here may not all stack up. That there was a security threat — both from the POWs and the local Nazis — has long been understood. But there’s little evidence that the threats were linked in any meaningful way. And whether the escape attempts (none of which worked very well) were timed to provide support for the offensive in Belgium is also not proven.

Still, a well researched book and an intriguing idea — even it not entirely convincing.