By MSW Add a Comment 21 Min Read

Stauffenberg (right) talking to General Baron von
Broich in North Africa, Kasseringe Station, 20 February 1943.

It was the utter disaster that had overtaken the German
Sixth Army at Stalingrad at the end of 1942 that finally convinced Claus von
Stauffenberg that Hitler must be done away with. Having observed both the
vacillating timidity of top commanders in the face of Hitler’s interference in
military matters and his sheer bungling incompetence, Stauffenberg was clear where
the blame for the defining catastrophe of the war in the east must lie:
squarely on the Führer’s own stooping shoulders. He himself had visited the
Sixth Army’s headquarters in May 1942, and subsequently wrote a letter of
appreciation to its commander, General Friedrich von Paulus, which hinted at
his growing disillusion when he remarked:

How refreshing it is to get away from this atmosphere [at
Staff Headquarters] to surroundings where men give of their best without a
second thought, and give their lives too, without a murmur of complaint, while the
leaders and those who should set an example quarrel and quibble about their own
prestige, or haven’t the courage to speak their minds on questions which
affects the lives of thousands of their fellow men.

Quite how literally true this was, Stauffenberg was about to
discover. Halder, after all his hesitations about actually removing Hitler, had
himself been dismissed as Chief of Staff at the end of September 1942 for
repeatedly warning the Führer that by pressing on into Stalingrad in the face
of steadily stiffening Soviet resistance, the Sixth Army was advancing into a
dangerous Sackgasse – a cul-de-sac. The city that bore his great rival
dictator’s name seemed to mesmerise Hitler, and he refused to countenance any
let-up in the advance, although Halder pointed out that Paulus’s men were up
against seemingly inexhaustible Soviet numbers – a superiority in men (1.5
million against about 300,000) and in matériel (Soviet tank production now
totalled 1,200 a month). In addition, Kleist’s tanks, which had carried all
before them on the rolling steppes of the Ukraine, were next to useless in the
savage street fighting that the struggle for Stalingrad had become. For voicing
such inconvenient truths, Halder had been summarily sacked.

Courageously, Stauffenberg visited the fallen general at his
Berlin home in October, despite the fact that Halder was virtually under house
arrest, with all his movements monitored by the Gestapo. Stauffenberg told the
deposed Chief of Staff that the atmosphere at Staff Headquarters was now deeply
depressing. In the wake of Halder’s fall, no one was prepared to raise his head
above the parapet and speak out of turn. Any ideas that went against Hitler’s
policy of stubbornly sticking to every inch of conquered ground was frowned
upon. Even the former free exchange of ideas in informal discussions had
vanished, Stauffenberg reported; it had been replaced by a depressing mood of
silence and fear in which nemesis approached without anyone lifting a finger to
stop it.

Halder’s successor as Chief of Staff, Kurt Zeitzler, was a
relatively unknown officer who had been selected by Hitler as he had been
impressed by Zeitzler’s optimistic reports in his previous posts. The Führer
also imagined that this pastor’s son would prove more pliable than the
stiff-necked Prussian aristocrats who still composed the bulk of the officer
corps. He was disappointed. Zeitzler concurred with the disgraced Halder’s view
that the Stalingrad pocket that the Sixth Army had been pushed into was a
dangerous trap: a sack waiting for its open end to be nipped off and tied. He
recommended an immediate withdrawal from the Volga to the Don River. Hitler
flew into one of his increasingly frequent temper tantrums, screaming that he
would not be moved from the Volga – the Sixth Army would stand or fall at

On 9 November 1942, while Hitler was in Munich for the
annual commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, so rudely interrupted by Elser’s
bomb three years before, the Red Army sprang the jaws of the trap it had
prepared. Attacking simultaneously north and south of Stalingrad, within days
the Soviets had pinched off the Stalingrad pocket and the Sixth Army was
encircled and cut off. By 23 November Paulus’s men were trapped like cornered
rats in the shattered ruins of the city they had strived so hard to capture.
Stalingrad had become a Kessel – a cauldron – in which the flower of the army
would shrivel. On 2 February 1943, despite having been promoted to field
marshal by Hitler because no German field marshal had ever capitulated before,
Paulus emerged from his bunker and surrendered the freezing, starving, battered
and bewildered remnants of his Sixth Army to the Russians. 90,000 men limped
into Soviet prisoner-of-war camps from which only around 5,000 eventually
emerged. 250,000 remained in and around Stalingrad as frozen corpses.
Stauffenberg’s worst fears had been realised and the fortunes of war had swung
irrevocably against his beloved Germany.

At last, this loyal and patriotic German soldier, with his
courageous refusal to indulge in wishful thinking, was ready to take the first
step down the radical path of conspiracy that others – Oster, Tresckow,
Gisevius, Beck, Goerdeler and Witzleben – had trodden before him. In 1933 he
had hoped, like most other Germans, that the Nazis would give a desperate and
demoralised nation a new sense of discipline and purpose. In 1934 he had, like
many others in the army, seen the Night of the Long Knives purge as a long
overdue, if excessive, settling of accounts with the brawling thugs of the SA.
In 1938, he had applauded Hitler’s tough diplomacy that had annexed Austria and
the Sudetenland to the Reich without a war. In 1939 and 1940 he had taken
professional pride in the rapid Blitzkrieg conquests of Poland, Norway,
Denmark, the Low Countries, and finally France. Even at the beginning of 1942,
when Hitler assumed direct personal command of the army, Stauffenberg had been
optimistic that this would simplify the chain of command and sweep away the
confusion and muddle that his clear mind abhorred.

Now, though, his dismay and disillusionment were complete.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, he told a military colleague, Werner
Reerink, on 14 January, on the eve of the final surrender at Stalingrad, had
been a conference in November at which the army chiefs believed that they were
on the verge of persuading Hitler to order Stalingrad’s evacuation while there
was still time. Even Goebbels, said Stauffenberg, had been persuaded of the
wisdom of this course. Then, at the decisive moment, Goering had lumbered in
and, in his habitual boastful style, assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe alone
could keep the Sixth Army supplied by air indefinitely even if it were cut off.
Stauffenberg saw this as more than vainglorious boasting; it was a betrayal of
the army, he said bitterly, and had effectively condemned 300,000 men to a
lingering death. Such criminal irresponsibility could no longer be borne. Word
of Stauffenberg’s conversion to the conspirators’ cause and of his involvement
in their ranks soon spread among the select few. In late January 1943, General
Olbricht told his aide Hans Bernd Gisevius: ‘Stauffenberg has now seen the
light and [is] participating.’

But before he could take further action, Stauffenberg was
plucked from the war in the east and the sterility of an atmosphere where
Hitler’s word was the only law, to another theatre where Germany was also
facing a devastating defeat: North Africa. Long gone were the days when Erwin
Rommel’s Afrika Korps had carried the tide of German conquest almost to the
banks of the Suez Canal and the gates of Cairo. British Commonwealth forces
advancing from Egypt through Libya in the east, and newly arrived Anglo-Americans
who had landed in Algeria at the end of 1942, had moved towards the Germans in
Tunisia. The situation was critical and Zeitzler had personally chosen
Stauffenberg, who had been made up to lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1943, to
be senior staff officer (operations) to the 10th Panzer Army as one of the most
able staff officers available. After the war, Zeitzler explained that he wanted
to give Stauffenberg more experience of command on an active front, so as to
prepare him for the future command of a corps or army. Delighted as he was by
the move to a ‘clean’ war between soldiers rather than the moral quagmire that
the war in the east was becoming, Stauffenberg was about to get more action
than even he had bargained for.

On 2 February, the day that Paulus surrendered at
Stalingrad, Stauffenberg and his wife had lunch with another army couple, Colonel
and Frau Burker, at the fashionable Berlin restaurant, Kempinskis. Dining with
them was Frau Beate Bremme, a friend of the Stauffenbergs from their pre-war
days in Wuppertal. Frau Burker was the daughter of Field Marshal Blomberg, the
war minister disgraced and dismissed in the Blomberg–Fritsch scandal of 1938:
her two brothers, Henning and Axel, had both been killed in North Africa and
the Middle East, and Stauffenberg could have been under no illusions as to the
toughness of the assignment ahead of him. Burker had himself been summoned home
from North Africa by Hitler after the deaths of his Blomberg brothers-in-law,
and during the lunch briefed Stauffenberg about the job. The conversation then
turned to the situation at Stalingrad, and Stauffenberg left no one within
earshot in ignorance of his own views. After the war, Frau Bremme recalled:
‘They talked loudly and very critically, Stauffenberg more than Burker . . .
the waiter came along and insisted that they talk more softly, but they took
not the slightest notice and in fact talked even louder.’

A few days before, Stauffenberg had been equally indiscreet
in urging Field Marshal Manstein to take action against Hitler while there was
still an army and nation left to save. The war, he insisted, could no longer be
won by military means and a diplomatic solution must be sought. So insistent
did Stauffenberg become in his urgings that a nervous Manstein threatened to
have him arrested. Stauffenberg was contemptuous about the field marshal’s
quivering pusillanimity. He told his friend Dietz von Thungen, ‘These guys have
their pants full of shit and their skulls full of straw. They don’t want to do

After a week’s embarkation leave with his family,
Stauffenberg arrived in Tunis, flying via Naples, on 11 February 1943. His
first duty was to visit his badly wounded predecessor, Major Wilhelm Burklin,
in hospital. Recalling the visit later, Burklin remarked that he had
particularly warned his successor to beware of strafing by low-flying enemy
aircraft. Stauffenberg arrived at his divisional forward post on 14 February,
in the very midst of battle. The previous day Rommel, who had received
reinforcements and was confident of success with his battle-hardened African
veterans against the green and ill-trained Americans, had launched ‘Operation Spring
Breeze’ – a series of offensives in different directions designed to disrupt
the Allied vice that was tightening around Tunisia, turned by the British
moving up from the south, and the Americans advancing out of the west.

Despite his inexperience of desert warfare, Stauffenberg was
in his element, working fourteen-hour days and demonstrating his customary
ability to multi-task: doing several jobs simultaneously and chafing, charming
and persuading others to do his bidding. His divisional commander, Brigadier
Baron Friedrich von Broich, was new to the job too, having been appointed at
the same time as Stauffenberg. Broich was a simple soldier, described later in
a report by his British captors as ‘a jolly ex-cavalry man [with] a twinkle in
his eye . . . not particularly intelligent but always most amusing and
charming’. Broich, like Stauffenberg had ‘a horror of Nazism’ and his letters
home to his wife were so anti-Hitler that she warned him to be more discreet
for fear of the Gestapo. When told of Stauffenberg’s 20 July bomb by his
British captors, Broich described his former deputy as ‘an excellent man . . .
one of the cleverest, exceedingly well-educated, [and] a brilliantly clever
fellow’. Broich’s only regret was that the bomb Stauffenberg had used had
apparently been too small to kill Hitler.

Even while they had been together fighting the battle of
Sidi Bou Zid – in which the old sweats of the Afrika Korps savaged the
greenhorn Americans, killing 1,200 and destroying over 100 tanks –
Stauffenberg, with his customary frankness-to-the-point-of-madness made no
secret of his detestation of Hitler and the Nazi regime, remarking in the
hearing of lower ranks that ‘That guy [Hitler] ought to be shot.’ He and Broich
would sit late into the night in their mobile command post – a captured British
battle bus – over a bottle of heavy Tunisian red wine setting the world to
rights and deploring Hitler’s wrongs. The Nazis, they agreed, would have to be
removed by force.

Operation Spring Breeze developed into a series of fiercely
fought actions for control of the strategic Kasserine and Faid Passes over the
Atlas Mountains in central Tunisia. At first the experienced Germans carried
all before them, picking off the inferior American M3 tanks with their giant
new Tiger tanks, which packed an 88-mm cannon, and putting the GIs to rout.
Stauffenberg, easy, relaxed, yet efficient and always willing to speak his
mind, proved both capable and popular with all ranks. For his part, he enjoyed
a return of the carefree spirit of 1940, appreciating the uncomplicated joys of
soldiering amid like-minded comrades.

As March turned to April, however, the effects of the Allied
command of the Mediterranean became increasingly felt as supplies began to
dwindle and dry up and the German offensive stalled. Rommel fell sick and was
evacuated from the Africa where he had made his name, and the USAAF and RAF
roared across the clear desert skies, virtually unimpeded by any intervention from
the Luftwaffe. As the Americans licked their wounds and regrouped, learning the
lessons of their defeat as they did so, the experienced British Commonwealth
Eighth Army moved up to attack the Germans entrenched behind the Mareth Line.
As in the east, the dice of war began to roll against Germany.

Early on the morning of 7 April 1943, Claus von
Stauffenberg’s career as a fighting soldier came to a sudden and brutal end,
and his brief life as an active conspirator – destined to end equally violently
– began. He was on duty in a narrow defile near a range of hills known as
Sebkhet en Noual, supervising a tactical withdrawal eastwards towards the
Tunisian coast. He was uneasy and uncharacteristically tense. Before taking
leave of him that morning, Broich had issued the customary warning to beware of
low-flying enemy aircraft. Stauffenberg told a Lieutenant Reile, who saw him
standing in his Horch jeep – a distinctive figure as he strove to direct the
traffic through the dangerous defile – ‘We shall be lucky if we get out of
this. As usual we disengaged twenty-four hours too late.’ Reile left him,
keeping one eye on the ground, and the other on the threatening sky.

Suddenly, out of the clear morning skies, the enemy struck.
Flight after flight of American fighter-bombers roared in, strafing and
shooting up the vehicles in Stauffenberg’s column. Ammunition trucks exploded,
lorries overturned or ran off the road; vehicles juddered to a halt as the
enemy aircraft thundered in. Desperately, directing his jeep up and down the
line of stricken traffic, Stauffenberg strove to save what he could from the
carnage. Then a plane picked him out and screamed in to attack with all guns
blazing. Instinctively, Stauffenberg hurled himself from the jeep, his hands
hiding his handsome face as he hit the desert dust and stones. But the bullets
killed a lieutenant sitting at the back of the jeep and found Stauffenberg too.

As the raid ended, Stauffenberg lay in helpless agony. His
left eye was a mass of blood and jelly. Both his hands were in a similar state,
and his head, back, arms and legs were riddled with shrapnel splinters. A
passing medical officer, Second Lieutenant Dr Hans Keysser, dressed
Stauffenberg’s wounds. Apparently from nowhere, an ambulance appeared, and
Stauffenberg was gently lifted in. It took him to No. 200 Field Hospital at
Sfax on Tunisia’s eastern coast, where his desperate condition was stabilised.
From there he was taken north to a hospital outside Tunis near ancient
Carthage: a pain-wracked journey. Here the remains of his left eye were
removed, his right hand was amputated and all but three fingers cut from his
left as well. After a fortnight he was well enough to be evacuated by sea to
the Italian port city of Livorno, where he was put on a hospital train for

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version