The MegaMilitary Project | Online Edition #343
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Saving Private Hitler (28th October 1914)

Saving Private Hitler (28th October 1914)

Was World War II nearly avoided?

This story is about one mystery of World War I that did not surface until 1938, though the incident is said to have happened on 28 October 1914. In 1937, Adolf Hitler, Nazi dictator of Germany, went to visit the home of a member of his staff, Dr. Otto Schwend.

During the visit, Schwend invited Hitler to see a painting that he had just received from a British friend, Lieutenant Colonel Earle. Earle and Schwend had met during the war when Earle was a prisoner and had remained in touch.

The painting showed an incident in September 1918 when British soldier Henry Tandey won a Victoria Cross carrying wounded men out of a field swept by German machine gun fire. The painting was a copy of the original by the famous Italian artist Fortunino Matania. Hitler took a close interest in the painting, particularly the figure of Henry Tandey. He asked for a photo of the painting to be sent to him, which Schwend did. Hitler had the photo framed and put on his desk.

In the fall of 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler at his mountain retreat at the Berghof for talks that would lead to the 1938 Munich Agreement. Chamberlain was surprised to see on Hitler's desk a photo of a painting showing British soldiers in action in the First World War.

Chamberlain asked about the picture. Hitler smiled, pointed to the central figure in the painting and declared, "That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again; faith saved me from such deadly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us". Hitler then called an aide who was sent off to retrieve a scrapbook that turned out to contain cuttings from newspapers relating to Hitler's service in the German army during the First World War. Among the various cuttings was one relating to a British soldier winning a Victoria Cross. Hitler explained that he had kept the cutting because he knew the man, Henry Tandey.

Back in October 1914, Hitler recounted, he had been advancing with his regiment to attack the British when they came under heavy fire. Hitler was wounded and decided to go back to the rear for medical treatment. As he crept away, he glanced over his shoulder to see a British soldier aiming his rifle directly at him. Hitler froze, waiting for the shot to come. It never did.

The British soldier lowered his rifle and allowed the wounded Hitler to go on his way. Hitler said that when he saw the newspaper article about Tandey, he recognized him instantly and linked his mercy to a wounded German in 1914 to his heroism, saving the wounded in 1918. Hitler asked Chamberlain to pass on his kind regards to Tandey when he got back to Britain, then the meeting returned to affairs of state.

When Chamberlain got back to Britain, he sent a member of staff to find Tandey. The retired sergeant was by then working for the Triumph Motor Company in Coventry. Chamberlain sent a note to Tandey, passing on Hitler's best wishes. The story soon leaked out and was reported in the press.

A reporter from the Coventry Herald went to see Tandey and interviewed him about the incident. Somewhat embarrassingly, Tandey did not remember a thing about it. He admitted he never shot wounded, unarmed or retreating Germans, but did everything he could to kill them in battle. "Did I see Hitler?" Tandey responded, "I had the sights of my rifle on most of their gun crews, but whether I hit any of them, I shall never know. I've wondered since how near I came to knocking down the future dictator."

Once war broke out between Britain and Germany again in 1939, Tandey became understandably reluctant to talk about how he may have saved Hitler's life. On the other hand, he may have done no such thing. Perhaps it was somebody quite different who had failed to shoot Hitler on that fall day in 1914. We will probably never know.

German Empire (1866-1918)
WWI (1914-1918)
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