The historian Eric Lee made some surprising discoveries when he found himself going down research rabbit holes in pursuit of plots to kill Hitler.
I love working in archives. Holding in one’s hand original documents written a century ago (or much longer) is the closest thing I will ever experience to time travel. (I’ve written about this before in Historia.)
But for my latest book Britain’s Plot to Kill Hitler: The True Story of Operation Foxley and SOE, I found that work in the archives was not enough. This is ironic because most of the book consists of the entire original Operation Foxley dossier, which is kept in the National Archives. Having read that dossier, and many other related documents, I wanted more. And that lead me to some strange new approaches to historical research.
When, in 1944–45, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was considering the various ways one might kill the Nazi dictator, the first and most obvious option was to use a sniper. The ideal location for such an attack seemed to be Hitler’s Alpine retreat near the town of Berchtesgaden. As SOE learned from interrogations of captured German soldiers who had served there, the Führer did a short walk every morning, unaccompanied by his guards.
All this was documented in the Operation Foxley dossier. But what the file couldn’t tell me was that much of this top secret plan had already been revealed in a best-selling novel and major film which was released several years earlier.
I watched the film and read the novel. To my surprise later learned that the author was himself an SOE officer. There is no evidence he was involved in the actual plan to kill Hitler. But his novel and the film provided an accurate template for the planned assassination.
Another possible way to kill Hitler that was explored in the dossier was to use poison. The documents never specified which poison had been chosen (a code name was used), though they did go into some detail on the specific mineral water and non-alcoholic beer that Hitler insisted on drinking.
I wrote to the super-secret chemical weapons research facility at Porton Down, and they recommended a book which named the poison: thallium acetate. I interviewed a doctor I knew about this and then researched thallium online, discovering that it really was almost the perfect way to murder someone and get away with it. Agatha Christie used it in one of her later novels, which actually led to at least one person’s life being saved as they recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning.
It later turned out that things were not so simple, as the source of the information that thallium was the selected poison turned out to be unreliable. By the time I was done with this, Googling “how to carry out the perfect murder” and taking out library books on the same subject, I was expecting a knock on my door from the police.
Of all the various ways proposed to kill the Nazi dictator, the craziest seemed to be a plan straight out of fiction. This was the suggestion that Hitler’s former deputy, Rudolf Hess, then held in captivity in England, might be hypnotically programmed to kill Nazi leaders and then sent back to Germany. This lead me directly to read Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, and to watch the two Hollywood films based on it.
There’s a moment when Yen Lo, the Red Chinese villain, takes on the sceptics, who don’t believe that a man can be hypnotised into becoming a murderer. In the book, Yen cited a number of academic papers proving that one could create a brainwashed assassin. To my great surprise, the papers he cited were real, and I dived into the world of 1940s psychology.
I asked a hypnotist I knew who told me that the idea, while usually dismissed as bonkers, might actually work. I tracked down the autobiography of the specific SOE officer who made this proposal and learned who had persuaded him that it might work. That officer, too, had written a memoir which provided to be unavailable anywhere, but I located his daughter and she sent me copy of the relevant passages.
I learned from all this that while hardly anyone today believes that a Manchurian Candidate scenario could actually work, back in the 1940s the idea seemed entirely workable.
As my partner put it, by this point I was well and truly down the rabbit hole.
I also learned that, however bizarre were the proposals being considered by SOE, the Americans came up with some even crazier ones.
According to the memoirs of an OSS officer (the OSS being the forerunner of the CIA), research they commissioned revealed that Hitler had a strongly feminine side. Evidence of this was provided by a leading Harvard psychologist, who cited Hitler’s “gait, his hands, his mannerisms and ways of thinking”. As the OSS officer put it, Hitler “was definitely close to the male-female line.”
They decided to bribe one of the Führer’s gardeners to inject female hormones into Hitler’s vegetables in the hope that this would cause his voice to rise and his moustache to fall off. In comparison to these plans, the SOE’s Operation Foxley seemed positively reasonable.
Reading best-selling novels, watching Hollywood movies, and interviewing hypnotists is not normally how I’ve done historical research in the past. And yet this is what happened when I followed the research, going where the story took me.
Right down the rabbit hole.
Britain’s Plot to Kill Hitler: The True Story of Operation Foxley and SOE by Eric Lee is published on 30 April, 2022.
Eric Lee is the author of several books about 20th-century history. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
He’s written several features for Historia linked to his research, including:
At the National Archives in Kew, the past comes alive
Writing popular history: Three lessons learned
The Georgian Experiment
For more features about the Second World War, secrets and espionage, have a look at:
The women agents behind the D-Day invasion by Mara Timon
How WWI veterans saved Britain’s treasures in WWII by Caroline Shenton
The Remarkable Women of WW2 by Clare Harvey
A different kind of WWII resistance by Deborah Swift
Historia Interviews: Michael Morpurgo by Clare Mulley
Historia interviews: Clare Mulley and Carolyn Kirby
The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina by Catherine Hokin
The Minister for Illusion: Goebbels and the German film industry by Catherine Hokin
John F Kennedy, the ambassador’s second son by Susan Ronald
Hitler’s Sex Life by Jane Thynne
- Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun at the Berghof: Deutsches Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F051673-0059, via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
- Cover of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household: by russell davies for Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
- Agatha Christie: Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler on the terrace at the Berghof, 1930s: Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2004-1202-502, via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)