on Thursday, October 21, 2010
Independent on Sunday,
HIMMLER'S NIGHT OF RECKONING
The weeks following VE Day brought thousands of Britons face-to- face with the evils of. Nazism - and one country doctor face-to-face with the creator of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler
PAUL VAN STEMANN
Sunday, 21 May 1995
THE LAST face that Heinrich Himmler saw before he died was that of Captain C J "Jimmie" Wells, a 55-year-old medical officer at the Second Army Surrender Headquarters at Luneburg. It was an encounter between a 45-year-old German mass murderer, who was responsible for the torture and death of millions of innocent people, and an English country doctor, who was my neighbour for 14 years and, I believe, incapable of an evil thought or a mean gesture.
It was close to midnight on 23 May 1945, when the two men stood facing each other under a naked lightbulb in a barren room at number 31a Ulzener Strasse, Luneburg. It was the second time that night that Capt Wells had examined Himmler; he was looking for a poison capsule of the sort that leading Nazis were known to conceal in their bodies. There was complete silence as the doctor went about his duties. He was polite and gentle; the prisoner was wary but co-operative.
As a matter of routine, Wells had examined the prisoner's heart and chest, between his buttocks, his nostrils, ears, the webs of his small and sensitive hands and feet. For reasons to do with treating his patient with dignity, Capt Wells had refused to examine Himmler's rectum - a well-known place for hiding poison - and, extraordinarily, his commanding officer had not insisted.
Staring defiantly from behind his granny glasses, Himmler followed Capt Wells's eyes and movements intently. When, for the second time, Wells began to probe his mouth, he realised that the game was up. The tiny blue cyanide capsule hidden in the fold of his cheek had been seen, and he clamped his teeth on the doctor's finger. For a moment, they struggled. Then Himmler wrenched the doctor's hand from his mouth, swung his head away and, facing the doctor with almost deliberate disdain, crushed the glass capsule between his teeth and took a deep breath.
The time was 11.14pm. It was all over. Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Him-mler, chief of German police, minister of the interior, commander-in-chief of the home forces - the second most powerful man in the Nazi Reich - was dying.
According to Wells, Himmler's face immediately became deep purple and contorted with pain. His vena cava stood out, his eyes stared glassily, his head fell forward and he crashed to the ground. As he fell, his glasses came off his nose and skidded across the floor. Distraught at losing a life that had been put in his care Capt Wells exclaimed: "My God. He has done it on me."
Company Sergeant Major Edwin Austin, the only other person in the room, picked up the glasses, placed them in his tunic pocket and triumphantly mouthed "souvenir" to the doctor. They were later retrieved and put back on Himmler's nose when he was propped up with a pillow for official photographs that were published in newspapers throughout the world. Who would have recognised Himmler without his glasses?
In a previously unpublished account written for his wife, Vera, shortly after the event, Capt Wells described the catastrophic moment: "The dramatic rapidity of death I anticipated but slightly. There were a slowing series of stertorous breaths which may have continued for half a minute, and the pulse for another minute after that. The stench coming from Himmler's mouth was unmistakably that of hydrocyanic, and the dose must have been enough to kill an elephant."
There was a basin of water in the room, and Capt Wells, helped by Sgt Maj Austin, up-ended the body and mopped out Himmler's mouth with a sodden handkerchief. Then, as the patient's breathing faltered, he gave him a burst of artificial respiration. It was an automatic reflex which he knew was useless.
"I felt a vague surge of distinct anger. Not because I had been outwitted but oddly enough because of a feeling of contempt and disgust that a man in his position should choose this way out from the wreck and torture which he had had such a large hand in creating. I could not see a Churchill or Montgomery, or a thousand others, under any circumstances even contemplating such an action."
I FIRST met Jimmie Wells in 1961, when I moved to Oxfordshire. I would go up to his house, drink hock with him and talk in his cosy, chintzy sitting-room; we became friends. And as I had been a correspondent in Berlin from 1942 to 1945 for the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, I was, naturally, very interested to hear his first-hand account of Himmler's end.
Dr Wells's role in Himmler's final drama had begun at 10pm that blisteringly cold May night - cold enough "to blow the varnish off the mantlepiece", he wrote - when a message blared out over the camp Tannoy, ordering Wells to report to Police Headquarters. It was a demand that had to be repeated several times; Wells was out of the camp trying to arrange a flight home for his leave the next day - pre-war, he had had a practice in Oxfordshire. On his return, he was greeted with: "Haven't you heard? Where have you been?"
As Dr Wells was to recall: "Police Headquarters was an odd place to be wanted urgently at 10 o'clock at night. At a guess, I felt some wretch had got hold of a bottle of drink and been letting off his rifle or perhaps some incontinent youngster had committed rape or something worse in an army now composed of men with too much leisure: men who could fight but could not be indefinitely idle. But everyone seemed perfectly calm and controlled."
The situation then degenerated, however, into a form of military farce. Capt Wells was met by Sgt Maj Austin who, after going through the usual process of identification, asked if he knew why he had been sent for.
"I told him that I had not the slightest idea," Wells remembered. "He suggested that we should leave the Headquarters building and wait in the road for the arrival of some cars. We were about to meet a very important person." Wells was peeved; it was late and cold, and it all sounded ridiculously mysterious. Why would an important person want to see him in the middle of a perishingly cold night in the middle of the road?
"I was in little mood for guessing games. But as we walked up and down getting colder and colder it was obvious that Austin was more anxious to tell me the answer than I was to guess it. At last he confided that we were going to see a prisoner of war - a very important prisoner of war. Now could I guess? It was unfortunate for me - and I felt deeply reproached - that I had not studied more closely the leaders of the German nation: their faces or their other physical attributes or their moral imperfections. As men they did not interest me. To me, as to millions of others, their ideals were fundamentally wrong and their attempts to establish them as grotesquely wrong as they were gruesome. They were all equally evil."
Cold and bored as he was, Wells told his wife, he played along with the Sergeant Major's little game. He guessed that the VIP was Hitler. "I was wrong. I could not help thinking that if I was to know any minute, why make a secret of it now?"
The two men were now aching with cold from the north-east wind and decided to wait inside, leaving a corporal to stay on the road and report the arrival of the VIP cortege.
"I looked round Austin's office. Everything was spotless, the oilcloth on the floor was polished to reflect your boots, the table was exactly in the middle of the room, the blotter was exactly in the middle of the table and the bare light bulb exactly in the middle of the ceiling. There was no fire, no curtains, and the straight backed chairs were placed like soldiers with a meticulous accuracy round the room. I sensed the atmosphere of justice without mercy."
Suddenly Austin could contain his secret no longer: the prisoner they were expecting was Himmler.
"Again, I found myself wondering what I was expecting to see. Was he the tall fat one (Goering) or that small thin one (Goebbels)? Was he the one who looked like a soldier or the one who looked like a branch office bank clerk? I did not really know who Himmler was. But the greater mystery lay in what function I was to perform."
The cars drew up at 10.45pm. The first man out was Colonel Michael Murphy, Second Army Chief of Intelligence. "Everything looked new, he looked new, his uniform looked new, his red tabs and the hat band looked newer still," Capt Wells wrote to his wife. "Taking hardly any notice of Austin, Colonel Murphy turned to me and said arrogantly, 'Are you the doctor?' Then he added: 'You will examine this prisoner for poison.' "
The door of the second car opened and "out came - or more accurately was half dragged - a deplorable object in a grey army shirt, underpants, and grey army socks with an army blanket round his loins which entangled his feet as he shambled towards the house." Himmler was clean shaven and without the black patch which had, before his capture by the British, been part of his disguise as ex-sergeant Heinrich Hitzinger of the Armoured Company.
Lying in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London is the diary of Major Norman Whittaker, Officer Commanding Defence Company Army Surrender HQ. It was written in pencil, in schoolboyish handwriting, at the end of each day and covers this whole period. "There was," Maj Whittaker wrote, "no arrogance about him [Himmler]. He was a cringing figure who knew the game was up."
From a Medical Officer's point of view, Capt Wells was upset by the hamfisted way in which the whole situation was being handled. He felt that the examination was starting off on the wrong foot. "This was an important matter and I knew, or thought I knew, that Himmler would be wanted for evidence almost more than any other of the Nazi criminals. I also felt that this was a monstrous request. Why should I, as a doctor, be considered in any special way more qualified to discover poison than, say, a coal miner, a member of parliament or Colonel Murphy himself, red tabs and all? He at least was a policeman.
"I turned to the colonel and said, perhaps a little firmly: 'I am a doctor, not a detective.' It may have been the way I said it. It may have been that in the semi-darkness he could not see that I was an older man than he, or it may have been that he could not realise quickly enough that I was not speaking as an officer to a superior officer but as a man with a professional training to a layman."
Whatever the Colonel thought, he turned to Capt Wells and said curtly: "You will do as you are told."
The prisoner - Himmler - had been taken to the octagonal front room of the Victorian-style villa in which the search was to take place. The room was bare of any furniture and the windows were wide open. A sentry was posted inside the door, covering the prisoner with a rifle.
Dr Wells recalled: "As I came into the room, he was being ordered to strip. This was too much for me. Now we were properly on the wrong foot. There he stood shivering far more from physical exposure than from fear, though fear too was obviously present in the mind of this suspicious and superstitious man.
"One could feel his mind working. If this was the way the British were going to treat him - well, what was the good? There was no hereafter. And this was just the consummation that I wanted to stop, that I presume Austin wanted to stop and that the Colonel's future reputation should have wanted to stop.
"Over and above all this I felt, maybe wrongly sometimes, that anyone who has held, or is holding, high office, however rotten he may be, and again more especially when he is a beaten enemy, should be treated with a reasonable courtesy. What were we doing at the moment but treating him as we supposed he would have treated us if the position had been reversed? Could I retrieve the situation? Could I give him the confidence that at any rate for the moment he would be treated generously?"
This patient-doctor relationship was one that was utmost in Dr Wells's mind. As he later told me, with his ingenuous charm: "You see, Paul, we were not cruel. All I was concerned with at that moment was that he was under my care; my patient, if you like."
Wells told Murphy that he wished to examine the prisoner alone. He ordered the windows to be shut and threw a blanket over Himmler's shoulders. The "goofy corporal" (Dr Wells's description) was ordered to leave the room. Contrary to all other accounts that were to appear after the event, there were now only three men in the room: Himmler, Capt Wells and Sgt Maj Austin.
Though it had been presumed (quite wrongly) that Himmler did not understand English, as a precaution Capt Wells adopted a whisper to ask Sgt Maj Austin why poison was suspected. The sergeant explained that, although he did not know exactly what the poison was, some captured prisoners had been discovered to be carrying it in their clothes. Just a few days previously, SS Obergruppenführer Prutzmann, commander of the Werwolf Nazi resistance movement, had crushed a poison phial in his mouth and died instantly. Clearly something like this must not be allowed to happen again.
It was Sgt Maj Austin who had suggested, after the Prutzmann episode, that the safest way to avoid such an outcome was to knock a prisoner out with a sandbag and search him before he regained consciousness. He had even prepared a sandbag, should it be necessary, for future prisoners, but the idea was abandoned as not being acceptable to the spirit of the Geneva Convention.
By now, Himmler was standing naked in the centre of the room. Wells began his examination, leaving the mouth until last. In his account, the doctor observed to his wife that Himmler had delicate hands and that "his finger nails were cut to a point, which in a man I have always coupled, probably quite wrongly, with sex perversion".
Before taking up medicine, Dr Wells had qualified as a dentist, and he was fascinated by Himmler's teeth which he was able to see clearly when the Sergeant Major shone a bright light into the prisoner's mouth. "They were goodish teeth with a certain number of gold fillings and some small round amalgam ones in the fissures of his molars, the cups of which were rather unduly flattened, I thought. But what I did see was a small blue tit-like object sticking out of the lower sulcus [groove] of his left cheek. That was something abnormal. That more likely was it [the poison]."
Wells's concern was not that he had seen the capsule, but whether Himmler realised that he had. Had his eyes given him away? Himmler had been watching him intently throughout the examination. To carry on the deception, the doctor shook his head negatively at Austin and added nonchalantly that to satisfy everyone he would do the examination again. Himmler remained immobile and impassive.
The doctor began his examination all over again, starting with the feet and ending up with the face. He was determined to get his finger into Himmler's mouth when he was least expecting it and to flick out the capsule. Then came the moment of truth: Himmler must have realised it was all too late and bit the doctor's finger.
In the aftermath of the suicide, when Capt Wells was trying artificial resuscitation, he also called for a cardiac stimulant. One of the officers waiting outside the room tried to telephone Rear HQ - but the telephone did not work. Finally, a messenger was sent down to Rear HQ. A party was going on in the officers' mess, and when the messenger appeared in a distressed state and gasped "Must have cardiac stimulant", the revelling officers thought it was a huge joke and answered "Come and have a drink, old man." It took the soldier several minutes to convince them he really did want a cardiac stimulant - and why.
When Capt Wells pronounced Himmler dead, the room, he wrote, was suddenly filled with a dozen officers who seemed to appear from nowhere. He noticed that Col Murphy was not among them; he was, he was told, in the lavatory vomiting.
"I went to him and from the outside of the lavatory door inquired tenderly of him. He replied gruffly that he was all right, which of course was quite untrue. I hated him - arrogant little pup. If he didn't let me in, I'd kick the door down. I returned to the room to be shortly followed by the colonel, now with a pea green tinge to his complexion."
Before rigor mortis began to set in, the body was dressed in the army shirt and trousers that Himmler had arrived in and covered in a blanket. The corpse was then propped up with pillows for the official pictures to be taken. The Reichsfuhrer's glasses were rescued from Sgt Maj Austin's pocket and put back on Heinrich Himmler's nose. He looked such an ordinary little man.
In his diary, Maj Whittaker recorded that "Jimmie the dentist wanted to take out a couple of teeth as souvenirs but I said 'No'. A good thing, as various doctors and dentists came to take measurements. What a party! Himmler cannot have been photographed as much before. Major GR Atkins prepared the death mask, which is still kept at the Royal Dental Corps Museum at Aldershot."
It was no party for Wells. "Of what interest could it be to me whether they took photographs of the incident or not and from what position if any? How could they realise that to a doctor the death of a person and its consequences, however important, can never mean as much as saving a life? I suddenly felt tired. Where their interest was starting mine had ended.
"As I went towards the door, Brigadier Williams A/Q and BGS [Assistant Quartermaster and Brigadier, General Staff] arrived. This seemed to me like a breath of fresh air. He was a man who represented the very best type of regular soldier and, believe me, this is saying a great deal. A person you could trust and would instinctively follow. As I told him once more the story of what had happened, for the first time I felt as if I had let the side down.
"He would have none of it and spoke comforting words. It was a very good thing that the country should be saved the expense of a long legal investigation into the unending crimes of at least one Nazi criminal, and I have no doubt that he was right. All the same, I felt - but it does not really matter what I did feel."
As Capt Wells left the villa he was met by "a little man with the green beret of the Intelligence Corps". He invited the doctor to his office and offered him a whisky and water. As they chatted, the "little man" told Wells that certain German parachute troops had been dropped behind Allied lines; when captured, they had suddenly fallen down dead. On their bodies had been found small glass capsules with traces of many times the lethal dose of prussic acid. Wells found this information most illuminating; it might, he commented, have been better if he had had it two hours earlier. He returned to his room and went to bed.
"Sleep would not come, my legs were far too cold and my mind roved again round the events of the night," he wrote. "If I had placed Himmler up against the wall so that he could not have drawn away. If I had hit him hard in the solar plexus, or delivered a fierce upper cut a la Jack Johnson [the former world heavyweight boxing champion] before I started the examination.
"As the grey dawn drove away that black night, I put on my clothes and went for a walk. St John, describing his vision on the Island of Patmos, saw a new heaven and a new earth, old things had passed away, and all things had become new, and there was no more war, neither sorrow nor crying. In 1918, I had hoped just that; more, I believed it. Now I still hoped, but I found it mighty difficult to believe."
Himmler's corpse remained on the floor of the front parlour throughout 24 May. When the autopsy was completed, the body was wrapped in a couple of army blankets and two army camouflage nets and finally tied into a bundle with telephone wire.
There was much consternation as to what to do with the corpse (observers from the American and Soviet armies had been requested to view the body). To prevent any chance of neo-Nazis making pilgrimages to the burial site in the future, the Allies were determined that its whereabouts should remain un-known. In his diary, Maj Whittaker writes that he received a message from Col Murphy telling him to "put the body under the earth in the morning. As few as possible to know the location."
The major recorded his grim mission: "Took the body out in a truck for its last ride. Hell of a job to find a lonely spot. Anyhow, we [Whittaker and Austin] did find one and threw the old basket into the hole which we had dug."
In 1946, a report reached the War Office that the grave had been discovered, and although he had retired from the Army, Maj Whittaker was sent to the forest outside Luneburg to check if the grave had indeed been located. He reported back that the ground had not been disturbed. Both Maj Whittaker and Sgt Maj Austin took the secret of the whereabouts of Himmler's grave to their deaths.
As planned, Capt Wells did go back to England on leave the day after Himmler's suicide. He and his wife had booked into the Great Western Hotel at Paddington and celebrated by going to the theatre. When the doctor returned to the hotel, following an announcement on the BBC about Himmler's suicide, he found the entrance to the hotel besieged by reporters waiting to interview him. He was astonished, and bemused, to find that he was now a celebrity.
THE CELEBRITY was not to last. Jimmie Wells was demobbed later that year. Like thousands of other former servicemen, he was restless. He sold up his private practice, took a position as a ship's doctor and made several trips to the Mediterranean and West Indies before becoming medical officer to the staff of the county hospitals in Oxfordshire.
He was not an obviously religious man, but Dr Wells's friends were not surprised when, at the age of 70, he entered the church. Speaking to me once about his years in the army, he had told me: "The soldiers knew that as a doctor I would look after them if they were wounded. But they also knew that I would help them with their spiritual problems. Believe me, knowing that they were looked after in both ways, made them better fighting soldiers."
On 15 August 1975, after a series of minor strokes, Wells died, with dignity and at peace with the world. Himmler, the evil man who had propelled Wells into history, lies in an unmarked grave near Luneburg. Wells, gregarious and the soul of decency, lies buried in the Saxon church of St Mary's in Northleigh amid wild flowers and neat green grass - and within earshot of the golden peal of the church bells.
© Focal Point 2010 write to David Irving