The Independent Archive: 11 August 1988 - Reign of silence at the Foreign Office

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The Independent Culture
11 August 1988

Hugh Thomas, a surgeon, argues that the Rudolf Hess who died in August 1987 was an impostor, and the Government is engaged in a cover-up

IN HIS continuing battle to establish that the last inmate of Spandau jail, Prisoner No 7, was not Rudolf Hess but an impostor, the Welsh surgeon Hugh Thomas has written to Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, dismissing the Government's latest attempt to refute his claim as "astoundingly naive" and "fabricated nonsense".

He believes the real Hess was shot down on the night of 10 May 1941 as he tried to fly to Scotland, and that an impostor came in another aircraft from Denmark. The architect of the deception was Himmler, who had been watching Hess's attempts to open peace negotiations with England: on the night, he had Hess shot down and sent in the double with the aim of making peace on his own terms.

The scheme collapsed because the British realised that the lone pilot was not Hess. The unexpected arrival put Churchill in a difficult position. He did not know where the real Hess was or what had happened. Thomas insists that, although it was forgivable to conceal the truth in wartime, there was no reason to do so once peace had come. As for the persistence of the conspiracy until now, he concludes that the Government cannot bring itself to admit that a grotesque mistake was made.

Thomas's key evidence concerns the wound suffered by the real Hess in August 1917, when he was shot through the left lung by a rifle bullet. The injury put him in hospital for four months, and ended his career in the infantry; it is authenticated by military records and by Hess's own letters, which describe it as "a clean through-shot, in beneath the left shoulder and out through the back".

Thomas himself examined the prisoner in Berlin during 1973, and was astonished to find no sign of any such injury. When he asked what had happened to the war wounds - "Weren't they even skin deep?" - the prisoner turned chalk-white and began to shake so violently that Thomas feared he might have a heart attack. All he replied was, "Zu spat, zu spat" ("Too late, too late").

After the man's death, in August 1987, two post-mortem reports, one British, one German, confirmed the absence of internal damage: the lungs showed minor scarring caused by TB, but not the track of dead tissue that a bullet would have left.

In the crucial matter of external scars, the reports differed. Dr J.M. Cameron, the British army pathologist, recorded "an old scar on the left side of the chest". The Munich pathologist Dr Wolfgang Spann reported two scars in the same spot. The history of these is well known. They were made on the night of 4 February 1945 in Abergavenny, when the prisoner pulled a fold of skin away from his chest and pushed a bread-knife through it. He pretended that he had tried to stab himself in the heart, but the damage was superficial.

In an attempt to make the Government face what he considers unassailable medical evidence, Mr Thomas enlisted the help of Dr David Owen, who wrote to the Foreign Secretary asking for an explanation. In his reply, Sir Geoffrey Howe maintains that the twin knife scars inflicted in 1945 had disappeared by the time the prisoner died. This, according to Thomas, is directly disproved by the evidence of Dr Spann.

Sir Geoffrey claims that the "old scar" recorded by Dr Cameron was identified in 1979 by an anonymous "specialist in wound ballistics" as being the result of the First World War rifle bullet. "What seems to escape the Foreign Office," says Thomas, "is that, if a rifle bullet had gone into Hess's chest at the point described by Cameron, it would have hit his heart and killed him."

Thomas now appears to be gaining support on other fronts. In a review of Thomas's book (Hess: a tale of two murders) in the Spectator, the Cambridge historian John Zametica wrote that Thomas's claim "will now be very difficult to challenge", and that the conclusion reached by Thomas is "inescapable: the last prisoner of Spandau was Hess's double, his Doppelganger."

From 'The Independent', Thursday