Philipp von Boeselager: German officer who took part in plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler

Philipp von Boeselager was haunted for most of his life by the fact that, as a 25-year-old lieutenant, he could have killed the man he recognised as a despot and a mass murderer, Adolf Hitler, but failed to do so. The Nazi leader was at most two feet away. "Ja, ich sehe immer noch Hitler . . . vor mir gehen und denke, hättest du ihn doch erschossen." ("Yes, I still see Hitler . . . in front of me and think, you should have shot him.")

It was 13 March 1943, Boeselager worked for Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, and on the Eastern Front things were not looking good. The Sixth Army had been destroyed at Stalingrad. Hitler arrived by plane and was due to eat with Kluge's officers in the Russian city of Smolensk. Originally, the intention had been to shoot Hitler during the meal. However, at the last minute, the Field Marshal, a wavering conspirator, called it off.

He had various reservations, including the consideration that other high-ranking officers might be killed in the likely chaos. There was also the thought that Heinrich Himmler or Hermann Goering, who were not present in Smolensk, would be able to take over immediately word got out that Hitler was dead and that this could lead to civil war. Boeselager obeyed orders and did not carry out the assassination. This was one of several planned attempts on the life of Hitler which culminated in the failed bomb plot of 20 July 1944 led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, after which many of the conspirators were executed.

Philipp von Boeselager was the fifth of nine children, born in 1917 at Burg Heimerzheim near Bonn. His aristocratic Catholic parents sent him to a Jesuit boarding school and on gaining his university matriculation in 1936, Philipp followed his older brother, Georg, into the 15th cavalry regiment. He was commissioned as a lieutenant on 1 September 1938, exactly a year before the outbreak of the Second World War.

His first wartime assignment was to lead a reconnaissance company into Poland. He took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and was severely wounded in December that year. But by early in 1942, he was back on active service, appointed Ordonnanzoffizier (aide-de-camp) to Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. Boeselager soon became aware of crimes being committed behind the German lines. In Maj-Gen Henning von Tresckow, Kluge's chief of staff, he found a sympathetic ear for his moral concerns. Tresckow was building up a group of officers (who included Stauffenberg) prepared to overthrow Hitler.

After the failed assassination of 1943, Boeselager was given the task by Treschow of obtaining explosive material for an attempt on Hitler's life to be made by Stauffenberg by planting a bomb at Hitler's headquarters Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) in East Prussia. He chose a captured English device because its fuse was silent. Boeselager took the explosive in a suitcase to Wolf's Lair, where he handed it over to a fellow conspirator, Maj-Gen Helmuth Stieff.

Shortly before the assassination attempt on 20 July, Boeselager was on his way to Brest-Litowsk with 1,000 cavalrymen, who remained ignorant of their true mission. In the event of the plot being successful, from there they were to go by plane to Berlin's main airport, Tempelhof, to help seize control of the capital. Hidden in a bag under a table at Wolf's Lair, the bomb exploded, but the solid leg of the table absorbed much of the blast, and Hitler was only slightly injured. As the putsch failed, Boeselager's troops were returned to the front.

The plotters were ruthlessly tracked down by the Gestapo, tortured, ridiculed in show trials and executed. Boeselager took to carrying a cyanide capsule in his mouth, but those of his comrades who knew of his resistance activities kept quiet. Kluge used his capsule, Stauffenberg was shot, Tresckow blew himself up, Stieff was hanged. Boeselager's brother Georg, also a plotter, died in action. Involved in heavy fighting during the long retreat, Philipp von Boeselager was promoted to major and, already the holder of several medals, in 1944 was awarded the coveted Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross). When the war ended, he was commanding a cavalry regiment in Austria.

Aged 28 at the war's end, he took up the study of economics and in 1948 married a fellow economics graduate and aristocrat, Rosa Maria von Westphalen; they went on to have four children. Boeselager worked on his family estate and attempted to represent the interests of the agricultural communities of Rhineland-Palatinate. However, his long years in uniform, and his very survival, drew him back to the military.

When the new West German armed forces were being established in 1955, he offered his services. He was invited to join the committee vetting former officers of the Wehrmacht who had volunteered for the new armed forces, the Bundeswehr. He served until the committee was disbanded in 1957. As a reservist lieutenant-colonel, he took part in manoeuvres with the Bundeswehr, Nato and with the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the Federal Intelligence Service.

Boeselager was increasingly recognised for his anti-Hitler activities. Along with Gerhard Schröder, Jacques Chirac, George Bush and leaders from 16 states, he took part in 2004 in the meeting celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy. Earlier that year, Boeselager had been appointed an officer of the Légion d'honneur. He received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his work in forestry.

Boeselager was curious about the film Valkyrie, due out next year, which stars Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg. "It's good that at last Hollywood has taken up 20 July 1944," he said. "They should have done it sooner." Up until his death, he kept the Walther PP pistol he was supposed to have shot Hitler with.

David Childs

Philipp von Boeselager, soldier: born Burg Heimerzheim, Germany 6 September 1917; married 1948 Rosa Maria von Westphalen (two sons, two daughters); died Altenahr, Germany 1 May 2008.

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