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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own