Back in the ’60s, when I was in the army, I was stationed in Berlin for two years.
This was at the height of the Cold War. Berlin was divided and the wall was up, but as part of the occupying army, we had right of access to the Eastern sector. My platoon commander, a driver and I would go on official reconnaissance trips into Communist-ruled East Berlin.
For a 19-year-old this was heady stuff. All the duties were done in “best bulled” kit and best number two dress. This means shiny boots, gleaming belt buckles, big hats and razor sharp creases in everything—even underwear. We had to maintain severe looks on our faces.
At that time the Berlin garrison was around 15,000 or 20,000 English, French and American troops, surrounded by 250,000 Russian and 150,000 East German soldiers. But the Russians had no hold on the Western Sector except for guard duty at the Russian war memorial and their turn at guarding high-ranking Nazis serving long sentences in the old Spandau prison.
We British, with our American and French allies, also took a turn at this guard duty—each nation doing three months in rotation. The prisoners included Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth, and Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who had flown to Britain in 1941 on a self-appointed “peace mission.”
The only one of the three I ever saw was Hess. The first time was when I was assigned to guard him while he was temporarily transferred to the British Military Hospital for treatment.
The platoon sergeant gave us our orders. “If anyone tries to get to, or do harm to Rudolph Hess at any time during our guardian duty of him they are to be incapacitated, stopped, put out of action, in or by any means at your disposal. If you have to shoot them you must shoot to kill.”
Protecting Hitler’s deputy
So here I was, an impressionable young man, under orders to protect, with my own life if necessary, Adolph Hitler’s right-hand man. Hess had an upstairs wing of the hospital to himself. To get to him anyone would be in the sights of the man at the top of the stairs—me!
I didn’t expect anyone to be stupid enough to take me on, but one medic didn’t quite understand. I shouted down the stairs “stand still,” but it wasn’t until I cocked my weapon that he knew I meant business.
At that moment Rudolph Hess walked across the corridor to the examination room, chained between two Royal Military Policemen.
For a moment I disobeyed orders and looked into the eyes of Rudolph Hess. We stared at each other for a few seconds. His look said it all: “You guard my life with yours, young man,” and then he was gone into the examination room. Only then we had to let the poor medic up, because he was carrying Hess’s medicine.
We also guarded Hess in the old prison in Spandau, taking our turns along with the Americans, Russians and French. The prisoners were not held in the main building of the prison, which was falling down. They had a purpose-built bungalow inside the grounds.
Spandau was a solitary place. Even with the bustling city all around, it was quiet. It had a large gate house and eight guard towers, with searchlights and, once again, we had live ammunition loaded in our weapons. It sounds like overkill—all this just to watch a few old men. But, even 20 years after the war had ended, these were high profile prisoners.
Feeling sorry for prisoners
Sometimes I felt sorry for them. When we or the Americans and French did guard duty they were allowed some home comforts. But we were not allowed to speak to them, or even make eye contact, unless it was strictly necessary.
Hess used to take great pleasure in getting us in trouble if he could. He would ask for chocolate and cigarettes, both of which he was allowed if he could get them. If one of us was stupid enough to give them to him he would then immediately report us, and we would end up in the guard house.
When the Russians took over guard duty, everything the prisoners had would be confiscated. And I mean everything. All that was left to them was a bed, a mattress and a blanket. No radio or books, not even a Bible.
During the time I was in Berlin, not once did I see or hear of the prisoners having any visitors—not family, not even a minister or priest. Letters from home were always a comfort to me, but they had none.
Eventually, as the other prisoners either died or were released, Hess and his guards were Spandau’s only inhabitants. It was a quiet, lonely place and always cold, dark and dour. The routine was only briefly relieved by flag waving, sword saluting and rifle presenting when we handed over to the Russians. Then it was back to severe looks, razor sharp creases and shiny boots—just to guard a lonely and bitter old man.
Now, thinking back 40 years, it was an experience I would not have missed for the world. Or would I? I was taken out of what remained of my childhood and youth and thrown into the adult world a little faster than I would have liked. Tanks, guns and all things military were my life for the next 20 years. As I grew older I grew wiser, and in my late 30s the hand of God reached out and I became a Christian. I left the army in 1986.
Could it have been different?
Rudolph Hess remained in Spandau until he died at the age of 92, in 1987. I often wonder how things would have been different if Rudolph Hess had reached out to his one and only true Savior.
God called me and I answered. I don’t think poor Rudolph Hess ever heard the call. Apparently he was an unrepentant Nazi to the end, professing loyalty to his failed Fuehrer and the awful regime he had served. He was once described as the loneliest man in the world.
At the time I would not have been allowed to contact him even if I had wanted to. And anyway, at that time I did not know God as I know him now—a God of mercy who is willing to forgive all sins and accept all repentant sinners.
I suppose Rudolph Hess died without knowing that. I am no theologian, and I don’t know exactly where that leaves him. But I do know where it leaves us. No matter who we are and what we are, we can always call out to the God whose love is broad and deep enough for everyone who looks to him for help. Yes, even the loneliest man in the world.
Bill Horton now lives in Birmingham, England.
Author: Bill Horton