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The Maxim Gorky, an enormous eight-engine Tupolev ANT-20, struck awe in those who watched its propaganda flights over Red Square (below). (Von Hardesty/NASM)

Despots Aloft

To the three most infamous dictators of the 20th century, the airplane was much more than a way to get from Stalag A to Gulag B.

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After several years of flying the Junkers Ju 52, the squadron happily made the transition to the new Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor in 1939. The Condors represented a new level of technology and comfort. Hitler’s personal Fw 200, christened the Immelmann III, entered service in late 1939.

Hitler’s Condor was highly modified: The interior of the fuselage was divided into two compartments, the forward compartment for the Führer, the aft section for staff and guests. Hitler’s compartment was fitted with a couch, a table, the Führersessel seat, and an altimeter, airspeed indicator, and clock.

During the war, the F.d.F. added an armed Fw 200 Condor that had been a maritime reconnaissance bomber. Bristling with gun turrets, the airplane had a cabin identical to that of the Immelmann III except that Hitler’s special seat was armor-plated and fitted with a parachute. A safe was installed for important documents and personal items. The airplane also had a lavatory and a small galley with a cupboard full of elegant china, crystal, and silverware, all adorned with the eagle and swastika.

The F.d.F. flew 13 armed Condors during World War II. For Hitler and his advisers, these special aircraft became an essential link to the outside world. To better match Hitler’s pattern of travel, the F.d.F. established a new airfield close to his headquarters: the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) at Rastenburg in East Prussia.

High security surrounded all flights of Hitler’s Condor during the war. This security screen was broken in 1943 when two talented German officers, Major General Henning von Tresckow and his close aide, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, fashioned a bizarre plot. Both men were part of a loose network of officers seeking to topple the regime. After the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad, these officers believed the only way to reverse the disastrous course of the war was to eliminate Hitler. Calling their plan Operation Flash, the conspirators plotted to place a time bomb on the Immelmann III when Hitler made a scheduled flight to Smolensk in March 1943.

Getting close to the Führer was no easy task. Hitler flew only occasionally to the front and often changed his itinerary with no advance notice. Security measures, routinely severe, were heightened whenever Hitler was on board. The airplane was always guarded by SS troops and escorted to its destination by a flotilla of fighters. Hitler also flew in the secure knowledge that his Führersessel sat atop an escape hatch through which he could theoretically parachute to safety.

Finding a suitable bomb posed another problem; existing German fuses emitted a hissing sound. The conspirators turned to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of Abwehr (German intelligence) and sympathetic to their cause. Canaris made available to Treschow several captured British bombs with great explosive power and silent fuses. Always thorough, Treschow tested several samples of the devices even as he studied purloined sketches of the aircraft’s interior. Meanwhile Schlabrendorff cleverly fashioned the bomb to fit into what looked like a package containing two brandy bottles.

On the morning of March 14, 1943, the plotters were ready to act. Treschow asked Colonel Heinz Brandt, a member of Hitler’s official party, if he would deliver a gift to General Helmuth Stieff, a mutual acquaintance. Brandt innocently agreed, never realizing that he would be putting his own life in jeopardy. Treschow and Schlabrendorff delivered the potent explosive package to Brandt at the airfield, and just before Schlabrendorff gave Brandt the package, he pressed on the package and crushed a vial filled with acid, which began to dissolve a wire holding the striker mechanism in place. The bomb was timed to explode in 30 minutes, about the time Hitler would be over Minsk.

Treschow and Schlabrendorff returned to their offices confident that a fiery crash would eliminate Hitler. Hours passed before reports arrived that Hitler had landed safely in Rastenburg. Schlabrendorff then made an arduous journey to retrieve the bomb from Brandt, telling him that Treschow had mistakenly given him the wrong bottles. Later, Schlabrendorff discovered that the striker mechanism had released properly, but the bomb had failed to detonate, probably because of the low temperature in the cargo hold. Although he never realized it, Hitler had survived his most perilous air journey.

Stalin’s Fear of Flying
Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin commuted from his dacha in the suburbs of Moscow to his office in the Kremlin in a heavily guarded motorcade. For rare travel beyond Moscow, he typically used an armored train with a large contingent of soldiers. He harbored a deep fear of flying and flew only once, to attend the 1943 Tehran conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt.

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