Storming the Eagle’s Nest – Hitler’s War in the Alps
From the Fall of France in June 1940 to Hitler’s suicide in April 1945, the swastika flew from the peaks of the High Savoy in the western Alps to the passes above Ljubljana in the east. The Alps as much as Berlin were the heart of the Third Reich.
‘Yes,’ Hitler declared of his headquarters in the Bavarian Alps, ‘I have a close link to this mountain. Much was done there, came about and ended there; those were the best times of my life . . . My great plans were forged there.’
With great authority and verve, Jim Ring tells the story of how the war was conceived and directed from the Fuhrer’s mountain retreat, how all the Alps bar Switzerland fell to Fascism, and how Switzerland herself became the Nazi’s banker and Europe’s spy centre. How the Alps in France, Italy and Yugoslavia became cradles of resistance, how the range proved both a sanctuary and a death-trap for Europe’s Jews – and how the whole war culminated in the Allies’ descent on what was rumoured to be Hitler’s Alpine Redoubt, a Bavarian mountain fortress.
Meanwhile, for its design centre and head ofﬁce, Messerschmitt AG had settled on the 2,746-foot Alpine resort of Oberammergau. This was conveniently located in the Oberbayern region of the Bavarian Alps, just sixty miles south of Augsburg, ﬁfty south- west of Munich.
It was a resort of much Alpine charm, a medieval village where the houses were graced with the Luftmalerei frescos that were such a feature of Berchtesgaden. There was also a tradition of woodcarving.
Here, an existing military emplacement could form the nucleus for the HQ. This was a barracks of the signals section of the Ist Mountain Regiment, the Gebirgs-Nachrichten- Abteilung 54. Overlooking a meadow and close to a pine forest, the surrounding peak of the 4,403-foot Kofel and dozens of higher peaks in the locality made it a very difﬁcult target to Allied bombers — even if the RAF and USAAF intelligence staff discovered it was there.
By way of cover, the HQ was given the suitably bland name of the Upper Bavarian Research Institute. As to the symbolism of Oberammergau, this the authorities ignored.
In 1633 the villagers had made a public vow. Should the bubonic plague raging in the region pass them by, they would stage in perpetuity a play of Christ’s life. Oberammergau went sufficiently untouched for the villagers to believe they had been spared, and a great tradition was gradually established. Beginning in 1634, every ten years the villagers staged the Passion Play.
Admission fees were instituted in 1790, package tours using the new railway line from Munich in 1870, and by 1930 the play was attracting something approaching half a million visitors from all over the world. In 1934, Hitler himself had attended the celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the ﬁrst performance. He was not enthusiastic. The play revealed, he declared, ‘the muck and mire of Jewry’.
Nine years later it was said that he felt the Passion Play theatre was peculiarly appropriate for armaments production, so — loosely — inverting the principle of turning swords into ploughshares.
The inhabitants of the village were naturally more cautious about their Christian resort cum shrine being turned into an armaments factory. None were more so than the mayor, Alfred Bierling. A local man who had himself performed in the play, he was determined to stand up for the Catholic traditions of the village.
When the dispersal scheme was ﬁrst mooted, a number of arms manufacturers had expressed interest in the Passion Play theatre. This was a building dating from 1890, originally capable of holding an audience of 4,000, in 1930 enlarged.
BMW was amongst the enthusiastic bidders. The Munich works of the ﬁrm supplied engines for a number of the Luftwaffe’s ﬁghters and bombers. These included the rival of the Bf 109, the Focke- Wulf 190, together with prototype versions of the Me 262 itself. Bierling managed to discourage BMW, arguing that ‘the theater is in its way a house of God; similarly, they could seize and desanctify a church’. He failed with Messerschmitt AG, perhaps on account of Hitler’s own inﬂuence.
By the autumn of 1943 there were already 1,000 Messerschmitt workers in the village; by the time of Speer’s crisis meeting with Hitler in May 1944, 3,000. Work had by then begun on a twenty- three-mile complex of tunnels that would comprise production facilities that included sub-assemblies for the Me 262.
On the design side Messerschmitt was working on the variants of the Me 262 that Hitler had recently insisted on, turning it from a ﬁghter into a light bomber; on the Me 264, a four-engine bomber with a range to reach New York; on the Me 323, a six-engine heavy transport; on the Me 163 rocket-powered ﬁghter; and on the Me P1101, a variable-sweep-wing ramjet ﬁghter. It was a portfolio of futuristic projects that might well have excited the jealousy of Boeing, creators of that icon of US military power, the B-17 Flying Fortress.