Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Real Name: Rudolf Walter Richard Hess
Case: Mistaken Identity/Suspicious Death
Location: Scotland; Berlin, Germany
Date: May 10, 1941; August 17, 1987


Details: Rudolf Hess was a Third Deputy of the Third Reich, marking him as the third most powerful man in Germany, behind Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering in Hitler's Nazi Regime of war-torn 1940s Germany. On May 10, 1941, Hess told his wife that he planned to fly to Berlin for an important meeting and that he would be home in three days. At 5:45pm, Hess flew a solo flight from Bavaria to England in a Messerschmitt 110B. The plane had the serial numbers 1545 and the letters NJ C11 were on its side. It was tracked by German radar and defense controllers across Germany and occupied Europe. Reportedly, Hess was supposed to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to negotiate a truce.
Four-and-a-half hours later, the plane was picked up on British radar heading towards Scotland. At 11pm, his plane ran out of fuel and crashed in Scotland. Initially identifying himself as Alfred Horn, he requested to meet the Duke of Hamilton, a member of British parliament who lived in the area. He carried no identification; however, he was wearing the uniform of a Luftwaffe officer. The next morning, he met with the Duke of Hamilton, who was serving as an officer in the Royal Air Force. During the meeting, he stated that he was actually Hess. The Duke was ultimately convinced that the man was Hess.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained suspicious; he sent Ivone Kirkpatrick, a diplomat who knew Hess personally, to meet with the prisoner. He also was convinced that the man was Hess. Skeptics are dubious to the fact that this could have been Hess since his crashed plane had different markings (VJ or NJOQ) than the plane he had departed Germany in (NJ C11) and that the plane that had crashed had actually come from Berlin. The original marking were confirmed based on photographs and an airport assistant's logbook.
Furthermore, Hess was an experienced pilot; however, the man that flew to Scotland made several elementary mistakes. He approached the British coast at the ideal height to be intercepted by radar, rather than under it. He also "power dived" using far too much fuel. He then flew at only fifty feet across the Scottish borders. This would allow people on the ground to easily track him. Once captured, he claimed that he was born in 1899, then 1897, even though Hess was born in 1894. Some believe that the man was a double that Hess used for security reasons; other members of the Nazi elite allegedly also used doubles.
Churchill refused to meet with Hess and had him arrested as a prisoner-of-war. A few days later, he attempted suicide. Intelligence officers and psychiatrists continually interrogated him. He claimed amnesia and refused to answer the questions. In 1945, he was brought home to Germany for the beginning of the Nuremberg trials. During his trial, he was forced to meet with two of his former secretaries. Officials hoped that this confrontation would jog his memory. However, he claimed that he did not recognize them. When one of his secretaries showed him a picture of his son, he claimed that he did not recognize him. However, the secretaries still believed that the man was Hess.
In 1946, Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau Prison, a converted fortress in West Berlin. The prison was jointly administered by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. One by one, the six other Nazi prisoners either died or were released. Hess had his freedom blocked by a Soviet veto. By 1966, he was Spandau's only prisoner, at a cost of over $1 million per year. He spent a great amount of time in the prison garden. He rarely conversed with the prison guards.
By the late 1960s, Hess's health began to deteriorate. Even so, he refused to see his wife and son for several years. He told them that the surroundings at the prison were too poor for a visit to take place. In December 1969, when Hess's health became critical, he finally agreed to meet with his family. It had been nearly three decades since his wife and son had seen him. When they met, Hess remained distant. During the visit, they were not allowed to touch each other or discuss Hess's past. Although his voice sounded lower in pitch, Hess's wife still believed that the man was her husband. His son also believed that the man was his father. He also felt that his father was keeping some secret from them.
In September 1973, a British surgeon named Hugh Thomas made a detailed physical examination of Hess. Thomas had earlier studied Hess's medical records and expected to find scars from bullet wounds that Hess had received during the first World War. However, he found no scars or bullet wounds on the man's body. There was also no evidence of an operation. At West Germany's Berlin Document Center, Thomas found Hess's World War One military records. One of the records stated that Hess had received a flu shot through the lung, but there was no evidence of this on the man's body.
At 2:30pm on August 17, 1987, ninety-three-year-old Hess went out for his daily walk in his beloved prison garden. During his morning exercise, the American guard that was supposed to watch him became distracted. A few minutes later, the guard found him lying on the floor of a nearby garden shed. An electrical cord was wrapped around his neck. The official inquiry declared that he had committed suicide.
Almost immediately, however, there were allegations that Hess had been murdered. A former guard noted that Hess could hardly open his hands due to rheumatic arthritis. He also allegedly could not raise his arms above shoulder level. This would have made it practically impossible for him to have hung himself. Both the cable that caused his death and the shed were ordered destroyed on the specific orders of the British military governor. At an autopsy requested by his family, a coroner found deep bruises and evidence of a possible struggle. These findings were inconsistent with the ruling of suicide.
Interestingly, the official British file on the Hess affair was supposed to be released to the public in 1971. However, in that year, only certain portions were released. The rest will not be released until 2016.
Many people including Hess' surviving son believe that he was murdered. Some, including Hugh Thomas, are still convinced that the prisoner at Spandau was not even Hess. The mysteries surrounding Hess remain unsolved.
Suspects: Hugh Thomas believes that Hess's rival Heinrich Himmler may have been involved in sending over a double for Hess. Hess had come to power mainly by being one of the first of Hitler's loyal supporters. His position was a threat to Himmler, who aspired to gain control of all of the Reich. In early 1941, Hitler's inner circle, which included Himmler, planned on invading the Soviet Union. Hess, however, stated that they should have a good relationship with England before they attacked. He secretly tried to contact members of British parliament to complete this.
Thomas suspects that Himmler planned to kill Hess and send the double to England. After the double started negotiations, Himmler planned on finishing them and taking the credit. Himmler also apparently was close to several Nazi sympathizers that were involved in British parliament. Hitler was apparently unaware of this. These sympathizers plotted to depose Churchill and make their own, separate peace with Germany. However, since Churchill did not agree to meet with "Hess", Himmler's plan failed.
Some believe that the alleged double was murdered because he would expose the truth about Himmler's plot and the British Nazi sympathizers.
Extra Notes: This segment first ran on Unsolved Mysteries in the November 1, 1989 episode.
Results: Unresolved. In 2011, Hess's remains were exhumed, cremated, and then scattered at sea by his family members. In a 2012 report, it was determined that a suicide note found with Hess may have actually been written by him while he was hospitalized in 1969. However, the British government still considers this case closed.
In January 2019, DNA testing proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the man who reportedly took his life at Spandau Prison was indeed the real Rudolf Hess. A blood sample from the prisoner was located and compared to that of Hess's living relatives. The results showed with 99.99% certainty that the man was Hess. However, questions and suspicions about his death remain unanswered.