The man who didn't shoot Hitler

Left: Hitler in uniform 1921-1924 | Public Domain. Right: Pte Henry Tandey Victoria Cross | public display at the Duke of Wellington's Regimental Museum, Halifax

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The date is 28 September 1918 and the First World War is in its final months. After a day of fighting near the French village of Marcoing, a wounded German Lance Corporal wanders into the crosshairs of a British soldier. In an act of compassion, the soldier lowers his weapon refusing to shoot the wounded German. A nod is exchanged between the two before the bedraggled German limps off out of sight. A life is spared, the life of Adolf Hitler.

That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again

Twenty years pass and the world is on the brink of war once again. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain meets Adolf Hitler at the Berghof, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps, in the hope of preventing another global conflict. During the visit, Chamberlain glances towards a picture depicting a scene from a battle at Menin crossroads in 1914, in which a soldier is seen carrying a wounded soldier on his back.

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Chamberlain asks the Fuhrer about the picture. Hitler informs him that the man depicted carrying the wounded soldier is Henry Tandey, the most decorated British private of the war and the man who had spared his own life on 28 September 1918 at Marcoing.

‘That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,’ Hitler supposedly said. ‘Providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.’

Hitler claimed to have recognised Tandey from a 1919 newspaper report of Tandey being awarded the Victoria Cross. Hitler cut out the picture of the decorated war hero and kept it. Then in 1937, a member of his staff Dr Otto Schwend, made him aware of the Menin painting, drawn by Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The Green Howards Regiment, Tandey’s regiment for the majority of the war, had the painting commissioned in 1923 and the soldier at the forefront of the picture was indeed said to be Tandey.

Hitler supposedly asked Chamberlain to send Tandey his thanks. Whether or not the British Prime Minister carried out his request is still up for historical debate, but either way, the story of Tandey sparing Hitler's life returned to Britain with Chamberlain and eventually found its way into the rumour mill.

When it reached the ears of Tandey himself, he acknowledged the fact he had spared soldiers on that day in 1918, declaring he had a code of conduct not to shoot the wounded. However, he could not specifically remember whether or not any of those people had been the Fuhrer himself.

According to them, I've met Adolf Hitler. Maybe they're right but I can't remember him,’ Tandey was quoted as saying to the Coventry Herald in August 1939.

Flash-forward a year and Tandey was interviewed again shortly after the Luftwaffe had bombed his home city of Coventry. This time he seemed a little surer. ‘I didn’t like to shoot at a wounded man but if I’d known who this corporal would turn out to be if he’d got off, I’d give ten years now to have five minutes clairvoyance then.’

At first glance, it would seem that the world might have been spared the horrors of another world war if Tandey had pulled the trigger on that fateful day in Marcoing. However, Tandey’s biographer Dr David Johnson believes that Henry’s comments here should be taken with a pinch of salt.

‘It must be remembered that this was a low point for the country and for Coventry, and Henry can be excused for feeling a little sorry for himself and emotional after the sights he had witnessed.’

Hitler’s claims about being spared by an Allied soldier cannot be verified.

Dr Johnson goes on to cast doubt over the whole incident with Hitler, writing in his 2014 book The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler, ‘How likely is it that Hitler could have recognised Henry…from a black-and-white newspaper photograph, which could not have been to the standards of today’s digital technology?’

Further doubt is cast when state records from that time confirm that Hitler was on leave from 25-27 September 1918. Therefore on the 28 September, he was likely to be returning to the front, leaving him some miles away from the battle itself.

Hitler’s regiment had also been transferred on 17 September from the Favreuil-Bapaume region to Wytschaete, some 50 miles north of Marcoing. So even if Hitler had returned promptly from leave on 28 September, his regiment was a long way from Tandey’s, making the chance encounter even less likely.

‘Hitler’s claims about being spared by an Allied soldier cannot be verified, let alone confirmed that it was Henry,’ Dr Johnson states. ‘The story therefore cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt.’ If that were the case then, why would Hitler make up such a story?

‘It's likely he chose that date because he knew Tandey had become one of the most decorated soldiers in the war,’ said Dr Johnson. ‘If he was going to have his life spared by a British soldier, who better than a famous war hero who had won a Victoria Cross, Military Medal and a Distinguished Conduct Medal in a matter of weeks? With his god-like self-perception, the story added to his own myth - that he had been spared for something greater, that he was somehow "chosen". His story embellished his reputation nicely.’

Whilst Hitler’s claims remain up for historical debate, the achievements of Henry Tandey certainly do not. Born in 1891 in Leamington, Warwickshire, Tandey enlisted in the army in 1910. He served in Guernsey and South Africa before fighting broke out in WW1. He fought in the Battle of Ypres in 1914, was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and again at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

Then in 1918, the 27-year-old earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and the Victoria Cross (the highest and most prestigious military award) in just a matter of weeks from August to September.

His VC citation described how on 28 September 1918 he displayed ‘conspicuous bravery and initiative during the capture of the village and the crossings at Marcoing’, describing how he knocked out a machine gun post before restoring a plank bridge ‘under a hail of bullets’. Along with eight others, he then became surrounded by 'an overwhelming number of Germans, and though the position was apparently hopeless, he led a bayonet charge through them, fighting so fiercely that 37 of the enemy were driven into the hands of the remainder of his company.’ He was wounded twice and refused to leave until the fight was won.

If history should remember anything about Henry Tandey and the date of 28 September 1918, it should be his remarkable and brave achievements for those are the only things about that day that are documented fact.