No one in America watched the drift to war in Europe in 1939 with more frustration and concern than President Franklin Roosevelt.
The appeasement policies of Britain and France, shaped by the slaughter in the trenches a generation earlier, had merely encouraged rather than deterred Adolf Hitler. The Nazi regime was bent on war—that much was obvious to the White House even if in London, in the spring of that year, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain still clung to the belief that somehow the Fuhrer would yield to peaceful diplomacy.
It was equally obvious to Roosevelt that he had limited room for manoeuvre as he sought to bolster those European nations opposed to Hitler. Opinion polls showed eighty percent of Americans were against any involvement in another European war, a sentiment which was reflected across the politician divide in Congress.
Defying his own Secretary of War, Harry H. Woodring, an ardent isolationist, President Roosevelt ordered a massive aircraft production program in 1938 with the stated aim of strengthening US defences but with the less publicized objective of supplying light bombers to France.
Fearing Nazi penetration of Latin America, Roosevelt also announced a plan for “hemispheric defence” involving a collective security declaration for all nations in the Americas—something with which the isolationists could hardly argue.
Looking back at those frantic months as the world lurched towards war in early 1939, one only wishes Franklin Roosevelt had known of a covert initiative put to the British government which, if authorized and successfully implemented, would certainly have prevented the outbreak of war that year and changed the history of the 20th century.
For in March 1939, the British government was secretly presented with two credible opportunities to halt Nazi aggression in Europe.
The first was a plan to have the War Office launch an immediate pre-emptive attack on the Nazi regime by way of a naval blockade of the German North Seaports.
Hitler would be caught off guard, so the thinking went. The Wehrmacht’s best armoured divisions were mostly scattered across Eastern Czechoslovakia after the invasion of that country early that month. Germany was a net importer of food, oil and raw materials although the resources made available after Hitler’s land grab in the east would soon alter that.
Despite the weakened state of his armed forces due to the murderous purges of the officer class, Stalin would surely be tempted to join in a war against his most dangerous enemy. Thus Hitler would be faced with a nightmare that his generals feared most—a two front war against armies to the East and West.
This was the logic behind a plan that was dismissed as irresponsible war mongering by a government in London intent on appeasing Hitler at all costs.
The second plan was more straightforward and a great deal more practical; the assassination of Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday, April 20, while reviewing a military parade in the centre of Berlin. The reviewing stand on the main east-west avenue in the city was just 100 metres from the windows of the British military attaché’s first floor apartment.
It was an easy rifle shot, so the plan went. The noise of the parade and the cheering of the crowds would mask the location of the sniper. By the time the Gestapo worked out who had killed the Fuhrer, the Wehrmacht would have moved against the Nazi regime. The Prussian officer class in the army command had long been distrustful of, and distrusted by, Adolf Hitler. This would be their opportunity.
The man who fiercely argued the case for both plans to Neville Chamberlain’s government was the military attaché himself. Colonel Noel Mason-MacFarlane was a decorated veteran of the First War, an excellent shot and a man who saw all too clearly what Downing Street refused to recognize: that Hitler was bent on war and that the government’s appeasement policy, always a failure, had now become an actual incentive for conflict.
In 1938, Mason-MacFarlane had taken up his post in Berlin the previous year and quickly made his views on appeasement known. The Nazi leadership was a group of gangsters who had gulled an entire nation with racist propaganda and expansionist claptrap as far as the attaché was concerned.
The British ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson, was both an enthusiastic proponent of the “do nothing to offend Hitler” thinking in London and friendly with leading Nazi figures such as Goering whose invitations to the opera or to shooting weekends he would eagerly accept. It was inevitable that the ambassador fell out with his new attaché from the moment they met.
Such was the animosity between the two men that after the war Mason-MacFarlane revealed he had been forced to deceive his ambassador and smuggle a briefing document into the British diplomatic bag at Templehof airport. The document, sent to the Foreign Office with a copy to the War Office on March 28, 1939, argued the case for an immediate pre-emptive war against the Nazi regime.
Although German rearmament had proceeded apace in the thirties, breaking the terms of The Treaty of Versailles, the one area in which Britain still held the advantage was naval power. The great German battle ships, Tirpitz and Bismarck, had yet to enter service and the Royal Navy heavily outnumbered the German Kriegsmarine in ships and firepower.
Mason-Macfarlane argued that a blockade of the German ports would be enough to force Hitler to go to war at a time when he was least prepared and militarily and economically vulnerable.
In London, the military attaché’s document crossed various Foreign Office desks, no doubt to the amazement of their occupants, before it reached the pinnacle of mandarin authority, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary. The noble lord dismissed the idea with contempt.
However at that point, at the end of March 1939, Mason-MacFarlane’s radical views attracted the attention of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by Sir Stewart Menzies. Mason-MacFarlane was called to London and it is there that he presented his carefully worked out plan for the assassination of Hitler.
The details were simple and compelling. On April 20, Hitler’s 50th birthday, the Fuhrer would mount the reviewing stand on Berlin’s main avenue at 11a.m. in the morning. With a high-powered rifle Mason-MacFarlane would place himself on the landing of his apartment, 30 feet from the bathroom window to avoid muzzle flash and blanket the sound. Firing through the window, he would kill Hitler with a single head shot. As he said at the time, in remarks later reported by his biographer, it would have been “an easy rifle shot. I could pick the bastard off from here easy as winking.”
The Fuhrer’s birthday parade, organized by Joseph Goebbels, was to be the largest Nazi celebration city had seen. The parade would last for at least five hours. Every leading Nazi was to be present and would remain at Hitler’s side for several hours, all within sight of the British diplomat’s apartment.
Mason-MacFarlane argued that the risk of savage reprisals against British embassy staff should the Gestapo pinpoint the assassin would be nullified by a swift military coup that would remove the entire Nazi regime.
There was strength in this argument. British intelligence had learnt that the German chief of staff, General Franz Halder, had discussed with other Wehrmacht conspirators the idea of removing Hitler the previous autumn. Halder was said to have spoken of the Fuhrer as a criminal and a bloodsucker. By the spring of 1939 such plans had been put aside as the chief of staff and his senior officers busied themselves planning a short and brutal campaign to eliminate Poland.
But Mason-MacFarlane argued that with Hitler dead the chief of staff would certainly move against the heirs apparent to the Nazi leadership—Goering and Goebbels. Both men, especially the latter, were loathed by the German high command.
Sir Stuart Menzies was said to be “cautiously interested” in such unorthodox methods despite the code of gentlemanly conduct that had governed intelligence operations in the past.
Senior members of the cabinet were told of the plan and were swift in their dismissal. Lord Halifax summed up the official distaste for such action saying: “We have not reached that stage ... when we have to use assassination as a substitute for diplomacy.”
Behind those words lay the inner thinking of Chamberlain and his ministers. Conditioned by the social snobbery of those educated at the same schools, married to the same type of women and members of the same clubs, these were men who believed that Englishmen played the game and did not cheat.
The assassination of the German leader “would not be sportsmanlike behaviour” was the general view and it reflected the opinion that no gentleman would have suggested such a scurrilous act. The remark was made dismissively to Mason-MacFarlane who returned to Berlin to be told that he was to be replaced and given a staff posting back in the UK.
After 18 months in Berlin, the military attaché had effectively been sacked although his dismissal had been arranged, no doubt by an infuriated ambassador, even before the assassination plan reached Whitehall.
The removal of a military attaché from Berlin within months of the outbreak of war was comment enough on the poisonous atmosphere within the British embassy where Neville Henderson’s cosy relations with the Nazis had alienated many other staff and drawn trenchant criticism from sections of the British press.
The Gestapo were well aware of Mason-MacFarlane’s extreme hostility to the regime and had in fact been working to compromise him and force his removal for some time. In August 1938 a retired captain in a famous German cavalry unit held a long meeting with the attaché and revealed plans for a military coup in which he tried to involve the British diplomat.
Such crude agent provocateur tactics were easily avoided but there is no doubt that the Gestapo had singled out Mason-MacFarlane as a target for blackmail from the moment he arrived in Berlin.
Ironically Mason-MacFarlane remained in the capital long enough to attend the very military parade at which he intended to shoot Hitler. Goebbels ordered a photographic record of all those present at the birthday parade to be given in a bound volume as a gift to his beloved Fuhrer. Bemedalled with many honours, including the French Croix de Guerre, Mason-MacFarlane was captured on the reviewing stand scowling ferociously at the camera.
There the story might well have ended. But the publication of British Foreign Policy documents by the Stationer’s Office in 1952 revealed the pre-war plans presented to Whitehall for a pre-emptive strike against Germany. In an interview in January the following year, Mason-MacFarlane, then seriously ill, also revealed for the first time how strongly he had urged the British government to seize a golden opportunity to assassinate Hitler.
General Mason-MacFarlane died that year, 1953, aged 63. In 1969 Spiegel magazine in Berlin gained access to the general’s papers in the Imperial War Museum in London and learnt of the assassination plan. The magazine interviewed his daughter, Mrs. Mona Hall, and reported how Chamberlain’s government had spurned the plan because “this would not be sportsmanlike behaviour.”
Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus, to be published by St Martins Press in New York on April 19, is a historical novel dedicated to General Mason-MacFarlane. His courage and vision inspired a story woven around the plan to assassinate Hitler in Berlin in 1939 and the Gestapo’s efforts to compromise the intended assassin.
James MacManus joined the Daily Express in Manchester as a trainee reporter in 1966 and moved to The Guardian in 1972, working first as a reporter in the London office and then as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and the Middle East for 12 years. In 1985 he joined the Diplomatic staff of the Daily Telegraph in London, before joining The Times in November 1992. He became Managing Director of The Times Literary Supplement in April 1997, a position he still holds.
In 2010 James’ first novel was published by Harper Collins in London. On the Broken Shore won critical acclaim and was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press in New York. His second book, Black Venus, was followed by Sleep in Peace Tonight. Midnight in Berlin is his fourth novel. For more information, visit His Website