The deafening explosion that lit up the night sky over Tehran in the early hours of December 1, 1943, was heard across the Iranian capital. It would surely have been noticed by Winston Churchill, a notorious light sleeper, over in the British Embassy, although he might not have immediately realised its grim significance.
The previous night had been a late one as he had thrown a spectacularly boozy party to celebrate his 69th birthday at which he’d ended up, said a witness, ‘dancing a gay and abandoned hornpipe’ in front of his guests, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin.
The ‘Big Three’ Allied leaders were meeting in the city for the first time to thrash out the details of the final push against the Nazis.
Pictured: Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (left), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (middle), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (pictured right), pose for the press at the Tehran Conference of November 28-December 1,1943
But the historic Tehran Conference could so easily have been their last according to a new book on Hitler’s Operation Long Jump, an audacious attempt by Nazi assassins to infiltrate the critically-important Allied summit and kill its three top leaders.
Aware that killing civilian leaders constituted a war crime, the Nazis excised the mission from their records and their memories. Western historians downplayed its significance, clashing with their Russian counterparts in dismissing many of the dramatic details as Soviet propaganda.
However, according to the U.S. historian Howard Blum, the Russians are not exaggerating and highly-trained German and renegade Russian commandos came ‘appallingly close’ to pulling off an outrage that would have altered the course of history. Blum cites new evidence from declassified archives of the former Allies — particularly those of the Soviet intelligence service — as well as the testimony of those directly involved, including Roosevelt and Churchill’s bodyguards.
As told by Blum in Night Of The Assassins, the operation — a convoluted tale full of stone-cold killers, double agents, double-crosses and blind courage — could have come straight out of a Hollywood war film, if it weren’t for the fact that the leading characters were Nazis rather than British or Americans.
It’s not disputed that after the Big Three leaders made clear they would only accept unconditional surrender, the Nazi command decided that only removing them could open the way for other politicians who might negotiate peace.
It was Churchill who had first made the Nazis realise that it might be possible to kill them all in one fell swoop when he confided in a speech in Quebec in August 1943 that he and FDR really wanted a meeting with Stalin.
Hitler demanded his intelligence chiefs make it their top priority to discover where that meeting would be. His preference was to kidnap them but his underlings dismissed this as impossible.
SS chief Heinrich Himmler, a great believer in the occult, even trawled concentration camps for reliable fortune tellers and crystal ball gazers who could offer clues.
The operation was put under the overall command of SS General Walter Schellenberg, a spy chief in the SS’s intelligence arm. He had led Operation Willi, a failed 1940 attempt to abduct the Duke of Windsor and persuade him to help Hitler make peace with Britain.
However, the commander on the ground would be Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando after he carried out a daring rescue of Mussolini from mountain-top imprisonment after he was incarcerated by Italian forces loyal to the king.
Skorzeny, who newspapers across the world had dubbed ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Europe’ for this feat, correctly assumed that each of the Allied leaders would bring his own troops to a summit.
He recruited some 50 renegade Russian soldiers who’d been fighting with the Nazis for his force. The idea was that, wearing Soviet uniforms, they would easily blend in with Stalin’s myriad real guards.
Armed with Russian submachine guns, their main job would be to hold off the Allied bodyguards while the rest of the team, German members of a feared special forces unit called the Brandenburg Division, would kill the leaders.
Skorzeny considered the most effective weapon would be a bomb and settled — ironically — on a British one, the Gammon bomb. A hand-thrown grenade, it could be loaded with a huge amount of the newly developed RDX explosive that could take out anything from the occupants of a small crowded room to a tank. (The Germans had captured 50 Gammon bombs when the RAF dropped them in Belgium for the Resistance.)
However, the commander on the ground would be Otto Skorzeny (pictured), Hitler’s favourite commando after he carried out a daring rescue of Mussolini from mountain-top imprisonment after he was incarcerated by Italian forces loyal to the king
The crucial details about where the summit would be were finally provided by the valet of the British ambassador to Turkey, who offered to supply the Germans with photos of top secret British papers in return for £20,000. Among his haul was a cable message that the Big Three would meet in Tehran over four days at the end of November.
The Nazis were ecstatic as they already had a network of spies, safe houses and radio transmitters in the city. The British and Russians had occupied Iran in 1941 to guard its oil reserves and to keep open a rail route for supplies to the Soviets, but the Germans had been stirring up pro-Nazi support.
Skorzeny himself had trained agents for Iranian missions and had even recently sent a powerful tribal ally a solid gold Walther PPK, the favoured sidearm of James Bond, as a gift.
The Nazis ruled out ambushing any of the leaders’ motorcades as they had no idea when they would arrive or depart, and they wanted to get all three simultaneously.
A spy was dispatched to reconnoitre the embassies where they would be staying and meeting. Crucially, he discovered that the British, U.S. and Russian embassies were the only buildings in the capital with their own supply of potable water, piped in directly from surrounding mountains via ancient underground aqueducts, or qanats.
The water tunnels — wide enough to accommodate three men walking shoulder to shoulder — could be accessed outside the city and, astonishingly, were unguarded.
Unfortunately for the Nazis, their intelligence operation had been fatally compromised. One of the agents they’d sent in to Iran had been captured and ‘turned’ by the Russians, who then allowed him to ‘escape’ back to Germany where he was treated as a hero and awarded the Iron Cross.
His intelligence bosses naturally put him in charge of their Iran desk and when the organisers of Operation Long Jump quizzed him (without explaining why) about the Allied embassies in Tehran, he passed their interest back to Moscow. The Soviets soon joined up the dots.
The Red Army poured into the city, rounding up some 15,000 German citizens and Nazi sympathisers and holding them in grim detention camps. The less fortunate were tortured — any threat to Stalin could not be countenanced.
Back in Germany, Skorzeny finalised plans for a four-pronged infiltration starting on November 27.
Two 18-strong teams of the turncoat Russians, each with an Iranian-born interpreter, would parachute in first, dropping in separate locations in the desert outside Tehran where they’d be met by friendly tribesmen (the ones whose leader Skorzeny had buttered up with a solid gold pistol) who would ferry them into safe houses in the city. Nobody would bother to worry about yet more Russian soldiers coming into the city, they hoped.
A six-strong team of German commandos led by SS Major Rudolf von Holten-Pflug, a monocle-wearing aristocrat, would drop separately the same night. They refused to wear the uniforms of their Russian enemies and instead wore native disguises but kept their German ones ready for use.
Skorzeny and another five men would wait behind until the others assured him they were safely bedded down in Tehran.
Everything was arranged with typical German precision, right down to SS General Schellenberg checking regularly on the weather in the parachutists’ landing sites. Sadly for him, he checked with the double agent on his Iran desk, who passed the information straight on to Moscow.
And so it was that the first 18-strong team of parachutists to land were met not by friendly tribesmen but by Russian soldiers who shot many of them to pieces while they were still helplessly descending. The rest were captured and, after being taken to the blood-spattered basement cells in the Tehran HQ of the NKVD — Stalin’s ruthless security police — never heard from again.
The second 18-strong team was led by Hans von Ortel, a cold-eyed SS killer whose previous job was exterminating Jews in Ukraine. Ortel’s team landed safely and were met by their tribesman allies with trucks and camels.
However, their convoy caught the attention of a sharp-eyed NKVD agent, Gevork Vartanyan, only 19, as it drove through night-time Tehran. He wondered why Russian soldiers were riding camels and noticed the trucks had no Soviet markings.
He and his fellow teenage spies — mockingly nicknamed the ‘Light Cavalry’ by colleagues because they rode around on bicycles — quietly followed the commandos to their safe house.
The Nazis realised the game was up — Ortel was on his radio transmitter, frantically sending the codeword to abort the mission back to Berlin, when Russian troops burst in and a ferocious firefight ensued.
If there were commando survivors, they didn’t live long enough to appear in any Soviet prisoner record. (Vartanyan would later be hailed as a Soviet hero for his role.)
Skorzeny, the Most Dangerous Man in Europe, was on the runway ready to take off with his unit, when he received the radio message. He gave up and the glory-hunting SS officer never admitted to having been part of the operation.
The only remaining members of the commando force left in Iran was the improbably-named Major von Holten-Pflug and his five men. Their plane had dropped them 30 miles off course and by the time they’d trudged back to the proper landing zone, the tribesmen waiting for them had left. When their interpreter returned from a scouting trip to the capital, he confirmed the operation had been blown as he’d seen Russian troops storm the carpet warehouse that would have been their safe house.
And yet they still had a crate of Gammon bombs, their automatic weapons (British Sten guns, Skorzeny’s personal favourite, fitted with silencers), huge amounts of ammunition and the knowledge that any captured comrades wouldn’t be able to disclose the full details of the operation as they hadn’t been told them.
Despite facing almost impossible odds, Holten-Pflug — who had lectured would-be assassins at Nazi spy school that ‘one small bullet from one small revolver can do more damage than a whole regiment of artillery’ — kept going.
Churchill flew in several days later on November 27, brooding about the threat from ‘determined men with pistols or a bomb’.
Having been the target of previous Nazi assassination attempts, he recalled in his memoirs that the exotically-attired Iranian cavalry that lined his three-mile route from the airfield into the city simply announced ‘to any evil people that somebody of consequence was coming’ but offered ‘no protection at all’ if he was ambushed.
The Russians swiftly told their allies that they’d killed or captured 38 Nazi parachutists and that, though six remained at large, they were convinced they’d be trying to flee into neighbouring Turkey.
Even so, security was ramped up, with snipers positioned on the embassy rooftops and a house-to-house search of the city. Roosevelt, whose embassy was on the outskirts of the city, was persuaded to stay in the huge Soviet embassy which was next door to the British one in a shared walled compound.
Meanwhile, Holten-Pflug and his commandos had turned for help to the leader of a group of burly Iranian wrestlers who sometimes provided muscle for German spies.
He was bribed (using £1,000 of forged British banknotes the Nazis had created for a previous attempt to destabilise the UK economy) to let the commandos shelter in his gym.
On the morning of the following day, November 30, Holten-Pflug gathered his men and finally told them what the Nazis had always planned.
Certain that the only time they could guarantee the three leaders would be together would be to celebrate Churchill’s birthday, they were going to assassinate them that evening at his party at the British embassy.
Entering the compound through its water tunnel, they would pass through the garden in the dark and, guns blazing, burst in through the dining room’s patio doors to surprise them as the trio and 30 other guests guzzled Pol Roger champagne, poached fish with beluga caviar, and a giant birthday cake in the shape of a V for victory.
Holten-Pflug said he would throw the first Gammon bomb. Unless they somehow escaped in the chaos, it was going to be a suicide mission. Holten-Pflug insisted they change into their German uniforms so their enemies knew who was killing them.
However, as they waited for their wrestler ally to bring his lorry to take them to the water tunnel’s entrance outside the city, they were overpowered and bound by a dozen other wrestlers who wanted the $20,000 reward the Allies had offered for their capture.
By the time they’d escaped — thanks to the return of their interpreter who shot their guards — it was too late to get into the embassy in time for the party. (The Allies had, anyway, discovered the water tunnel plan from a prisoner and were guarding the entrance.)
They spent their next night in, of all places, police cells after their interpreter bribed a pro-Nazi police lieutenant to let them hide there.
The policeman allowed them to shelter in his home the next morning, where they hatched a last-ditch plan to ambush the leaders’ motorcades as they headed for the airfield when the summit ended the next day.
They could hardly do it alone but when Holten-Pflug swallowed his pride and again asked the wrestlers for help, they were again betrayed.
Russian troops surrounded the house and told the Nazi commandos to surrender or die. Just after 1am they chose the latter, detonating their Gammon bombs together in that ear-splitting explosion that reduced the house to rubble.
The Allied leaders left Tehran later that morning. ‘I am glad,’ Stalin wrote to Roosevelt when he got home, ‘that fate has given me an opportunity to render you a service in Tehran.’
Just how great a service now seems clear.
Night Of The Assassins: The Untold Story Of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin by Howard Blum is published by Harper in paperback at £14.99.