It was September 1970 and I was the battalion anti-tank platoon commander. It was one of the months that the UK was responsible for guarding Spandau Prison, the others being January and May. The USA, France and the USSR did the other months. With my platoon, I had been selected to be the first officer in the Battalion to take-over the guarding of the prison, which housed the last remaining inmate of the seven originally incarcerated there following the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-6. He was Allied Prisoner No 7, otherwise known as Rudolf Walther Richard Hess.
Spandau Prison was built as a military detention centre in 1876 and housed about 600 prisoners. From 1919, it was also used for civilian inmates and, from 1933, it held opponents of the Nazi regime, who were tortured and abused by the Gestapo before being sent off to concentration camps. With a history such as this, it was little wonder that stories abounded about ghosts and unexplained happenings, which included a US soldier committing suicide in watchtower No 3. The prison was in the British Sector sandwiched between Smuts and Brooke Barracks.
Handovers between British units were informal affairs. Between nations it was quite different. A very formal parade was held outside the prison entrance, with everyone in parade uniforms and it involved much presenting of arms, saluting, hand shaking and a lunch.
With my platoon sergeant, ‘Whisky’ Walker, preparations were made for taking-over the prison the following morning from a 2 RRF platoon. Our job was to stop the prisoner escaping and to prevent anyone breaking in. The orders and procedures for the conduct of the guard had been drawn up by the four Allied Powers and were very detailed. They had to be rigidly adhered to and included: searching soldiers for cameras and cigarettes before going on guard in the towers; not speaking or offering anything to Hess, and not taking souvenirs from the prison. We had no access to the main prison buildings where Hess was housed, but it was common to see or even encounter him in the prisoners’ garden where he took exercise. There were stories of him deliberately enticing people to speak to him or give him cigarettes, whereupon he would report them to the prison governors – big trouble!
Shortly before setting off, we heard that there had been a shooting incident in the prison during the night. All soldiers on guard duty inside the prison were armed with a full magazine of live rounds on their weapons, so there was always potential for drama or worse. There was no detail, but it was with a feeling of some anticipation that I set off for my first guard duty in Berlin.
I met the Fusilier guard commander at the prison. His account filled me with a little apprehension. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, sustained shooting had been heard from one of the watchtowers. It was eventually established that it came from Tower 3. All the towers were connected to the guardroom by telephone, but the commander had been unable to get a response from the sentry in Tower 3. Not knowing what he might encounter, he went to the tower and called the sentry; still no response. Sentries were locked into their towers, so unlocking the door, climbing the steel ladder to the trap door above, throwing back the bolt, he had cautiously lifted it. He found the sentry slumped on the floor in one corner unable to speak or move, but physically unscathed. With some difficulty he was removed from the tower and taken to the British Military Hospital. For reasons thus far unknown, he had fired 12 rounds from the 20 round magazine on his SLR through the brick parapet of his tower.
It was with some care that we selected who was to do stags in Tower 3. There were six towers around the perimeter wall and No 3 was the most isolated. Stags lasted two hours and there was a formal procedure for marching out the reliefs, changing the sentries and locking them in. It was said that the Russians insisted on locking the sentries in to prevent their soldiers defecting. Periodically, the guard commander or his 2IC was required to visit the sentries by day and night, a procedure that could take some time, but it was a good opportunity to explore this sinister place, for sinister it really was. Most of the buildings were derelict and those to which we had access had suffered the ravages of time, neglect and the weather, not having been used since the end of WW2. There was dirt and discarded rubbish and in the old kitchen and its adjoining dining room some old, mostly broken wooden furniture. I noticed that all the wooden chairs were made to the same pattern. Apparently, the pre-war prisoners had made them in the prison workshops.
Adjacent to Tower 3 was the Allied prisoners’ garden. For the last four years, Hess had been the sole prisoner and he was now 76 years old, so the garden had become an area of unkempt grass. In this area there was an oval footpath worn below the level of the surrounding ground. It was here that I encountered Hess for the first time. From a distance of only a few feet we eyed each other. His face was expressionless as I stared into his deep set eyes. I felt no sympathy for this man, for he had been one of the principal architects of one of the world’s worst crimes, but his unflinching gaze left me with an uneasy feeling. There were no words and no gestures. I was glad to walk on and leave him to his own silent thoughts. Tower 3 was the only one where the sentries could get a good view of the prisoner. I am certain that most soldiers left Spandau Prison with some sense of being part of a unique, historical event, particularly those who had seen him.
I think it was the second occasion that I was guard commander that I decided that I must have something, other than my thoughts, to remind me of that place. In the garden, Hess had an old wooden chair covered in thick white paint. This was before he was provided with a small summerhouse where he committed suicide in 1987. It was identical in style to the brown painted chairs I had seen in the derelict kitchen and dining room building. I resolved that night to liberate a suitable chair. It was a very windy night when I set off to do my round of the sentries. The prison was alive with noise. The wind howled through its broken-windowed buildings. Old doors creaked and banged. I completed my round at a brisk pace and made my way to the kitchen building. Inside, all the noises were intensified. I remember putting my hand on my pistol and momentarily thinking of that Fusilier. With the aid of my torch, I quickly selected a chair and beat a hasty retreat to the guardroom. In the morning it was liberated in the back of a truck and still enjoys that freedom to this day.
The traumatised Fusilier took several days to recover and claimed that he had seen a figure coming towards him. The figure failed to respond to a challenge to halt, so he opened fire. Part of the parapet had to be rebuilt.
When I stripped the unattractive brown paint off my Spandau Prison chair, I found crudely carved in the back, F. S. 1. V11. 36 – 111. 1. 37. Was F S the prisoner who had made the chair? Who was he and what had happened to him?
Spandau Prison was razed to the ground after Hess died. Apparently, everything was removed from the site and either buried at RAF Gatow or dumped in the North Sea to prevent anything remaining for souvenir hunters. A new NAAFI supermarket was built on the site, affectionately known as Hesscos!