Flying under the clouds of the Hess mystery flight

EVEN at face value, at its most simple, the story of Rudolf Hess - Hitler's "lone nut" deputy, and his 900-mile wartime flight from Germany to Scotland on an apparent peace mission that ended with his plane crashing into a field in Renfrewshire - is one of the most bizarre and intriguing tales of the 20th century.

The history books tell us that in 1941 Hess, in the so-called lone nut theory, took it upon himself to fly to Scotland and try to meet the Duke of Hamilton in the hope of brokering a peace deal, only to crash his Messerschmitt-110 near the village of Eaglesham before being captured and held as a prisoner until the war ended. He stood trial at Nuremberg and was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in Berlin's Spandau Prison where he committed suicide in 1987.

If only it was all so simple. The truth behind the strange and mysterious act continues to baffle people today. What was the real mission of Hess?

The Hess flight took place when wartime espionage was at its height. The need to bolster the country's morale in the early part of the war meant the flourishing of intelligence and counter-intelligence officers with their relentless spread of propaganda and hushing up of military setbacks. In short, no-one could be certain about the truth of anything.

Into this culture flew Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer and the man responsible for the organising and structuring of the Nazi Party. Conspiracy theorists went into overdrive. Hess, some said, was lured here by British secret services…..The Duke of Hamilton was a Nazi sympathiser….the man in the plane was not Hess but a doppelgnger…..Hess was trapped by a plan laid by intelligence officer Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond…..The British royal family was "in" on the scheme.

Not unnaturally the theories were dismissed as nonsense. Intriguingly, however, at the Nuremberg War Trials of 1945, Hermann Goering, Hitler's Luftwaffe commander and a man who knew more than most about the higher echelons of the Nazi Party, was asked about the man named Hess who was on trial with him. He replied: "Hess? Which Hess? The Hess you have here? Our Hess? Your Hess?"

Many are convinced that the man who died alone in Spandau was not Hess but a body double and that the entire crash incident was staged. Of the many books that have been written suggesting possible theories, some say the real Hess was interrogated then executed at a house near Fort William, others that he died in the same plane crash near Dunbeath, Caithness, that killed Prince George, Duke of Kent.

The theories blossomed on the back of the British government's refusal to release secret papers on the case until earlier this year. Even when the files were declassified, many were missing, lost or destroyed – adding more fuel to the conspiracy flames.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the son of the wartime Duke of Hamilton, who wrote the book The Truth About Rudolf Hess, recently uncovered previously hidden documents about the case. He claims his findings reveal that neither MI5, the British security service, nor the Duke had any interest in or knowledge of peace negotiations with the Germans.

The Secret Services, Lord James says, did consider using his father as a double agent after intercepting a letter intended for the Duke sent via an intermediary by Albrecht Haushofer, one of Hess's close advisers. The letter suggested that the Duke and Hess should meet in Portugal to discuss peace but the plan was thought too dangerous.

"The whole thing was a great shock to my father when it emerged. In fact he wrote at the time that he hoped the whole affair would be treated as a four-day wonder. I think he was being a bit optimistic," says Lord James.

"It was a purely unauthorised mission. Hitler did not know about it and was furious when he found out, that is clear from the papers."

Lord James, an MSP for the Lothians, said the claims that his father had been a Nazi sympathiser had not been hurtful to the family but adds: "I was irritated that the government was suppressing documents which I thought was neither necessary nor desirable. As a result, conspiracy theories grew up when the British had such a good story to tell."

He claims his research knocks firmly on the head the theory that Hess was lured here as part of a plot by British Intelligence to engage in peace negotiations. He also clears the name of his father who, even the most ardent theorists agree, was an "unwilling victim" in the whole saga.

What the research will not do, however, is satisfy everyone. Since Hess was found at Floors Farm, Eaglesham, by ploughman David McLean, an industry has grown up around the unprecedented incident.

We have certainly not heard the last of the mystery of Rudolf Hess.