“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation

Natasha sheldon - January 30, 2018

In 1923, the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment – better known as The Green Howards – commissioned Italian war artist, Fortunino Matania to paint a picture of an episode from the regiment’s history during the First World War. The painting, “The Menin Crossroads” depicts a lull during the Battle of Ypres on the afternoon of October 22, 1914. Some named members of The Green Howards appeared in the picture. At the forefront of the painting, shown carrying a wounded man across his shoulders, was one of those men: Private Henry Tandey.

Henry Tandey was a remarkable man. In the last year of the war, his superiors awarded him no fewer than three medals for bravery, making him the most decorated British private soldier of the First World War. Tandey’s tenacity, courage, intelligence and leadership skills should have ensured him a place in the military hall of fame. However, it is likely that his name would have been mostly lost to history if Adolf Hitler had not claimed Tandey had spared his life during the battle that won Tandey the Victoria Cross. It was a claim that has haunted Tandey’s reputation. But is it true?

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation
Private Henry Tandey, VC, DCM, MM. Google Images.

The Life of Henry Tandey

Henry Tandey’s was born on August 30, 1891, the son of former soldier James Tandey, in Leamington Spa, a town in Warwickshire. The young Tandey spent some time in an orphanage and after leaving school worked for a while as a boiler stoker. Then in August 1910, the nineteen-year-old joined the British Army. For four years he served with his regiment, The Green Howards in Guernsey and South Africa. Then the First World War broke out.

Over the course of the war, Tandey proved himself a real hero. He participated in the Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele. However, it was in 1918 that his heroism was truly appreciated. In August 1918, during the Second Battle of Cambrai, Tandey, with two comrades, dashed into no man’s land to bomb a German trench and returned with twenty German prisoners. This bravery earned Tandey the Distinguished Combat Medal. The following month, he once again braved heavy fire at Havrincourt, taking yet more prisoners and gaining the Military Medal as a result.

Tandey’s crowning moment came when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery and initiative during the capture of the village and the crossings of Marcoing and the subsequent counterattack” on September 28, 1918. Tandey and his regiment, the 5th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington were involved in fighting at Marcoing in France. Under heavy fire, Tandey led a Lewis gun team to take out the German position. He and his men were later surrounded by the enemy while restoring a bridge. However, Tandey led the men in a bayonet charge that broke the German ranks, saving his small company and scattering the enemy.

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation
Marcoing in Ruins. Google Images

As the Germans fled, Tandey noticed a wounded German soldier in his line of fire. The man was so resigned to dying that he did not even raise his rifle. “I took aim,” Tandey later recalled, “but couldn’t shoot a wounded man. So I let him go.” Mercy was a policy that Tandey had apparently implemented throughout the war. The German soldier simply nodded in thanks and left.

On December 14, 1918, a picture of Private Tandey appeared in The London Gazette, which was reporting his receipt of the Victoria Cross. The following year, on December 17, Tandey was formally decorated by King George V at Buckingham Palace. He must have believed the attention to his wartime exploits was now over. Tandey remained in the army and resumed his duties. He was promoted to Sargent, but on January 5, 1926, he retired. Tandey returned to his hometown of Leamington, married and spent the next thirty-eight years as the chief of security at Triumph motors. However, in 1938, the peace of his life was shattered with a revelation from his military past.

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation
Chamberlain and Hitler during the negotiations of the Munich Pact. Google Images.

The Man Who Saved Hitler

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was in Germany to negotiate the Munich Pact, a last attempt to prevent further conflict in Europe. During the negotiations, he was invited by Adolf Hitler to visit the German chancellor’s private retreat in Bavaria, Berchtesgaden. Chamberlain was encouraged to explore the Fuhrer’s sanctuary, and it was while he was in Hitler’s study that he noticed something curious. For hanging on the wall was a copy of Matania’s “The Menin Crossroads.”

Such a relic of British bravery was a strange thing to hang on the wall of Germany’s leader- especially as their defeat in First World War had been so calamitous for the Germans. Hitler noticed Chamberlain looking at the painting- and was more than happy to explain its presence. Hitler revealed that the picture had a particular significance for him. For Adolf Hitler claimed to be the wounded soldier Tandey had refused to shoot at Marcoing Bridge. While in hospital after the armistice, the future Fuhrer had come across the news report of Tandey’s heroism- and recognized him as the man who had spared his life.

Hitler had acquired “The Menin Crossroads” in 1937 through Dr. Otto Schwend, a member of his staff. Schwend had met, treated and befriended Lieutenant Colonel Earle of the Green Howards at a medical post at the Menin crossroads in 1914. The enemy soldiers stayed in touch after the war and eventually Earle sent Schwend a postcard of the painting, possibly as a memento of the beginning of their friendship. Realizing the significance of the picture to Hitler, Schwend asked for a copy, which Earle obligingly sent.

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation
Dr. Otto Schwend. Google Images

“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” the Fuhrer told the British prime minister, pointing out Tandey in the picture. “ Providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.” He ended by asked the prime minister to pass on his regards to Tandey.

On his return home, Chamberlain reputedly phoned Tandey at his home, to pass on Hitler’s message. Tandey was out, but his nephew took the call- and somehow, the press caught hold of the story. The quiet, anonymous life of Henry Tandey was shattered. The story, sensational at the best of times, was given an extra edge by the fact war was looming- a war that might never have been thought of but for the former Private Tandey’s act of kindness.

In August 1938, The Coventry Herald included an interview with Tandey. However, the publicity-shy former soldier was unable to deny or confirm the rumor. “According to them, I’ve met Adolf Hitler,” Tandey told the paper. “Maybe they’re right, but I can’t remember him.”

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation
“The Menin Crossroads ” by Fortunino Matania. Henry Tandey in the foreground. Google Images

Facts and Fictions

Hitler did indeed possess a copy of ” The Menin Crossroads,” and it certainly had a special significance to him. In the museum of the Green Howards is a note dated 1937 from Hitler’s secretary. ‘I beg to acknowledge your friendly gift which has been sent to Berlin through the good offices of Dr. Schwend, ” the note reads.” The Fuhrer is naturally very interested in things connected with his own war experiences, and he was obviously moved when I showed him the picture and explained the thought, which you had in causing it to be sent to him. He has directed me to send you his best thanks for your friendly gift which is so rich in memories.’

However, it is here historical certainty ends, and legend begins. Chamberlain’s diaries and letters show nothing to suggest he attached any significance to Hitler’s revelation. He also could not have phoned Henry Tandey, for, according to British Telecom’s archives, in 1938, Henry Tandey did not have a phone. Tandey did learn of the story- but second hand, from an officer he met at a regimental reunion in 1939. The officer had heard the tale anecdotally from Chamberlain. Once again, Tandey could not confirm he had saved Hitler.

Crucially, however, it is impossible that the soldier Tandey spared on September 28, 1918, on the Marcoing Bridge was Adolf Hitler- because Hitler was not there. Records from the Bavarian State Archives show that on September 17, Hitler’s unit was moved 50 miles north of Marcoing. Hitler himself was on leave between September 25-27. So even if his regiment advanced to Marcoing, Hitler could not have joined them in time.

“The Man who Saved Hitler”: How Hitler Hijacked a British War Hero’s Reputation
Henry Tandey in 1973. Google Images

So why was the picture of “The Menin Crossroad” so important to Hitler? And why did he tell Chamberlain that Tandey saved him at a battle that took place four years after the events in the picture? It is possible Hitler fabricated the story out of self-aggrandizement. He was obsessed with showing he was fated to lead Germany to greatness. What better way than to claim fate spared his life at the hands of an enemy hero?

However, there is also the possibility that Tandey did save the Fuhrer’s life- but not at Marcoing. Hitler may have confused Menin with Marcoing- or deliberately switched the two, so his salvation corresponded with Tandey’s greatest triumph. We can never know.

Henry Tandey died in 1977, and his ashes were interred at the Marcoing British cemetery, near the place he fought so bravely. Whether or not he spared Hitler that day in September 1918 is in serious doubt. However, what is certain Tandey’s rare ability as a soldier. His actions throughout the Great War saved many of his comrade’s lives. It is for his exceptional bravery and skill that people should remember Henry Tandey- not for hypothetically sparing the life of a man he probably never even met.



WarHistoryonline.com: The Man Who Spared A Wounded Hitler’s Life In WWI – And Changed The World Forever.

The History Press: Private Henry Tandey VC and Adolf Hitler.

BBC News: World War One: The British hero who did not shoot Hitler

WorldWar1.com: How a Right can Make a Wrong: Hitler’s Fateful Encounter with Pvt. Henry Tandey, VC.

DastorNews.com: The Man who could have changed History

RossoFango.com: Historical Notes