Adolf Hitler claimed that British war hero Henry Tandey nearly killed him during World War I, then changed his mind at the last moment. But did Hitler make this story up?
On September 28, 1918, one of the most shocking incidents of World War I is said to have taken place. During the Fifth Battle of Ypres, near the French village of Marcoing, the British soldier Henry Tandey displayed heroism that earned him the Victoria Cross. That, along with other medals, helped make him the most decorated British private of the entire war.
But during this same battle, Tandey allegedly made one decision that altered the course of history. When the 27-year-old private saw a wounded German soldier in his line of fire, he decided not to kill the man. This one act of compassion would forever overshadow Tandey’s impressive military record.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would be the first to hear about this dramatic story from a man who claimed that he was the German soldier that Tandey had spared. That man’s name was Adolf Hitler.
The Military Career Of Henry Tandey
Henry Tandey was born on August 30, 1891, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. His early years were tough, and he spent at least part of his childhood in an orphanage, according to the Leamington History Group.
But despite his difficult youth, Tandey attended the local St. Peter’s School and eventually secured a job at the Regent Hotel, where he stoked the building’s boilers. Soon, however, he was yearning for more exciting work.
Though some sources claim that Tandey joined the British Army when he was just 14, records indicate that he was actually 19 when he enlisted in 1910.
When World War I broke out four years later, in 1914, Tandey soon made a name for himself as a courageous soldier who was eager to fight in the First Battle of Ypres. Though he was later wounded at the Battle of the Somme and then injured again at the Battle of Passchendaele, he refused to give up.
Then, in 1918, as the Allied Powers took the upper hand in the war over the Central Powers, Tandey showed heroism that remains legendary to this day. Perhaps most notably, he helped the British successfully capture Marcoing, an act that would earn him the Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery.” He was also awarded the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
By the end of World War I, Tandey was the most decorated British private who had fought in the war. But that’s not what Tandey is best known for.
An Alleged Encounter With Adolf Hitler
About two decades after World War I ended, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived in Germany in 1938. He was attempting to secure a peace pact with Adolf Hitler, who by then was the dictator of the Third Reich.
According to the BBC, Chamberlain’s visit included a stay at Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat called the Berghof. There, Chamberlain came across a painting depicting Allied soldiers at the Menin Crossroads in 1914.
There was no doubt that Chamberlain thought the picture was an unusual choice for Hitler’s retreat, especially considering the humiliation that Germany felt after their defeat in World War I. But Hitler claimed that he had a special connection to one British soldier in the foreground of the painting, who was depicted carrying a wounded comrade to safety.
“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” the Nazi dictator allegedly told Chamberlain. As Hitler put it, the soldier had pointed his gun at him but spared him at the last moment.
Hitler first learned of Henry Tandey’s identity after seeing a picture of him receiving the Victoria Cross in a newspaper, according to History UK. Later, he learned about a painting that depicted Tandey’s regiment, the Green Howards, which was created by the Italian artist Fortunino Matania.
And Hitler apparently wanted a copy.
Did Henry Tandey Actually Spare Adolf Hitler?
The story itself does have some evidence that supports it. The Green Howards Museum has confirmed that a copy of the Matania painting was at Hitler’s retreat, indicating that the picture was important to him.
The museum also has a letter from Hitler’s adjutant, Fritz Wiedemann, thanking them profusely for sharing the image with the dictator: “The Führer is naturally very interested in things connected with his own war experiences. He was obviously moved when I showed him the picture.”
Despite this connection, Henry Tandey’s biographer, Dr. David Johnson, has cast doubt over the authenticity of the alleged encounter between Tandey and Hitler. He points out that the soldier who spared Hitler’s life would have likely been covered in mud and blood, which would make it difficult for the dictator to recognize his likeness in the painting or even in a photograph.
Johnson also points out that Hitler’s unit had been moved about 50 miles north of Tandey’s 11 days before the purported encounter happened on September 28, 1918. Plus, papers from the Bavarian State Archive indicate that Hitler was on leave between September 25th and September 27th. Johnson says this means that Hitler was likely on leave on the 28th as well — or just returning to his unit, which was still far away from Tandey’s.
Was it possible that Hitler had accidentally identified the wrong man who saved him? Or had he fabricated the story? Johnson believes it’s the latter.
As Johnson put it in The History Press, “Hitler was intent on impressing upon the German people that he had been saved for a greater purpose, namely restoring Germany to what he saw as its true position in the world.”
Johnson added, “The story sounded so much better if it was embellished by the claim that the man concerned was the most decorated private soldier to survive the First World War rather than some anonymous, yet still heroic, Tommy whose bravery had not attracted the same attention.”
Henry Tandey’s Response To The Allegations
Henry Tandey probably first heard about Hitler’s story in 1938 after another officer told him about Chamberlain’s conversation with the dictator.
Tandey confirmed that he had spared soldiers on September 28, 1918, but he was unsure whether Hitler was one of them. According to the BBC, he was quoted in an August 1939 edition of the Coventry Herald saying, “According to them, I’ve met Adolf Hitler. Maybe they’re right, but I can’t remember him.”
But just one year later, in 1940, Tandey appeared to accept the story about him sparing Hitler as fact. He was then quoted saying, “If only I had known what he would turn out to be. When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded, I was sorry to God I let him go.”
Because of this quote, some people are convinced that Tandey’s encounter with Hitler really happened. However, this quote came shortly after Tandey’s home had been bombed by the Luftwaffe, so it’s possible that he was simply feeling emotional about seeing his neighborhood destroyed.
In addition, Tandey never spoke publicly about the alleged incident again. Johnson has pointed out that the story about Tandey sparing Hitler only seemed to resurface after Tandey died at age 86 on December 20, 1977.
It can never be confirmed whether Hitler’s claims were valid. But what can be confirmed is that Tandey was one of the most remarkable soldiers of World War I. From his courage in battle to his code of conduct that prevented him from shooting a wounded man, it’s no wonder why he earned so many accolades.
Perhaps that’s what he should be remembered for.
After reading about Henry Tandey, see some of the most haunting photos from World War I. Then, check out World War I posters from the U.S. government that reveal the roots of modern propaganda.