The author and historian John Harris writes a blog for PRscribe by Palamedes PR

Historian John Harris on Cracking the WW2 Mystery of Rudolph Hess


Co-authors John Harris and Richard Wilbourn have been researching the Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess’ solo flight to Scotland for almost 40 years. Now, nearly four decades, six critically-acclaimed books and countless pub hours later, the pair have uncovered what they consider to be the definitive answer to one of the greatest enduring mysteries of WW2.

In this exclusive blog for PRscribe, historian John Harris discusses their publishing journey which, like most foolhardy ventures, started over a pint.

Historian John Harris

“Neither my co-author, Richard Wilbourn, nor I are writers.

Richard is an Estate Manager, and I am an accountant and weekend farmer. We first met back in 1986 when I was the accountant and Richard the farms manager on a Northamptonshire estate. Being in our late 20’s we were concentrating on our sensible career choices and raising our young families. Neither of us would have claimed to be academics, but equally we were well qualified to perform our jobs, both of which require a grasp of detail, the ability to communicate and a degree of persistence or bloody mindedness, dependent upon your viewpoint.

Then in August 1987, the Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess died. By that time our friendship had developed to the point that we would meet after work at the local pub, to debate the day’s events and plan for the future of the Estate. Occasionally we would talk about current events and to our mind the explanations that were being given to justify Hess’s 1941 solo flight to Scotland made little sense to us. The Nazi Party communique (Hess had gone mad, stolen a plane and flew to the enemy) made little sense to us, though 47 years after his flight that appeared to be what most people still believed.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1987-0313-507, Rudolf Hess (cropped).jpg

Above: Rudolf Walter Richard Hess (26 April 1894 – 17 August 1987) was a German politician and a leading member of the Nazi Party in Nazi Germany. Appointed Deputy Führer to Adolf Hitler in 1933, Hess held that position until 1941, when he flew solo to Scotland during the Second World War. He was taken prisoner and eventually convicted of crimes against peace. He was still serving his life sentence at the time of his suicide in 1987

At the time there was really very little to read about the Hess flight in any level of detail.  Richard and I had both been brought up in the post war period of ‘Battle of Britain’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘The Dam Busters’ etc and so we were both very keen to expand our knowledge on a subject that was both fascinating, yet probably at that time under-researched. (We now know why).

I think it important to stress how little detail we knew about anything at that time. We obviously had a populist knowledge of WW2, but very little besides. Our subsequent endeavours over what is now approaching 40 years has not only been selfishly interesting and satisfying but has given us both a secondary interest to our careers. Believe it or not, when the day jobs get challenging and stressful, a dose of Hess will normally make sure a sensible level of sleep is still obtained. Hess has been great for maintaining what is now a longstanding friendship as well as creating a diversion for when work is either mundane or overly stressful. We would thoroughly recommend it for mental health even if the phrase had not yet been invented when we started.

After reading what we could about Hess, I decided to drill down into the subject to see if we could discover more. We knew that Hess had asked Haushofer, his ‘English expert’, to write to his friend the Duke of Hamilton in 1940. The letter had been posted to a friend in England, a Mrs Violet Roberts, by way of intermediary. The internet was becoming useful by this time, and we soon discovered who Mrs Roberts was, where she lived and what her interests were. We also discovered that she lived with an early member of Special Operations Executive (SOE).

We already had gained a lot of knowledge that previously was unknown. The question then became as to how to preserve and record it and selfishly take credit for doing so. We certainly knew nothing about publishing or printing or how to go about it, so in the first instance I asked my wife’s head teacher, Tony Noble, to publish our first record in 1992. (Rudolf Hess: The British Conspiracy). Tony typically self-published his travel books concerning Northamptonshire and was pleased to help us. We published the book through Jema Publications advertised it ourselves in the Telegraph and were amazed at the response. We seemed to have struck a chord.

Hitler, Maurice, Kriebel, Hess, Weber, prison de Landsberg en 1924.

Above: Hess (fourth from left) with Hitler and other members of the Nazi Party in 1924.

On the back of the response, I then approached the literary agent Andrew Lownie, who arranged for an expanded version to be published with Andre Deutsch in London. We even received an advance of £8,000 which was very exciting too and I had also sold the website to a multinational gas corporation. The book was reasonably well received, but historically we had probably overplayed the SOE aspect of the affair.

Richard and I had of course used our by now obvious ‘literary credentials’ as the justification to our wives to conduct further serious research. Most years we would go abroad on the basis of research, together with a secondary objective of beer drinking. Consequently, we can remember going to Munich, Frankfurt, Ober-Ramstadt, Hamburg and Berlin. If only the same could be said of Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk. All good fun.

The research was also getting more serious. We had discovered Tancred Borenius, the Finnish Art Historian and his role in the affair from the Von Hassell diaries that were published just after the war to demonstrate that not all Germans were Nazi’s. Von Hassell had been executed in the aftermath of the Wolf’s Lair bomb plot of 1944.

a montage of books by the historian John Harris

Above: John Harris and Richard Wilbourn’s books about Rudolph Hess have each won critical acclaim and considerable media attention.

This is where the publishing became difficult. Andrew couldn’t find us another publisher, saying that there were now so many Hess books on the market that the only one that would be considered would be that which provided a complete solution. Whilst we knew we were learning fast, we knew we couldn’t promise such a book and so decided to go back to Jema Publications and co-fund with Tony. This we did in 2010 with Rudolf Hess: The illusion of peace, which basically recorded our findings concerning Borenius. We had to advertise the book, which is expensive, though thankfully tax deductible. I think we also were introduced to Palamedes who we found good [Ed: Thank you. See our Success Stories for more details].

However, by this time the ‘accountant and farmer’ were gaining in traction, simply because we only wrote what we knew and were seen as honest brokers in a difficult subject area. Even though we weren’t academics, we were slowly gaining a following and websites such as Secret Scotland were very kind to us. Amazon was also coming on stream, though in honesty in those days we would prefer Ebay as we could do our own marketing and say what we wanted to say.

Our next step was with the History Press in Stroud who published our ‘New technical analysis’ in 2014. To date this has probably been our most accomplished work, trying to understand the character and methodology of the flight itself. We received a £200 advance for our pains.

Part of the remains of the Messerschmitt BF-110 aircraft which Rudolph Hess flew to Britain in, in World War II.

Above: Part of the remains of the Messerschmitt BF-110 aircraft which Rudolph Hess flew to Britain in, in World War II.

In the early days we were also grateful to be introduced to Mei Trow on the Isle of Wight. Andrew Lownie thought that we did not possess the skills to write the necessary length of book. Now we have no such inhibitions having just completed a 180,000-word epic with the Uniform Press. It is too early to see how that pans out but is not lacking ambition.

Our issue is and always has been funding. We wholly believe our research and our narrative and still believe the Hess affair to be the last great mystery of WW2. We think we know the answer and fear it is an unpalatable truth, even 80 plus years later. Consequently, we are now adopting an Al Capone approach to our subject. As you will recall, Capone was never sentenced for murder, instead the authorities eventually nailed him for tax evasion.

We are therefore no longer going for the ‘big picture’ expose, instead now we are concentrating on easy to digest smaller chunks of the story. We have just signed up with Uniform again for ‘Varhaug, Sonne and Elektra: The Rudolph Hess Flight Book’ (A catchy title) which explains precisely how Hess flew from Germany to Scotland using radio navigation. It is our hope that this then opens up our work to the wider reader. We shall see.

Uniform is also very insistent on a good cover and this obviously makes sense. There has to be a means of drawing the potential buyer’s and reader’s eye especially as we are not JK Rowling, Max Hasting or any other well-known name. Perhaps we should get Holly Willoughby to ghost write, now she has some time?

We also enjoy Amazon Central, the authors equivalent to the Top of the Pops. We have never been at No 1. but do get above 19,000 from time to time. We feel we are like David Bowie in c.1969, we have the story, the facts, the details. We just need a bit of luck……….

It has been a fantastic hobby to date.

John Harris and Richard Wilbourn have been working on the Hess affair since the late 1980s and have been responsible for the major advances in the understanding of what really took place. Their books can each be found on Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle formats.

Their eagerly anticipated new book, “Varhaug, Sonne and Elektra: The Rudolph Hess Flight Book” (left) is out late November 2023.

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