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Man Who Didn't Shoot Hitler: The Story of Henry Tandey VC and Adolf Hitler, 1918

Man Who Didn't Shoot Hitler: The Story of Henry Tandey VC and Adolf Hitler, 1918

by David Johnson, General Lord Dannatt

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This is the tale of two men.The first is Henry Tandey, an ordinary man later deemed to be ‘a hero of the old berserk type’, born and brought up in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, who displayed extraordinary courage to emerge from the First World War as the most decorated British private to survive. The second is Adolf Hitler, who was highly decorated in his


This is the tale of two men.The first is Henry Tandey, an ordinary man later deemed to be ‘a hero of the old berserk type’, born and brought up in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, who displayed extraordinary courage to emerge from the First World War as the most decorated British private to survive. The second is Adolf Hitler, who was highly decorated in his service to Germany in the First World War and went on to become one of the most infamous dictators in history, later bringing the world to the brink of destruction during the Second World War. It seems unlikely that their fates should collide. Yet in 1938 Hitler named Tandey as the soldier who spared his life on 28 September 1918 in the aftermath of the Battle of Marcoing – an assertion that came as a surprise to Tandey himself. The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler tells the story of Tandey’s and Hitler’s Great War, the moment when their lives became intertwined – if in fact they did – and how Tandey lived with the stigma of being known not for his chestful of medals for gallantry in service of King and Country, but as the man who let Hitler live.

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The Man Who Didn't Shoot Hitler

The Story of Henry Tandey VC and Adolf Hitler, 1918

By David Johnson

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 David Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8914-8


An Act of Compassion Repaid?

Coventry had been subjected to intermittent bombing by the Germans since 1939, and in the September of that year the Standard Motor Works at Canley had been badly damaged, with several people injured. Perhaps surprisingly in terms of the war effort, Coventry was very much on the front line because the small factories and workshops that pre-war had been producing machine tools and car parts were now producing components vital to the conduct of the war, for instance Gardiner (2011) makes the point that three-quarters of all gauges used in the nation's armaments were made in Coventry. These factories and workshops were scattered throughout the town and could be found existing alongside historic buildings, shops and houses, so any attack on them was bound to take a toll on the civilian population and its infrastructure as well.

On the evening of Thursday 14 November 1940, what was to become known as the Coventry Blitz started at 7.20 p.m. and over the next ten hours wave after wave of German bombers dropped 500 tons of explosives, 33,000 incendiary bombs and dozens of parachute mines (Gilbert, 2008). According to the German High Command, the attack was in retaliation for the Allied bombing of Munich on 8 November.

There can be no doubt that the intention was to destroy the city and to inflict a heavy toll on its civilian population, despite the instructions issued by a German squadron leader for what was known as Operation Moonlight Sonata (Wilson, 2005):

Comrades, you are acquainted with the nature and essentials of tonight's operation. Our task is, with other squadrons, to repay the attack on Munich by the English during the night of 8th November. We shall not repay it in the same manner by smashing up harmless dwelling houses, but we shall do it in such a way that those over there will be completely stunned.

Despite those fine words, when the all clear was sounded at 6.15 a.m. the following day the horror and destruction was beyond imagination as homes, factories, public buildings and Coventry's fourteenth-century cathedral were destroyed, along with 600 lives, many too badly burned to be identified, and over 800 wounded. There were 4,330 homes destroyed, three-quarters of the city's factories damaged, and 'practically all gas and water pipes were smashed and people were advised to boil emergency supplies of water' (McGory, 2008).

One man, an air raid warden, was at home making tea for the other wardens. He told the Sunday Graphic what happened next:

Just as I was pouring [the tea] all hell started popping. We rushed into the street and found the whole place alight.

The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens were brave men and women, and eleven of them would be killed that night.

Displaying the bravery that he had shown during the Great War, this man went to no fewer than twelve burning houses to rescue the trapped occupants. In many cases he had to fight his way through the flames to rescue the half-suffocated women and children who had been trapped in their cellars, only to find later that his own home, in Cope Street, had been destroyed. The casualty figures would have been worse if the authorities had not provided some seventy-nine public bunkers that could house up to 33,000 people (Gardiner), where in very cramped conditions children were frightened and in some cases hysterical, women sobbed and everyone was scared.

As he stood in front of his home that had been reduced to rubble, he would have felt a number of understandable emotions, and he would almost certainly have thought about the news that he had received the year before. According to what he had been told he had once had the opportunity to kill the man responsible for all the death and destruction that he saw around him.

Standing there surrounded by the decimation of the town in which he lived, he would have watched the flames licking the sky as they consumed the cathedral – the only one in Britain to be destroyed in the war. Morning brought with it the acrid smell of smoke and burning, and a blood-red sky. He would have seen people wandering about in a state of shock with their eyes red and sore from the effects of the smoke, searching for friends and relatives, and staring in utter disbelief at what was left of their property and the city's landmarks. He would have seen the dead and wounded being removed from the ruins, and heard the moans and screams.

It is possible that on the following day he, along with others, would have drawn some consolation from the visit of King George VI, who spent time seeing for himself areas of the devastated city. Perhaps he went to see the King walking through the rubble, broken glass and other debris, who through his visit was making an effort to raise morale, and he would have remembered, perhaps, the time he had met the King's father, George V, soon after the end of the previous world war.

Perhaps as he stood watching the King he was holding the one thing he had been able to retrieve from his devastated home, a clock that had been presented to him by the Old Contemptibles' Association in April 1920. On the back of the clock was an inscription which read:

L/Cpl Tandey VC, DCM, MM, Duke of Wellington's Regiment, Old Contemptibles' Association, as a token of esteem and comradeship, April 1920.

This man, who was slight of stature, short and ram-rod straight, was indeed Henry Tandey VC DCM MM (Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal, and Military Medal), who was the most highly decorated private soldier to have survived the First World War.

Nothing on the scale of this bombing and devastation had been experienced in Britain before and his thoughts, assailed by these horrors, would have gone back to an incident twenty-two years before when he had apparently been given the opportunity to change history and spare the misery that he saw all around him. In August 1939 he had discovered that he had been named by Adolf Hitler as the British soldier who had spared the German Führer's life in September 1918. He was said to have aimed his rifle at a wounded and retreating German soldier, and in an act of compassion decided not to shoot. He would surely have reflected on how that act of compassion had been repaid.

That Britain's most decorated private soldier spared the life of Adolf Hitler makes for a great story accepted by some and disputed by many others. It is a story where the truth may never be absolutely known, if only because its participants are all now dead, but it is impossible to write a biography of Henry Tandey without addressing this issue.


The Early Years

According to his birth certificate, Henry John Tandey was born on 30 August 1891 in Swains Buildings, Kenilworth Street, Leamington Spa, in Warwickshire. His birth was registered, no doubt, under the watchful gaze of the Registrar E. Ainsworth on 8 October 1891, by his mother Catherine who gave her address at the time as 2 Albion Row, Leamington Spa. His parents were James Tandey (1869–1944) and Catherine Tandey (1875–1946), who had married on 5 January 1891 at the parish church in Leamington Priors.

James Tandey was a well-known figure around Leamington Spa who was treated with caution by others due to his temper, and in particular his tendency to brawl following a drinking session. It was rumoured that as a young man he had received a kick to the head from a horse, and that this had an adverse effect on his character and personality. He was certainly not a man to get on the wrong side of and his reputation preceded him.

Catherine, whose family originally came from Ireland, was to be the cause of a major disagreement between James Tandey and his father. The Tandeys were a wealthy family and his father considered that James was marrying beneath him. This disagreement resulted in James disowning his father and petulantly changing his family name to 'Tandy'. It seems likely that Catherine was pregnant with Henry at the time of the marriage. This, together with the fact that she was only 15 when she married James, and not 18 as stated on the marriage certificate, would have added to the family tension.

As a result, Henry was baptised at St Peter's Roman Catholic Church on 11 September 1892 under the name Henricus Joannes Tandy. On both his birth certificate and his entry in the baptism register Henry's surname is spelt 'Tandy', but as soon as he was able he made the decision to revert to spelling his name 'Tandey'. Henry's decision to return to 'Tandey' reflects the fact that he had his own issues with his father, although none of his siblings chose to follow his lead. This act by Henry was just one of the manifestations of inter-generational family conflict, and indeed sibling conflict, that would persist through later generations as well.

The spelling of Henry's surname has caused some confusion, as, for example, the London Gazette's citation for Henry's Victoria Cross spelt his surname as 'Tandey' yet for the Military Medal it was spelt 'Tandy'. On Henry's medal records there is one card in the name of Tandy, which has a handwritten note which says 'See Tandey', and another in the name of Tandey which says 'See Tandy'.

Where there are surviving letters from Henry, all written in later life, they are signed 'Tandey' and so, for the purposes of this book, the spelling that will be used is 'Tandey', except for when it was spelt in the alternative form in any original quotations or documents referred to.

* * *

Henry was born into a world of gaslights, trams, and cinemas showing silent, black-and-white films accompanied by live musicians. In 1902 a free library had opened in Leamington Spa where people were not allowed to browse or touch the books. Anyone wanting a book had to place a request via a librarian. Books were to be treated as rare and precious objects, usually always hardback copies, because they would not have been subjected to the large print runs of modern times.

Until 1896 the law required vehicles propelled by steam, petrol or electricity to be proceeded by a man on foot carrying a red flag (Howe, 2004), and it was five years after Henry had been born that the motorcar made its first public appearance at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (Wilson, 2005). However, by 1913 some 33,800 had been purchased, and by 1910 fatal accidents involving cars outnumbered those involving horse-drawn vehicles.

Living in the twenty-first century it is hard to envisage a life without cars but a look at the photograph of the Regent Hotel, Leamington Spa (plate 4), taken in about 1880, shows the Parade with no more than three horse-drawn carriages, and a street sweeper and his cart in the middle of the street. A photograph taken today would look somewhat different, and anyone standing in the middle of the street would at best be unpopular and at worst in danger from the passing cars, buses and delivery vehicles.

Saltzman (1951) stated that Leamington Spa had not been particularly noted for anything until the early nineteenth century, when it had started to be developed as a spa town. Interest in the town as a spa steadily increased with more and more people coming to take the waters, including royalty. One royal visitor was Princess Victoria, who in 1838, as Queen Victoria, granted the town the right to style itself 'Royal' Leamington Spa.

* * *

Henry was born into a military family, and was sometimes known as Harry or 'Napper', although the origins of the nickname are not known. Henry's father, James, served in the 16th Lancers (Smith, 2001), taking part in the fighting in South Africa, and he was also called up as a reservist in the Great War.

The 16th Lancers were deployed to fight in the Boer War in 1900, returning to England in 1904 having fought at the Battles of Paardeberg and Diamond Hill, and played a leading role in the relief of Kimberley.

In February 1900 the 16th Lancers were moving towards Kimberley, and James Tandy would have endured experiences that his son Henry would come to recognise in the Great War, as can be seen from the diary entry of Captain R.W.D. Bellew (Carver, 2000):

Up at daylight again, and moved N of Kimberley no water or feed horses in desperate state were sent out as advanced squadron and came under the hottest fire we've yet had while cutting wire had to retire fortunately only 4 horses hit. Got back after dark.

From March to May 1900, the 16th Lancers were involved in fighting around Bloemfontein, and the story can again be picked up from Captain Bellew's diary entries:

7th March

Heard guns early and saw main body disappearing over horizon turning position on enemy's left. Saw them leave kopje hill and finally they left Table kopje to our front without firing a single shot as infantry threatened on their right. We at once advanced and occupied Table kopje from which we had glorious view for a long time of the whole movement. Enemy retired as fast as they could get their wagons away while cavalry swept round on the right and infantry pressed them back on the left. Towards evening bivouacked beyond Boer's furthest position.


Halted all day to rest horses and get up forage ... Yesterday was completely successful though there was not much firing and very few casualties on either side.

Henry would certainly come to experience the confusion of battle, and would have recognised the following entry in Captain Bellew's diary for 31 March:

At 11.30 orders came to turn out at once and repulse attack by somebody somewhere. All horses were out grazing and the men scattered about washing etc. After some confusion the regiment managed to produce 4 full troops.

It is quite possible that on his return James would, through his stories, have encouraged Henry and his brothers to consider military life, as Henry's brothers James and Samuel would also serve in the Great War, with Samuel being wounded at the Battle of Jutland (Smith, 2001).

Henry's father was also a stonemason/journeyman, and his grandfather, also James, of Norfolk Street, Leamington Spa, was a reputable and well-respected marble mason who, at times, worked for George Gilbert Scott, an architect who is best known for the Albert Memorial and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras railway station in London. It is likely therefore that the Tandey family originally came to Leamington Spa to find work, attracted by the amount of building taking place associated with the town's development at that time, but there is no evidence that Henry ever wanted to follow this family profession.

* * *

At the age of 5, Henry became a pupil at St Peter's School for Boys in New Street, which was founded in 1848 and closed in 1967. By the time Henry started his education it was free and pupils' attendance no longer depended on their parents' ability to pay the daily fee of 1d. Henry would have remained there until 1905, when the school leaving age was by then 14, as a result of the 1902 Education Act. In the absence of reliable, or indeed any, records, it is not clear whether Henry attended the school for all or some of the period from 1901–05 for reasons that will be discussed later, although there is a school photograph taken in about 1905 (plate 3), where he certainly looks more than happy.

Henry's lessons would have focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. There are no school records relating to Henry but a picture of his schooldays can be built up through the work of O'Shaugnessy (1979), who gives an insight into how education was conducted at this time based on learning by rote:

Tables were chanted every morning from the blackboard, passages from the Bible and mournful poems were memorised and 'said out loud' in unison. Dreary lists of spellings, each broken up into syllables, were repeated exhaustingly. Even sums were gone over on the blackboard, the whole class intoning the phrases.

Children took turns to read out loud to the class and any lapses were diligently corrected by the teacher. It must have come as a relief to the pupils when schools acquired more books, allowing each child the opportunity to select one in which they might have some genuine interest and also adopt silent reading, perhaps as a reward for flawlessly reading aloud.

Even if he was not punished himself, Henry would have witnessed how discipline was maintained through the use of the cane. The cane was not only used to deal with misbehaviour, but also for:

Bad writing or an unfortunate inability to do arithmetic. If a child came to school dirty or late, because a slatternly mother had failed him, he was caned. If he dropped a blot on to his exercise book from his atrocious pen or sited his sums on the wrong side of the page, if his sister dirtied the hard calico she was endeavouring to stitch – Nemesis was waiting.

While it is easy to be critical of the use of corporal punishment it needs to be remembered that times were different then and this form of discipline was seen as acceptable in dealing with classes in excess of fifty pupils. It may also be the case that the discipline Henry experienced in school stood him in good stead when he later joined the army, which had similar approaches to discipline and conformity.


Excerpted from The Man Who Didn't Shoot Hitler by David Johnson. Copyright © 2014 David Johnson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Johnson is a World War I historian who became fascinated by the story of Henry Tandey during a visit to Flanders Fields. General Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC DL is a retired British Army officer.

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