Saturday, June 8, 2013

HITLER: Why Didn't He Bomb Oxford? (25K Views, Mar 2017)

Felicity Tholstrup, our guide, tells Oxford alums in New College that Hitler gave orders
 not to bomb Oxford. (Alice Tepper Marlin is 4th from right.) Photo by JTMarlin, 2012.
June 8, 2013–As the anniversary of D-Day approaches, I have been thinking over a tour of New College that my wife Alice Tepper Marlin and I took during the Oxford Alumni Weekend last year.

Our knowledgable tour guide, Felicity Tholstrup, noted that not one Oxford building was damaged in World War II. Hitler did not bomb Oxford.

I have been wondering–why not? Why didn't Hitler bomb Oxford? Historians don't credit him with much empathy for British civilians or cultural centers.

For Eight Months Hitler Bombed British Cities, But Not Oxford

After Hitler won the Battle of France on June 17, 1940, he attempted to invade Britain on July 10, 1940. The effort was repelled during the next three months by the Royal Air Force, at great cost. Both the RAF and the Luftwaffe lost approximately one-fifth of their planes every month for three months. Hitler gave up the idea of an invasion. The "Battle of Britain" was won.

Instead, Hitler sought to break British morale by ordering the Luftwaffe to engage in savage bombing of British cities (the "Blitz"), starting on September 7, 1940. During the first ten weeks, attacks were directed at London. Only one night was free of bombing, with an average of 160 bombers flying over England each night.

Thereafter, London was attacked less intensely while the Luftwaffe spread out to other British cities. The bombing continued for eight months, until May 10, 1941, when planes were diverted to the European Continent for an attack on the Soviet Union.

German maps for the invasion of many British cities were recovered in Berlin after the war. The city maps included one of Oxford. 

Unlike the other maps, the Oxford map did not include any military targets other than bridges. Why not?

Little Damage to the City of Oxford

Oxfordshire was hit many times, but not the City of Oxford.
  • In Oxfordshire county, 3,831 German bombs were dropped, killing 20 people, injuring 60 others, and killing 65 head of cattle. The bombs also killed 65 head of cattle and damaged more than 300 houses as well as other buildings and utilities ( Witney was bombed early on, in November 1940, but it is 12 miles west of Oxford
  • One unexploded bomb was found in the Cowley area, on the outskirts of Oxford, where the important Morris Motors factory is located–a valid military target, but quite a distance from the university.
  • A six year-old boy who had been evacuated from London's East End was killed in bed when a dummy bomb fell from an RAF plane and crashed through the roof of his temporary home in Stanway Road, Oxford.
The Luftwaffe does appear to have been ordered to avoid the City of Oxford. Was this based on some agreement?

Did Hitler Agree to Avoid Oxford?

Could there have been an agreement—explicit or implied—that the Allies and Axis would not bomb some university towns with cultural treasures of international significance?

If so, the Allies did not honor it in the case of the ancient Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, even though as we now know it was not being used at all as a military center when the Allies started bombing on January 17, 1944.

The German university city of Heidelberg was spared by the Allies; possibly this was part of an agreement, but more likely Heidelberg just did not have any military significance. Oxford did—starting in 1937, the Morris Motors factory produced the de Havilland Tiger Moth training airplane. The factory also repaired damaged aircraft, using salvage including the remains of crashed Luftwaffe planes.

There could not have been a general agreement to avoid university towns because the Nazis bombed many UK cities with major universities in them, including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Sheffield and Southampton.

The Allies, for their part, bombed Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and other cities with universities.

So the exemption from Nazi bombing, if there was one, was restricted to Oxford and perhaps one or two other university towns. Oxford-born Cambridge don Stephen Hawking in Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (New York: Bantam, 1993, 1-2) says that being a child in Oxford during World War II was to be in a safe place because:
The Germans had an agreement that they would not bomb Oxford and Cambridge, in return for the British not bombing Heidelberg and Göttingen.
Snopes finds no evidence for such an agreement and classifies Hawking's statement as an "urban legend". However, the legend has had a leg among the military. A 2015 commentator on this 2013 post (scroll down below), an American who was at a U.S. Army base in Germany in the 1960s, said his fellow soldiers believed Allied bombers avoided Heidelberg and Wiesbaden as a trade for the Nazis not bombing Oxford and Cambridge. Another former soldier has suggested it was Göttingen, as Hawking states, rather than Wiesbaden.

Was Hitler Planning to Make Oxford His British Capital?

However, no agreement was necessary for Hitler to decide to spare Oxford. He could well have decided to spare Oxford because he intended to use it for his own purposes after the war, assuming he was victorious:
  • The City of Oxford website lists as Fun Fact #4 that Hitler intended to use Oxford as the capital of a subjugated Britain. That would suffice as Hitler's reason for not bombing the city. The reference originally given by the City of Oxford (it has been removed since I first posted this) was James Morris, Oxford (London: Faber and Faber, 1965). When I looked for the book I found it under the same title with the author Jan Morris (Oxford University Press paperback, 1978). The OUP book (p. 7) cites the story prefaced by "It is said that...". The explanation of the name change is that James Morris pioneered in 1972 having surgery to enhance his feminine side.
  • The Bodleian possesses, and has published a translation of, Hitler's plans for the invasion of Britain. I have seen some of the original German maps, mostly showing targets of military significance. They include a map of Oxford, but it shows no military targets, only the location of bridges. The David Rumsey Map Collection at the Bodleian has now made the Oxford map available online (thanks to Nicola O'Toole at the Bodleian's Weston Library for this tip). This suggests (at least, to me) that Hitler planned to move troops into Oxford and that the purpose might have been as a seat of government in Britain, going back to the days when Charles I ruled from Christ Church, Oxford.
  • Another possibility is that Hitler thought of Oxford as a possible communications center for controlling a conquered Britain.
Why would Hitler want to use Oxford as his UK capital?

I claim no special insight into the mind of the mad Führer. However, I can think of three reasons for Hitler wanting to locate in the oxford area:

1. Hitler deeply admired England and especially Oxford.  Hitler's second book, written in 1928, was My New Order. According to his first wife Ivana, Donald Trump had a copy of this book by his bed, given to him by a friend. Chapter 3 includes this tribute by Hitler to England in the context of the need of Germany's Volk for military training to stiffen its spine:
[O]ur Folk ... in its racial fragmentation so very much lacks qualities which, for example, characterize the English–a determined sticking together in time of danger. 
Hitler was impressed with the British Empire and with the vision that Cecil Rhodes had of an Oxford as a school for world leaders. Rhodes included Germans in his design for the Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford. He envisioned Oxford as a world-wide educational center for future world leaders from the British Commonwealth, the United States and Germany. Hitler may have taken from this a special relationship between Oxford and the Third Reich. He took a personal interest in the Rhodes Scholarships.

At New College, Magdalen College and other colleges at Oxford, memorials to alumni and staff who died in World War I even-handedly include German alumni who fought for the Kaiser. Germans were included among the Rhodes Scholars:
  • Germans were included starting in 1903, until 1913, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and therefore Britain. 
  • No Rhodes Scholarships were given to Germans during the years 1914-29.
  • During the years 1930-38, Germans were again awarded Rhodes Scholarships. 
  • In 1938, Hitler gave a personal order to Erich Vermehren, who had been selected for a Rhodes, not to accept it, on the grounds that Vermehren had refused to join Hitler Youth. This might have been sufficient reason to end the Rhodes Scholarships to Germans in 1939. An even stronger reason for ending them was that meanwhile Hitler had invaded Poland. 
  • It would be another 31 years before Rhodes Scholars again included Germans. As of 2014, 180 Rhodes Scholarships have been awarded to German students.
2. Hitler took heart from the Oxford Oath, the Union's "King and Country" vote. The Oxford Union in 1933 passed the motion that "This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country". Winston Churchill, an alumnus of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, dissed the vote, calling it "abject, squalid, shameless" and "nauseating". Joseph Alsop, in a syndicated column, "Blundering in to War–By Being Anti-War," St. Petersburg Times (May 11, 1970), said that Hitler referred often to the Oxford Oath and Union vote. Hitler may have been forgiven for concluding that Britain's young men had no stomach for another war. When Hitler spoke of "wringing the neck of the English chicken" in May 1941, he may have been thinking of the outcome of the 1933 debate. The Oxford Oath was imitated in thousands of American colleges.

3. He imagined parading into Oxford like William the Conqueror to spite Churchill. Hitler might have looked forward to riding into Oxford to rule Britain, just as William the Conqueror in 1066 rode to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire to accept the fealty of Saxon nobles. There is not much left today of Berkhamsted Castle, viewable from trains on the Euston lines to Tring and Northampton–not because it was bombed, but because it crumbled from age and is being restored at a snail's pace. Hitler would doubtless have relished moving his Reichskommissar for Britain into a Nazi HQ in Blenheim Palace, a 30-minute ride from Oxford, throwing out Malvern College boys that first used the building, or the War Office, which then took it over. That would have been a poke in the eye to Hitler's arch-enemy Winston Churchill, who was born in Blenheim.

How Did Hitler Get It Wrong? Count the Ways 

Hitler's faith that he would be riding into Oxford victorious was based on at least three misconceptions about Oxford (as well as failing to understand the vulnerability of the German military's supply chain and the impact of U.S. entry into the war):

1. The Oxford Union vote misled Hitler.  On the "King and Country" debate, a writer for Churchill College, Cambridge notes that the thinking of Oxford undergraduates would hardly be representative of the nation.
The debate cannot be taken as evidence of what people of all classes were thinking. Oxford undergraduates were hardly typical... They came largely from wealthy upper- or middle-class families; they were highly literate and well-read ... and young people often like to take stand or an extreme position precisely because they know it will provoke a strong reaction... 
The Trinity College war memorial. Each 
Oxford college lost dozens or even hundreds of 
alumni to the wars. Photo by JTMarlin.
The Oxford Union vote is based on both the content of the motion and  the quality of the arguments. The vote therefore may reflect less the views of the audience and more  their appreciation of the debaters. In fact, from the moment war broke out, Britain's youth turned out in force. As Winston Churchill said in Ottawa in 1942:  "Some chicken. Some neck." Again, a generation of young men,  including many Oxford alumni,  died in battle.

2. Hitler didn't understand how little support the Nazis would get globally.  The extent of Hitler's evil was not widely understood in 1933. Although Hitler had published his views in Mein Kampf, his book was not immediately translated into English. Whatever public opinion in Britain was in 1933, it was radically changed when Hitler started invading other European countries and the extent of the Holocaust began to be revealed. He did not expect the Dutch to be so opposed to German rule; he had little resistance from the Austrians.

With the possible exception of senior officers thought to be hostile to Hitler, like "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel, Hitler's Wehrmacht did not get the same respect after  World War II that the Kaiser's Army did in the Great War. Whereas German alumni are listed in Memorials to Oxford dead in the Great War, I could find only one German alumnus listed for World War II, on a Magdalen College board, identified as "W'cht" [Wehrmacht]. It took another 25 years after World War II for Rhodes Scholarships to be resumed for German students.

3. Several prominent Rhodes Scholars sought to overthrow Hitler. Hitler's overthrow was sought by at least three aristocratic Germans named as Rhodes Scholars. An alumnus of Trinity, Oxford was one. He selected another German who attended Balliol. Both gave their lives to resisting Hitler.

Albrecht von Bernstorff,
Germany and Trinity, 1909.
Count Albrecht von Bernstorff (Germany and Trinity, 1909) was the nephew of Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, who served as German Ambassador to the United States during the First World War. He was a close friend of Otto Kiep and Hannah Solf, who were at the center of a German conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. Unfortunately, a member of the circle was a Gestapo informer. Albrecht von Bernstorff was arrested and imprisoned in Ravensbrück together with Frau Solf. They were tortured and shot in April 1945 on orders of Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop.
    Adam von Trott zu Solz,
    Germany and Balliol, 1931.
    Adam von Trott zu Solz (Germany and Balliol, 1931) was picked by a Rhodes selection committee that included Albrecht von Bernstorff, and the two remained friends for their brief lives. At Balliol, von Trott was a close friend of David Astor and visited the United States, where he had a connection as the great-great-grandson of John Jay, the first U.S. Chief Justice. He became a member of the Kreisau Circle and was a leader of the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler. Trott was hanged a month later. His wife Clarita lived on, dying in Berlin at 95 in 2013. The story of von Trott (or perhaps a composite of him and the other two German Rhodes Scholars) is told fictionally in a highly praised novel that I have been reading, The Song Before It Is Sung, by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury, 2007).

    Dr Erich Vermehren de Saventhem and his wife,
    Elisabeth, Countess v
    on Plettenburg, in the 1940s
    Erich Vermehren (Germany, 1938) was a Hamburg lawyer, elected to a Rhodes Scholarship in 1938. He received a personal order from Hitler not to accept the scholarship because Vermehren had refused to join Hitler Youth, and was therefore never assigned a college at Oxford. Rejected for military service because of an injury from his childhood, he was sent to the Istanbul branch of the Abwehr (military intelligence), where he became a part of a wide network of anti-Nazi dissidents that included his cousin Adam von Trott. When Otto Kiep was arrested, the Vermehrens were ordered to Berlin for interrogation by the Gestapo. Despite dogged pursuit, they escaped to England in February 1944 with British help. In England, they stayed, ironically, with the mother of double-agent Kim Philby, who would later defect to the Soviet Union. Vermehren's cousin, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was dismissed by Hitler, and the Abwehr was placed under Himmler and the SS, who were apparently less effective than Canaris at using military intelligence right before D-Day. Vermehren, who after the war was known as Erich Vermehren de Saventhem, died in 2005.


    My take on the story is that Hitler spared Oxford because in his mind he believed that Britain would fall as easily as other countries had before and that he would set up his government there like Charles I, probably in Blenheim Palace to spite Churchill. He overestimated the reluctance of British young men to fight. He underestimated the ability of the British to sustain the bombs of the Luftwaffe on the ground and oppose it in the air. The stories of the attempts of Oxford-educated Germans to resist Hitler are worth revisiting in the context of new demagogues seeking political dominance.

    Personal Note

    I have a personal interest in D-Day. In the early morning of June 10, 1944 my bomber-pilot uncle Willem van Stockum was shot down over Laval, France on his sixth mission from the RAF 10th Squadron base at Melbourne, Yorks. during the 10-day period around D-Day. The town of Laval has honored both the graves and crash sites of the 7-man crews on the two planes downed that cloudy moonlit night. The French noted gratefully that both pilots steered their plunging planes away from the farmers' houses, toward the fields. My uncle's flaming Handley Halifax crashed in a pear orchard. Robert Wack has written a gripping book about him. I have met the relatives of some of the crews on the two planes–including two sons of airmen and a great-niece of another who is now with the Canadian Air Force–as well as elderly French farmers who were children at the time.

    This post, like others on this blog site, is © 2013-2017 by John Tepper Marlin. Permission to reprint? Send to jtmarlin@post.harvard.eduThe above post has been viewed 24,000 times as of Sept. 2017. Thank you for reading!


    Cartwright, Justin, The Song Before It Is Sung (Bloomsbury, 2007).

    Graham, Malcolm, Oxfordshire at War 1939-1945 (Sutton, 1994).

    Hawking, Stephen. Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (New York: Bantam, 1993).

    Library of Congress, World War II Military Intelligence Maps—American, British and German.

    Oxfordshire County, Bomb Totals, 1940-45.

    Rumsey, David, Map Collection at the Bodleian: City of Oxford. Original copies of the German invasion maps are available in Oxford at the Bodleian, and at the New York Public Library (since 1951). Nicola O'Toole was extremely helpful at the Weston Library of the Bodleian.

    Wack, Robert, Time Bomber (New York: Boissevain Books, 2014).

    Also See My Posts on the Arms of Oxford Colleges & PPHs: Original Article in Oxford Today . Heraldry as Branding . Heraldry as Fun .  Coat of Arms vs. Crest . Sinister Questions . Visit to the College of Arms . Windsor Herald Talks to New Yorkers . Shaming of Harvard Law Crest . Coats of Arms in the Oxford Shop :: Rapid Expansion of Oxford's Colleges and Halls . Oxford Stars . Links to Heraldry, Oxford, GW :: Harris Manchester College . Linacre College . St Catherine's . St Cross College . St Edmund Hall . St Peter's College . Trinity College :: Regent's Park College . St Benet's Hall.  

    Related Posts: Oxford Birthdays . Baedeker Bombing of Britain . Election of Nazi Party . Woodstock, Home of Blenheim Palace . Why Didn't Hitler Invade Britain after Dunkirk? .


    1. When I was in the Army in Germany in the 60s, I heard that Heidelberg and Wiesbaden were the two major German towns not bombed. One became Army Headquarters and the other Air Corps/Force Headquarters.

    2. Thanks for the information. You mean they became U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force HQs after VE-Day?