Operation Zeppelin (iii)

This was a German attempt to assassinate the Soviet leader, Iosif Stalin (5 September 1944).

Supposedly an unsuccessful German sabotage mission sent to the Moscow area, near which the saboteurs were landed by aircraft with electricity generating plants as their primary objectives, the operation was in fact an attempt to kill Stalin in Moscow. The plan was schemed in July 1944 when SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, successor to SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who had been assassinated in 'Anthropoid', as head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich security head office), asked the Luftwaffe’s specialist Kampfgeschwader 200 unit if it could land a man within 60 miles (100 km) of Moscow, far to the east of the current German front line.

The definitive plan was created by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Grafe and based on a clandestine flight by a German transport aeroplane to the countryside near the Soviet capital to land a party, including an assassin who was a former prisoner of war and had demonstrated his loyalty to the German regime, together with a motorcycle and the weapons needed to kill Stalin as he drove through the city. The members of the assassination team had been thoroughly trained and were well armed, and provision was made for their escape, as too was a safe house for them in Moscow.

‘Zeppelin’ (iii) began with the parachuting of a German reconnaissance party into the proposed landing area to check its suitability and then send the signal to proceed if all was well. On the night of 4/5 September an Arado Ar 232B transport aeroplane took off from an airfield in Latvia and headed to the designated site between Smolensk and Moscow. While most of the flight was free of incident, in one area the aeroplane was engaged by Soviet anti-aircraft fire.

Only later did it become clear that the advance team had been captured and forced to send the radio signal back to Germany: two more radio checks had failed to detect that the team had been compromised.

The anti-aircraft guns had fired upon the German aeroplane without authorisation by the Soviet command, which had planned to set a trap for the aeroplane even though it did not know of the aeroplane’s real purpose. The pilot was able to regain control of the Ar 232 after the anti-aircraft incident and proceeded to an alternative landing site, near Karmanovo to the east of Smolensk. The aeroplane landed but its wing hit a tree, tearing off an engine and starting a fire that drew Soviet troops toward the location. The male Major ‘Tavrin’ and female Sub-Lieutenant ‘Shilova’ quickly left for Moscow on their motorcycle. The two agents carried 428,000 roubles, 116 real and forged rubber stamps and a number of blank documents which would, in theory, enable them to enter the Kremlin and get close enough to Stalin to assassinate him.

Meanwhile the aeroplane’s crew set off on foot toward the German lines. The assassins rode through the night and when stopped by a sentry and challenged, were able to produce the proper documents. However, when the sentry was about to return the documents, the major made an impetuous remark of driving all night. The sentry then noticed that the cyclists and their motorcycle were dry even though it had rained a short while before. He raised the alarm, and the two agents were arrested.

The aeroplane’s crew had been able to send a radio signal that they were attempting to escape on foot 24 hours after the crash. Some of the crew did manage to return back to their own lines, but the rest were captured and did not return until the end of the war.