At around 6 p.m. on Saturday 10 May 1941, a lone Messerschmitt Bf 110 took off from an airstrip in Augsberg, Germany, its destination the United Kingdom. But this was no bombing raid.
On board was Rudolf Hess, deputy leader to Adolf Hitler. Hess had apparently taken it upon himself to negotiate a peace between the Third Reich, whose forces controlled much of Europe, and the United Kingdom, then bloody-nosed and reeling beneath the relentless German Blitz. Quite why Hess felt this was the time to seek peace remains an enigma and numerous theories have emerged, some more believable than others.
The most straightforward idea is that Hess was simply looking out for his own best interests. Realising he was losing influence within the Nazi Party, did he hope that making a deal with the UK would increase his personal political clout? Or was he tricked into coming by British intelligence, as some conspiracy-minded thinkers believe? Another theory suggests that members of the British royal family were secretly arranging a peace deal with Hess, and that if the full truth behind this were to emerge - even today - the potential scandal might bring down the British monarchy.
Whatever his reasons, Hess parachuted out of his plane over Scotland but was quickly arrested in circumstances that are still not entirely clear. Unfortunately for him, the British government ignored his peace proposal and arrested him as a prisoner of war.
Like so much else in this story, the details of Hess's movements after his capture are murky. There are rumours that he was briefly incarcerated and interrogated in the depths of the Royal Victoria Patriotic School (which later in the war became the "London Reception Centre") in Wandsworth in south London.
This wonderfully Gothic-looking building, known today as the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, had been taken over in January 1941 by the British government as a place to screen foreign arrivals. Although technically under Home Office control it was in practice run by officers of the espionage section of MI5, joined by officers of the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, a.k.a. MI6) and SOE (Special Operations Executive). Officially, nothing particularly sinister happened here but dark local stories tell of suspected German spies being imprisoned here for years in underground cells and perhaps even tortured to elicit their secrets.
Unsurprisingly, this building also has plenty of ghost stories attached to it. Most of the strange happenings reported here are ascribed to the spirit of a young orphan girl named Charlotte Jane Bennett who perished in a fire in January 1862, but of particular interest to us here is a tale told of the south courtyard. It is said that the pond in this courtyard was built on the site of a wartime concrete bunker where six Nazi agents were executed and that people walking past have sometimes heard screams and the echoes of voices speaking in German.
If Hess really was interrogated in Wandsworth he did not stay there long. Between 17 and 20 May 1941 he was held in the Tower of London. It was a grim place to be kept but at least Hess survived his short captivity in that ancient fortress. Less fortunate was his countryman Josef Jakobs, a German agent who a few months later became the last person to be executed in the Tower.
Jakobs had parachuted into England on the night of 31 January 1941 but he broke an ankle on landing and was swiftly captured, and on 4 August was sentenced to death for spying. He was kept prisoner in a room at the east end of the Tower's Waterloo Barracks. Early in the morning of 14 August 1941 his guards escorted him to the rifle range that then stood in the "casemates" between the fortress's inner and outer walls, where a firing squad shot him through the heart.
Some believe it is Jakobs's ghost that has been seen haunting this part of the Tower. In the early hours of 24 April 1980 two sentries on patrol outside the Waterloo Barracks gave chase to a tall, dark figure they spotted near the east end of the building but they lost their quarry when it apparently vanished near the steps leading to the casemates.
Another (or was it the same?) apparition was seen inside the Barracks, again at the east end of the building, on 30 July that same year. In the middle of the day a Yeoman Warder (popularly known as a "Beefeater") leaving his apartment encountered a man dressed in a suit and wearing a brown 1940s-style trilby hat. The man walked through an open door but when the Warder walked through after him to see where he was heading the man had disappeared.
There was a further sighting at around 3 o'clock one September morning, again in 1980, when a sentry patrolling outside the Waterloo Barracks saw the silhouette of a man crouching inside the brightly lit building. As if realising he had been spotted, the figure moved further into the Barracks. Knowing that all inside and outside doors were securely locked the sentry radioed for assistance and the building was thoroughly searched but no intruder was ever found.
After leaving the Tower of London, Rudolf Hess was detained by the British in various locations throughout the remainder of the Second World War and in 1946 he was tried at the Nuremberg war trials where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. He was sent to Spandau Prison in West Berlin, Germany, where from 1966 he was the sole inmate - apart, perhaps, from a ghost.
The watchtowers around this forbidding prison with its solitary guest were manned by lone guards, and their long hours of isolation were made more uncomfortable by talk that Spandau was haunted. Guard duty was rotated month by month between American, British, French and Soviet soldiers, and it was a British Army soldier who, one freezing night in the 1980s, supposedly sensed an eerie presence in his watchtower. Turning around, he saw a soldier staring silently at him. He challenged the intruder twice and, upon receiving no reply, fired three shots into the figure, which vanished into the night air.
Hess remained a prisoner for the rest of his life, finally dying in Spandau in 1987 at the age of 93. He apparently committed suicide by strangling himself with electrical cord, although some claim he was murdered.
His mysterious mission to Britain 70 years ago did not end the Second World War but, oddly enough, the very same night he parachuted into Scotland saw the last major German attack on London. There are those who sense more than mere coincidence at work here, but that shroud of wartime secrecy still keeps us from seeing more clearly.