Tree Rings, An Admiral’s Granddaughter, Hitler and Brookfield
By Hobie Morris
What follows is a true story with many unexpected twists – and circles!
Brookfield – a powerful wind and a mighty crash. A huge hard maple, weakened by age breaks and topples. Soon I begin the hard work of cutting and splitting firewood. As I rest on the 3 foot stump, I’m curious about its age. I begin counting its growth rings, eventually coming up with about 150.
To trained eyes (dendrologists) tree rings tell volumes about climate conditions: changes that effected the tree’s growth from a pencil thin sapling to a majestic forest giant.
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Kalfjord, Norway – giant trees growing in this far northern coastal area mysteriously show no growth rings for 1945. Why? A local scientist suggests a possible explanation. Germany’s most powerful WWII battleships were two monsters: the Bismark and the Tirpitz. By 1944, the Bismark lies at the bottom of the Atlantic but the Tirpitz remains a real threat to Allied military plans.
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Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz is not as famous in German history as Otto Von Bismark – the iconic “Iron Chancellor”. Turpitz became the architect of Germany’s pre WWI naval expansion. Germany’s defeat in 1918, including the scuttling of its fleet, was a crushing but only temporary setback. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, an impressive new chapter opens in its naval power. The monsterous battleship Tirpitz honored Grand Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz.
Grand Admiral Tirpitz daughter marries Ulrich Von Hassell. Between 1932-38, Von Hassell is Germany’s Ambassador to Italy. Like many other Prussian aristocrats, von Hassell initially supports Hitler. Eventually he changes his opinion and begins, with others, to plan a conservative counter coup to depose Hitler. Plans are discussed and some are attempted. In July 1944, one almost succeeds!
The Von Hassells had a very attractive daughter named Fey. In her 20s she marries an Italian count (Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli) from an influential Italian family. There is a palazzo in Rome and a magnificent villa at Brazza near Udine. The Birolis have two boys, Corrado and Roberto.
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In 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asks “Where is Tirpitz?” For most of the war, the Allies have tried and failed to located and destroy this constant threat. Even in hiding in Norway’s fjords, it successfully averts being sighted until October 1944. Reconnaissance aircraft finally spot the Tirpitz in its heavily camouflaged lair in the Kalfjord area. The clever Germans try to hide it more but then decide to move the great ship to Tromso and it is here that British heavy bombers (Lancasters) sink the Tirpitz. But why no tree growth rings in 1945 in the Kalfjord area?
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In July 1944, Hitler is almost assassinated at his East Prussia Headquarters, “Wolf’s Lair”. While only slightly injured by the bomb, he swore immediate revenge on the plotters and their families saying “ I shall exterminate this whole brood of vipers once and for all!” And Hitler did – including Ulrich Von Hassell in September, 1944.
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While Fey’s husband is in Rome plotting Italy’s future after Mussolini, Fey and her boys are living at Brazza in North East Italy. While the German army occupies the area, Fey is seemingly safe from Hitler’s diabolical vengeance – until the Gestapo is told of her presence.
Fey is taken to Innsbruck and interrogated. Her boys are taken from her and she will not see them again for a year. For the next 8 months, Fey and others called “prisoners of kin”, allegedly associated with the Hitler plot, were ferried around Austria and Germany as the Allied armies pressed in for the kill. These were desperate days as they were rapidly convoyed each short step ahead.
Possibly this was done without Hitler’s knowledge. It is suspected by some historians that club foot Heinrich Himmler is keeping Fey and these others “safe” so they could be pawns in the twilight days of the Third Reich. Maybe even to save Himmler’s hide after Hitler’s death. When Himmler’s plan fails he orders all the “prisoners of kin” liquidated. In the closing days of the war, they are bussed over the Alps into Northern Italy. Gestapo guards are overheard discussing how to kill them. A German army officer, also a prisoner because of anti-Nazi views, brow beats the Gestapo guards to convy the prisoners to a nearby village controlled by the army. A Wehrmacht officer, anxious to avoid a massacre, has the SS guards arrested and frees Fey and the other prisoners. It will be a long time before the 26 year old beauty’s life is restarted.
Fey’s WWII adventures (and post war years) are widely known through her autobiography, many books about her, and more recently a book titled “The Lost Boys: A Family Ripped Apart by War” by Catherine Bailey.
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Now to the fog of war and why there are no 1945 growth rings. How do you hide a monsterous battle ship in a Northern Norwegian fjord? Mix some chemicals together and “fog” the battleship in from preying eyes. And this they successfully did – but at a cost. The chemicals cost area trees a year of growth and no ring to prove it! Now you know the rest of the story – almost…
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Now the finale: Fey Von Hassell was a personal friend of mine for many years. Many correspondences traveled between Brookfield and the beautiful Udine area of Northern Italy. They shared with us in carefully, single spaced, typed, long letters many war recollections and her insightful observations of the world she witnessed well into her 90s. We feel so priviledged to be a footnote in a life story that indeed has many amazing twists, turns, and circles!
Editor’s note: Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.