Novelists including Ken Follett, Jack Higgins, Alan Furst, and Philip Kerr have indulged us with thrilling accounts of spies and saboteurs in World War II. Rarely, though, have they managed to equal in their fiction the sheer audacity of the real-world Nazi plot to kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin which unfolded in Tehran late in November 1943. This is a story that no novelist could possibly invent and expect to be believed. And Howard Blum tells it with all the skills of a thriller writer in his deeply-researched book, Night of the Assassins.
Two engaging central characters
Blum’s story revolves around Mike Reilly (1910-73) and Walter Schellenberg (1910-52). Reilly was the head of the United States Secret Service during World War II and served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal bodyguard. Schellenberg was the equivalent of a brigadier general in the Nazi SS, for which he headed foreign intelligence. He was the counterpart of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the military intelligence unit, the Abwehr, which Schellenberg’s organization absorbed later in the war. These two characters dominate the action. However, a third person, SS Captain (later Colonel) Otto Skorzeny (1908-75), plays an important role as well. Skorzeny, “Hitler’s favorite soldier,” was the commando who rescued Mussolini.
Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin by Howard Blum (2020) 384 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
An immensely complex story made simple
Blum does a masterful job of simplifying an immensely complex story using techniques familiar to any thriller reader. An academic attempting to relate the same events would struggle to make it readable. After all, the assassination plot at the center of this tale involved not just Reilly, Schellenberg, and Skorzeny but also Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Wilhelm Canaris. Others who enter the story include Adolf Hitler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and a long list of Nazi commandos as well as both Allied and Nazi diplomats, spies, and double agents. The story involved Iranian wrestlers and a powerful Iranian tribal leader, too. In Hollywood, this might have been called a “cast of thousands.”
It’s not as though Blum was unaware of all these players. His six-page list of sources makes clear how intensively he researched this long-neglected story. Night of the Assassins is a marvel of popular history. Blum conveys as a comprehensible Nazi plot to kill FDR what might in other hands have degenerated into a confusing survey of dueling Nazi and Allied intelligence services.
The amazing story in a nutshell
Forcing a livable settlement
Walter Schellenberg had long dreamed of an espionage coup that could change the course of the war. When spies brought him word that the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) would meet late in November 1943, he fantasized that his chance had come. He teamed up with his rival, Wilhelm Canaris, to design a joint operation to assassinate all three. Both Schellenberg and Canaris were realists. Neither was a Nazi zealot. They realized Germany had lost the war. What they hoped to achieve by killing the Big Three was to force the Allies to negotiate a livable settlement that would prevent their facing a war crimes tribunal.
A Nazi plot to kill FDR with hundreds of moving parts
When the pair learned the conference would be held in Tehran, they counted themselves lucky. Both the SS and the Abwehr had placed agents there who could help hide paratroops dropped nearby and guide them through the city. Elaborate preparations then began to train and equip two commando teams to carry out an extremely clever attack plan one of the Nazi agents in Tehran devised.
From the first, the plan went awry in its execution. Soviet agents rounded up most of the commandos (and executed them without delay). However, a small, third team meant to spy on the two larger groups survived. Hiding out in the Iranian capital, they prepared to carry out with six men what had been planned for fifty. And they just might have pulled it off.
The monumental challenge to protect a wheelchair-bound leader
Meanwhile, as the Nazi plot graduated from fantasy to reality and finally went into operation, Mike Reilly faced a constant struggle to protect FDR. The Boss, as he called him, was confined to a wheelchair and limited to brief, excruciating times on his feet in heavy braces. Reilly faced endless challenges to move the President on and off ships and airplanes and through city streets in the open automobiles FDR favored.
Those challenges multiplied in Cairo, where FDR met Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek in advance of the Big Three conference, and then proliferated in the teeming streets of Tehran. Reilly seems to have gotten little sleep for months as the event drew near. As word of the Nazi scheme trickled out to him from Soviet intelligence, he grew increasingly agitated. Blum adroitly conveys the terror that kept him awake at nights until the President left Tehran at long last.
About the author
Howard Blum is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books, several of which were bestsellers. Previously he worked as a reporter for the Village Voice and the New York Times. Night of the Assassins is the third of his books about World War II. He is based in New York.
For additional reading
I’ve also reviewed another of Howard Blum’s books: In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies (How the Soviet atomic spies were caught).
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- 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up)
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