Hitler's Operation Long Jump
It was the very end of 1943, and the end of World War II was in sight; there no longer seemed to be any chance for Nazi Germany to win, but the fighting continued. The "Big Three" leaders of the Allied powers — Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, and Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States — had their first meeting together to discuss war strategy, codenamed Eureka. The meeting was held at the Soviet embassy in Tehran, Iran. Meanwhile, 3500 km to the northwest in Berlin, Hitler watched with great interest. What if an unfortunate accident should take place, and all three world leaders were to die tragically? It was certainly a compelling opportunity. And this opportunity touched off one of the great enduring mysteries of World War II: the case of the apocryphal Operation Long Jump, Hitler's actual attempt to assassinate the Big Three at the Eureka meeting. What's the mystery? Some say that Operation Long Jump was attempted by the Nazis and thwarted, and some say it never even existed. Today we're going to sample what's known so far, and see where the best evidence lies.
So many old mysteries are unsolvable: no new information is forthcoming, and whatever old information that may exist is often inadequate. But stories from the world of espionage are different, because those answers do exist somewhere in a locked file cabinet or a secure storage vault. And occasionally, classified documents are declassified. Thus, there is often a trickle of new information that does become available, and sometimes does reveal the facts behind a question that was believed to be unsolvable. Such is the case with Operation Long Jump.
It goes without saying that during warfare, the leaders of every side have always looked for opportunities to strike against their opponents' heads of state. And so we can say for a certainty that the Nazis were watching the Tehran Conference very closely, and doubtless they talked about whether it might present such an opportunity. By that time, the Nazis were not so much looking for a way to win the war, but of having replacement heads of state who might be willing to work out a post-war agreement more favorable to Germany than would the Big Three — indeed talk of how to divide Germany after the war ended up being a major theme of the Eureka meeting. But for Germany to actually assassinate the Big Three all at once would be both difficult and risky. First, such a mission would be a war crime, worthy of yet another noose around the necks of participating Nazis. Second, doing this in Tehran would be exceedingly difficult. Iran had just declared war on Germany only two weeks before, plus it was heavily occupied by Russian and British troops. Getting a commando team into the seriously militarized Tehran, and past the substantial security around the Big Three, was a fool's errand. In all probability, any assets sent in would be lost, and the plot revealed. So it's not at all a slam-dunk that the Nazis would have tried to do this.
And yet, just before the conference, Stalin personally sent word to Roosevelt through his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (after whom the Molotov cocktail is named) that their counterintelligence had just foiled such a plot, right there, in Tehran, that same day. Stalin urged Roosevelt to relocate. The Americans did not have an embassy or an ambassador in Tehran, instead they had a lesser diplomatic office called a legation, and Roosevelt had planned to stay there. It was located on the outskirts of town, while the British and Soviets both had substantial embassies next door to one another inside a fortified and walled compound. The meetings had been planned to be held at the American legation as it was difficult for Roosevelt to travel. However, considering that the assassination plot had been reported, the Americans felt it was more diplomatic to move to the security of the Soviet embassy than to give the appearance of risking Stalin and Churchill's lives by making them drive across the city twice a day.
Stalin's report was that 38 Nazi commandos had parachuted into the hills around Tehran, armed with both submachine guns and a type of British grenade called Gammon bombs, and Soviet security had captured all but six of them. Those six were still at large, and very capable of doing a great deal of damage. The American delegation moved, and the meetings were held at the Soviet embassy, inside the secure compound.
Right there is where the historical controversy began. Had there actually been an invasion by Nazi paratrooper commandos, or had Stalin made it up? The Americans quickly speculated that there were good reasons for the Soviets to have invented the story as a ruse to move Roosevelt into their embassy — one obvious reason being to spy on him; Stalin's personal security being another.
Publicly, the Americans went along with it. Two weeks after Roosevelt got back to the states, he gave a press conference in which he cited that plot as the reason for his relocation. The New York Times reported:
But privately, Roosevelt's "not taking much stock in the report" was more like it. Some reports say that once the conference had safely concluded, the Americans asked Molotov if the threat had been real, and all he was willing to commit to was that they knew there were always German agents in Tehran, but they did not actually have information of a specific credible threat; the presence of German agents alone was sufficient to justify moving Roosevelt to the Soviet embassy for his own safety.
In the ensuing decades, countless books and authoritative articles have been written about Operation Long Jump by both Western and Soviet/Russian researchers, both confirming and debunking the reality of Operation Long Jump. From my own survey of this vast body of literature I estimate the balance of the writing to tip in favor of it being real. But we can't make much of a judgement from that: all these authors are working from essentially the same source material, much of which was speculative to begin with, and some of which may still remain classified.
In the 1960s, the KGB began to publish quite a bit of information about their great defeat of Operation Long Jump, as evident Cold War propaganda. It was during these days that the first details emerged of a tremendously complex plot with a full cast of characters, the same who now appear in all of the books. The story had a new opening now. Before the raid, an NKVD agent (a precursor to the KGB) undercover as a Wehrmacht officer, became friendly with a German commando who liked to talk a lot when he drank. His name was Hans Ulrich von Ortel, and once he had a few drinks in him, he blurted out everything about the great new Operation Long Jump in which he was about to participate, and would kill all the Big Three in Tehran. To make a very long story very short, the NKVD passed this along to Stalin's security people in Tehran, and so they were ready when the paratroopers landed.
Whether all these new details were true and were simply declassified, or whether the Soviets made them up as propaganda, there isn't really any way to know for sure. But the same basic plot — and it goes into all kinds of twists and turns worthy of a James Bond film — is found in all the books today. In addition to many 20th century books, later ones include Adrian O'Sullivan's 2014 Nazi Secret Warfare in Occupied Persia which finds that the entire tall tale was cooked up as pure Soviet propaganda, and Howard Blum's 2020 Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler's Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin which firmly concludes that the story was absolute fact.
Another of these books was written by the man who is said to have been the actual head of Operation Long Jump, the famous Nazi commando, Col. Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny had been responsible for many famous commando raids, most of them reading like they were straight out of Hollywood — a few of them even topping anything Hollywood ever conceived of. He was also a good soldier and played by the rules, having been acquitted of war crimes in the Dachau Trials of 1947. In his memoirs published 32 years after his death, Skorzeny stated that Operation Long Jump never existed at all, and claimed that he'd been named as its commander simply because he was known to the Allies as one who did such operations, and attaching his name would give the story credibility. He also said that there was no such person as Hans Ulrich von Ortel; it was a persona made up by the Soviets.
Both of these claims are contradicted by Hungarian author Laslo Havas, who — upon hearing the KGB's newly released information — met with Skorzeny at his home in Madrid in the 1960s and interviewed him, according to his 1967 book Hitler's Plot to Kill the Big Three. Havas claims Skorzeny admitted to him that he had indeed been in charge of Operation Long Jump, and that Ortel was real and had died in prison. At some point you are left with no better course than to simply wonder who to believe: Did Havas lie about what Skorzeny told him, or did Skorzeny simply humor this young writer with a tall tale?
For its part, the American CIA has no doubt that Operation Long Jump was a Soviet concoction that never happened. Their website republishes a number of articles from the industry journal Studies in Intelligence detailing how we know there's no longer any doubt that the Soviets did bug Roosevelt, not only at the Eureka conference but also at another event at Yalta. Prior to the conference, Roosevelt had not taken the Soviets up on at least two separate previous invitations to stay at their embassy instead of at the American legation; it wasn't until they presented the Operation Long Jump story that he finally conceded. The story also conveniently requires no evidence — most notably, all those paratroopers who were allegedly captured except the six who got away? What happened to them? In the Soviet narrative, they were mysteriously disappeared after being captured and interrogated by the NKVD, as was the common practice.
So since just about everyone under the sun has reached a firm, thoroughly-proven conclusion on the question of whether Operation Long Jump was real and landed paratroopers inside Iran, and their conclusion is one of two polar opposites, you're probably wondering what Brian Dunning from Skeptoid.com has to say on the matter. On this question, I'm going with... drum roll please... I have no idea. Of all the sources I studied, I found nothing that was irrational or improbable. There simply isn't enough reliable data to guide me to either landing place. I do expect that the feedback to this episode will be similar to that which I received on episode #666 on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth: those passionate enough to write in will be split 50/50 between those who tell me there is no scholarly debate on an absolute yes, and those who claim the same thing for an absolute no. Hitler's Operation Long Jump is another lesson for us all on the value of "I don't know," very often the most intellectually honest of all possible answers.
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