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The Man Who Could Have Shot Hitler

Chuck Lyons lives in upstate New York with his wife Brenda and a golden retriever named Jack who chases ghosts and barks at shadows.

Henry Tandey

Henry Tandey

A single gunshot in 1918 could have changed history.

It could have meant World War II would never happen and 11 million people would not have died in the Holocaust., the atomic bomb may never have been invested and more than 400,000 American families would not have been left mourning the loss of a son, a father, or a brother.

In September of that year a 27-year-old British private in the Green Howards Regiment named Henry Tandey was taking part in World War I fighting near the French village of Marcoing. As he peered out from his position, a lone German soldier wandered into range. The German appeared to be already wounded and dispirited from the fighting. Rather than firing, Tandey took pity on the man and let him pass. The German saw Tandey lower his rifle and nodded his thanks as he wandered off.

The dispirited German is supposed to have been Adolf Hitler, then a 29-year-old lance corporal in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division and the man who would rise to be the future leader of the Nazi Party and Führer of Germany.

“I didn’t want to shoot a wounded man,” Tandey said about the incident in 1940, “so I let him go.”

At least that’s the story, and it remains controversial today.

The Incident

There appears to be no hard evidence that the incident ever happened, and some modern historians have suggested the story is nothing more than urban legend. Others disagree claiming it did in fact occur.

The story first came to wide-spread public knowledge in 1937 when Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany and became aware of an oil painting done by an Italian artist named Fortunino Matania. The picture depicted a British soldier—reputedly Tandey—carrying a wounded comrade during the World War I fighting. The painting was said to have been based on an actual incident that occurred near Menin. It had been commissioned by Britain’s Green Howards Regiment (Tandey’s regiment) and was taken from a sketch made at the time. Hitler saw the painting and believed the heroic soldier shown in the painting was Taney, who he said he recognized as the man who had spared him. (The painting is currently housed in the Green Howards Museum, Trinity Church Square Richmond, North Yorkshire, England. It can be seen at online at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/real-life-stories/henry-tandey-vc-man-who-3009915).

A year after Hitler saw the paining, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited him in Germany as a preliminary to the Munich Accord. At that time, Chamberlain mentioned the painting, and Hitler is said to have replied that the man in the picture was Tandey and “"that man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again.” He then told the story to Chamberlain and asked him to contact Tandey and thank him on Hitler’s behalf. Back in England, Chamberlain located Tandey and called him on the telephone with Hitler’s message.

Henry Tandey

That call was probably the first time Tandey learned who may have been in his gunsights that day in at Marcoing.

By the end of World War II, however, Tandey had come to regret his failure to pull the trigger in September 1918. During the German bombing of England in World War II, he was quoting in a local newspaper as saying, "If only I had known what he would turn out to be. When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.”

The incident remains controversial and unverified and probably will remain so. But it does fit in with Hitler’s megalomania to believe he have been spared by the highly decorated Tandey, Dr. David Johnson, a Tandey biographer wrote.

“With [Hitler’s] god-like self-perception,” Dr. Johnson said, “the story added to his own myth—that he had been spared for something greater, that he was somehow ‘chosen’. This story embellished his reputation nicely."

Tandey had won Britain’s Distinguished Conduct Medal a month before the alleged Hitler incident for running across No Man’s Land under fire, bombing an enemy trench, and returning to his own lines with twenty prisoners. He later led a bayonet charge that routed thirty-seven German troops and was awarded a Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor. He fought in the battle at Ypres, was mentioned five times in dispatches, and was wounded at the Somme and at Passchendaele, and came out of World War I as Britain’s most highly decorated private soldier. After the war, Tandey stayed in the British army until the late 1920’s when he returned to his home in Leamington, Warwickshire where he died in 1977 at age 86.

A true-to-life hero, Henry Tandey is remembered today more for what he may not have done that for what he did.