I was Hitler's chauffeur... and I was at the bunker to hurl a flaming rag on his petrol-soaked corpse
By Erich Kempka
January 23, 2010
Adolf Hitler looked composed. Even I, who'd known him for 13 years, could not tell that he'd already decided to end his life.
Dressed in his usual field-grey tunic with black trousers, he held a map of Berlin in his right hand. His left trembled. It was April 29, 1945 and Soviet troops were closing in on the city centre and the Führer-bunker.
'How do you see things, Kempka?' he asked. I reported that my men were defending the Reich Chancellery against the Russians, while awaiting relief from our 12th Army. He retorted that everyone was waiting for that and offered me his hand. It was the last time I saw him alive.
I was born in 1910, one of ten children in a family descended from Polish immigrants. In 1930, I became a driver for the Nazi leadership in Essen, joining Hitler's staff two years later.
I had been summoned to Munich, where I was interviewed by Hitler, along with 30 other hopefuls. From habit we formed a semi-circle, with me, the smallest, on the left flank.
We were called forward individually to be questioned by Hitler on our technical knowledge and personal details. Finally came my turn. 'Erich Kempka... father Ruhr mineworker from Oberhausen, 21 years old.'
Then he snapped out rapidly: 'What types of vehicle have you driven? Do you know the eight-litre compressor motor? What is the horsepower of this vehicle? Where did you learn to drive? You are on a blind zigzag bend doing 50 miles an hour when you see an oncoming car. What are your next actions?'
I had not expected this man to have such a degree of technical knowledge. After I answered the last question to his apparent satisfaction, Hitler offered me his hand. I felt elated to have done so well. Just the idea of driving alongside such a man thrilled me.
In 1932 alone I drove 132,000 kilometres [82,000 miles], crossing all over Germany by day and night.
Hitler rarely spoke to me about politics, but said I could come to him with my personal problems. He would always see that his drivers had the best accommodation and food, emphasising: 'My drivers and pilots are my best friends! I entrust my life to these men!'
Hitler, a great motor enthusiast, would sit with me when I drove him, chatting and reading a road atlas, calculating our timings so he always arrived on the dot.
When Hitler's top driver suddenly died in 1936, I was appointed his successor. I was later promoted to the rank of SS-Obersturmbannführer, equivalent to lieutenant-colonel, and appointed one of the eight original members of Hitler's bodyguard.
Apart from my few journeys home and abroad on official duty, I spent virtually the entire war within the closest circle at Führer-HQ.
Hitler moved into the Führerbunker in Berlin as the last phase of the war began in 1945.It received direct hits but the thick concrete roof held.
Street fighting raged in the north of Berlin, with the few German troops putting up a desperate defence against the Red Army.
A few weeks before Hitler's last birthday on April 20, his girlfriend Eva Braun had come to Berlin. Against his will, she spent his birthday with him and the last days until his death.
It wasn't until April 26 that I had a chance to have a long talk with Eva, whom I had known well since 1932.
She told me: 'Under no circumstances will I leave the Führer and, if I have to, I shall die at his side. Initially he insisted that I should take an aircraft out of Berlin. I told him, "I shall not. Your fate is also mine."'
Hitler gave one of his physicians the grim task of testing the cyanide capsules that Nazi Interior Minister Heinrich Himmler had given him. After discovering that Himmler was trying to negotiate with the Allies, Hitler wondered if the poison might be ineffective.
It was visibly a difficult decision for Hitler to test the cyanide on his favourite dog, Blondi. Hitler's suspicions were unfounded, and immediately after being injected the alsatian lay dead on the carpet.
For days there had been talk of the impending marriage of Hitler and Eva. The first preparations were made on April 28. The ceremony was to be held in his study. Hitler dictated his personal and political will to secretary Traudl Junge.
The ceremony was conducted against a backdrop of exploding shells. Nevertheless there was a festive mood as Hitler and Eva stood before a table flanked by Propaganda Minister Josef Göbbels and Hitler's private secretary Martin Bormann as witnesses.
By April 30, Russian shells were hitting the Reich Chancellery and the government district continuously. The streets around the Chancellery were deserts of rubble.
Hitler's adjutant Otto Günsche phoned me in the underground garages. His voice hoarse with excitement, he said: 'I must have 200 litres of petrol immediately.'
I thought it was a joke and told him it was out of the question. He began shouting: 'Petrol - Erich - petrol!'
'Why would you need a mere 200 litres of petrol?' I asked.
'I cannot tell you on the phone. But believe me, Erich, I simply must have it. Whatever it takes, it must be here right now at the exit to the Führer-bunker!'
The only source was the Berlin Zoo bunker, where we had a few thousand litres buried. It would be certain death for my men to go there under bombardment. 'Wait until at least 5pm, because the firing generally dies down a bit around then,' I said.
'I cannot wait another hour. See how much you can collect from your damaged vehicles and send your men at once to the exit to the Führerbunker. And then come yourself immediately!' Günsche hung up.
With a few exceptions, the vehicles in the underground garages were covered with masonry from a cavedin concrete roof. I ordered my deputy to siphon out what petrol could be found. Then I hurried over to Günsche. As I entered the Führerbunker, he was leaving Hitler's sitting room. He was as white as chalk.
'For God's sake, Otto, what is it?' I cried. 'You must be mad, asking me to endanger the lives of a half-dozen of my men to bring you petrol under this kind of bombardment!'
He went to the two outer doors and shut them. Then he turned and said: 'The chief is dead.'
I was shocked. 'How could that happen, Otto? I spoke to him only yesterday. He was healthy and calm.' Günsche raised his right arm, imitated holding a pistol with his fist and pointed to his mouth.
'And where is Eva?' I asked. Gunsche indicated the door to Hitler's room: 'She is with him.'
With some difficulty, I extracted from him the events of the final hours.
Hitler had shot himself in his study with his pistol and had then fallen head first across the table. Eva sat at an angle beside him. She had taken poison but had been holding a pistol. Her right arm was hanging over the side of the sofa and on the ground nearby was the gun.
At that moment, one of my men came in to report the placing of between 180 and 200 litres of petrol at the bunker exit. I sent the man back.
As I did so, the door of Hitler's sitting room opened and his manservant Heinz Linge shouted desperately for the fuel: 'The petrol... where is the petrol?'
I replied: 'It is in position.'
Hitler had told Günsche to contact me and arrange for enough fuel to burn his body and that of his wife, telling him: 'I do not wish to be displayed after my death in a Russian panopticon like Lenin.'
Linge returned to the sitting room. Seconds later the door opened again. Ludwig Stumpfegger, Hitler's doctor, and Linge emerged carrying Hitler's body in a blanket.
His face was covered as far as the bridge of his nose. Below greying hair, the forehead had the waxy pallor of death. The left arm was dangling out from under the blanket.
Bormann followed with Eva in his arms. She was wearing a black dress, her head and blonde tresses inclined backwards.
This shocked me almost more than the sight of the dead Hitler. Eva had hated Bormann, the eminence grise in Hitler's personal circle. His intrigues for power had long been clear to her.
Now her greatest enemy carried her to the pyre. I could not allow this and said to Günsche: 'You help carry the chief, I will take Eva!'
I took Eva's body from Bormann's arms. Her side was wet. I assumed that she had also shot herself, but later Günsche told me that when Hitler's body collapsed across the table it overturned a vase and the water flowed over Eva.
There were 20 steps up to the bunker exit. My strength failed. I had to stop. Halfway up, Günsche hurried to help me and together we carried Eva's body into the open. It was around 4pm. The Reich Chancellery was being shelled. The explosions sent up fountains of soil.
Stumpfegger and Linge had placed Hitler's body on the ground about three metres from the bunker exit. He lay there wrapped in the blanket, legs towards the bunker stairway. The long black trousers legs were pushed up, his right foot turned inwards. I had often seen his foot in this position when he had nodded off beside me on long car journeys.
Günsche and I placed Eva at an angle to her husband as Russian shells exploded around us.
I rushed back to the bunker. Panting, I seized a canister of petrol, ran out again and placed it near the two bodies. Hitler's untidy hair fluttered in the wind. I took off the cap of the petrol can. Shells exploded close by, spattering us with earth and dust.
Again we ran to the bunker entrance for cover. Günsche, Linge and I waited for the shelling to die down before returning to pour petrol over the corpses.
Eva Hitler's dress moved in the wind until it was drenched by fuel. Watching from the bunker entrance were Göbbels, Bormann and Stumpfegger.
I protested at a suggestion that we ignite the bodies with a hand grenade. My glance fell on a large piece of rag at the bunker exit.
'Get that cloth!' I shouted. Günsche tore it in half. It took only a second to open the petrol can and soak the rag with the contents.
'A match!' Göbbels took a box of matches from his pocket and handed it to me. I set light to the rag and lobbed it towards the petrol-soaked corpses.
In seconds a bright flame flared up, accompanied by billowing black smoke. Slowly the fire nibbled at the corpses. For the last time, we gave the Hitler salute to the dead Führer and his wife.
We had to keep pouring more petrol over the bodies and then set fire to them again. During the afternoon, under the most difficult conditions, my men supplied several hundred more litres of petrol.
Back in the bunker, the staff had gathered. Many went up to give the dead leader and his wife a last salute.
Günsche and I went to Hitler's sitting room. The traces of the suicides were still visible. The pistols of Adolf and Eva lay on the red carpet. The Führer's blood lay pooled on the table and floor coverings. To one side was an image of Hitler's mother as a young woman.
I left the room to resume my duties. Outside the medical room I saw Magda Göbbels at a table. She told me of her leave-taking from the Führer: 'I fell to my knees and begged him not to take his own life. He lifted me up benevolently and explained to me quietly that he had no choice.'
The charred remains of the bodies were gathered up and interred in a shallow grave at the side of the house fronting the garages.
The decision was made to break out forcibly at 9pm on May 1. We had no alternative but to go through enemy lines or die as soldiers in the attempt. Our 100-strong group got away with the help of a Panzer company. At one point I was knocked unconscious by an explosion, leaving me temporarily blind.
Later, having destroyed my documents and donned civilian clothes, I was helped through Russian lines by a Yugoslav girl who introduced me as her husband. It remains a mystery to me why this strange girl helped me.
Eventually I made it to Berchtesgaden, near Hitler's mountain retreat. There I spent a day with my wife, recovering from the shock of recent events.
t was my plan - after convalescence - to report myself to the Allies as the head of the motor pool of the Führer and Reich Chancellor. However, I was fingered. The US Counter-Intelligence Corps came for me. After 12 hours of interrogation I was thrown into jail at Berchtesgaden.
I was moved from one prisoner-of-war camp to another. The Allies thought Hitler was alive and every interrogation tried to establish what had become of him. The same questions over and over. Always the same traps. But I was not badly treated.
At the end of June 1946, I was taken from the POW camp at Darmstadt to the Nuremberg war crime trials. I gave evidence in the trial of Bormann, who was tried in his absence (his body had not been found at the time). They were astonished that I knew so much.
From Nuremberg I went to Regensburg camp for transfer from POW to internee status. On a drive from Regensburg to Ludwigsburg I was involved in a serious accident in the transport vehicle. As a result, following court proceedings, I was released in October 1947.
I will always remember a conversation I had with Hitler in 1933, shortly after he seized power. I was driving him from the Reich Chancellery. At the time his words struck me as strange and I never forgot them: 'Do you know, Kempka, I shall never leave here alive.'
Kempka served as chauffeur for Josef Terboven until 29 February 1932, when, based on Terboven's recommendation, he was tasked as a reserve driver for Hitler's personal entourage. In 1934, he was present at the arrest of Ernst Röhm. In 1936, he replaced Julius Schreck as Hitler's primary chauffeur and chief of his car fleet. As his chaufeur Kempka usually drove one of Hitler's black Mercedes cars from a fleet of six to eight which were stationed in Berlin, Munich and other places. Unless in the company of an important personality, Hitler would sit in the front, next to Kempka, with his valet behind him. In a cavalcade, Hitler's car would be followed by a second car with the SS bodyguard, then a police car, further a car with his adjudants and physician, and more cars for press agency representatives, stenographers, and provisions. Later, Hitler's car was protected by bulletproof glass and armor plates.
On 1 December 1937, Kempka joined the Lebensborn society. He was also awarded a Totenkopfring and the SS Honor Sword from Heinrich Himmler. Kempka had been engaged to Gerda Christian (born Daranowski), a private secretary of Hitler's. She later married Luftwaffe officer Eckhard Christian on 2 February 1943.
In 1945, as the end of the Third Reich drew near, Kempka accompanied Hitler to the Reich Chancellery and later the Führerbunker. By then, Kempka oversaw a fleet of 40 vehicles. On 20 April, ten days before Hitler's suicide, he briefly wished the Führer a happy birthday and spent about fifteen minutes with him.
Kempka was one of those responsible for the burning of Hitler and Eva Braun's corpses after they committed suicide together on the afternoon of 30 April 1945. Otto Günsche telephoned Kempka to deliver 200 litres of gasoline to the garden behind the Reich Chancellery. Kempka and his men brought over eight to ten Army petrol cans and deposited them by the emergency exit of the Führerbunker. Later, SS guards brought over additional cans of petrol to further burn the corpses. Kempka left the bunker complex on the following night of 1 May along with SS-Hauptscharführer Heinrich Doose, a driver who was part of his staff. During his escape, Kempka came across Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant colonel) Georg Betz (Hitler's personal co-pilot and Hans Baur's substitute) and left him in the care of Käthe Hausermann. On 20 June, Kempka was captured by U.S. troops at Berchtesgaden.
According to The Last Days Of Adolf Hitler, H. R. Trevor-Roper, p. 128, Betz was last observed in the area of the Weidendammer Bridge as part of a group which left the Führerbunker during the evening of 1 May 1945. Other sources give more details as to Betz's fate, stating that he died from wounds received during the crossing of the Weidendammer bridge.
Despite his questionable reliability, many interviewers quote Kempka in their accounts of Hitler's suicide because of his colorful (and raunchy) language. For example, one interviewer, O'Donnell, recounted the following quips in his book, The Bunker:
- He referred to General Hermann Fegelein as having "his brains in his scrotum"
He died on 24 January 1975, aged sixty-four, in Freiberg am Neckar.
Kempka retained his association with the "Führer-Begleit-Kommando" by attending reunions of I SS Panzer Corps members until the year before his death. .
At the 2008 military trial for Osama bin-Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, the defense argued for his innocence, noting that Kempka was not tried as a war criminal for being a chauffeur for Hitler.