The late John Fletcher was just 17 when he signed up for the British Army during World War II. He was a gunner with the 196 Battery of the 73rd Anti-Tank Royal Artillery. He saw action at D-Day, and after the war served in Egypt and North Africa.
But perhaps the most interesting and unique piece of his war-time achievements was the capture and arrest of Heinrich Himmler.
Through the work of historian Chris Mannion and the help of a local Liverpool newspaper, the identity of the British soldiers who accomplished this feat has been revealed. One was Mannion’s grandfather, L/Sgt Patrick Mannion who, along with a few other Liverpool based soldiers including Gunner John Fletcher, was manning a checkpoint near Meinstedt in Lower Saxony when Himmler showed up there in May 1945.
He appeared in civilian clothes, with an eye patch and a forged pay-book in the name of Sergeant Heinrich Hitzinger of the Wehrmacht. He was with a small entourage that was making its way out of Berlin as the Third Reich was collapsing.
The sharp British soldiers detained Herr Himmler for further interrogation at the headquarters of the 2nd British Army at Luneburg. It was during this time that Himmler admitted his true identity. As a medical officer was about to begin a physical examination Himmler realised that he would have to give up the cyanide capsule he was hiding in his teeth, so he decided to end his life by biting the capsule. The man responsible for the death of millions and millions was dead within 15 minutes.
Himmler was clearly one of the most evil men of all time. There may have been those with the uniquely cruel and unspeakably vile ideas that Himmler possessed, but because of the circumstances in which he lived, he was able to inflict those vile ideas on millions of innocent people.
He was able to build the SS up from a small personal body guard for Hitler in the early Nazi days into an organization of enormous scope which overwhelmed the lives of German civilians, German soldiers, and populations unfortunate enough to be conquered by the Third Reich.
His anti-Semitism stemmed from his student days in Munich and from his increasing involvement in the para-military organizations to which he associated. His views found a home with the Nazi party, which eventually seized power on a program of blaming Jews for the economic problems facing Germany.
Although he was not a close intimate of Hitler, Himmler was referred to as “the loyal Heinrich.” by the Fuehrer. Hitler grew to trust Himmler with more and more power and control over the governing apparatus of the Reich, the Liverpool Echo reports.
His secret to success was that he was unusually shrewd in his dealings, including his selection of competent managers to work under him. In addition, he had a burning ambition to build himself up and grow his personal power. But most importantly, from the very earliest days he had a servile loyalty to Hitler.
That loyalty never wavered until the last days of the war when he began taking the personal initiative to begin surrender negotiations with the Americans on behalf of the Third Reich. Himmler deluded himself into thinking that he could play a role with the Allies after the war.
In fact his body was buried in an unmarked grave near Luneburg, the precise location of which is not known.
As for Gunner John Fletcher, he went back to Liverpool after his wartime service was complete. He lived a full and happy life with his wife and five children before passing on two years ago.