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History's Happenings for July 20

"Houston ... The Eagle Has Landed!"

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End of Spanish Main: Colombia Declares Independence

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Confederate Congress Convenes

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Sitting Bull Surrenders

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Patriots Fail to Kill Hitler

To a confirmed Nazi, the ability of German Führer Adolf Hitler to survive assassination attempts ... including several which didn't even become known until after his eventual suicide ... must have seemed a final justification of his vision for the Third Reich.

But such omens did not dissuade a small but persistent cadre of patriots opposed to what the Führer had allowed to happen to their country. On July 20, 1944, a group of army officers who saw Hitler's death as the only chance for Germany's survival mounted the best known of the varied attempts to kill the dictator.

The plotters included General Ludwig Beck, who had been ousted from his exalted position as Chief of the Army General Staff before the war for daring to disagree with Hitler, and one Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg, who had been grievously injured fighting with the Afrika Korps, and now served as chief of staff of the replacement army. Stauffenberg's fortunate position gave him frequent access to Hitler in view of the retreating German army's constant need for reinforcements.

Having arranged a government-in-waiting, and for home army forces to take over key positions upon the success of the attempt, Colonel Stauffenberg flew to Hitler's tightly guarded field headquarters in East Prussia on the morning of July 20 to deliver his report on replacements. With him he took an English-made time bomb.

Then fate stepped in again. When Stauffenberg arrived at the conference, he found it had been moved from the totally enclosed concrete bunker to an above-ground room with the windows open on the warm day. The move would reduce the impact of the explosion. Still, the bomb was more than large enough.

Running late, Stauffenberg claimed he needed to change his shirt, and privately armed the bomb. He would have just ten minutes to plant it and make his escape.

Hustled into the already-filled conference room, Stauffenberg was informed by the Führer that his report would be heard as soon as the ongoing discussion of the Russian Front was completed. He placed his briefcase with its bomb under the heavy oaken conference table, not far distant from Hitler's legs, and quietly exited the room.

The fuse had only two or three minutes to go. But then Hitler's adjutant inadvertently brushed the briefcase with his foot and, in a move destined to change history, he casually reached down and moved the bomb to the far side of the table's heavy trestle leg.

As Stauffenberg approached the innermost SS guardpost, there was a deafening roar as the bomb exploded on schedule. He saw bodies hurled out of the open windows and was convinced that no one inside the building could have survived. By prearrangement, another member of the opposition was conveniently in charge of communications at the headquarters and immediately sent out the signal of success -- "Valkyrie!" -- to Berlin.

Unfortunately, the connection was weak, and when he landed in Berlin, Stauffenberg was infuriated to find that none of the planned actions had been taken, everyone involved awaiting his personal confirmation of Hitler's death. The delay cost the group not only their hoped-for salvation of Germany, but also their lives.

Although a few of the dozens of officers in the conference room were killed -- including the unfortunate adjutant -- Hitler survived, no doubt thanks to the heavy oak table and the moving of the bomb. Suffering only minor burns, bruises and hearing loss, he wasted no time in communicating with his cronies in Berlin, all of whom should have already been arrested by the conspirators, and the plot fell apart.

Stauffenberg, Beck and the others directly involved in the attempt were taken out and summarily shot the same evening. But that was not enough. Hitler cried out for blood and, over the course of the next few months, as many as five thousand Germans, both guilty or merely suspected of opposition to the regime, were executed.

The war dragged on for another nine months, costing untold thousands more lives and finalizing the complete destruction of the Fatherland.

Viking I Lands on Mars

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