Minister who guarded Nazi jail says it was closest he's been to 'real evil'

Staring into the room where Adolf Hitler’s deputy killed himself is the “closest I have ever felt to real evil”, a new Church of Scotland minister has said.

Rev Peter Sutton was a young officer in the Black Watch which was responsible for guarding Spandau Prison in Berlin, Germany where Rudolf Hess was held.

He was on duty the day after the Nazi, who was captured near Eaglesham in East Renfrewshire in 1941 after he bailed out of his Messerschmitt, committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 93.

Peter Sutton
Rev Peter Sutton

Mr Sutton, 52, who was recently ordained and inducted into St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh - known as the Kirk of Castle Rock, said the day would be forever etched into his memory.

“Most of the senior Nazis after the Nuremberg trials, who were not executed, were sent to Spandau and Hess was the last one there,” he said.

“The British, Americans, French and Russians took it in turns to guard the perimeter of Spandau Prison.

“The day after he killed himself, another officer and I were able to walk through the huge gardens because the German wardens had gone.

“We approached a white cabin and the front of it was all glass.

Chilling

“This was Hess’s summer house and inside, as I remember it, there was a rocking chair, books, an oxygen cylinder on a trolley and I could see the noose that he used to hang himself.

“It appeared to be an electrical cable pulled from the wall.

“My fellow officer and I just stopped talking and for some reason we just had to get out of there as fast as we could.

“I will never forget it.”

Hess was Deputy F├╝hrer of Nazi Germany from 1933 until his doomed flight to Scotland in 1941 to hold peace talks with the Duke of Hamilton.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 for crimes against peace and taken with six other Nazis to Spandau allied military prison in the British sector of Berlin.

Rudolph Hess
Rudolph Hess

Mr Sutton, who was a 22-year-old Second Lieutenant at the time, said he never met Hess personally but described him as a man with the “weight of history and his conscience on his shoulders”.

“It is a very vivid memory and I got this amazing insight that very few people got by being able to get into the garden, before it became a restricted area.

“Standing in the place where the last Nazi had killed himself the day before was very eerie and chilling, it was the closest I have ever felt to real evil.

“It was almost tangible, it surrounded you.

“It was a tranquil and peaceful garden but its connection to such horrors and evil is what grabbed me most.”

End of an era

Mr Sutton, who attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, said he was very aware of Rudolph Hess from a young age because he always wanted to be a soldier.

He grew up on a diet of Second World War films like Where Eagles Dare, the Guns of Navarone and Commando comics.

Mr Sutton said: “Being stationed in Berlin for a summer and studying theology at university in London at the time, I had a much bigger understanding of what happened particularly to Jewish people during the Second World War.

“That set it into a much more realistic context than a comic book.

“So to be actually guarding Hess, it suddenly became very serious.

“In many ways with Hess dying, that was the last full-stop in the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the Second World War because he was the last member of Hitler’s hierarchy to die.”

Hess Summer House
Hess's summerhouse in the grounds of Spandau Prison in Berlin. Credit - a member of St Cuthbert's Parish Church.

Spandau Prison was demolished shortly afterwards.

Mr Sutton, a married father of five children, said: “The authorities were wary that it would become a shrine for a Nazi revival so the building was pulverised and a British Army supermarket, NAFFI, was put in its place.”

The minister, whose mother was a GP in Kirkcaldy for 25 years, served in the Black Watch, now the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland, until 1994, rising to the rank of Captain.

He was ordained as an elder in the Black Watch Kirk Session, which was connected to the Presbytery of Perth, while serving as Operations Officer in Hong Kong in 1993.

Exacting

This enabled him to later serve as a Chaplain at Loretto School in Musselburgh and Gordonstoun School near Elgin in Moray.

The path to eventually becoming a full-time Kirk minister began for Mr Sutton while he was serving as a platoon commander in Newry, South Armagh in Northern Ireland.

One of his men had a family bereavement and the Padre at that time confessed to him that he was unable to provide support and comfort because he had lost his faith.

Mr Sutton, a graduate of the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh, said: “Looking back, in hindsight, that was a key moment because I realised that Chaplains had a more exacting job to do than platoon commanders in many ways.

“As an Infantry Officer I could operate by giving orders as a Chaplain I had to learn how to listen.

“I later did a degree in counselling at Edinburgh University.”

Blackwatch
Rev Peter Sutton as a young soldier

Highlight

The minister, who took up his first charge at St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in June, was headmaster of Ardvreck School in Crieff, Perthshire from 2008-11.

While there he set up an exchange link with the British School in Berlin and enjoyed showing his pupils around the city he once patrolled before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Passing through the Brandenburg Gate was a particular highlight.

Checkpoint Charlie
Rev Peter Sutton on duty at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin when he was a Black Watch officer

Celebrated novelist, Dame Agatha Christie, married her second husband, Max Mallowan, at St Cuthbert's in 1930.

The church is home to a beautiful stained glass window, depicting David going to meet Goliath, designed by Tiffany of New York in 1903.