William Cash meets a Devon farmer who keeps the family’s gruesome family heirloom — Hitler’s red telephone — in his safe
A week before Christmas the Grampian microphone that Sir Winston Churchill used to make his VE Day speech in Westminster Chapel went under the hammer at a specialist sale of historical documents at Ludlow Racecourse by the Shropshire auctioneers Mullock Madeley. The estimate was a fairly modest £700–£1,000.
The microphone — whose wooden plinth is engraved with the words ‘The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance’ — has a curious history. In the 1950s it was the star attraction at a famous London restaurant, but it then crossed the Atlantic and ended up in a tequila restaurant in New Mexico. For some reason the owner’s wife did not like it, and put it up for sale.
I made a bid of £1,000, thinking that it would make the perfect present for my Churchill-obsessed father — a Tory MP for more than 20 years whose own father, an MC, was killed in the war. But my bid was unsuccessful. The microphone went for £19,000. When I asked the auctioneer, Richard Westwood-Brookes, if the hammer price was a surprise, he told me, ‘People will pay a fortune for a piece of actual history. It went for almost exactly the same price as I fetched a few years ago for the original manuscript of Hitler’s speech in which he first mentioned the “Jewish Question”. It was in a bundle of papers exchanged by a soldier for a packet of Woodbines on the steps of the Reichstag in May 1945. The papers had been in the family for years, and they probably wanted to make some cash. They didn’t know of their importance.’
There is, however, another almost equally ghoulish Hitler souvenir in Britain today: Hitler’s personal red telephone, which was beside his bed when he committed suicide with his pet Alsatian Blondi and his new wife Eva Braun in his underground bunker in April 1945. It was down this phone that a deranged and defeated Hitler would have croaked, spat and screamed his final orders to his ever diminishing circle of loyal generals and SS henchmen as the Third Reich went up in flames.
I came across the telephone the other day at a shooting tea at Ashcombe Tower, the fine Art Deco country house in Devon of Major Ranulf Rayner. The Major is a gentleman farmer, fountain builder (by appointment to the Queen), Cresta rider and occasional author. Just as we were offered another round of crumpets, he asked us, ‘Would anybody be interested in seeing Hitler’s telephone?’ We said we would. Major Rayner led us into his study and told the story of how his father — a brigadier who was also Tory MP for Totnes and deputy head of communications for the 21st Army group — had linked up with the Russians in Berlin. ‘My father was taken by the Russian liaison officer to Hitler’s bunker,’ said Major Rayner. ‘He was one of the first Allied troops to see it. This was about two days after Hitler committed suicide.’
Opening up an enormous safe which leads into a vault, the Major emerged clutching a rather dirty and grimy red phone, attached to its original cord. ‘My father was taken first to Eva Braun’s bedroom where he was offered her black telephone because it seemed an appropriate piece of loot, but my father said Niet in his best Russian: “I would prefer the red one by Hitler’s bed because red is my favourite colour.”
‘I would say the telephone I possess is probably the most sinister relic of the second world war. I would put it as strongly as that. I haven’t had it cleaned.’ He held it up. I stepped back, chilled by the grim exhibit and reluctant to touch it. Others — less squeamish — picked up the receiver (the mouthpiece still grimy with Hitler’s sweat and breath) and spoke into it in mock German. The phone itself was a standard military issue Siemens phone that had been painted red. Hitler’s name was inscribed on the back.
I asked Major Rayner whether it ever gave him the creeps having Hitler’s phone in his house. ‘I’ve never been seriously worried about it,’ he said. ‘It gives lots of people the creeps, and some people who come here say I am cursed and we should get rid of it.’ Had it ever occurred to him to sell it? He said that back in the 1990s, when he was faced with a huge bill from Lloyd’s, he had considered it. ‘I was offered £80,000 by an American collector of Hitler memorabilia. But before the money changed hands, fortunately, I was able to get out of my predicament, and the man who was about to buy Hitler’s telephone died.’
But is it right for dealers or auction houses to offer for sale personal effects of some of the 20th century’s most wicked men? When in 2000 the cash-strapped Canadian War Museum wanted to sell off its prize exhibit, Hitler’s Mercedes staff car, in the hope of raising $20 million, it met with outraged opposition, and the Canadian government stepped in with a $58 million grant to build a new war museum facility.
‘It can be a very grey area,’ admits Peter Selley, who runs Sotheby’s English Literature and History department. ‘Do you sell only the good guys of history? We have very strict rules at Sotheby’s on Nazi memorabilia. We simply won’t touch any of it.’ But Richard Westwood-Brookes of Mullock Madeley says, ‘I will handle anything that I can classify as having a historic interest, whether it is a document or an artefact. I will not touch material such as daggers or uniforms or anything that goes into the outer realms of collecting. I’ve been attacked around the world, but my stand is unequivocal on this. You cannot choose your morality when it comes to history. Churchill may be a hero over here, but I doubt he is in Dresden,’ he said.
Major Rayner has no plans to sell his family heirloom and will continue to show it only to his personal guests. ‘I bring it out only on request, as it has to come out of the safe,’ he says. Have any Germans ever seen it? ‘Well, er, yes, we did once have a German shooting party whom I showed the phone to. And they didn’t comment at all. My son said, “Dad. You’ve gone too far.” But I thought they should have a look at it.’ What about sick neo-Nazis trying to arrange a visit? ‘No, fortunately, but I’m always on the lookout for them.’
William Cash writes for the London Evening Standard and is editor of Spear’s Wealth Management Survey.