Oh wow! Imagine that, owning this red beauty. But it is very unlikely that much German was ever spoken through its mouth piece. It certainly looks as though it has been through the battle for Berlin with the flaking red paint and the fraying cords. And of course it has the eagle and swastika on it, with the name Adolf Hitler engraved on the back. Wow, a real piece of history with, at a first glance, bags of provenance. It should be in a museum! The auction house thinks it will fetch several 100.000s of dollars. But…………..is it what they claim it to be? Well, there are several big issues with this phone, that prove it is not what they say it is.
The news of this auction was published in several English newspapers on the February 1st 2017. They all were writing more or less the same of how Hitler used to bark orders to his subordinates about killing Jews and attacking enemies. But there was not much concrete information in these articles, other than that it was given to a British officer by the Soviets just after the German surrender. As these things go nowadays they were all more or less copying the same press release without doing any further investigation of their own. I was tipped off about this auction by several fellow collectors, me being a well-known collector of red telephones. To me, like to many of my telephone mates some details of this telephone looked very off. So I looked up the pictures on the site of the auction house here and got more details and additional information.
The auction at Alexander Historical Auctions will end at februari the 19th 2017 and I am curious for how much it will go.
What is it?
As the underside shows it is a Fg Tist 182b, otherwise known as a W38. It is a well-known model that was produced from 1938 to 1948 in this form. It is marked as such on the bottom together with the date stamp 31 V 4. Using my deciphering tables this indicates it was made by the Siemens plant Vereinigte Bayerische Telefonwerke (VBT) in the year V, 1940 in the month 4, april. In one of the sources I found it was described as a military issue, but I have found nothing military about it.
The auction description talks about bags of provenance. The owners certainly did their best to amass some evidence of it being Adolf’s phone and it seems to have been in the family for years. There is even an article from 1977, published at the deceasing of brigadier Rayner, showing the telephone and although it looks black in the picture, it is described in the article as being red. The telephone is clearly recognisable by its distinctive handset.
There is a letter from 1945 written by brigadier Rayner, mentioning meeting the Russians in Berlin, a letter from his daughter declaring she remembers her father returning from Berlin with the telephone, photos from the bunker with a Russian soldier using a similar telephone and a faded fax from Rochus Misch, bodyguard to Hitler and one of the last people to leave the bunker, stating he remembers the red telephone, which accompanied the Führer on his travels, apparently.
But all in all it does not prove very much and is indirect. There is nothing conclusive connecting this telephone to the Führer. They are statements after the fact, done years after the war. I could not find any picture of this telephone from the time of the war, or a picture of Hitler using it. I had not heard of Hitler ever owning a red telephone, but then again I do not know everything. And there is a that fax from Rochus Misch allegedly, but it states him recognising the telephone from photographs, but which photographs they were is unclear. And there is the letter from Peter von Siemens, getting the production location and date completely wrong.
All this evidence, being indirect and inconclusive does not prove this was not Hitler’s telephone. However there is a common black W28 in the Highlands Museum and Discovery Centre in Kentucky of which is claimed it was at Hitler’s bedside table in the Führerbunker.
The phone itself looks like a complete phone. There appears to be nothing missing and although the paint is very worn, it seems to be otherwise undamaged. That is: to the uninitiated.
The first thing most telephone collectors will spot is that it is a German telephone but it has a British handset, see picture to the right with the same handset, but with a different mouth piece.
Yes, a British handset. From the enemy.
On the back is written Modell Siemens and Adolf Hitler, together with an engraving of an eagle with a swastika. The engraving of the name is unevenly done, with the D particularly deformed. Certainly not the quality you would expect for the Führer.
Another oddity is the dial. Although the telephone itself is painted, the finger wheel is made of red bakelite. Even stranger is that the metal centre plate with the numbers was black with white numbers and has been over painted in red with black numbers. And the retaining bolt for the finger wheel is the strangest of all. Normally this type of dial would have an hexagonal bakelite
moulding. When this bakelite piece breaks off, the brass part is revealed, which is what we see on this telephone. And even though it is damaged, it is painted red! Please note, that without this bakelite part it is hard to fasten the bolt, especially if you do not want to damage the paint. Hardly a finish worthy of a fine instrument for the Führer. The picture on the left show the bolt as it should be on the same model dial.
The line cords is problem too. It is cloth covered and braided. That is wrong for this type and period. To use one of these as a line cord is typically British. Germans would have used straight cloth covered cords.
That that cord is not original is even more apparent where the line cords enters the housing. Instead of entering through the normal opening in the centre, it enters through one on the right, going under the rubber stopper that is supposed to completely cover the opening. Please see the picture on the left where the line cord is original and exits the housing as it should.
And then there is the paint. Badly crackling effect on the body, chipped away on the handset and number card window further indicates that the phone has been altered. The number card window seems the wrong shape and size for this model and there is no number card, despite stated efforts to preserve history.
And last but not least: the type designation on the bottom is for a normal, standard W38. There are others with the writing on the bottom. If it were a special version for the Führer it would have had a special designation.
The background story does not quite add up. Other articles, published in the past, tell a different story than the description of the auction. This article from Der Spiegel from 1963, which gives a short bio of brigadier Rayner, says he stole it from Hitler’s bedroom in the bunker and he tried to connect it to the British telephone network.
Other articles say he used it on a daily bases, whereas the article from the Herald express and other articles published this week say he kept it in a vault because of its value. In 1977 they said it was from his bedroom in the Führerbunker and now they say it travelled with him during the war. But mostly, other than the stories and articles about brigadier Rayner or his son, I could find nothing indicating Hitler ever had a red telephone.
Real or fake?
Well, it is a real phone. And it is from Germany, made in 1940. At least most of it is, because the handset and cords most certainly are not. So was it not Hitler’s telephone? I cannot definitely say. But there is no direct evidence that it was. In any case it is likely that brigadier Rayner did bring this red telephone from Germany after the war. Well, 80% of it, that is.
Is the seller lying? I cannot say that he is. Whoever assembled this telephone has probably been dead for a long time. It is definitely not in its original state. See for comparison this BASA Norm 51: this is what this red W38 should look like with the correct handset.
Perhaps it was Hitler’s traveling phone, but I do not thinks so. I think it was especially engraved for special occasion or department somewhere, perhaps together with some other W38s. Just after the war it came in brigadier Rayner’s possession, as a gift by the Russians like the story says or perhaps somebody traded it with him or he may have even liberated it himself from somewhere after which it was repaired in the UK. A look inside would maybe shed more light on the matter. Unfortunately I do not have 300.000 dollars to spare to buy access to the inside.
What do you think?
The auctioning of this telephone created a lot of buzz in the world of telephone collectors and of course among the WW2 memorabilia collectors too. My friend Vincent Valentine of The Telephone Museum Inc. (http://telephone-museum.org/) sent an email to the auction house with questions he had about this telephone. No doubt they received a lot of questions from others too. Vincent received an answer, along with additional photographs, to my great delight mostly of the inside. This apparently prompted the people of Alexander Historical Auctions to publish addenda to the items description. The make several additional claims:
- the handset was made by Siemens Brothers in the UK and was supplied to Siemens Germany before the war, because these companies trade connections.
- this handset was custom fitted to prevent it from bouncing off, as you cannot remove it from the cradle without twisting it
- the heat blistering of the telephone matches that of the handset
- the pictures of the interior show original electrical components
- the interior shows the phone was painted red at the time of manufacture
- damage to the bakelite on the left side of the telephone was repaired, after which the entire telephone was repainted.
- the crackling and blackening of the red paint over the damaged part is evidence that the repair of the damaged body shell was done before fire in the Führerbunker
Whoever wrote this, seems to have failed to check basic facts and studying the pictures for themselves. Siemens Brothers was never a full part of the German Siemens company and ties between the 2 were severed in WW1, with the last remaing 15% stock owned by Siemens & Halske seized in WW2 and never returned (see http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Siemens_Brothers_and_Co).
Trade between the 2 is undocumented if there ever was such a thing, after WW1. This is all very thouroughly described in the Wikipedia article on Siemens Brothers.
German telephones with British components like complete handset do not exist, at least not as factory originals.
The claim that this was a custom made telephone by Siemens is contradicted by several clues on the telephone itself. Firstly it is marked W38. That is a designation used by the German post office. This indicates the telephone was originally supplied to them. So if it was supplied to anyone else, it was not by Siemens but by the post office. If it was a custom telephone made by Siemens & Halske it would not, by definition, conform to the W38 specifications.
Also, as I remarked earlier, it is marked Fg Tist 0182b. This is the type designation used by Siemens for a regular W38. There are other, common W38s known with the same designation. If there were any changes to the normal design, like the handset and cords, it would get another type number.
The claim that this handset design was specific to prevent bouncing off is rather silly. There are a lot of telephone designs with features that have the same function, all of them involving some kind of metal bracket. See 2 pictures of telephones with just such a feature. The handset on this phone is loose enough that when it receives a jolt, it will activate the hookswitch.
And preventing that is just what they claim is the purpose of this alleged design with the British handset!
So it is nothing more than British handset on a German cradle that does not quite fit.
And finally there is the red paint. Is it blistered? No. I do not see any blisters. Anywhere. It is crackled. But not everywhere. It is only crackled on the body shell of the telephone itself, apart from a patch on the right side, next to the dial. The paint on the handset is chipped and scratched, but clearly not crackled. The underside and inside are also not crackled. And especially not the number card window, which seems in very good condition and is made of soft plastic, and has miraculously survived the heat of the burning bunker.
Is the red paint original? No. You can clearly see the black paint under the red paint on the metal bottom plate. That the electronics are original does not prove that it was red originally. How does repainting it, lead to the need to change electronic parts? They are all screwed to the base plate and can easily be removed and put back.
Please also note the lettering on the bottom: the original orange stamp has peeled away, leaving the letters in black. But part of the lettering is still there, under the red paint. You can see the relief of the lettering under the red paint. And most revealing is the white or gold paint in the engraving on the back. That is painted over in red, showing clearly that the red paint is not original.
Before I saw these pictures of the inside of the telephone I wondered why it was painted red. At the time of manufacture red bakelite was not uncommon. Special or luxury telephones were usually white or gold and red telephones were more likely used for emergencies. So red is a bit of an odd colour. But now a very good reason to paint the telephone has presented itself: to cover up the damaged part.
Does this change my earlier conclusion? No, I still think, even more so now, that it was not Hitler’s telephone. Somebody found an interesting incomplete damaged phone, repaired it, painted it and cooked up a nice story to go with it.
The pictures of the red W38 shown here are by Alexander Historical Auctions and they kindly let me use them for my blog so a special thanks to them. Copyrights to the other pictures are of course by me.
I would also like to thank my friend Stefan Roth and my partner Héléne Briaire for reviewing this text checking it’s content.
Postscript 20 2 2017: Sold for 200.000 USD!
It actually was sold. And for a whopping 200.000 usd. Most media report 240.000 usd, but perhaps that includes the commission for the auction hause.
Here is what it said on the website. Please note that the winning bid is at the bottom right.
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