How Hitler's phone has caused an international bust-up 72 years after his death

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Hitler's phoneImage source, EPA
Image caption,
The 'Hitler phone', which Brigadier Sir Ralph Rayner brought home with him at the end of World War Two

It was billed as arguably the most destructive weapon of all time when it went up for sale last week.

Adolf Hitler's personal telephone, into which he was said to scream his orders from his bunker in Berlin, inscribed with his name and the Nazi swastika, is undoubtedly a much-prized collector's item.

But then, the story was questioned.

The material was wrong. The rotary dial was suspect. Why would it have been made by a British company?

For Major Ranulf Rayner, the doubts - levelled by a telephone museum in the US, and a telephone expert in Germany - were a shock.

After all, the relic had been in his family since 5 May 1945 - handed to his father, Brigadier Sir Ralph Rayner, by Soviet soldiers after he became the first Allied officer to enter the Fuehrerbunker, and quietly brought back home to Devon, along with an Alsatian dog statue that previously took pride of place on the dictator's desk.

"I'm just extremely angry," Maj Rayner told the BBC, following the publication of the claims in a British newspaper.

So how did the phone end up in Devon?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A similar telephone can be seen in this picture of Adolf Hitler's bunker after the fall of Berlin (far left)

Both Maj Rayner, then aged 10, and his sister Fleur can clearly remember their father's return from World War Two with the two extremely unusual items in his bag.

And there was an equally remarkable story to go with how the items came to be in the family's possession.

On 5 May 1945, Sir Ralph - then second-in-command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's communications in 21st Army Group - was asked to make contact with his Soviet counterpart.

After making the difficult journey through Berlin, Sir Ralph arrived at what remained of the Reich Chancellery.

Here, he found a Soviet officer who, after agreeing that his general would meet Field Marshal Montgomery as soon as possible, offered to show him the bunker they had discovered three days earlier.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A Russian soldier using Eva Braun's phone in her bedroom in Hitler's shelter in 1945

It was here, with the smell of burning flesh still hanging in the air, that he was shown to the private quarters of Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun.

And then the Soviet officer - apparently eager to please his new friend - offered the black telephone which had sat on Braun's bedside table.

However, Sir Ralph was more enthused by the red telephone near Hitler's bed, noting red was his favourite colour as he accepted the "gift", much to the delight of the Soviet officer.

But that was not the only memento with which he left: he was also given a 12-inch model of an Alsatian by the Russians, taken from Hitler's desk after he told them he had an Alsatian at home.

Why was it kept secret?

Image source, Alexander Historical Auctions
Image caption,
Sir Ralph's obituary in the local paper ran with a picture of him and the phone, taken in 1963

No one outside the immediate family was allowed to know about what Sir Ralph had brought back for many years. While Sir Ralph was in Berlin, Montgomery had decreed that anyone caught looting would be court martialed.

It was only years later that Sir Ralph, Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes from 1935 until 1955, felt he could show it off to the wider world.

There is mention of it in German magazine Der Spiegel as far back as 1963.

What are the doubts?

The family has spoken regularly of the telephone over the years. Indeed, the picture chosen for his obituary in the local newspaper in 1977 was one of Sir Ralph and the "Hitler telephone".

However, when news of its auction broke two weeks ago, a number of people came forward to say they did not believe it was the real thing.

Frank Gnegel, of the Frankfurt Museum of Communications, told the Daily Mail the fact the telephone had been painted red, instead of being made from red plastic, was suspect.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The phone had Adolf Hitler inscribed on it

He also queried why the handset had been made in Britain, and not by Siemens in Germany.

Separately, The Telephone Museum, based in Lincoln, Massachusetts, raised its own concerns about the authenticity of the phone, as did a Dutch blogger.

What does the auction house say?

But Bill Panagopulos, who owns Alexander Historical Auctions, which sold the phone to an unnamed buyer for $243,000 (£195,744) last week, has dismissed their claims.

"Needless to say, we stand by the telephone's authenticity," he told the BBC, adding that the claims otherwise were "insulting to the reputation and memory of a distinguished British officer and his family".

"The only people who are making any claims about it are this guy in Frankfurt, a guy who runs a blog and a little museum in a shed," Mr Panagopulos said.

"Nobody else in the world has questioned it."

They cannot be certain about some things, but, most of the doubters' claims have been debunked by his or Maj Rayner's investigations.

It has to be noted, both of them had a stake in the sale of the relic. But their arguments appear convincing.

For example, when the phone was taken apart, it was revealed that even inside of had been carefully painted - indicating that it had been carefully crafted.

Maj Rayner's own research - asking Peter von Siemens if he knew anything more about the phone - found Siemens did not produce a red phone at that time, perhaps explaining why it was painted.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
A porcelain figure of an Alsatian dog, which was owned by Hitler and later given to Sir Ralph

He also asked a friend to write to Rochus Misch, who was a telephone operator in the Fuehrerbunker, to see if he recognised the phone in 1985. He did, saying it accompanied the Nazi leader everywhere for the last two years of the war.

However, Mr Panagopulos concedes that, due to the passing of time, no one will ever be able to prove it beyond all shadow of a doubt.

But, he says, the provenance of the phone and the sheer length of time it had been within the family, on top of the other evidence, helped him feel sure it was the real thing.

"Did it smell right to me? Absolutely," he told the BBC.