Dachau concentration camp was the first camp established by the Nazis, shortly after they came to power in 1933. At first the camp was used to detain enemies of the Nazi regime, political prisoners. Later many tens of thousands of other would pass through the camp and its numerous sub-camps, including groups of Jews, women and Clergy ( mainly Catholics) from all over occupied Europe.
Dachau was not an extermination camp with gas chambers, although the death rate from conventional executions, starvation and ill treatment was high and the camp was equipped with ‘ovens’ for the disposal of the dead. It was also the site of numerous medical experiments on detainees, many of whom died in the course of experiments, which included prolonged exposure to freezing water and simulated high altitude tests.
By the time the US Army arrived the camp was overcrowded with thousands of prisoners who had been transferred from other camps and there were far too many dead for the usual process of incineration to cope with.
The events of 29th April are contested. Some witnesses claim that the US troops massacred the SS men who were found guarding the camp on the day. Others suggest that this is a gross exaggeration of one incident where a single group of SS men were shot down, possibly for attempting to escape. Unusually in these circumstances there is also some photographic evidence.
One man provides eyewitness testimony. Nerin E. Gun was a Turkish journalist who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his reporting of the Warsaw Uprising – he had been arrested and sent to Dachau:
three SS men are still on their turret … they have pivoted their machine guns in the other direction, away from us, and they are peering into the distance
… a single man emerges from behind a cement mixer parked at the edge of the camp … wearing a helmut embellished with leaves and branches … he moves cautiously forward, submachine gun in one hand, grenade in the other … he is still far away but I imagine I see him chewing gum … he comes cautiously, but upright, stalwart, unafraid …I almost expect him to be followed by a pure white charger … we knew America only by its films
… this first image of the liberation was truly out of an American western … this soldier of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Combat Division was the very incarnation of the American hero … we will never forget those first few seconds … the memory of the unique, magnificent moment of your arrival … you had come at the risk of your life, into an unknown country, for the sake of an unknown people, bringing us the most precious thing in the world, the gift of freedom …
The detachment under the command of the American major had not come directly to the Jorhaus, it had made a detour by way of the marshalling yard, where the convoy of deportees normally arrived and departed.
There they found some fifty-odd cattle cars parked on the tracks – the cars were not empty. The train was full of corpses, piled one on the other, 2310 of them to be exact. The train had come from Birkenau and the dead were Hungarian and Polish Jews, children among them. Their journey had lasted perhaps thirty or forty days.
They had died of hunger, of thirst, of suffocation, of being crushed or of being beaten by the guards. There were even evidence of cannibalism. They were all practically dead when they arrived at Dachau station.
The SS did not take the trouble to unload them. They simply decided to stand guard and shoot down any with enough strength left to emerge from the cattle cars. The corpses were strewn everywhere – on the rails, the steps, the platforms.”
“I never saw anything like it in my life,” said Lieutenant Harold Mayer, “Every one of my men became raving mad.”
Within a quarter of an hour, there was not a single one of Hitler’s henchmen alive.
An alternative account was given by Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks, a battalion commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division who stated that a young soldier was manning a machine gun keeping watch on a group of approximately 50 SS men in the coal yard. Sparks heard the soldier cry “They’re trying to get away!” and the sound of the machine gun being fired. He saw that about a dozen men had been killed in the incident and more wounded. He replaced the soldier with an NCO in charge of the machine and there was apparently no further shooting.
It was the forgoing incident which has given rise to wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure.
The regimental records for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau.
This and other incidents were investigated by the Seventh Army’s Assistant Inspector General, Lt. Col. Joseph Whitaker, who made recommendations that some US soldiers should face charges. However the Military Governor of Bavaria at the time he reported, General George S. Patton, chose to take no further action.
At the end of 1945 Colonel Charles L. Decker, an acting deputy judge advocate decided that there probably had been breaches of international law but:
in the light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken.