In May 1945 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut was just one of millions of U.S. servicemen who had one thing uppermost in their minds – getting home. All of them had stories to tell, although few would write about them in the same way as Vonnegut later did. His experiences during and after the bombing of Dresden, when he and fellow prisoners was detained in a meat store – Schlachthof 5 -were to form the basis of one of the great U.S. novels of the 20th century – Slaughterhouse-Five.
Trying to make sense of the experiences they had gone through would be a challenge for many men now returning home. For the moment Kurt Vonnegut kept things factual
I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight – so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.
Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.
Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.
On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people [this was the figure given by the Germans at the time] in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.
After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.
When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39′s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.
Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.
I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.
I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.
The British Expeditionary Force now faced the very difficult task of conducting a fighting retreat across Belgium:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Withdrawal generally not quite to plan, and Kerr came in too soon. Forward battalions not even clear at 3.15 a.m. By this time all the company were back on the roads leading in to the village. [?] Section 10 Pl only members of the company who were in contact with the enemy. Saw Michael Kemp tonight going back with his company. We did not quit Ottemburg till 3.45. Had sent C.S.M. , Coy H. Q. and 12 Pl back previously, about 2 a.m. to the 1st Bound. After 1 1/2 hours they gave us up as lost, and started withdrawing. Continue reading “The German advance continues”
The new German ‘government’, if it could be described as such, had limited communication with the remaining units of the German forces and an incomplete picture of the strategic situation. Grossadmiral Doenitz appears to have decided to keep fighting simply to enable more German units to move to the west to surrender, rather than surrender to the Red Army.
With Hitler dead many Germans felt released from their oath of loyalty to him. Whether in consultation with Doenitz or not, many senior German commanders now decided to stop fighting. Formal surrenders were arranged in Italy and Berlin, and there were more local arrangements elsewhere in Germany.
The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, veterans of Sicily, D-Day, Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and the battle through Germany suddenly found that the war was coming to an abrupt end. The German 21st Army wanted to surrender to them, even though their eastern most units were still engaged with the Red Army.
James Magellas, by now the 82 Division’s most decorated officer, one of the few who had survived all the way through, describes the situation:
The forward element of the 3rd Battalion, H Company, set up a road-block on one of the roads leading into the division sector to disarm the surrendering Germans.
On that historic day, an entire army, with a vast array of tanks, trucks, half-tracks, howitzers, vehicles of all types, and motorcycles, began to pass through the division’s checkpoints heading to the rear. With Russians not far behind, the convoy of German soldiers and armaments bore little resemblance to the Wehrmacht that had fought so hard against us.
We were witnessing an unprecedented event. First, an entire German army, about 150,000 men, surrendered to a division of about 10,000. Second, their frontline units were combating Russian forces, not American. Third, the Germans passed through our lines in reverse order—army headquarters first, then corps, divisions, and regiments; the combat troops came through last.
The general staff included ten generals; the headquarters appeared to be in excellent condition. They seemed to have prepared for the grand finale. Clean-shaven and groomed, uniforms clean and neatly pressed, boots shined, with monocles and medals, they were proud to the very end. They represented some of the top brass of the Wehrmacht.
They rode in large, chauffeured staff cars accompanied by their women, wives, or mistresses. The obedient aides, still by their side, took care that the generals were going out in style.
They took approximately one week to pass through our lines, with vehicles almost bumper to bumper for the first few days. Their rear-echelon troops appeared to be in excellent physical condition, looking much better kept than our own combat forces.
All of their equipment and armor was also in good condition. I found it difficult to believe that they were the conquered and we were the conquerors. On the third day, their frontline units began to pass through our lines.
On the fourth and fifth days, their fighting men appeared, not riding but on foot. Varying in age from sixteen to sixty, they were a scraggly looking lot, dirty, unkempt, with shoes held together by rags. They were a far cry from the commanders and staff who had passed through first. There seemed no question that they were a soundly beaten force, with no fight left in them. Although the generals and their staffs were still capable of continuing the war, they no longer had quality frontline troops to command.
The focus of attention for many men rapidly switched from the rigours of battle to more material concerns:
As the Germans passed our checkpoints, they were disarmed; in many cases, our troops relieved them of their cameras, watches, and other “souvenirs.”
Sergeant Charles Crowder recalled: “I obtained a burlap bag, mounted a motorcycle with a sidecar and, as the enemy troops marched by, I told them to throw their pistols in the bag. I started taking watches and rings until the bag was full. I figured this was my chance to get rich. I also took money in German marks. I gave away all the pistols that I gathered to other men in my unit, except four, which I kept for myself. I kept most of the watches.”
Sergeant Jimmy Shields emptied a barracks bag full of pistols on the table and told his squad, “Help yourself.” I picked out several highly prized pieces: a Luger, a P38, and an Italian Beretta.
Sergeant Donald Zimmerman traded a Mauser pistol with me for a week-end pass. The Mauser, a semiautomatic that could be fired as a pistol or attached to a wooden holster and fired as a shoulder piece, was carried by general officers and was of World War I vintage. It was the only one I ever saw.
In Germany the Allied forces moving west never knew what they could expect next. There were signs of increasing disorganisation amongst the Germans, yet still significant battles broke out and casualties were taken. The shock generated by the liberation of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen would be repeated in many other camps. And still they were encountering more and more “displaced persons” as hundreds of thousands of forced labourers sought to find a way home.
But it was the liberation of their fellow countrymen from Prisoner of War camps that was to prove especially poignant. War Artist Edward Ardizzone was travelling with the 8th Hussars:
16th April Monday
Up at 5.30. Very cold but fine. Breakfast in the half light by my tank on a fried egg between pieces of bread and a mug of tea. Off almost immediately afterwards. Dawn light very beautiful, with the brew fires of the tanks seen here and there among the trees.
Travel some miles eastward, through the usual alternating forest country and open land. Halt by a clearing and am sent on ahead in a Dingo to C Squadron, which was reaching the big P.O.W. camp Stalag 257, in which over 15,000 of various nationalities were kept.
When I arrived at the first encampment troops had already been there some time. The scene was orderly and quiet, with troops of Airborne Div. acting as N.C.O.S. Many of them had only been prisoners for six to twelve months. It was amusing to see them marching off their warders. Paratroops with red armlets, dull pink berets and clean battledress, gaiters, etc – very smart — many troops French.
Our arrival at the second encampment was very different. There were P.O.W.S who had been there for years and we were the first British soldiers to arrive. They were almost crazy with delight, mobbing our Dingos, asking questions about old friends and all demanding autographs, a very moving scene. It was pleasant to see little groups in the country outside the cage, but many still lined the wire as if out of long habit.
The conditions Prisoners of War varied greatly, only Officers were excused labour under the Geneva convention, those who had been in prison for a long time had endured hard conditions and a poor diet which had debilitated many. Those who had been on the forced marches from the east were in even worse shape.
Sergeant George Guderley had been shot down in his B-17 Bomber in September 1944. He saw the first British Churchill tanks approaching the camp:
… they drove right through the front gate, followed by a couple of Bren- gun carriers. Everyone started hollering, and the soldiers were throwing out rations and cigarettes. I stood well back, just in case. I was damned if I was going to be killed by the very British tank that was setting me free. But then the reality of the situation sank in and it was like New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July, your birthday and the wildest bacchanal you’ve ever been to all rolled into one.
Australian Sergeant Cal Younger:
People were in tears and yelling and screaming. Cheering prisoners surrounded the armoured cars, their arms held above their heads. Half a mile away the war went on. We could hear its sounds coming over the tank’s radio. Germans were resisting in a wood nearby. A tank was sent, and then there was a message that 12 prisoners had been taken and would someone come and collect them. Another report said two cars were racing eastwards, with German senior officers in flight. They were to be headed off . . .
Private Les Allan had been nineteen when his unit of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry had been ordered to hold the perimeter line at Dunkirk in May 1940, sacrificed to let other men escape. He had endured five years of hard labour, had had his jaw broken by a guard for no apparent reason and had then survived the 600 mile forced march from the east, although his feet were permanently damaged from walking all the way in wooden clogs.
I was lying down on the ground when it happened. So were lots of others. We were so weak we couldn’t get up and move. I was in such a dreadful state I had to have food brought to me.
I was leaning on a fence and he came up and asked me how long I had been a prisoner. I said, ‘Five years’, and he told me to go over to a point where there was a box and he said, ‘Sit there.’
So I went over and sat on the box, and four Americans came over with a machine. They put a nozzle up each trouser leg, up each arm, and turned the levers, and the next thing you couldn’t see me for a cloud of white dust. The dust was DDT, and they were defumigating me.
Then they put me in a lorry, and I was taken to a field full of marquees. Inside were long tables, and army cooks came out with dishes full to the brim with potatoes and beef. It was almost impossible to believe it. But then some doctors came in and ordered all the food to be taken away. They said too much food like that would damage us. It was heartbreaking. But they gave us a couple of spoonfuls of potato and gravy, and then we were put on planes. They had been on bombing raids over Germany, and landed on the way back to pick us up and take us to Brussels.
Once back in England Allan was given a new uniform and was back home a remarkably short time later. His neighbours came out of their homes to cheer him as he walked up the road unexpectedly, almost five years since he had been first reported missing. His mother’s hair had turned white overnight when she received that telegram. The joy of his return was overwhelming.
But soon Allan decided to forget about the past and get on with life:
People wanted to know about my experiences as a prisoner of war, but I wouldn’t tell them. Why? Because I had a feeling that they wouldn’t believe it, so consequently I just bottled it up. It might also have been because of a sense of shame about being a prisoner of war — people might ask why I hadn’t escaped. But it was also because I got the impression when I returned home that people believed we had, in effect, been in holiday camps, having a cushy time. That’s why we didn’t want to talk about it. Those who didn’t know said we’d had a good time, that we were lucky to have been prisoners when so many other fellows had been killed.
He met his wife a year later and still did not tell her about his experiences, telling her he had been discharged from the Army as medically unfit.
It was about 5pm on 15 April when the miracle actually happened: the first British tank rolled into the camp. We were liberated! No one who was in Belsen will ever forget that day. We did not greet our liberators with shouts of joy. We were silent. Silent with incredulity and maybe just a little suspicion that we might be dreaming.
Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
It was the pictures and stories from the first concentration camps liberated, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen, that first made a real impact on public consciousness of the Holocaust. It was these names that became closely associated with the worst horrors of the Nazi system of brutality, even though they were, in some senses, not the “worst” camps. These were not extermination camps like Auschwitz, where people were sent to be killed immediately if they did not survive ‘the selection’. They were nevertheless lethal systems of incarceration and no less murderous over time.
…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
BBC radio broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in an historic broadcast just days after the liberation which alerted the British and the world to the real horrors of Nazism.
Bergen-Belsen had gone through a number incarnations, starting out as a Prisoner of War camp for Soviet prisoners, at a time when the Nazis seemed intent on letting them all starve to death. Some 20,000 died here. Then as an SS concentration camp for Jews who might be used as hostages, the regime was probably somewhat better than at many other work camps. Then a variety of different groups were sent or passed through, including may women and girls – Ann Frank died here.
Then at the end of 1944 Bergen Belsen started receiving prisoners who had survived the forced marches from the camps in the east. Soon its primitive facilities were overwhelmed by over 60,000 sick and malnourished people. They had been dying in their hundreds every day for months. They would continue dying in their hundreds every day for the next two months, despite the best efforts of the Allied medical teams.
But we went further on into the camp, and seen these corpses lying everywhere. You didn’t know whether they were living or dead. Most of them were dead. Some were trying to walk, some were stumbling, some on hands and knees, but in the lagers, the barbed wire around the huts, you could see that the doors were open. The stench coming out of them was fearsome.
They were lying in the doorways – tried to get down the stairs and fallen and just died on the spot. And it was just everywhere. Going into, more deeper, into the camp the stench got worse and the numbers of dead – they were just impossible to know how many there were…Inside the camp itself, it was just unbelievable. You just couldn’t believe the numbers involved…
This was one of the things which struck me when I first went in, that the whole camp was so quiet and yet there were so many people there. You couldn’t hear anything, there was just no sound at all and yet there was some movement – those people who could walk or move – but just so quiet. You just couldn’t understand that all those people could be there and yet everything was so quiet…
It was just this oppressive haze over the camp, the smell, the starkness of the barbed wire fences, the dullness of the bare earth, the scattered bodies and these very dull, too, striped grey uniforms – those who had it – it was just so dull. The sun, yes the sun was shining, but they were just didn’t seem to make any life at all in that camp.
Everything seemed to be dead. The slowness of the movement of the people who could walk. Everything was just ghost-like and it was just unbelievable that there were literally people living still there. There’s so much death apparent that the living, certainly, were in the minority.
British soldier Dick Williams
What happened was we were all allocated to a hut. We divided into pairs, as I said, and each pair was given a hut to cope with. And into the hut you went and it was designed, I think, to take about 60 soldiers. It was a typical army Nissen hut-type – only it wasn’t a Nissen hut because it wasn’t the same shape – and inside it were upwards of six or seven hundred people lying on the ground.
They were all totally emaciated. They were all in filthy rags – rags is literally what I mean, rags. They were all, or most of them, lying in pools of vomit and faeces and urine. A considerable number of the ones in the hut were dead and the first job to do each day was to go in, and with the help of two Hungarian soldiers – strangely enough we had a company of Hungarian soldiers to help as labourers – you’d go into the hut and pick out the dead bodies. You’d just go around and see who’s dead and who wasn’t.
It was sometimes very difficult to be certain who was dead and who wasn’t.
Remove the dead, take them outside, leave them in a heap and the Hungarians then moved them by truck to the mass graves where they were put in the mass graves. And having got rid of the dead you then made a sort of so say ward round to try and do what you could for the remainder, all of whom had diarrhoea, or the vast majority had diarrhoea.
They all had the most appalling coughs, they all had the most dreadful skin diseases, they were all filthy dirty and they were all absolutely skeletally thin… And we were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus. And typhus was killing a very large number of people every day.
Medical student Roger Dixey
These people had been degraded by the Germans. It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness. They’d been for as long as they’d – the Germans had degraded these people from the time they’d occupied their countries. They degraded them by putting them into ghettos, they degraded them by making them into second and third class citizens, they degraded them by herding them like cattle, by transporting them in conditions which were worse than animals would be transported, by totally dehumanising them.
Dr Laurence Wand
Something had changed for me after I’d seen that camp. Although I’d seen the terrible things in war, to have treated ordinary people like this. And there were so many theories and reasons as to who was responsible and everybody seemed to point a finger around until the finger came round in a circle and I had to think hard about it.
Why the Germans? They had their own culture, their own civilisation of a kind. They produced Beethoven, great scientists, how could it be?
The terrible discovery came to me, this sort of revelation like a flash of lightning, because it penetrated these terrible scenes to make me think – all the stories I’d heard about the persecution of people from my mother and father, here they were true.
But this was on a scale of – it had to be organised, it had to be done it could only be done with modern administrative service. It could only be done by moving masses of people by rail. It had to be planned and worked for. It was a sort of death by administration.
British soldier Mike Lewis
As soon as possible, we were transferred to the tank training school six kilometres away for delousing and then to makeshift hospitals, where German doctors and nurses were made to look after us. I was unconscious for 10 days after we were liberated. Two days after I regained consciousness, on 27 April, my mother died aged 42 and was buried in a mass grave, together with the thousands of others who died from starvation and disease after the liberation.
During the last months of the war hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners were on ‘death marches’ to the west. The Nazis were evacuating them from the camps in the east which would soon be overrun by the Red Army. There are numerous accounts of how those who could not keep up were shot out of hand.
One group from the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp complex were approaching the town of Gardelegen when it became apparent that the Nazis had run out of time, the area was about to be taken by the advancing US Army. Some of the SS fled and the prisoners sought to escape. They were rounded up by a combination of some SS, German parachute troops from a nearby training camp, other members of the Wehrmacht, and members of the Hitler Jugend and Volkssturm – according to some a representative sample of the German male population.
Most of the prisoners were political prisoners, the 300 Germans amongst them were apparently encouraged to participate in the murder of their fellow prisoners, on the promise of their own freedom, before they were betrayed and also forced into the barn and killed.
On the 14th an attempt was made to cover up the crime by digging a mass grave. The work had not been completed by the 15th when the area was occupied by F Company, 2nd Battalion, 405th Regiment, U.S. 102nd Infantry Division
The following account is based on the investigations of Col. Edward Cruise, U.S. Army, based upon the accounts of seven survivors, including Bondo Gaza, a Hungarian musician:
None of the prisoners had any inkling of the fate that awaited them. Rumours had it that they were being marched out to be handed over to the Americans. Guards told some of them that they were going to spend the night in a barn because of lack of space in the barracks. It was less than two kilometers to the barn. When halfway, the column stopped on the road for about an hour. A tractor passed by with several cans of petrol and a case of ammunition. From afar, prisoners saw some of the load being carried inside the barn.
The last group of 300 arrived at the barn around 1900 hours. It was still daylight. Here, the 80 guards were joined by some 20 Fallschirmjager, two of them on motorcycles, who arrived carrying Panzerfausts, machine pistols, hand-grenades and flare pistols. The prisoners on foot waited outside the barn for the carts with the sick to arrive, who were put inside first. An Allied aircraft was at that moment circling overhead, so when Unterscharführer Braun (one of the Jlfeld NCOs) ordered the others to move inside as well, many thought it was because of this. As the guards herded them in, a Fallschirmjager soldier fired his machine pistol into the group to make them move faster, wounding one man. All entered through the south-west door. It was now 2000 hours.
Once inside, many immediately noticed the strong smell of petrol, but contented themselves with the thought that the barn must have been used as a garage or to store fuel. The prisoners were ordered to sit down. The four big doors were closed and wedged fast on the outside with stones. A few minutes later, the door on the south-west side opened and two soldiers entered. One of them, identified as Braun by some, set fire to the straw with a match at several places. As soon as they had gone out, the prisoners rushed up and frantically put out the flames with their blankets, clothes and bare hands. Then they pushed all the straw to the middle of the barn. The soldiers re-entered and again ignited the floor by discharging the signal flares into the straw.
Several times, the prisoners managed to put the fires out but finally the soldiers prevented them by throwing hand-grenades, shooting Panzerfausts. and firing machine pistols and rifles into the frantic masses through the south-west door. The men inside reeled back. Others rushed sideways, pressing themselves against the barn wall to find protection against the bullets.
A group of some 50 or 60 Russians rushed to the opposite side of the building. The north-west door was broken open and the prisoners started to run out. The Fallschirmjager mowed them down with machine pistols and rifles. Two machine guns had been placed at the west side of the barn, one covering the northern and one the southern doors. Several of the armed prisoners, notably Kazimierz Drygalski, a Pole, and Adolf August Pinnenkämper, a German, joined in the killing, as did the crew of a nearby Flak battery, Hitlerjugend teenagers led by Wachtmeister Georg Bensch, who came running up with machine pistols.
Soon dead and dying men were piling up at all the doors. Cries of pain and panic rung inside the dark building, as others were trampled. To escape the rain of bullets, some men feigned death or hid under the dead bodies of others. By now the fire was completely out of control. The inside of the barn began to fill up with a suffocating smoke. Chaos and panic was complete. Men were swearing, crying, pleading, praying, shouting “Vive la France” and “Long live Poland.” Several even broke out singing their national anthem. Men were being roasted alive. Human torches ran around until they dropped to the ground dead. Others suffocated or were killed by the exploding hand-grenades and Panzerfausts.
The murder action continued well into the night, with German troops and Kapo guards watching the doors and walls for any escape attempts. In all, some 50 hand-grenades were thrown into the barn. Around 2100 hours, the Fallschirmjager went back to their depot to get a new supply of ammunition and Panzerfausts. They fired the Panzerfausts into the barn through the west wall and the southwest door.
About midnight, the paratroopers received an alert and left. Shortly after, Kreisleiter Thiele, who had been present from about 2200 (he had been conferring with Oberst Milz at the airfield before that), returned to the Remonte Schule with Unterscharführer Braun and ordered four of the Kapo guards left there (from the seven who had said they could not shoot) to collect a drum of petrol at the Kreisleitung garage and bring it to the barn so as to complete the incineration of the bodies. Once there, the men were told to stay on as guards.
The important thing for the Nazis now was to eradicate any sign of the atrocity that had taken place before the arrival of the Americans. From midnight until about 0230 Thiele and Debrodt were on the phone at the Kreisleitung headquarters, mobilizing local organizations to help with burying the dead and clearing up the site. The first to arrive, at 0430 on April 14, were 50 Volkssturm men from the neighboring village of Kloster Neuendorf, joined later in the morning by 15 men of the Gardelegen fire brigade, 15 from the Technische Nothilfe (technical emergency service), and 90 from the Gardelegen Volkssturm. In all, some 170 persons were at hand. Few of them had been told beforehand what to expect.
The SS men and armed Kapos were still at the barn doing their dirty work. Thiele, having returned there, ordered all survivors to be shot. Opening the doors and entering the still-smoking building, the SS men and Kapos called out that they were ready to give out medical aid to anyone who was still alive. However, this was a trick, as survivors who made their presence known were killed on the spot with a bullet through the head. This went on until 0830 when the last of the SS men and Kapos returned to Gardelegen.
Meanwhile, the Volkssturm men had begun to dig four grave trenches, two meters wide and two meters deep, two long ones on the north side of the barn and two smaller ones on the east side. Many of the bodies were totally charred, and the workers used hooks and pronged forks to pull individual corpses from the smoking piles of dead. As they worked to empty the building, the men found prisoners who had survived the carnage. Some of them were so horribly wounded that they begged to be shot. Hermann Hohls, the Volkssturm company commander in charge of the work; Gustav Palis, one of his men; and Paul Schernikau, the fire brigade chief, each shot a prisoner to put him out of his misery.
See Scrapbookpages for a collection of other images and a memorial leaflet produced by the 102nd Division.
Konigsberg, the capital of Prussia in eastern Germany had been under siege since January 1945, surrounded by Soviet forces. Only the route out by sea had allowed some civilians to escape west. For thousands of concentration camp inmates there had been no route out, they had been forced into the sea and machine gunned.
Large parts of the city had been reduced to rubble, first by RAF bombing and then by the pounding of Soviet artillery. Thousands of civilians had died – but in many respects this was just the beginning of the horrors that would be visited on the German population.
Just before midnight on the 9th April the commander of ‘Fortress Koenigsberg’ Otto Lasch decided that, with ammunition short and the Soviet forces overwhelming, there was no point in continuing. On hearing that the ‘Fortress’ city had surrendered, Hitler ordered that Lasch’s family in Germany be arrested.
Pockets of resistance continued through the 10th April. Groups of German soldiers made desperate attempts to break out through the Soviet lines, most attempts ended in bloody annihilation.
As Lasch and the German officers eventually were marched off they discovered the reality of the Soviet occupation, where Red Army soldiers had been given official permission for two days of looting:
The houses burned and smoked. Soft furnishings, musical instruments, cooking utensils, paintings, china — all were thrown out of the houses. Smashed vehicles stood between burning tanks, clothing, equipment lay everywhere.
Amongst this danced drunken Russians, shooting wildly, searching for bicycles to ride, falling over and lying by the kerbstones with bloody injuries. Weeping girls and women were dragged into the houses despite their resistance. Children cried out for their parents. It was unbearable.
We marched on. We saw scenes that cannot be described. The ditches by the sides of the streets were full of corpses, many of them clearly showing signs of unbelievable maltreatment and rape. Dead children lay around in great numbers, bodies hung from the trees, their watches cut off.
Staring—eyed German women were led in all directions, drunken Russians flogged a German nun, an elderly woman sat by the side of the road, both of her legs having been crushed by vehicles. Farmsteads burned, the household belongings lying in the roads, cows ran across the countryside, and were indiscriminately shot and left lying.
Cries for help from German people came to us constantly. We could not help. Women came out of the houses, hands raised beseechingly — the Russians chased them back and shot them if they didn’t hurry. It was dreadful. We had never imagined such things.
Nobody had boots any more, many were barefoot. The untended wounded groaned with pain. Hunger and thirst were the greatest torments. Russian soldiers assailed the platoon from all sides. They took away coats from some, caps from others, the odd briefcase with its meagre contents. Everyone wanted something. ‘Watches, watches,’ they called, and we were left defenceless against this banditry.
Otto Lasch would not be released from Soviet captivity until 1955. He wrote his memoirs So fiel Königsberg. Kampf und Untergang von Ostpreußens Hauptstadt, in 1958.
Meanwhile another German officer, von Lehndorff, saw what happened in one of the improvised field hospitals:
In the ambulance, the young nurses defended themselves against a few particularly intrusive individuals. I didn’t dare imagine what would happen when they grew more confident. Now, they were still clearly in haste and concerned with loot.
Particularly striking were our storage buildings. I stood speechless before the heaps of foodstuffs there, which had been withheld from us during the months of siege, and thought back in anger at my naivety, at how we and our patients had gone hungry the whole time. Now there was a wild, howling mess, as the finest tinned produce and supplies, which could have kept hundreds alive for a whole year, were destroyed in a few hours.
Doktora was in the operating theatre, bandaging patients. A swarm of nurses had fled here and eagerly pretended to help. In the background, the Russians moved through the wounded soldiers, searching for watches and usable boots.
One of them, a young chap, suddenly burst into tears, because he had still not found a watch. He held up three fingers: he would shoot three men unless he was given a watch immediately finally a watch appeared from somewhere, with which he disappeared, beaming with joy.
The appearance of the first officers destroyed my last hopes of a bearable outcome. All attempts to speak to them were completely in vain. For them, too, we were no more than dressed clothes dummies with pockets.They only saw me from the shoulders down.
A couple of nurses who were in their path were seized and dragged along behind them, and before they could comprehend what was going on, they were released, completely dishevelled. They wandered around the passageways aimlessly. There was nowhere to hide. And new trouble came upon them constantly.
The surviving German occupants of Konigberg, perhaps as many as 100,000 people, would eventually be forced out of the city. Their place would be taken by Russian settlers. Today ‘Konigsberg’ is Kaliningrad, a wholly Russian enclave squeezed between Poland and Lithuania.
One aspect of the Nazi treatment of people from their conquered territories might well have attracted more attention, had it not been overshadowed by more sinister discoveries as the war drew to a close. Suddenly as the Allied armies moved into the heart of Germany they discovered the true meaning and scale of the Nazi enslavement of Europe.
Peter White was an officer with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. On the 6th April 1945 they were ordered to forward in motor transport, making a rapid advance to catch up with the 7th Armoured Division that had driven a wedge deep into Germany. The progress was slowed by the volume of traffic coming the other way:
Here at last were some positive clues for us to add to our deductions and rumours as to the military positions. As soon as we got on to this road we began to meet among trafﬁc coming in the opposite direction, waves of motley, liberated personnel.
They came, drunk from the joy of it… and sometimes just plain drunk… on foot, in looted cars and carts or by pushbike, cheering and saluting, Russian, Polish and French Displaced persons and Russian POWs.
For the next 50 to 100 miles this tide of fugitive humanity grew steadily into a torrent. They became the tenor and in many cases the means of the sudden demise of wayside farmers and members of their families on whom they descended at nightfall for food, plunder and often rape.
The squarely built Russian soldiers, as heavy in their appearance as they seemed in their wits, saluted every Allied object that moved, apparently without fail, on roads nose to tail with army transport.
Journalist Alan Moorehead was also making his way east, just behind the advancing troops:
As soon as we crossed the Rhine we were confronted by a problem almost as big as Germany herself; the millions upon millions of semi-slave workers.
With every mile we went into Germany they grew more numerous on the roads: little groups of Frenchmen, then Dutch, then Belgians and Czechs and Poles and Italians, and ﬁnally, in overwhelming majority, the Russians in their bright green uniforms with ‘SU’— Soviet Union – painted in white on their backs.
Half the nationalities of Europe were on the march, all moving blindly westward along the roads, feeling their way by some common instinct towards the British and American lines in the hope of ﬁnding food and shelter and transportation there.
These millions lived a vagabond existence. At every bend of the road you came on another group, bundles on their shoulders, trudging along the ditches in order to avoid the passing military trafﬁc.
The Germans were terriﬁed of the Russians. Again and again women ran out to us to cry: ‘Can’t you leave a guard with us? The Russians have taken everything. The next lot will smash up the place if they ﬁnd nothing.’ More than that the German women feared for themselves. Cases of rape increased. The looting increased. And still that vast moving human frieze kept pouring down the roads, constantly augmenting its numbers with every new town that was captured.
One began to get a new picture of Nazi Germany. VVhat we were seeing was something from the dark ages, the breaking up of a medieval slave state. All the Nazi ﬂags and parades and con- quests in the end were based on this one thing — slave labour. There was something monstrous about the wired-in worker’s compounds and sentry boxes round each factory, something that was in deﬁance of all accepted ideas of civilization.
As yet, in early April, we had only begun to glimpse the extent and depth of the Nazi terror system, but already one sensed the utter disregard of the value of human life in Germany. And now the Reich was collapsing at its roots because the slaves were melting away.
One saw mostly women in the country towns and in the farms as we passed on; nearly all the German men were either at the front or prisoners or dead. And the slaves were on the road. There was no longer anyone to sow the crop, no one to reap the harvest later on.
Here and there a foreigner chose to remain with his German master. Indeed, on the whole the country labourers got sufﬁcient food and they looked healthy enough. But nothing on earth would have kept the industrial workers in the factories and the mines once the Germans had gone. First they rushed out into the streets to loot. Then they took the road to the west until they drifted into hastily made British and American camps where some attempt was made to sort them out and send them home.
If the situation in Germany was confusing to the senior German commanders it was no less so on the ground, where the front line was continually moving. Simultaneously there were shifting loyalties amongst the German troops, with many trying to find the right opportunity to surrender.
The Reverend Terence Quinlan, Senior Brigade Chaplain and R.C. Chaplain to the 1st Commando Brigade describes the situation around the German town of Osnabruck, which was occupied by the British on 5th April:
At a fork in the road to Osnabruck I took the wrong turning. I was in my jeep with my driver. The first we knew anything was wrong was a sniper’s bullet. It was a rotten shot and missed us by miles. We decided it was just an odd sniper, and pushed on, but 100 yards down the road a fusillade broke out from all sides. The hail of bullets shot the tires to pieces and we had to stop. We baled out pretty promptly and crouched down behind the jeep looking for cover. Then I was hit in the back of the leg and bled profusely.
I made a dash for a house by the road, but the door was locked. I hammered on the door with my stick, and a woman opened it. She looked alarmed, but I limped in and my driver joined me. The Jerries must have been rotten shots, or we should have been cut to pieces. While my wound was being attended to, ten or fifteen Germans walked into the basement. They let my driver finish dressing the wound, then told us to get outside. It was then I noticed a row of the German field grey hats poking up behind a hedge.
We were led across country, through gardens and over railway embankments. They were a most disorderly crowd. There were at least 100 of them, and they just straggled along. I told them they were completely surrounded and they might just as well give up. Some were muttering among themselves and appeared quite willing, but two N.C.O.s ordered them on. They told me their officers had left them the day before.
I had walked about a mile when my leg began to bleed again, so an escort of two Germans was left to guard my driver and me. We entered the south of Osnabruck. We were the first British to enter that part of the town, and I asked the escort if there was a church nearby. He pointed to one, and I sat on the steps to rest my leg. Immediately a large crows of foreign workers gathered, attracted by British soldiers with green berets. I asked one of the workers to fetch a priest, who offered me the hospitality of his house. He gave us lunch – my escort as well – and told me he could be shot for harbouring British soldiers.
I then turned to the two German soldiers and asked them: “Are we with you, or you with us?” and they replied: “With you.” They threw away their ammunition and rifles and became our prisoners. It was then reported that some British troops with guns were in the south of the town, so I asked them to send for a doctor and ambulance. The doctor arrived, patched me up, and drove me and my prisoners to the centre of the town to meet up with my Commandos who were in the north-west of Osnabruck.
We began to walk through Osnabruck, and the populace gazed in wonderment, for we were the first British troops in that part. We met my Commandos and handed over our prisoners. The next day I saw a number of other prisoners brought in and I recognized many of them who had been among my captors the previous day.
This account first appeared in ‘The War Illustrated’ magazine May 25, 1945. The British Army would maintain a large garrison in Osnabruck until 2008.
Across the territory occupied by the Japanese in the Far East, tens of thousands of Allied men continued to toil in the Prisoner of War camps. From China to Malaya, Thailand and Korea, right across to Japan itself, they were now aware of the changing fortunes of war through the increased activity of Allied aircraft. The effects of of the high level B-29 raids were everywhere, as well as the marauding P-38 Lightnings. Such raids put some POWs at risk but they were welcomed as great morale boosters.
John McEwan had endured the years of captivity since been taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942. He was a veteran of several Japanese POW camps including the notorious Kinkaseki mine on Taiwan. Kinkaseki closed in early March and they were transferred to another camp on Taiwan, but their sufferings were far from over:
The punishing labour went on as we tried to avoid Tashi’s beatings by stretching our wills to breaking point, a task made the more difficult by his resentment at the regular appearance in the skies of the twin-fuselage aircraft bearing the white star of the USA. He sank to lower depths of depravity, as the US warplanes bombed at will with never a Japanese Zero in the air to challenge them.
But as they had an effect upon him so too did they affect us. They provided the stimulus to keep going and their daily visits were a tonic to us, setting morale upon an upward spiral again. In contrast, Tashi would fall into a cowardly rage that made him even more bestial than before.
Occasionally, some of us allowed our approval of the actions of our US friends to show and even this mild show of resistance was dealt with severely. The offenders were made to kneel on the ground while a piece of wood was placed at the back of their knees. They were made to sit back causing intense pressure in this area and an effective blockage in the blood supply. After a short time the legs were left bereft of feeling.
Tashi then commanded them to stand and maintain an impossible upright stance, impossible because of the numbness of the already weakened limbs. When they fell he would batter them with his rod across legs and buttocks, shoulders and head. And he would laugh his evil laugh as his poor, painwracked victim cowered before him, trembling, attempting to maintain an erect position on incapacitated legs but usually unable to do so.
His underlings would attempt to ingratiate themselves with him by laughing and jeering. Watching one of these sessions, Dempsey was unable to contain himself. ‘Bloody Japanese bastards’ he swore quietly as a young Englishman was trying to stifle uncontrollable sobbing against a background of the barbarian contempt of the Japanese.
Tashi heard the forbidden words and went raving mad, ranting and swearing in abusive Nipponese and glaring at Dempsey. While the japs converged upon Dempsey, the young Englishman was left alone and began to compose himself. Dempsey, on the other hand, knew he had blundered and knew what was to follow but, though as weakened as the rest of us, he retained a spark of wild and irrational defiance, which did not allow him to do other than stand his ground. Tashi whacked him on the head.
The mad—eyed japanese screamed insanely, ‘Bastardo – no okay. Dammi – dammi. Bastardo dammio — Bagerro, dammi — dammi’ and with each cry he bounced his rod off Dempsey. Dempsey still refused to give ground and Tashi became ever more incensed and enraged as Dempsey refused to fall and as he saw the contempt in Dempsey’s eyes.
Like the rest of the squad, I could do nothing but watch as the mad NCO waded in with stick and fists. I willed Dempsey to swallow his pride and go down. At last one of the henchmen succeeded where Tashi had failed. He kicked furiously at the back of Dempsey’s legs, making him fall to the ground in a crumpled heap but still allowing him to contain the agony of his beating. He refused to show the usual tears of humiliation and this defiance was unbearable to Tashi, who was unable to comprehend the fact that one of the cowed and beaten men, calloused by years of starvation and humiliation, would refuse to beg for mercy under this demeaning abuse.
Tashi changed tack. He watched two of his lackeys kick Dempsey repeatedly. He then announced that another POW had to take part in the humiliation. This was a common depravity among them. They would make two prisoners face each other and swing punches until one of them fell.
I wondered who would be chosen and fervently hoped it would not be me. I could not have punched my friend in these circumstances. Tashi, however, strode to where Taffy Morgan was and jabbed him with the bamboo rod. ‘Yosh — anatowa’ he snarled at Taffy pointing to Dempsey and indicating the odious task in hand.
Taffy had still not recovered fully from his beating at Changi and was in a semi-stupor. His face was expressionless as he followed Tashi to the spot where his friend Dempsey stood, swaying weakly on quivering legs. Taffy took a long lingering look at the vicious Jap Corporal, who urged him on, bellowing the usual gutturals.
Tashi jabbed a finger at Dempsey and, at last, Taffy squared up to his mate. Dempsey raised his head, blood washing down his face, and nodded to Taffy to ‘Get on with it!’ He well understood the situation. Taffy met his friend’s eye and wasted no further time. He raised his calloused right hand and thumped Dempsey with all the strength he could muster in his own weakened state. Dempsey dropped like a stone.
It was obvious to all who watched that Dempsey would not rise for a while after being hit so hard and Tashi and his gloating serfs were convulsed with laughter and clapped their hands crying ‘Joto — Joto’ (Good, Good).
Taffy looked at me. As our eyes met I saw a glimmer there that had been absent for too long. His look clearly said that he had done what had to be done under the circumstances. Dempsey was having enforced rest, Tashi had been deprived of further depraved entertainment and Dempsey had surrendered to a British hand rather than a Japanese.