Sachsenhausen concentration camp – new arrivals

Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.

As the Nazis realised that they would have to start closing down their death camps in the east, prisoners were transferred further west to established concentration camps. Typically these were not extermination camps but concentration camps designed to punish rather than kill all of the inmates. Conditions would change with the new arrivals.

At first trains were used for transferring such prisoners, if none were available then forced marches were used. The conditions on the marches were appalling and often became instruments of torture and death themselves. Although Jews were prominent among their number, many other people were caught up, including the citizens who had been forcibly displaced from Warsaw.

Sachsenhausen had been opened in 1936 for German political prisoners. The regime was harsh, executions were common, as well as deaths from other causes. But the prisoners here saw a step change in conditions with the arrival of the transferees from the east.

Odd Nansen was a political prisoner from Norway, with a relatively privileged position, able to receive occasional food parcels from home. His diary, kept in secret at great risk, covered events in the camp – and he also sought to record the stories of other inmates:

13th December.

One big transport after another is arriving in camp. From Auschwitz, from other camps in Poland, from camps in Germany, and “evacuated” Jews by thousands from Hungary.

Two thousand six hundred Jews arrived the other day from Budapest. The transport hadn’t taken more than three days. Eighty died on the way, and when they got here they were left standing out in the cold most of the night. Eight died on the parade-ground. None had had a drop of water for three days. Food they had brought from home.

I remember, when the first transport of “evacuees” arrived from Warsaw, we were indignant that women, children and the aged should be dragged off in such transports. Now there aren’t many who react. Children, some under ten years old, are detained as convicts here and in other camps. The women are sent to camps of their own.

The aged are allowed to die here. The process is short, but not painless. It’s terrible to see them. Those who come from Poland, for instance, have nothing to put on but the rags issued here, and it’s the depth of winter. Only a very few have anything on their feet but wooden boards tied on with straps or string.

Of course they get pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses and succumb in hundreds. They totter round for a while, go into the Revier [the camp ‘hospital’ or sickbay] (unless they’re Jews, in which case they’re not admitted) and there the crown is set on the work, especially in the Schonungsblocken [a block within the sickbay area], where they’re treated more like animals than anything else.

If one goes through one of the Schonungsblocken (as I have been doing regularly of late), one keeps on seeing living skeletons. Starving Poles, especially those with Durchfall (diarrhoea) who can’t retain any of the miserable fare they get. Diet? One can only laugh. An unknown concept.

A Jewish builder from Budapest, whom I’ve got to know, and who was on the terrible march from South Serbia to Germany, told me that one of his arms began to swell up and ache. He went to the doctor, who diagnosed periostitis, put the arm in splints and bandaged it, explaining that it was due to under-nourishment and the lack of certain substances in his food. He must eat more, a more nourishing and varied diet-fat for one thing. Merely a gibe; a frigid sneer.

The other evening I was talking to an old Pole in that Schonungsblocken. He was sixty-seven, but looked ninety-seven; bones, sinews and skin apart, I’ll wager his flesh and stomach didn’t weigh five kilos.

That he could hold himself up was a miracle, but obviously a miracle which would soon cease. He had great difficulty in speaking, and he spoke nothing but Polish. An interpreter translated. He was a Polish peasant from the Warsaw district, and had been “evacuated” here, starving and suffering; of the rest of his family, children and wife, he knew nothing. They had lost each other during the “evacuation”.

Now he had Durchfall and couldn’t eat. He had already gone out, was no longer a man, only a poor, suffering, still living creature waiting for peace. There are hundreds and thousands like him, innocent, harmless—suffering human beings.

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany - Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.
18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany – Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.

Terror of the Kempeitai in Kanchanaburi

Prisoners of war, in their quarters in an open-sided attap hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). All seem aware that their photograph is being taken secretly, at risk to themselves and the photographer if film or camera were discovered by the Japanese. Many prisoners were brought here from Burma after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed.
Kanchanaburi (Kanburi). Prisoners of war, in their quarters in an open-sided attap hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). All seem aware that their photograph is being taken secretly, at risk to themselves and the photographer if film or camera were discovered by the Japanese. Many prisoners were brought here from Burma after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed.

For prisoners of the Japanese life was never easy – even though conditions had eased somewhat for many men who had survived the building of the Burma Siam death railway.

Kanchanaburi in Thailand was regarded as one of the better camps, where there was a relatively regular supply of food. Malnourishment and the associated diseases were still common here but most men eaked out a living.

Ken Adams, a medic with the RAMC who worked in the camp hospital, describes conditions at the end of 1944, when they knew from Allied bombing raids that the war was going their way. Trying to find out any details was a perilous business:

The railway station and stores also were bombed repeatedly, but our camp was far enough away from them and we avoided casualties.

Towards the end of the year Allied planes flew over our camp most days, going to bomb something or coming back from a raid, and camp security now required the excavation of a substantial ditch, perhaps 20 feet deep and at least 30 feet across, around the entire camp.

This was a massive undertaking without mechanical assistance and was similar to the ditch excavated around the camp at Taimuang. I think similar ditches were carved out around camps across southern Thailand, a reflection of fundamental changes in the world outside the camps: only a few months before a simple bamboo fence, drawbridge and gate had satisfied camp security requirements.

The Kempeitai’s presence increased through the year. These stocky little policemen with their fondness for torture, dark glasses and swords that were too big for them, filled everyone with fear. They didn’t often make forays into our quarters but were unnecessarily destructive when they did, throwing our kit about with abandon. A lingering look from them made you quake.

I remember a lad at the aerodrome camp who was trussed up in a drainage ditch near one of the huts. I managed to talk to him and he said he’d attempted to escape and was waiting for the Kempeitai. He thought they were taking him to Singapore for execution.

The Kempeitai were horrible little bastards. My most vivid memory of them is being lined up outside a hut as they beat a bloke to death who’d been caught with a radio hidden in a tin of peanuts. We had to stand to attention and listen to his screaming. The beating lasted a long time. I can’t say how long but the bastards knew how to prolong this torture and didn’t want him to die too quickly. I can still hear those screams.

While this was happening, the camp gunso sauntered among our ranks, kicking blokes in the shins if they didn’t meet his notion of standing to attention. If the purpose of the violence was to provide an object lesson in why not to build and operate a radio, it was very effective.

We speculated endlessly on the meaning of all this bombing, digging and secret police activity. We also speculated on what the Japanese were trying to achieve by making propaganda films at this time about our ‘privileged’ lives as prisoners.

We were filmed resplendent in new clothes we’d never see again, within drooling distance of fine foods we’d never eat and holding tennis rackets we’d never use to hit a ball.

Did the air strikes mean the end of the war was just around the corner? Did all the digging anticipate possible landings by paratroops and attempts to arm prisoners? Was the stage being set for a defensive tussle that might outlive us? Was the filming part of a strategy to rewrite history in preparation for a post-war world when we’d be reconciled?

See Ken Adams: Healing in Hell: The Memoirs of a Far Eastern POW Medic

Kanchanaburi, Thailand. January 1945. Kanchanaburi (Kanburi) is fifty kilometres north of Nong Pladuk (also known as Non Pladuk), or 364 kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat. Prisoners of war line up in a meal queue at an attap canteen hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). Many prisoners were brought here from Burma by the Japanese after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed. Note that most prisoners wear rubber clogs on their feet. Most clothing has been lost or worn out.
Kanchanaburi, Thailand. January 1945. Kanchanaburi (Kanburi) is fifty kilometres north of Nong Pladuk (also known as Non Pladuk), or 364 kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat. Prisoners of war line up in a meal queue at an attap canteen hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). Many prisoners were brought here from Burma by the Japanese after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed. Note that most prisoners wear rubber clogs on their feet. Most clothing has been lost or worn out.

Wartime Berlin – an international city, underground

The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.
The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.
Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.
Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.

Berlin had been transformed in many ways by the war. The city already lay in ruins and the threat of further bombing was ever present.

As the Nazis tried to find every last German to send to the front, the war economy was sustained by millions of forced labourers, brought from every corner of occupied Europe. Journalist Ursula von Kardorff was still keeping her diary, noting every aspect of life in wartime:

30 November 1944

The Friedrichstrasse station, with its broad stairways, which lead to a kind of underworld, is supposed to be bomb-proof. It is all rather as I imagine Shanghai to be.

Ragged, romantic-looking characters in padded jackets, with high, Slav cheekbones, mixed with fair-haired Danes and Norwegians, smartly turned-out Frenchwomen, Poles casting looks of hatred at everybody, fragile, chilly Italians — a mingling of races such as can never before have been seen in any German city.

The people down there are almost all foreigners and one hardly hears a word of German spoken. Most of them are conscripted workers in armaments factories. All the same they do not strike one as being depressed. Many of them talk loudly and cheerfully, laugh, sing, swap their possessions and do a little trading and live in accordance with their own customs.

As a matter of necessity – and not out of kindness — canteens have been set up for them, they have stage shows and even their own newspapers.

Everybody knows everybody else. Girls go from table to table and young men, wearing bright scarves and their hair long, wander to and fro. Here and there a few people are given the cold shoulder, probably because they are spies or detectives.

They say that the foreign workers are very well organized indeed. It seems that there are agents among them, officers sent in by the various resistance movements, who are well supplied with arms and have wireless transmitters.

Otherwise how could the Soldatensender [ a propaganda radio station broadcast from Britain] be so up to date with its news and how could ‘Gustav Siegfried Eins” be able to interlard its rubbish with so much that is true? They end their news bulletins with the words, ‘That was the Chief speaking.’

These stations are far more eagerly listened to by us here than all the broadcasts from the House of the German Radio. There are twelve million foreign workers in Germany — an army in itself.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

 A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a 'Ostarbeiterlager' - camp for easterners - filled with 'zwangsdeportierten' - forced deportees - women brought from the Soviet Union.
A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a ‘Ostarbeiterlager’ – camp for easterners – filled with ‘zwangsdeportierten’ – forced deportees – women brought from the Soviet Union.
Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.
Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.

Survival as a POW in Nagasaki, Japan

Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW's suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri. Leslie Cole, 1945
Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW’s suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri.
Leslie Cole, 1945

Aidan McCarthy, a Medical Officer with the RAF, had survived a series of hazardous episodes during the war including the evacuation from Dunkirk, the rescue of men from a burning aircraft that had crashed on a bomb dump – for which he was awarded the George Medal, the surrender of Java to the Japanese and being torpedoed when his POW ship was en route to Japan. He then found himself in a POW camp in Nagasaki.

Here they struggled with malnutrition while being forced to work on building warships for Mitsubishi. There was also the casual cruelty of the guards:

The poor quality and scarcity of our rations were the cause of a big increase in beri beri. Another problem was dropsy (an accumulation of water in the tissues), and in these cases numerous trips to the toilets became a necessity, especially at night.

Those who made the lavatory trip were usually in a great hurry but first the permission of the guards on duty had to be obtained. POWs had to bow and say ‘Banjo-ari-ma-sen’ (Toilet please). On the return trip another bow to the guard was required and an ‘Arigato’ (Thank you).

Some of the guards were bloody-minded and instead of allowing the man straight through they kept him waiting for no apparent reason. This delay was sometimes disastrous. The result caused great amusement for the guard and also earned the unfortunate man a few slaps on the face.

Casual beatings were commonplace for any inaction of the ‘rules’. When they were finally allowed to send postcards home to their relatives, the Japanese discovered that 13 of the men, including MacCarthy, came from Ireland. All were given a beating by the camp Commandant because they came from a neutral country but had volunteered to fight for the British.

Towards the end of 1944 most of the other officers were moved to other camps leaving only the Medical Officers and Padres behind:

Because of a Japanese decision to dispense with general duty officers, I, by virtue of my seniority, found myself the camp’s senior officer. This meant I was beaten each time offences were committed and thus ensured a daily beating. I was given a blow on the head with a bamboo cane or a blow on the face for each offender. Then the offenders themselves received several blows.

This face slapping and head bashing with a cane or sometimes with a leather belt was not too painful when one was tensed and ready for it. True, apart from a local stinging of the scalp, it sometimes produced a slight headache.

Though we found it difficult to obtain radios or receive news, we realised that the Japanese were definitely losing the war. The wholesale demolition of houses to provide fire lanes in the event of incendiary bombing, the increased air raids, the irritability of the officers and warrant oflicers with the guards and of course with us, and a continuous atmosphere of tension gave us all the evidence we needed.

Our main source of war news came from small maps in newspapers that had been discarded by civilian workers after being used for wrapping food. They were small inset maps with Japanese writing and characters. We collected them lovingly and became expert at recognizing the different characters for aeroplanes, tanks, naval ships, the different nationalities and even which parts of the world the maps represented.

By careful analysis of successive maps we were able to piece together a fairly comprehensive picture of the Pacific war in general — or at least as it was presented to the Japanese people.

The European theatre of war was reported without concealment of the real facts. Besides it soon became apparent from the remarks of our guards that they considered Germans ‘not joto’ (no good). In a peculiar and paradoxical fashion, the Japanese seemed to relish the fact that the Germans were beginning to take a hiding in Europe.

POWs returning from the ration runs reported that they had seen young Japanese cadets in full dress uniform wearing white Banzi head scarves instead of caps. Armed with a large sword at their sides, they were strutting about the streets and being treated like gods. We speculated that they must be royal princes — yet they seemed so prolific that this theory was unlikely. One such figure appeared in our camp, where he had VIP treatment from the whole staff, including the Commandant. Later, the interpreter told us that they were Kamakasi (suicide) pilots. For a week prior to their one and only flying mission, they were given this godlike treatment. In my opinion they deserved it.

The repeated knocks to the head were to have long term consequences for MacCarthy. In 1969, while still serving in the RAF he began to suffer blackouts and was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour. The operation to remove it discovered it to be benign, almost certainly the consequence of numerous small bleeds as a result of being hit on the head. See Aidan MacCarthy: A Doctor’s War.

General George S. Patton confronts an SS General

Troops of the U.S. 5th Infantry Division entering Metz on 18 November 1944
Troops of the U.S. 5th Infantry Division entering Metz on 18 November 1944

The heavily fortified border city of Metz had been seized from the French in 1870, returned to the French in 1918 and again seized by the Germans in 1940. The US Third Army’s struggle to liberate it had taken nearly three months and heavy casualties.

Sergeant Leonard O’Reilly discovered SS Major General Anton Dunckern hiding in a brewery on the 20th Novemebr, during a thorough search of Metz following its occupation on the 19th. At first Dunckern demanded to be allowed to surrender to a senior officer but, with a cocked pistol prodding him in the stomach, soon changed his mind. He was later brought before General Patton.

Although Patton spoke German fluently he chose have the interview translated because he would not demean himself to speak to him directly:

Patton
You can tell this man that naturally in my position I can­not demean myself to question him, but I can say this, that I have captured a great many German generals, and this is the first one who has been wholly untrue to everything; because he has not only been a Nazi but he is untrue to the Nazis by surrendering. If he wants to say anything he can, and I will say that unless he talks pretty well, I will turn him over to the French. They know how to make people talk.

Dunckern
. . . I received orders to go in the Metz sector and defend a certain sector there, and the reason I did not perish was that I could not reach my weapons and fight back.

Patton
. . . He is a liar!

Dunkern
There was no possibility to continue fighting. The door was opened, and they put a gun on me.

Patton
If he wanted to be a good Nazi, he could have died then and there. It would have been a pleasanter death than what he will get now.

Dunkern
. . . It was useless to do anything about it under the circumstances. (He asked permission to ask a question; it was granted.) I was fighting against American troops and captured by them, and therefore am to be considered a prisoner of war of the American forces.

Patton
He will be a prisoner of war of the French forces soon. They have a lot they want to ask him.

Dunkern
I consider myself a prisoner of war of the American forces, and I have not been captured by the French forces.

Patton
When I am dealing with vipers, I do not have to be bothered by any foolish ideas any more than he has been.

Dunkern
I consider myself a prisoner of war since I fought as a soldier and should be treated as a soldier.

Patton
You also acted as a policeman – a low type of police.

Dunkern
I acted as an officer of the police in an honorable and practical manner, and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Patton
This is a matter of opinion – no one who is a Nazi policeman could act in an honorable manner.

Dunkern
I can only say that during every day of my life I have been honest, rightful, respectful, and humanitarian.

Patton
If this is the case, do you have anything you want to say by way of giving me information or by talking about the German people that will change my opinion?

Dunkern
No one will be able to stand up against me to testify that I did anything against the rules of humanity or human treatment.

Patton
I understand German very well, but I will not demean myself by speaking such a language. I think before I turn the General over to the French, I will send him to the Army Group who may question him or have some special investigators question him, and they can do things I can’t do.

Dunkern
I am not worried about having myself investigated. Of course, there may be some mistakes I have made, which is only human, but I am not worried about inhuman acts charged against me.

Patton
. . . I have great respect for the German soldiers; they are gallant men, but not for Nazis. Have the guards take him outside and have his picture taken and then we’ll see what we will do with him. Also tell him that those bayonets on the guards’ guns are very sharp.”

See The Patton Papers: 1940-1945

An early picture of Nazi party member Anton Dunckern later SS Major General
An early picture of Nazi party member Anton Dunckern later SS Major General

Anton Dunckern was subsequently sentenced to 20 years hard labour for his role as SS Police chief in charge of the Strasbourg region, but released in 1954. He died in 1985.
Contemporary Newsreel featuring Metz amongst several stories from this time, including Peleliu:

Troops of 5th Infantry Division conducting a house-to-house search in Metz on 19 November 1944
Troops of 5th Infantry Division conducting a house-to-house search in Metz on 19 November 1944

US POWs from 101st deal with a German mole

A German image of Beyrle after he was recaptured following an escape attempt. He was an uncooperative POW.
A German image of Beyrle after he was recaptured following an escape attempt. He was an uncooperative POW.

Joseph Beyrle was a demolition expert with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne’s “Screaming Eagles” division. He had been captured a few days after dropping into Normandy on D-Day. He had eventually been sent to Stalag III-C at Alt-Drewitz, [now Drzewice in western Poland].

Some men resigned themselves to their fate and adjusted to life as a POW. Others were determined to continue the war by any means possible and to seek to escape. After five years of war the Germans had become accustomed to the escape attempts of British officers in their POW camps and were actively looking for signs of any potential escape:

American krieges in III-C, especially Airborne, constantly pushed the limits of camp regulations. Whereas earlier the Germans hadn’t been much good at uncovering transgressions, in October 1944 it seemed that no one could get away with anything.

Now far too many clandestine meetings were being busted, even those arranged by BTOs, whose security measures were the best. Guards had to be bribed and they could squeal, but the law of averages wasn’t working. Men were being thrown into solitary on bread and water. With everyone ’s health so borderline this was more than punishment — it was life threatening.

The secondary duty of the escape committee was to pre- vent penetration by the Germans. Ferrets were open penetrators, pretty easy to neutralize, but it became clear that Schultz was also running something covert and effective against the Americans.

The escape/security committee had a long talk about what could be going on. Krieges who looked like they might be collaborating were the first suspects. Coleman put out the word to rough them up. If they continued to be palsy with the krauts, beat them up. This was done, but the busts and punishments continued as before.

The committee then had to consider that there might be moles in the compound. A Ranger at IV-B had warned that the krauts’ best opportunity for mole planting occurred during transfers between stalags. After Joe persuaded the committee that this had happened between IV-B and III-C, they pondered countermeasures.

The one approved was to create kriege groups from all regions in the United States, create them openly for an ostensibly benign purpose. With the commandant’s acquiescence, Coleman armounced that there would be regional meetings to disseminate local news from home. Bring any mail you got, and read it to your buddies.

By then hut commanders knew the home state of all their men. If someone didn’t go to his regional meeting, he became a suspect. There were only a few like that, checked out thoroughly and found to be just lone wolves, men who chose to go through the kriege experience by themselves. They did so very well, and none tumed out to be a security risk.

The regional group that uncovered the mole was from Ohio. It took days of innocuous but very specific questions put casually: “Hey, anyone from Senator Taft’s hometown?” Like the needle on a gyrating compass, suspicion began to home on a man who said he was from Cleveland but didn’t recognize the name Bob Feller. How about the mayor in 1942? No response. What high school did you go to? He had an answer for that, however, he didn’t know any of the ice-cream parlors in the neighborhood. What do you hear from home? Nothing. No mail? No. Why not? No parents? No girl-friend? They didn’t write him. He had a Polish name, something like Websky, but couldn’t say anything about the part of Poland his ancestors came from. This seemed like a pretty tough requirement to Joe, who couldn’t have said much about Bavaria either.

After increasingly less friendly questioning, this Websky owned up. He ’d lived in Cleveland for four years with an uncle from Lithuania before returning to East Prussia, where he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. He clerked on the Eastem Front for two years, then felt lucky, because of his American English fluency, to be pulled out in 1944 to serve as an intelligence staffer in France.

It was quite possible that Websky had worked at the chateau where Joe had had his head bashed in, but he was not allowed to ask because Coleman designated a prosecutorial team to handle Websky’s case and they provided him Fifth Amendment protection. However, he made the mistake of acting as his own counsel. His defense was that he couldn’t turn down the mole job, he didn’t have a choice, and if he didn’t produce results, it was back to the Eastern Front, this time as an infantryman.

That was too bad, but the committee didn’t have much choice either. His hut commander was briefed and provided astand-in for Websky at roll calls after Coleman ordered a secret court-martial. Joe asked, how can we court-martial a guy who’s in the enemy army? Coleman’s answer was, you know what I mean — have a trial and make it fast. It was fast indeed, as a six-by-six hole was dug under a hut.

What took inordinate time was the question of whether the hole would be Websky’s execution site, grave, or both. He was given the choice of a shiv in the heart, a club on the head, or being strangled. “He didn’t choose, he just started praying out loud, going from English to German, whatever came to his head. One trooper volunteered to club him, two to strangle. We chose the strangler, who was less eager for the job. I didn’t watch the execution because I volunteered to be on security when it happened. I didn’t say so, but I would have liked to have clubbed him, the way I was clubbed in the chateau. Getting rid of a cockroach like Websky also made me feel better about a chance to escape.”

There was a lively debate within the committee about how to dispose of the dead man. Joe was angry because the ques- tion should have been answered before Websky was executed. What’s the problem? said Coleman’s staff. Just leave him in the hole. The committee objected: dammit, when Schultz misses Websky, any fresh dirt in the compound will be dug up. We can’t tamp down the earth enough to fool the krauts — they’d had a lot of experience in uncovering British tunnels.

Coleman sided with the committee, one of his most important decisions. Websky was dismembered and fed into latrines like Heinz [a German guard dog that they had earlier lured into their hut and killed]. When the latrines were routinely emptied for use by farmers, the committee had a quiet party catered by extra rations from Coleman.

“Before long we knew that Schultz [ the German in charge of security in the camp] knew what had happened, but there was no reprisal. He had lost a dog and a mole, probably caught hell from the commandant, but he still showed respect for what we were doing.”

See Behind Hitler’s Lines: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for both America and the Soviet Union in World War II

One of the watch towers at Stalag Luft III, Sagan.
One of the watch towers at Stalag Luft III, Sagan.

Wounded and on the run in occupied Holland

Infantry of 4th Welch Regiment, 53rd Division, advance along a railway embankment during the capture of Hertogenbosch 25 October 1944.
Infantry of 4th Welch Regiment, 53rd Division, advance along a railway embankment during the capture of Hertogenbosch 25 October 1944.
Men of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry march back from the front line for a four day rest , Sint-Jozefparochien of Duerne, Holland, 26 October 1944.
Men of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry march back from the front line for a four day rest , Sint-Jozefparochien of Duerne, Holland, 26 October 1944.

After being wounded quite severely in the stomach during the fighting at Arnhem, Brigadier John Hackett had been fortunate to receive the attention of a gifted Dutch surgeon while in German custody. He had only narrowly avoided euthanasia by a German doctor who thought him a hopeless case. Despite the very significant injury and the need for a long recovery the Dutch underground had managed to smuggle him out of the hospital and into hiding.

Hackett was now completely reliant on his Dutch saviours. His memoir describes how they went to enormous risks to nurse him back to health and help him:

Later, as night fell, supper would be brought to me — bread and butter, jam, cheese and milk. Sometimes there would be a cup of soup, even another egg. How they could continue to find such rare and precious things was baffling. Menno had a good deal to do with it, as I knew, but Keven that bold and resourceful young man must have had his work cut out to find the food they gave.me.

It was growing dark sooner in the day now, as we moved through October, and in that little room under the roof, facing north, the light failed early. ‘We must be very careful with candles and oil,’ said Miss Ann, but early darkness did not worry me.

Electric current could only be used in Ede with German permission and its unauthorised use was a punishable offence. Any building not being occupied by Gerrnans, or in use in their interests, had in fact been disconnected from the supply.

Nonetheless, in the mysterious and almost casual way in which so many truly remarkable things seemed to happen in occupied Holland, soon after my arrival the house in Torenstraat was reconnected and the electric light came on again.

One of his friends, John told me, worked for the municipality as an electrical engineer and he had quite simply, without asking any questions, done what John requested of him. He had connected us up. Behind the carefully arranged blackout curtains I could now read again at night, if I wanted to. I was still, however, not much inclined to read. Every day I read a little in my English Bible and prepared a small piece of Dutch for my daily lesson. That, for the time being, was all.

A search of the house was always possible and we needed a cover plan to explain my presence. It was decided (on a proposal from Miss Cor, I think) that I should become a patient from the hospital for consumptives which had recently been evacuated near Renkum. The family told me that I had a ‘tubercular throat’, whatever that might be, and John brought me a paper purporting to have been issued by the local authority, showing that Mijnheer J. van Dalen had lost his identity documents and was excused work on grounds of ill-health.

We had a scarf ready to tie around his neck and a bottle of strong-smelling disinfectant to soak it in, relying on a well-established fear of tuberculosis among German soldiers and the probability that those actually carrying out a search would not be very well informed – or even very intelligent. My role (I was glad that I never had to play it in earnest) was just to look ill and not speak.

In addition, everything I possessed which might arouse the least suspicion — army clothing and equipment, my own genuine papers, the silver pencil and cigarette case with their inscriptions in English, even my marching boots which did not, they told me, look Dutch enough — were put carefully away in the hiding place under the floor of the landing outside my room.

My boots! They had been made to measure for me in Jerusalem, when the brigade was training in Palestine. We were jumping into Cyprus then, in preparation for the airborne invasion of Sicily from Tunisia.

How long ago and far away all that was, I thought, as I watched the boots being packed up to stow away until I should need them again.

I was already getting into the habit of having nothing upon or near me which could excite the suspicion of Germans or even their curiosity. Even living quite close to them was something now quite normal. This had already begun to induce a frame of mind, a feeling of confidence and diminished vulnerability, which was to be of great value to me later on.

At first Dr Kraayenbrink came nearly every evening, between supper and curfew, but Mary could do the dressings, for which the doctor left medicaments, and Miss Cor was still able to provide gauze and bandages (though not, alas, any new elastoplast) from her stocks in the chemist’s shop.

When Dr Kraayenbrink was satisfied that the discharge was only caused by decomposing linen sutures and that all else was well (however much I might mourn the loss of Kessel’s elegant hairline scar) he came less often, for he had very much to do.

Like every other doctor who saw the evidence of Kessel’s surgery, and heard something of the details, he remained full of admiration for what I have often heard described as a surgical miracle. He did not fail to let me know, more than once, that by rights I should be dead. Now and then, as the frontal wound healed, the end of a thread would show and the doctor would pull it out. I used to dread this: it was an exquisitely painful affair which put me in mind of evisceration by medieval torturers.

See Sir John Hackett: I Was A Stranger

A Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXE of No. 412 Squadron RCAF, armed with a 250-lb GP bomb under each wing, taxies out for a sortie at B80/Volkel, Holland. A member of the ground crew is seated on the starboard wing to help the pilot to negotiate potholes, flooding and other obstructions on the airfield. Label A Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXE of No. 412 Squadron RCAF, armed with a 250-lb GP bomb under each wing, taxies out for a sortie at Volkel, Holland, 27 October 1944.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXE of No. 412 Squadron RCAF, armed with a 250-lb GP bomb under each wing, taxies out for a sortie at B80/Volkel, Holland. A member of the ground crew is seated on the starboard wing to help the pilot to negotiate potholes, flooding and other obstructions on the airfield, 27 October 1944.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade and troops of the 10th Highland Light Infantry, 15th (Scottish) Division, during the assault on Tilburg, 28 October 1944.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade and troops of the 10th Highland Light Infantry, 15th (Scottish) Division, during the assault on Tilburg, 28 October 1944.

Arrested by the Nazis for “undermining morale”

A Nazi meeting to publicise the establishment of the Volkssturm.
A Nazi meeting to publicise the establishment of the Volkssturm.
Reichsführer SS Himmler addresses a meeting of the newly formed Volkssturm in October 1944.
Reichsführer SS Himmler addresses a meeting of the newly formed Volkssturm in October 1944.

Conditions inside Nazi Germany were changing. The repercussions of the 20 July bomb plot against Hitler were still playing themselves out. Public trials of men suspected of being associated with the plot demonstrated how the regime would crack down. In an increasingly paranoid atmosphere there was now even less chance that any anti-Nazi remarks might be ignored, people had to be very circumspect about what they said.

The threat to Germany’s borders now seemed very real. In response the Nazis were establishing a “People’s Militia” – the Volkssturm. Conscription papers for all between 13 and 60 had already been sent out, an inaugural meeting would be held by Reichsführer SS Himmler on the 18th October – the new force would be under control of the Nazis rather than the Wehrmacht.

For Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a Bavarian aristocrat, former soldier and noted author, there was no longer any leeway for his outspoken comments about the Nazis. It had probably been only a matter of time before he was apprehended. However, when arrest came he suddenly realised how seriously his case was being treated :

And on the thirteenth, a beautiful, burning-hot day in October, I was myself arrested.

At six in the morning — that hour so beloved of all secret police officials — I heard the bell ringing rather loudly, and saw below our Seebruck gendarme, a good soul, who explained apologetically that he had come in performance of what was for him the unpleasant assignment of conveying me to the Army jail at Traunstein.

I confess that I was not greatly concerned. Four days before, I had ignored a so-called ‘call to arms’ for service with the Volkssturm, citing an attack of angina pectoris. Immediately thereafter, however, I had gone like any good citizen to regional headquarters to explain, and the opinion there had been that a man who had only just received word that his son was missing in Russia might well be believed regarding illness.

I made a mistake. Deception, the burning-hot autumn day with its gay colours; deception, the tact, bordering almost on shame, of the gendarme. We crossed the river on our way to the train, and the melancholy with which my womenfolk waved to me from the house made me thoughtful. A couple of hours later I knew that this was, indeed, more than a little warning.

The gate of the Army post closed heavily behind me. Between me and the bright autumn day there was a fence and a highly martial guard. I was standing in a guard post filled with the smell of leather, sweat, and lard, the chief personage of which was a young Swabian sergeant — a man with that peculiarly Germanic combination of choler, activity, and exactitude which never rings quite true, and which has caused so much evil in the world.

I telephoned the major who was officer-in-charge. A voice so frigidly vindictive that the quality of it emerged quite clearly out of the receiver told me that I was not there to ask questions, but to wait.

Then I happened to see a young officer I knew bicycling across the compound. I called to him, but when he came refrained from taking his hand because, as I explained, I had been arrested and so, in the jargon of the old Kaiser’s Army on the Eastern Front, I was ‘lousy’. He laughed, gave me his hand, and himself telephoned. As the crackle sounded from the receiver, he grew pale. He hung up, and then informed me, several degrees more formally now, that I was charged with ‘undermining the morale of the Armed Forces’. He bowed and left.

The penalty for ‘undermining the morale of the Armed Forces’ is the guillotine – the guillotine, on which the condemned man, as I heard recently, is granted the single act of grace of being blinded by a thousand-candlepower light just before the blade whistles downward, with the aftermath being one of the Lysol bottles of an anatomy class.

In the meantime, however, evening had come on. The guard post was now a dark box. I was locked up.

The cell is two paces wide and six feet long, a concrete coffin equipped with a wooden pallet, a dirty, evil-smelling spittoon, and a barred window high up on the wall. By climbing onto the pallet I can see a minuscule piece of the sky, the barracks compound, a section of the officer quarters, and behind, a pine forest: a pine forest of our lovely Bavarian plateau, which has nothing in common with this frenzy of Prussian militarism, this pestilence which has devastated Bavaria.

So much for the window. On the walls, the inevitable obscenities and calculations of time still to be served — in weeks, days, hours, and minutes, even. Then, a veritable flood of Soviet stars, which gave the idea that the entire Red Army had been imprisoned here. And lastly, scratched into the concrete with a key, perhaps, the words, so very applicable to me: ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ I read this, and darkness envelops me. This was written by a man as close to death as I am.

It is true that not one word has been said to confirm this idea. And yet, I cannot help registering the fact of this venomous animosity, which is intent on finding something against me, and would make of an ignored draft notice a matter for the hangman.

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen: Diary of a Man in Despair: A Non-Fiction Masterpiece about the Comprehension of Evil.

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen had a lucky escape this time. Friends in high places secured his release. It was only a temporary reprieve however. He was arrested again in December 1944 and sent to Dachau concentration camp. He was shot in the back of the neck on February 16, 1945.

 The Volkssturm were composed of men who had previously been classified as too old or infirm to join the Wehrmacht.
The Volkssturm were composed of men who had previously been classified as too old or infirm to join the Wehrmacht.
Members of the Volkssturm training with experienced soldiers from the "Grofldeutschland" Division.
Members of the Volkssturm training with experienced soldiers from the “Grofldeutschland” Division.

US 82nd Airborne seizes prisoners for intelligence

The 82nd had arrived in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. Men and supplies drop from transport 'planes above Nijmegen.
The 82nd had arrived in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. Men and supplies drop from transport ‘planes above Nijmegen.

The US 82nd Airborne Division were still in Holland, holding on to the salient that Market Garden had opened up. They were now in defensive positions close to the German border.

Anticipating a German counter-attack in strength the Division was anxious for intelligence. Lieutenant James ‘Maggie’ Magellas was personally selected to lead a patrol on the night of 30th September/1st October to seize some prisoners. He later wrote a graphic account of the events that followed:

I led the patrol on a course parallel to Wyler Meer for some distance before checking the depth and the bottom to determine if it was fordable. After checking several times, I decided that the best avenue of approach to the German MLR would be to cross Wyler Meer at the footbridge. I realized that the Germans would also know this avenue of approach and might be prepared to deny its use as a crossing. We moved cautiously, expecting an outburst of enemy fire as we neared the bridge.

When we were about forty to fifty yards from it, we halted and hit the ground. I approached the bridge alone, and when I was within fifteen feet I hit the dirt and started crawling on my stomach. Using the index and second finger of my right hand in a scissorlike action, I probed for trip wires that might lead to mines. I was surprised to find that the bridge approach was not mined. The Germans had strung barbed accordion wire across the bridge.

I decided to cross over and reconnoiter the other side, but I became tangled in the wire and ripped my trousers. I was so disgusted that I used profane language, causing a couple of Germans to pop their heads out of their foxhole, making it evident that the enemy was entrenched on the other side of the bridge. I freed myself quickly and hit the ground.

I was alone confronting a German outpost line guarding the footbridge. It was dark and I was separated from my platoon by fifty yards. I crawled to the foxhole where I saw the first German helmet pop up and in my broken German called for the German to come out: “Kommen sie hier mit der hands hoch. ”

When I didn’t get a response, I pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into the foxhole. The sound created by the concussion caused two more Germans to rise up from their hole to see what was going on. They were manning a light machine gun.

I crawled next to their hole and repeated my previous command in German. When they didn’t come out, I rolled another grenade in on them and their machine gun. I spotted another head popping out of a hole a short distance away. I crawled to that hole and repeated my German command. This man also chose to remain in his hole, so I raised up on one knee and fired a quick burst from my gun into the hole.

To this day I do not know why the Germans did not fire on me when I was hung up on the barbed wire, or why they remained in their fox- holes while I was rolling grenades in on them. Apparently they were waiting to be relieved by another squad and I caught them by surprise. It was one of those incidents that happen in combat where you can never rationalize the behavior of the enemy. This was also true sometimes of our own forces.

On my solitary quest I killed four Germans and knocked out a machine gun, but I was still without a prisoner. The burst from my tommy gun must have gotten some attention, because it brought one German out of his foxhole with his hands held high.

All this while I had been on my stomach crawling from one hole to the next without exposing myself. But when the German came out, I jumped up behind him and put my left arm around his neck and my tommy gun in his back, using him as a shield. My adrenaline was flowing at a record pace in that hectic moment. I wasn’t certain that one of the Germans wouldn’t rise up and shoot us both.

Although the prisoner I now held was the fifth German I had accounted for, I had no way of knowing how many more there were in that outpost. So I tightened my hold around his neck, dug my tommy gun deeper into his back, and in my broken German asked: “Wieviel Deutsch soldat hier?” (How many German soldiers here?) The response was, “Ich verstehe nicht. ” (I don’t understand.)

I didn’t think my German was that bad, so other more persuasive means had to be used to make him talk. This was not a time for German arrogance. In the heat of battle I was locked in mortal combat and in a struggle for my life. I would just as soon have slit his throat except for the fact that I needed information, and division wanted him for the same purpose. I knocked him to the ground and, lying next to him, began choking him. Then I repeated my question. I got the same response.

I’d about had it with him. If he wouldn’t cooperate, there was no way he’d make it back to a prison camp. I got so exasperated that I whacked him across the mouth with the butt of my tommy gun. I hit him so hard that I broke some teeth and probably his jaw. I then asked again, “Wieviel Deutsch soldat hier?” This time I get a positive response. Spitting out blood and teeth, he said in English, “There are ten German soldiers here.”

I stood him up and, with my tommy gun still dug in his back, said, “Call your comrades to come out and surrender.” With that he began calling his buddies by their first names. One more surrendered, raising the count to four dead and two prisoners.

At that point I called out for the platoon sergeant to bring up the patrol, which had been waiting for my order to move out. They covered the entire length of what appeared to be the outpost position. Four more Germans were accounted for, two prisoners and two KIA. The prisoner was correct; there were ten German soldiers in that outpost. Now all were accounted for. The score on our first encounter was “bad guys,” six dead, four prisoners; “good guys,” no casualties.

It was for this action that Magellas was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, contributing to his position as the 82nd Airborne’s most decorated officer by the end of the war. See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

Robert Capa's image of the 82nd fighting in Normandy.
Robert Capa’s image of the 82nd fighting in Normandy.

Evacuation of the surviving troops from Arnhem

British paratroops being marched away by their German captors. Some 6,400 of the 10,000 British paratroops who landed at Arnhem were taken prisoner, a further 1,100 had been killed. (German photograph).
British paratroops being marched away by their German captors. Some 6,400 of the 10,000 British paratroops who landed at Arnhem were taken prisoner, a further 1,100 had been killed. (German photograph).
A group of survivors from the Arnhem Operation arriving at Nijmegen after the evacuation and having their first drink. One of them, Captain Jan Linzel (second from left) is a member of the Dutch Royal Navy attached to No 10 Commando.
A group of survivors from the Arnhem Operation arriving at Nijmegen after the evacuation and having their first drink. One of them, Captain Jan Linzel (second from left) is a member of the Dutch Royal Navy attached to No 10 Commando.

After over a week of intense fighting it was finally decided to withdraw the remaining men of the 1st Airborne Division from their isolated position on the outskirts of Arnhem. They were pulled out in small groups from the defence line in Oosterbeek so that the Germans would not guess what was happening. Of the 10,000 who had arrived by parachute and glider, about 2,500 got away across the Rhine during the night of the 25th/26th. Many of those left behind could not be extricated because they were wounded.

Glider Pilot Louis Hagen had narrowly avoided becoming a casualty and describes the final stages of their escape:

All along the path there were mortar pits and the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers. We reached the banks of the Rhine and joined a long queue of men waiting to be ferried across. Someone came up to us and told us to spread out as the mortaring might be resumed any minute.

There were at least 100 men in front of us and no sign of a boat.There were other parties like ours all along the river, waiting. The splash of oars could be heard now and then. I suppose this was how they felt at Dunkirk. A small canvas boat was approaching at last. It took ten men across. Then we realised our desperate position.Any moment the mortaring might start again.There was no cover at all and we crouched in the deep squelchy mud. We were frozen with cold and soaked from the rain.

The mortaring started up again, not directly where we were, but near enough to be frightening. After trenches and street fighting, and even the cover of the woods, we felt helplessly exposed.The thought of those ghastly bodies and the groans of the wounded, lying in the meadows, was in everyone’s mind, but no one said anything. We just crouched there shivering.

I began surveying our position in my mind. Of course this had nothing in common with Dunkirk, and those who ordered us to wait in line patiently until we were taken off by those ridiculous little canvas assault boats did not know what they were doing.The Rhine was only 250 yards wide and quite narrow at certain spots near us.

Why was not the order given for those of us who could swim to dump their arms and make for the other side? Surely it would have been possible to organise a rope and stretch it across for those who were not strong swimmers? But instead we were being heroic, playing at Dunkirk, and a great many men who could have escaped to safety would be casualties or else be taken prisoner at dawn.

I had to get out of this. I told Captain Z that I couldn’t stand this any longer and that I was going to try and swim for it. Now we had got this far I didn’t intend to take any more risks than were necessary. The boat system was obviously hopelessly inadequate and, apart from relieving some of-this awful congestion on the bank and leaving the boats, such as they were to the non—swimmers, I honestly thought it was the best way out. He agreed with me and shouted to the rest of our glider pilot section that we were going on to a promontory where the river narrowed a bit.

A large crowd followed us, but I doubt if any of them realised where we were going or what we intended to do.They just came after us because at least we seemed to have some kind of plan. Had they been told that the river was only 250 yards wide, though it looked rather more in the dark, many would have followed us, orders or no orders.

We had to climb some large boulders on our way to the promontory. At the end, it went steeply down into the water and would have made a far better landing stage for the rescue boats than the mud flats, as at least the bank gave a little cover.

From here the opposite bank didn’t look too far and the prospect of doing something after the misery of queuing up on all fours in the mud made Captain Z, and me feel quite cheerful. ‘Well do it again, you and me!’ he said.

We proceeded to take our boots off and hung them round our necks. Captain Z gave his rifle to Lieutenant X, who unfortunately couldn’t swim, and remarked that he must keep his haversack with him as the Company ‘Office’ etc., was in it. I kept all my arms and ammo as we couldn’t be sure what would greet us on the other side.

Hagen was to discover that he couldn’t quite manage the swim with his gun and ammunition – and had to dump them half way across – but he got to the other bank safely. See Louis Hagen: Arnhem Lift: A German Jew in the Glider Pilot Regiment

Also amongst those who escaped across the river was Stanley Moss:

I have nothing but admiration for those Canadian Engineers as they ferried soldiers across the river all night. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t swim and I felt a little guilty at having jumped the queue, but what the hell…

For the first time in eight days I felt relatively safe. If any of the Canadian Engineers who were in that boat that carried me across the river remember the incident and happen to see this, I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

As I looked around I saw tired faces everywhere, grimy, proud, undefeated faces and I wanted to cry. I didn’t recognise anybody and I had no idea how many others had made it. We had all been through so much together. Everywhere I looked I saw the eyes of men who had seen too much, given too much. Everywhere I looked I saw a hero.

But for every man that had escaped many more had died, been wounded or captured and they had no one to tell their story. My experiences in those eight days would remain with me for the rest of my life.

Read the whole of Eight Days In Arnhem at BBC Peoples War

 Four British paratroops clamber ashore from a small rowing boat at Nijmegen. They were captured at the Van Limburg Stirum School alongside Arnhem Bridge and taken to a transit camp at Emmerich in Germany, but escaped and found a rowing boat, in which they made their way down the Rhine and into the Waal to Nijmegen and freedom. Left to right: Cpl John Humphreys, Cpl Charles Weir, Lt Dennis Simpson, and Captain Eric Mackay, all of the 1st Para Squadron, Royal Engineers; they are shown here recreating the moment of their arrival at Nijmegen for the camera.
Four British paratroops clamber ashore from a small rowing boat at Nijmegen. They were captured at the Van Limburg Stirum School alongside Arnhem Bridge and taken to a transit camp at Emmerich in Germany, but escaped and found a rowing boat, in which they made their way down the Rhine and into the Waal to Nijmegen and freedom. Left to right: Cpl John Humphreys, Cpl Charles Weir, Lt Dennis Simpson, and Captain Eric Mackay, all of the 1st Para Squadron, Royal Engineers; they are shown here recreating the moment of their arrival at Nijmegen for the camera.
Airborne troops taken prisoner at Arnhem.
Airborne troops taken prisoner at Arnhem.
A German picture of men captured at Arnhem.
A German picture of men captured at Arnhem.