On the 1st of February there had been elation in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, located 22 miles north of Berlin. The news reached the prisoners that the Red Army was just 60 miles east of Berlin. Rumours soon spread that they would soon be liberated, and that it might well happen in the next day or so.
The grim reality proved to be a deep disappointment the following day. Not only were the Nazis preparing to evacuate the whole camp but they were now starting to murder some of their more prominent prisoners. Odd Nansen, a Norwegian political prisoner, was keeping a secret diary in the camp, writing on the 3rd he recalled the events of the 2nd:
From the brightest and wildest optimism we’ve been plunged into gloomy pessimism.
When we got back from the job last night, we were met be the sinister announcement that the camp is to be evacuated. We’re all to start off on a trek. To the great majority the news was thunder from a clear sky, and many still refuse to believe it, such an utterly outrageous impossibility and insanity does it seem.
Forty thousand men on the tramp southward, southwest or west; miserably clad, with nothing to eat – for it can be only Norwegians who have any food to take with them – and in a worse than rickety condition. First we heard it as a rumour, and it penetrated slowly into our consciousness, which refused to accept it. Then it came as an official announcement in the block: “The camp will probably be evacuated”. Wahrscheinlich!
A hope still lingers in the interpretation of that lumpy German word, a little chance that the Russians may be too quick, the possibility of a change of mind with the ensuing counter-order, of which, indeed, we’ve known so many that they can almost be taken as the rule. But in that case there is another dark cloud in our sky, a cloud which has grown darker, blacker and more menacing in the last forty-eight hours. Liquidation! Vernichtung!
It is now being said that over two hundred men, including all the lackeys of the Sonderkommission, were shot last night. They were a frightful gang indeed, and no one laments them. They were the Gestapo’s henchmen among the prisoners. And so that was their reward.
When the truth about the events of the night gradually came out, when we learnt that our friends the Englishmen, John and Jack and Tommy and the rest, we knew them right back in Grini [a Nazi concentration camp in Norway], had in all probability been shot, and the Russian officers and many others, the atmosphere filled with gloom.
Rumour also had it that the coming night would be still worse. Last night many were awakened by shots in the camp. This was what happened: when a party of those who had been taken from the blocks under cover of darkness marched out of the gate and turned to the right, they realised where they were going, broke the ranks and ran into the little park there between the walls. The guards opened fire on them, and they were shot down there in the park. It was the rat—tat of the guards’ tommy-guns which broke the night silence, filling those who lay awake with horror and dread.
The ‘English friends’ that Nansen was referring to were members of a British commando team that had been captured after a sabotage operation to Norway in 1943, Operation Checkmate. They had successfully sunk a German minesweeper and other ships with limpet mines but despite the fact that they had operated in uniform they fell victim to Hitler’s Commando Order when they were captured. They were not treated as Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.
In Sachsenhausen they had been forced to march 30 miles a day on cobbled roads, ‘testing’ German Army boots. It later emerged that, when they were led to execution, Temporary Lieutenant John Godwin, RNVR, who had led the team of Commandos and Royal Navy seamen, managed to snatch the pistol of the firing party commander and shoot him dead before being shot down himself.
There were no witnesses to Godwin’s resistance surviving at the end of the war, a fact that meant he could not be eligible for a gallantry medal. Instead he was awarded a ‘Mention In Despatches’. The citation, in The London Gazette, 9 October 1945, read:
“For great gallantry and inspiring example whilst a prisoner of war in German hands in Norway and afterwards at Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg, Germany, 1942-1945”
The Commando Veterans Association has a gallery commemorating the other members of Operation Checkmate.