Tag Archives: World War 2

A wartime Christmas

Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.

As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade  in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which  meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.

Poster issued by the National Savings Committee. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16433)

Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper  impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.

Children at Fen Ditton Junior School (Cambridgeshire) making paper chains for Christmas..© IWM (D 23619)

Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).

© IWM (D 23296)

American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.

© IWM (EA 10182)

Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.

A Shelter in Camden Town under a Brewery: Christmas Eve, 1940, by Olga Lehmann. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1899

Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.

Ready for Christmas: the Canteen under St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, 1941, by Edmund Knapp © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 800)

Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the  armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.

May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for  a happy and peaceful  Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.

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The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

(New York Times Bestseller)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

In this novel Noa, a Dutch teenager who falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a German soldier, is disowned by her family and forced to give up her baby. She later comes across a train pulling a cattle truck full of Jewish babies en-route to a concentration camp, and impulsively takes a child – partly because of her horror at the situation and partly because of the loss of her own child which has left her feeling guilty and bereft. Noa gets lost in a snow storm and expects to die, but is rescued by a travelling circus where she makes a strange alliance with Astrid who has her own complicated history as a Jew who had once been married to a German officer. The premise of this story may seem far-fetched but, surprisingly, it is based on a number of true stories from the Second World War. In her notes at the end of the novel Ms Jenoff explains how she came across two stories in the Yad Vashem archives whilst doing research for her job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. The first story was an account of a boxcar full of babies being sent to a concentration camp, the second was the story of a German circus which had sheltered Jews during the war (the owner, Adolf Althoff, was named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem). The author has taken these stories and woven them together to create a fictional circus with characters and incidents which give us a glimpse of the fear and hardship of those who put humanity above nationality during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.

Using parallel narratives Ms Jenoff tells an inspiring story of two very different women brought together by war; characters who are believable because they are so flawed – capable of generosity and selflessness at times, and at other times quite reckless and selfish; women who are changed for the better by the tragedies they have to endure. I must admit that I found Noa’s almost instant love for Luc, and his for her, rather improbable; for me this is the weakest part of the novel but, setting that aside, it does help the author to explore one or two other themes connected to war and conflict, particularly how a family (in this case Luc’s) can be divided by their beliefs and by what they feel is the best way for them to protect the people around them. Noa also seemed rather reckless at times as she knowingly did things which could jeapordise the safety of others but, having said that, one must remember that the character is just seventeen years old and I’m sure that the characteristic traits of a teenager could not be totally surpressed even during a time of war! The focus of this novel is on the relationship of these two women rather than the war itself, and I find this to be one of the strengths of the book. The two women journey from jealousy and suspicion to a grudging respect, and then even love for each other.

Ms Jennoff has also shown a detailed knowledge of circus life in her writing. The atmosphere of the circus ring is vividly evoked – the excitement and glamour as seen from the perspective of the customers. Yet this is well contrasted with life behind the scenes – the shabbiness, the hard work, the lack of privacy, the monotony. The author also conveys how life became much more difficult for German circuses during the war as restrictions were placed on them by the Nazis, yet the determination that ‘the show must go on’ shines through, particularly as the circus brings a feeling of normality and escapism to the people of towns and villages living under German occupation.

‘The Orphan’s Tale’ has a well-structured plot which is well paced with the tension rising steadily to the ultimate climax in the big top. Interestingly the pivitol role is a baby who has no words to speak and no actions which influence the tale; the purpose of his character is, in my view, to be a symbol for all those who were victims of the Nazis. The child represents every Jew, or gypsy, or homosexual, or disabled person taken by the regime; it doesn’t really matter who he is or where he came from, the underlying current of this novel is that he should survive to tell the tale and to live a life denied to so many others. ‘The Orphan’s Tale’ is historical fiction with a focus on how ordinary people survive during times of conflict and upheaval rather than on the key events of the war. If you are fond of character driven  historical novels you will probably enjoy this.

The Orphan’s Tale can  be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Ms Jenoff here

You can  find more of my Recommended  Reads here

 

Joy Lofthouse – the girl who flew Spitfires for the RAF in the Second World War

During the Second World War women took on many jobs that were previously reserved for men. One such job was with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ‘Attagirls’ delivered planes from the factory to operational airfields, which freed up male pilots to fly missions.

One of the 164 women who flew these planes was Joy Lofthouse, who died this week aged 94.

Please do take a look at his article and listen to Joy, who was interviewed earlier this year. A remarkable lady who did a remarkable job for her country.

RIP Joy Lofthouse.

 

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.

Men of the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) camouflaging a gun position at Mersa Matruh, 28 May 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193447

Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.

I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.

Signallers at Homs

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.

The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.

Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.

On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.

Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.

Desert Graves

The only thing that ever really frightened Churchill – The Battle of the Atlantic

What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.

A German U-Boat commander tracking a British merchant ship through his periscope during an attack on a convoy, 10-20 June 1942. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194304

The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).

Shipping losses: HMS BARHAM listing to port after being torpedoed by U 331. HMS VALIANT is in the background. Photograph taken from HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194526

The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.

A seaman on watch at sea. Copyright: © IWM. object/205139887

Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.

Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Mk VII depth charge being loaded onto a Mk IV depth charge thrower on board HMS DIANTHUS. Copyright: © IWM.
object/205194536

It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.

On board a destroyer on escort duty Copyright: © IWM. object/205139891

The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.

28 NOVEMBER TO 10 DECEMBER 1941, ON BOARD THE DESTROYER HMS VANOC. (A 6633) The officer of the watch dressed for the weather during an Atlantic winter. Copyright: © IWM. object/205140741

Allied losses during the Battle of the Atlantic

36,200 sailors killed
36,000 merchant seamen killed
3,500 merchant vessels sunk
175 warships sunk
741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost in anti-submarine sorties

1943 (AX 44A) The Dutch tug ZWARTE ZEE tows back to harbour a blazing American freighter, probably the SS FLORA MACDONALD which had been torpedoed by a U-boat in the Atlantic during a convoy from Marshall, Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 May 1943. Copyright: © IWM. object/205133324

Bibliography

The Battle of the Atlantic by Andrew Williams

Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-boat School by Mark Williams

In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic by Spencer Dunmore

The Battle of the Atlantic by Macintyre, Donald.

The fruits that won the war – Mulberry Harbours

If you holiday in France you may like to visit Arromanches on the Normandy coast. This was the site of one of the Mulberry Harbours, an amazing engineering feat which helped to change the course of the Second World War. The remains of the harbour can still be seen today.

German coastal defences at Arromanches

Both the Allies and Hitler knew that an Allied invasion of Nazi held Europe was essential for the winning of the war. They also knew that any landing was unlikely to succeed without a safe harbour in Allied hands. Once the liberating forces had established a foothold on the Normandy coast enormous amounts of men and supplies would need to be landed to re-enforce the bridgehead before pushing on towards Germany. The problem for the Allies was that the Germans had occupied and heavily fortified all the ports on the northern coast of France. The disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe in 1942 showed that taking such ports would only be done with immense loss of life and would not be quick. What the Allies needed was access to a port that was not controlled by the Germans. Small fishing ports would not be suitable as the large ships needed to transport bulky supplies needed a deep port with harbourside cranes; the Allies therefore decided that if no such ports were available they would have to create their own.

The plan they came up with was simple yet would be incredibly complex to achieve – the construction of a new harbour the size of Dover at the site of the invasion. The plan was to prefabricate the elements needed in Britain before towing them across the English Channel and creating a harbour off the landing beaches. The schedule was to complete the construction within two weeks of the D Day landings in June 1944. Winston Churchill knew that there would be enormous problems with this idea but was determined that it should work if the invasion was to be successful. A trial of three competing designs for the floating harbour was set up in 1943 with prototypes built and tested on the Solway Firth. Once the design was finalised the War Office could begin the prefabrication of the concrete caissons.

D Day Copyright: © IWM.

The invasion of Europe began on 6th June 1944, D Day, with thousands of Allied troops landing along the Normandy coast. Once the beachheads were secured the work on the floating harbours began, the first stage of which was to scuttle a number of old ships off the coast at Arromanches as temporary outer breakwaters (the Gooseberries) to protect the area where the harbour (the Mulberry) was to be built. The huge prefabricated caissons (water-tight concrete structures codenamed Phoenixes) were then sunk to provide the permanent breakwaters which would shelter the floating roadways and jetties.  Once the completed Mulberry Harbour was in place the Allies could begin unloading the supplies which would be so vital for their victory.

There were actually two Mulberry Harbours towed across the English Channel to support the Normandy beachheads. Mulberry A was constructed at Omaha Beach whilst Mulberry B (nicknamed ‘Port Winston’), was constructed off Gold Beach at the town of Arromanches. Once assembled the harbours could unload 7,000 tons of supplies a day. Each incredibly complex harbour had masses of pontoons which supported around 6 miles of flexible roadways ending in huge pier heads supported by underwater ‘legs’.

An incredible feat of engineering had both harbours almost fully functional when they were hit by a storm on 19th June. The Mulberry Harbours had been designed for summer weather not the worst storm to hit the Normandy coast for 40 years, and the harbour at Omaha beach was so badly damaged that it was beyond repair. This could have been a disaster for the Allied forces, but although the second Mulberry suffered some damage it survived the storm and continued to land supplies in support of the invasion. Although it had been designed to last for just ninety days Port Winston was in continuous use for ten months following D Day and in that time landed over half a million vehicles, two and a half million men and four million tons of supplies.

When the invasion had moved eastward and liberated ports from the Nazis the harbour was no longer useful and was abandoned. If you visit Arromanches today you can see the remains of the Mulberry Harbour from the beaches.

The scale and sheer audacity of the Mulberries took the Germans completely by surprise. At the Nurembeurg trials after the war Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany, gave a German perspective on the Mulberry Harbours:

“To construct our defences we had in two years used some 13 million cubic metres of concrete and 1½ million tons of steel. A fortnight after the Normandy Landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion force brought their own harbours, and built, at Arromanches and Omaha, on unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.”

When we remember the troops who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy we should not forget those who designed and built the Mulberry Harbours which were so instrumental in making D Day and the invasion of Europe such a success.

Horror in the beech forest – the liberation of Buchenwald, 11th April 1945

Would you like to visit somewhere called ‘Beech Forest’? It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But our impressions change immediately we find out the German for ‘Beech Forest’ – Buchenwald. Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of that infamous place.

The concentration camp at Buchenwald was built just 5 miles north of Weimar, on the slopes of Ettersberg mountain, and was the largest complex of its kind in Germany with a main camp as well as 139 subsidiary camps and extension units. Established before the Second Wold War began, most of the original inmates of the camp were criminals or political prisoners who arrived in July 1937. The number of prisoners rapidly increased during 1938 when ‘undesirables’ who opposed the Nazi ideal or were considered to be antisocial elements were incarcerated in Buchenwald. After the outbreak of war in 1939 the numbers of inmates increased dramatically when many Polish prisoners were interred. It is believed that around 239,000 prisoners from 30 countries passed through the hell of the Buchenwald camps during the eight years from 1937 to 1945. No-one knows exactly how many people died there as some of the records were incomplete, but estimates range from 43,000 to 56,000. The conditions in the camp were horrendous, many of the inmates died of disease or because of medical experimentation, and over 8,000 Soviet prisoners of war were shot in an area of the camp designed for that specific purpose. These estimates of the numbers who died don’t include the inmates who did not survive the death march from Buchenwald in April 1945, or the camps which they were moved to.

Prisoners during a roll call at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The prisoners held in Buchenwald were an amalgam of the kinds of people whom Hitler believed had no place in his Reich – Jews, the mentally and physically disabled, Roma gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, political prisoners, prisoners of war, homosexuals, criminals – but rather than simply killing them as happened in many of the other camps, these people were used as forced labour in local factories which were a part of the German war effort (mainly armament factories), or in the Buchenwald quarry. Like Auschwitz there was a slogan above the gates at Buchenwald; in Auschwitz the sign read Arbeit macht free which translates as ‘work sets you free’, in Buchenwald the message was Jedem das Seine, the literal translation of this phrase is ‘to each his own’ but the understood meaning in German is much more sinister – ‘everyone gets what they deserve’.

As World War Two was finally drawing to a close in the spring of 1945 the prisoners in Buchenwald began to hope that they might actually survive their ordeal. On 4th April the US 89th Infantry Division liberated the subcamp at Ohrdruf as they moved eastwards towards the Russian armies which were advancing from the opposite direction. By this time the Germans knew that they could not win the war and, with the Allies getting ever closer, the 6th April saw the start of the evacuation of over 28,000 prisoners from Buchenwald and the satellite camps in an effort to hide what had been happening there. Almost 8,000 of these prisoners died during the march to other camps further east. Some of the prisoners who remained in Buchenwald had built a secret short-wave transmitter and were able to send a Morse code message on 8th April saying ‘To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.’ Only three minutes later they received a reply – ‘KZ Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.’  Most of the SS had already fled and, on receiving this message, the jubilant prisoners took control of the camp, effectively freeing around 21,000 of their fellow inmates.

At 3.15pm on 11th April 1945 four soldiers from the 6th Armoured Division of the US Army were the first Allies to reach Buchenwald where they were greeted as hero’s by the survivors, some of whom even found the strength to throw their liberators in the air in celebration. (The clock at the entrance gate of Buchenwald is now stopped at 3.15 as a memorial).

Although the prisoners were delighted at their liberation and able to celebrate for a short time, most of them were so ill that the Americans wondered if they would survive to enjoy their freedom. As Edward Murrow reported for CBS – ‘I asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description…As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.’

Allied soldiers liberate Buchenwald

The American soldiers were hardened men who had fought hard all the way from the beaches of Normandy but Buchenwald was almost beyond their comprehension, when Eisenhower entered the camp he said that “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.” The American liberators described finding lampshades made out of human skin and being shown where the land had been fertilised with the ashes of the dead. These horrific sights influenced their attitude when they arrived in Weimar the next day. The civilians in the town, just five miles from the camp, said that they hadn’t known what was happening there even though they had seen thousands of trains arriving laden with prisoner and none leaving. Elie Wiesel, arguably the most famous survivor of Buchenwald, later said that some of the inmates took jeeps and drove into Weimar where the American GI’s stood by and watched as the newly liberated men looted homes, killed German civilians, and even raped some of the German women. After what they had seen the soldiers felt little inclination to intervene and stop the former prisoners from taking their revenge.

Sadly, the liberation on 11th April 1945 was not the end of Buchenwald as a concentration camp. Between then and 10th February 1950 it was a ‘special camp’ run by the Russian NKVD. Finally, in October 1950, the Russian authorities decided to demolish the camp although parts were retained as a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today those remains contain a memorial and museum to the memory of the thousands who died in one of the most notorious of all concentration camps.

The Buchenwald Memorial

During the Second World War Buchenwald was the destination for many spies and resistance fighters who were captured in occupied France. In my novel Heronfield Tony was a member of the SOE and, as such, would have been sent to Buchenwald. I found writing that particular section of the book harrowing although the words I wrote in no way reflect the true horrors that the prisoners endured. In my own simple way I hope that my work can be seen as a tribute to all those who were sent to Buchenwald and other concentration camps simply because of their race, politics, religious beliefs or disabilities.

Sources

Official Memorial Site, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.

Film footage from 1945 inside Buchenwald Concentration Camp, British Pathé.

Buchenwald, jewishgen.org.

Guide to the Concentration Camps Collection, Leo Baeck Institute, New York City 2013. Includes extensive reports on Buchenwald collected by the Allied forces shortly after liberating the camp in April 1945.

Holocaust Research Project

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum