In April 1945, as the US Army moved across France and into Western Germany in their drive to crush Hitler's Third Reich, they came across a camp of untold misery and death. It was the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp, one of the earliest of the Nazis detention camps where Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others deemed inferior to the Aryan race had been imprisoned and systematically starved and tortured to death. The soldiers of the US Seventh Army came across railway boxcars containing the corpses of several thousand prisoners, and many more were discovered within the camp grounds. The SS personnel at the camp had mostly fled in the days prior to the liberation and those that remained were members of the Waffen SS military, including Hungarian SS troops, who had fired on the advancing Americans when told to surrender. When elements of the US army entered the camp, they enacted their rage on the SS men who were still present, allegedly executing hundreds in what would be one of several instances of summary justice against the murderous crimes of Hitler's dreaded SS.
On 29 April 1945, elements of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division under 27-year-old Leiutenant Colonel Felix Sparks arrived at the Dachau camp complex just northwest of Munich in the state of Bavaria. As they made their way closer they came across thirty-nine railway boxcars containined the skeletal corpses of some two thousand camp prisoners, who had been murdered, presumably by the SS garrison. The gruesome sight sickened the hardened soldiers, who saw that some of the prisoners had been brutally beaten, with one victim found with a crushed skull and brain tissue splattered on the ground. Soldiers from H Company advanced towards the outer-perimeter and used a loudspeaker to call on the SS guards to surrender.
The American troops were then fired upon by the SS machine gunners in Watchtower B and from those SS men within the camp buildings. Upon entering the camp, the US soldiers found even worse conditions and the smell of decaying bodies and human excrement became almost overpowering. Thousands more corpses littered the camp ground, whilst some bodies had been stacked and set on fire in a futile attempt to hide evidence of the atrocities. There were thousands of living prisoners found in the concrete structures where the inmates were housed, the rooms full of hundreds of half-naked and emaciated men and women, starving and close to death. One US soldier commented, "The stench of death was overpowering".
The SS Evacuation of Dachau
Just days prior to the liberation, the camp commandant SS-Obersturmbannführer Eduard Weiter had left the camp on 26 April, and for the following two days the camp administration was under the command of SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiss, before he left on 28 April after ordering the SS personnel under his command to make preparations to leave the area before the arrival of American forces. Overcrowding at the camp had caused the rations for inmates to become drastically reduced and many were fed little more than a morsel of food a day. A typhus epidemic at the camp claimed more lives, and in April, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered all camp Commandants to march all able bodied inmates further into German territory. Thousands of prisoners were killed by the SS before the evacuation, because they were either too sick or unable to walk. The camp staff forced 10,000 inmates on death marches southwards to prevent them falling into the hands of the Allies, and during this march thousands died from exposure and execution at the hands of the sadistic SS guards.
The camp at Dachau remained under the nominal command of Commandant Weiter's adjutant, SS-Untersturmführer Johannes Otto, along with several hundred SS guards who maintained order amongst those inmates who were seen as too sick and weak to journey deeper into the Reich. In the days leading up the arrival of the US Army, those SS guards under Otto also began to leave and the camp then came under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker, a Waffen-SS military officer who ordered the men under his command to ensure the camp did not descend into anarchy. Wicker had around 560 men at his disposal, most of whom were either conscripted inmates of the SS disciplinary prison inside the Dachau concentration camp or Hungarian Waffen-SS conscripts and volunteers who joined the SS to fight against Stalin's Red Army.
The Liberation by the US Army
On 26th April, Dachau prisoner Karl Riemer fled the camp and requested help from the advancing US Army. Two days later the representative of the International Red Cross arrived to negotiate the surrender of the camp to US troops, and an armed revolt took place in the town of Dachau by former and escaped Dachau inmates who were aided by a renegade Volkssturm, home army militia unit who occupied the town hall. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the SS within several hours. That same evening an international coalition of inmates took control of the camp from within, not long before the soldiers under Leiutenant Colonel Sparks arrived outside the camp perimeter.
The liberation of the Dachau concentration camp had begun. Troops under US Brigadier General Henning Linden of the 222nd Infantry Regiment of the 42nd "Rainbow" Infantry Division formally accepted the surrender of the camp garrison under SS-Untersturmführer Wicker's command. Upwards of 30,000 camp inmates were now freed, and US Army set about the task of trying to save as many lives as possible of those who were sick from typhus, malnourished or dying from other diseases rampant in the unsanitary conditions of the camp.
Brigadier General Linden was approached by the the Swiss Red Cross representative Dr. Victor Maurer, and two SS men, one of whom was SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker and the other his assistant, who offered the unconditional surrender of the camp. Wicker explained the men under his command had arrived at the camp on the evening of 28th April, and had taken over camp duties from the regular camp personnel who had fled, with the intention of surrendering the camp to American forces.
Wicker stressed his men were not responsible for the atrocities committed by the SS and reiterated that he had given his soldiers instructions not to fire on any US troops. He explained that around 100 SS guards in the camp had already stacked their weapons, but that others in the guard towers were still armed to maintain order over the approximately 42,000 camp inmates who were half-crazed with starvation and many infected with typhus.
As the US soldiers approached the camp perimeter, the Germans at their posts shouted, "Americans!". When a prisoner rushed forward to greet the liberators, an SS guard shot him dead. Outside the wire an American soldier glanced up to the guard towers, whilst the Germans kept their weapons pointed towards the advancing American units. The Americans opened fire on the towers and soon after the Germans came down with their hands in the air. One of the SS guards concealed a pistol behind his back, which was seen and he was shot by the first American to approach. At the foot of Dachau Watchtower B, the bodies of several SS guard lay where they had been shot by the US soldiers. These were the men who had opened fire on the troops under the command of Lt. Col. Felix Sparks. Others were rounded up and placed under armed guard.
After the war, a German survivor named Stahl recounted how on the day of the liberation, white flags had been flying from all seven of the Dachau guard towers since 7 o'clock that morning. When the Americans first entered the camp, eight SS men, including Stahl, descended from Watchtower G, the one closest to the gatehouse, and then surrendered with their hands in the air. Another eight guards from Watchtower A, located at the top of the gatehouse, then came down and surrendered. Those guards from Watchtower B then attempted to surrender to the Americans but were gunned down. A photograph from the incident shows the bodies of six of the SS men lying on the ground after being shot dead. The bodies of two other SS guards from Watchtower B had fallen into the Würm canal beside the tower, and were later fished out by US soldiers helped by inmates.
Reprisals against the SS camp guards
Revenge against the SS guards from the camp inmates was swift and severe. Walenty Lenarczyk, a prisoner at Dachau reported that when the liberation began, "prisoners swarmed over the wire and grabbed the Americans and lifted them to their shoulders... other prisoners caught the SS men... the first SS man elbowed one or two prisoners out of his way, but the courage of the prisoners mounted, they knocked them down and nobody could see whether they were stomped or what, but they were killed". It was reported that some of the SS guards had been rounded up and summarily executed along with the guard dogs. Other inmates in the camp targeted the prisoner Kapos and informers, who were badly beaten with shovels, sticks and fists.
US soldiers reportedly turned away from two prisoners beating a German guard to death with a shovel, including such an incident witnessed by US Army Leiutenant William Walsh. In another incident a soldier witnessed an inmate stomping on an SS guards face, until "there wasn't much left". This soldier spoke to the inmate afterwards telling him, "You've got a lot of hate in your heart", to which the inmate simply nodded. Other SS guards were caught whilst attempting to escape or hide their identities. Three young Jewish men who left the camp during liberation, told an American chaplain they had caught one of the most sadistic SS guards as he tried to hide in a barn dressed as a peasant and beat him to death.
The men under Lt. Col. Felix Sparks captured around 50 to 60 SS prisoners and confined them to an area that had previously been used to store coal. The area was enclosed by an L-shaped masonry wall around 8ft high, situated next to the camp hospital. The men were watched over by soldiers from I Company, who used a machine gun to ensure there were no escapes. Sparks left the area to negiotate the surrender of other SS men in the centre of the camp who had not yet laid down their weapons.
After walking only a short distance, he heard a US soldier shout, "They're trying to get away!" and then a burst of machine gun fire in the direction of the area he had just left. Running back, he saw a 19-year-old US soldier named Bryant who went by the nickname "Birdseye", and who had been manning the machine gun emplacement who killed at least 12 of the SS prisoners and wounded serveral more. Sparks kicked the young soldier, who was crying hysterically, telling his superior that the Germans had tried to escape. Photographs from the incident show around 60 Waffen-SS soldiers lying on the ground, most are wounded, about 17 are dead and the others are playing dead. An NCO was then placed in charge of the machine gun and Sparks resumed his journey to the centre of the camp.
In 1989, Sparks wrote an account of the role the 45th Division had played in the liberation, and he mentions a slightly different incident where Waffen-SS soldiers were shot whilst trying to escape. "As I watched, about fifty German troops were brought in from various directions. A machine gun squad from Company I was guarding the prisoners. After watching for a few minutes, I started for the confinement area (the concentration camp), after taking directions from one of my soldiers. After I had walked away for a short distance, I heard the machine gun guarding the prisoners open fire. I immediately ran back to the gun and kicked the gunner off the gun with my boot. I then grabbed him by the collar and said: "What the hell are you doing?" He was a young private about 19-years-old (Private William C. Curtin) and was crying hysterically. His reply to me was: "Colonel, they were trying to get away." I doubt that they were, but in any event he killed about twelve of the prisoners and wounded several more. I placed a noncom on the gun and headed towards the confinement area."
There is some confusion about the alleged incident, and Col. John H. Linden would later recall that Henry F. Gerzen, of the 163 Signal Photographic Company was filming the shootings with a movie camera, and several frames from this movie survived what he referred to as the "cover-up of the Dachau Massacre". These frames showed Lt. Col. Felix Sparks firing his pistol and raising his left hand into the air in an attempt to stop the shootings, which allegedly took place around noon. However, there was another version of these events recounted by Col. Howard Buechner, a medical officer with the 45th Division who claimed that the photograph showing Sparks firing his gun into the air was from a second incident, which occurred around 2:45pm, and involved the execution of 346 Waffen-SS soldiers who were shot on the orders of Lt. Jack Bushyhead.
Sparks would comment further about the incident, and the number of SS who had been killed; "It was the foregoing incident which has given rise to wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly did not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure. The regimental records for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau."
According to Flint Whitlock, historian for the 45th Thunderbird Division, the men under Sparks command had previously been given a warning about the dangers posed by German POW's by General George S. Patton, commander of the US 7th Army, just before the American invasion of Sicily. Whitlock wrote, "Patton cautioned the men to watch out for dirty tricks when it seemed a group of enemy soldiers wanted to surrender. A favorite tactic, the general said, was for a small group to suddenly drop their weapons and raise their hands or wave a white flag. When unsuspecting Americans moved into the open to take the enemy prisoner, the 'surrendering' troops would hit the dirt and their comrades, lying in wait, would spring up and mow down the exposed Americans. Patton warned the Thunderbirds to be on their guard for this sort of treachery and to show no mercy if the Germans or Italians attempted this trick. His words would have fateful repercussions."
As the Americans advanced towards the infamous Dachau concentration camp, they were already aware that the Jews were being exterminated in the gas chambers by the Nazis. At Dachau the gas chambers were located directly outside the barbed wire fence which separated the prison compound from the SS training camp. The Americans were expecting to find members of the dreaded SS-Totenkopfverbände, the "Death's Head" units of the SS who performed guard duties in all concentration and death camps. However, the regular guards had all fled and the camp was under the command of Waffen-SS troops and around 128 SS men from the SS disciplinary camp prison who were released and ordered to guard the camp after the regular guards escaped the night before.
Whitlock quotes Lt. Walsh of I Company who recounted an incident at the gatehouse after the war; "There's a big gate, and this German guy comes out of there. He must have been about six-four or six-five, and he's got beautiful blond hair. He's a handsome-looking bastard and he's got more Goddam Red Cross shields on and white flags... My first reaction is, "You son of a bitch, where in the hell were you five minutes ago before we got here, taking care of all these people? ....Well, everybody was very upset. Every guy in that company, including myself, was very upset over this thing, and then seeing this big, handsome, son of a bitch coming out with all this Red Cross shit on him."
It was revealed by Whitlock that one of the men of I Company shot the handsome SS soldier who had emerged at the gatehouse, because he attempted to escape after surrendering. Four other Waffen-SS men also came out with their hands up and surrendered to the men of I Company. However, Walsh acted on the warning given by General Patton and suspecting the Germans of planning an ambush, and they were subsequently herded into an empty boxcar where Lt. Walsh emptied his pistol into them. Walsh and his men then continued through the SS garrison and rounded up the soldiers who were surrendering, separating the Waffen-SS men from those of the Wehrmacht.
It would be at the large gate at the southwest entrance to the Dachau complex where SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp to the Americans. An advance party of soldiers under Lt. Col. Sparks avoided the main entrance and followed the railroad tracks, entering the SS garrison through the railroad gate where his men of I Company came across the boxcars full of skeletal remains. They then came across the SS training camp and garrison. What the men of I Company did not know, is that these buildings were completely separate from the Dachau camp. However, the prison compound was only accessible by going through the gates into the SS garrison.
It was there that the commander of the Waffen-SS formally surrendered the camp to the US Army. Initial reports named the Waffen-SS commander as SS-Obersturmführer Heinrich Skodzensky, however no record of any SS officer by this name has been found. Abram Sachar gave an account of the surrender of Dachau concentration camp in his book entitled "The Redemption of the Unwanted" published in 1983: "Soon the advance scouts (of the 45th Division) were joined by other Allied soldiers and one of the German guards came forward to surrender with what he believed would be the usual military protocol. He emerged in full regalia, wearing all his decorations. He had only recently been billeted to Dachau from the Russian front. He saluted and barked "Heil Hitler". An American officer looked down and around at mounds of rotting corpses, at thousands of prisoners shrouded in their own filth. He hesitated only a moment, then spat in the Nazi's face, snapping "Schweinehund," before ordering him taken away. Moments later a shot rang out and the American officer was informed that there was no further need for protocol."
This account clearly refers to the execution of SS-Obersturmführer Heinrich Skodzensky, who had allegedly been put in charge of the SS garrison at Dachau, but must have been confused with SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker. It is unknown if Wicker was amongst those SS who were killed during the liberation. He was reported missing by his family members, and because his body had not been located, he was presumed dead. A photograph surfaced after the war which allegedly depicts a dead SS trooper that might possibly have been of 24-year-old Heinrich Wicker, and so it seems highly likely that Wicker was executed by the Americans soon after the surrender. The liberation of Dachau resulted in international headlines, with much praise given to the US Army for liberating the infamous Nazi camp. General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a communique about the surrender of the Dachau camp, "Our forces liberated and mopped up the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. Approximately 32,000 prisoners were liberated; 300 SS camp guards were quickly neutralized."
The US Army Investigation
The US Army conducted an inquiry into the killings, overseen by Lt. Col Joseph Whitaker, the Assistant Inspector General of the Seventh Army. He issued a secret report on 8 June 1945, titled, "Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau", that detailed the witness reports about the incident, and which was made public in 1991 after a copy was found in the National Archives in Washington D.C. The report made mention of several instances where German guards were shot and killed by US army soldiers.
The actions of Leiutenant William Walsh, the commander of I Company of the 157th Infantry Regiment, are mentioned in the Whitaker report; "At the entrance to the back area of the Dachau prison grounds, four German soldiers surrendered to Lt. William P. Walsh, 0-414901, in command of Company "I", 157th Infantry. These prisoners Lt. Walsh ordered into a box car, where he personally shot them. Pvt. Albert C. Pruitt, 34573708, Company "I" 157th Infantry, then climbed into the box car where these Germans were on the floor moaning and apparently still alive, and finished them off with his rifle."
Walsh is mentioned again in relation to the segregation of Waffen-SS prisoners and those from the Wehrmact; "After entry into the Dachau Camp area, Lt. Walsh segregated from surrendered prisoners of war those who were identified as SS Troops." And then in connection with the massacre of the 17 Waffen-SS soldiers and wounding of others at the wall; "Such segregated prisoners of war were marched into a separate enclosure, lined up against the wall and shot down by American troops, who were acting under the orders of Lt. Walsh. A light machine gun, carbines, and either a pistol or a sub-machine gun were used. Seventeen of such prisoners of war were killed, and others were wounded."
The complicity of Leiutenant Bushyhead is also noted in the report; "Lt. Jack Bushyhead, 0-1284822, executive officer of Company "I", participated with Lt. Walsh in this handling of the men and during the course of the shooting personally fired his weapon at these prisoners." The account given by the American officers is also called into question regarding the massacre at the wall; "Lt. Walsh testified that the SS men were segregated in order to properly guard them, and were then fired upon because they started moving toward the guards. However, the dead bodies were located along the wall against which they had been lined up, they were killed along the entire line, although Lt. Walsh only claims those on one flank moved, and a number of witnesses testified that it was generally "understood" that these prisoners were to be shot when they were being segregated. These facts contradict the defensive explanation given by Lt. Walsh."
The US Army initiated court-martial proceedings against those American soldiers and officers who were involved, including Lt. Col Felix Sparks, and Lt. Howard Buechner, a medical officer of 45th Division, who was cited in the report for dereliction of duty because he did not provide medical aid to the wounded SS men in the coal yard. However, the charges were eventually dismissed because any witnesses to the killings were never cross-examined and the court papers were torn up and burnt by General George S. Patton, who had recently been appointed as the military governor of Bavaria.
Col. Charles L. Decker, an acting deputy judge advocate, concluded in late 1945 that, while there had probably been a violation of international law, "in the light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken" Ultimately it was found that these murders were the result of the atrocities witnessed by the American soldiers who liberated Dachau, who had been exposed to the evil deeds of the SS camp staff that had previously fled to avoid capture. Those Germans who remained were to suffer the full fury of the Americans who had witnessed the full horrors of the Holocaust.
Written by Nucleus