BRITISH PRISONERS OF AUSCHWITZ
It was the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, but it also held British PoWs whose incredible acts of bravery and sabotage hampered the German war effort and helped Jewish inmates
At first it looked like a tranquil rural scene, a small copse set among fields of yellow clay.
Staggering off the trains after their long journey, the men took little note of the suitcases and belongings gathered in heaps by the side of the platform.
The cries of the German guards brought them back to reality. It was the end of 1943. The temperature was dropping. The tide of the war may have been turning, but for Arthur Dodd, a Royal Army Service Corps driver captured in North Africa, the hell was just beginning.
Auschwitz. The name conjures images of despair and the evils of the Holocaust, where, according to conservative estimates, at least 2.5 million people died.
Yet what many people might not realise is that Auschwitz was not just an extermination camp. Throughout the war it also played host to thousands of British prisoners of war. As a new book reveals, despite the starvation rations and savage beatings they received at the hands of their captors, some of them carried out feats of astonishing bravery, sabotaging the Nazi war effort, risking their lives to help the Jewish inmates and, on at least one occasion, killing their guards.
The largest of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, located in southern Poland, it consisted of Auschwitz I, the administrative centre, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the extermination camp, and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a work camp. The British were housed in the latter, up to 1,400 by 1943.
Dodd was one of those soldiers.
He found himself crossing the border of Germany into Nazi occupied Poland because he had missed out on an escape attempt.
Captured along with thousands of others after the battle of Tobruk in North Africa, he had suffered appalling conditions in overcrowded Italian PoW camps.
He then drew a short straw during an audacious breakout (with men hidden inside tea chests) and had to remain behind.
One day, Dodd and his fellow prisoners were dispatched to work in nearby quarries. When they refused to carry out the work, Dodd recalls shouting: "The Geneva Convention strictly forbids forcing PoWs to help the enemy's war efforts!" ? they earned a severe beating.
Soon after, the rebellious Brits were crammed on to a train. Twenty-four hours later they had travelled to a small town west of Krakow. This was their first sight of Auschwitz.
On the day they arrived, the first thing they noticed as they approached was the cold and the stench. "It was unbelievable, " says Cyril Quartermaine, now 87, who, like Dodd, was captured at Tobruk. "You could see the smoke from the chimneys.
Then as you got off the cattle trucks, there was this terrible smell that got on your clothes, into your nose. I'll never forget it. I still can't eat most meat to this day." Marched by German soldiers to their new barracks, Dodd saw a Jewish girl being beaten by an SS officer.
For many of the PoWs, it was too much. Dodd stepped forward, growling: "Come on lads, I've had enough of this bastard!" A rifle stopped him in his tracks. The meaning was clear, another step forwards and he would be shot. The guards began striking the girl even more brutally.
She was never seen again.
Life for the British was initially bearable. Daily life began at five, with the macabre sounds of a Jewish orchestra playing as the trains disgorged their human cargo, some to the gas chambers, others to work details.
Unlike the Jewish prisoners, they were given skilled work and fed and housed in slightly more tolerable conditions. "If you could call a bit of liquid they called soup, with some mouldy carrot, food, " Dodd recalls.
Sometimes it was accompanied by a small chunk of black bread, made from wild chestnuts and sprinkled with what tasted like sawdust. The men had all dropped to near-skeletal weight by the end of the war.
"The Jews had it far worse, of course. We used to give them our Red Cross parcels [chocolate, butter, bully beef, tinned ham], sometimes, " says Quartermaine. "It was the best we could do." Dodd was put to work in the plant manufacturing benzene and synthetic rubber.
As the tide of war slowly began to turn against the Nazis, many German industrial firms were desperately searching for manufacturing capability and innovations to help their cause.
He even remembers seeing industrialist Oskar Schindler arrive at the camp. Schindler was searching for more Jews to work in his factories. At the time and until his amazing story emerged Dodd saw him as just another Nazi profiteer.
The horrors that the British prisoners witnessed were constant.
Each Jewish work gang was watched by one of the Kameradschafts Polizei, known as a "kapo", who would kick and beat them if they were slow in their work, or sometimes even if not.
These kapos were drawn from the ranks of the Jewish inmates and if they weren't harsh enough, the Nazi guards would demote them back into the ranks of the prisoners. Few would last long after that.
The British kept up spirits by playing football. Some of them formed the England E175 team (named after their hut but not all were able to stand the ordeal. Dodd recalls one prisoner cracking up and screaming at the guards:
"Shoot me, go on, shoot me!" Instead, he was savagely beaten.
Despite this, Dodd, Quartermaine and many others attempted to sabotage what they could. "I don't think there was a thing went out there worked properly, " Quartermaine chuckles. "Too much sand in the cement for the air raid shelters, for example, so they cracked more easily when hit." Dodd faced torture and beatings as a result of this suspected sabotage. His sergeant major went missing afterwards, accused of being a spy by the Germans.
One Yorkshireman vowed to take revenge on an SS guard who had pushed an exhausted Jewish prisoner into a cement pit. Disguised in a Jewish uniform, he managed to dispatch the guard in the same way, unnoticed by the guard's colleagues above the din of the work around them.
Even more amazingly, Dodd and four other PoWs escaped for more than two weeks, with the help of Polish partisans. In return they helped the Poles blow up a factory.
Their escape coincided with a failed uprising at Auschwitz. Dodd and the others were eventually recaptured and returned to Auchswitz.
The hardest time for the British prisoners came when they left Auschwitz.
Fleeing before the Russian Red Army, the German guards forced the remaining PoWs to go with them on the infamous "Death March" in January 1945.
"The guards and police stopped the people giving us any food, " Quartermaine wrote in his diary. In some places, signs were posted saying the men were gangsters and war criminals.
The temperatures dropped to minus 25 degrees. Men froze, starved to death. They took to sharing their greatcoats, if they had them, and sleeping together to stave off the cold. In the towns they passed, they witnessed the slaughter by the retreating Nazis. In one camp they found Russian PoWs who had resorted to cannibalism.
With the end of the war, the survivors were finally able to return home, but even then their problems were not over.
The War Office simply told relatives the PoWs would be "slightly odd for a while".
"My wife could never read these stories, " says Quartermaine now, referring to his diaries. "I still have nightmares to this day. It took me eight years before I even told her where I'd been." Dodd is elderly and frail now. As Colin Rushton, the author of the new book on the British prisoners of Auschwitz, writes: "The memory of it now only comes to him in waking moments when he thinks back to an extraordinary episode in his life. He will forever be able to recall the most minute detail of what happened in Polish Silesia, but the nightmares have stopped."
http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/185 ... -AUSCHWITZ
For anyone wanting to read more on this, the new book "Spectator In Hell" by Colin Rushton is available at the very reasonable price of £8.99 ($18)