D DAY 6TH JUNE 1944
This month’s Brumration is something of a departure from the norm as both my themes relate to World War Two.
The D Day Commemorations were a fitting tribute to those who served and those who were killed in action in the Normandy Campaign. I shared the view expressed by many commentators that it was the stories of the ever dwindling band of survivors of those battles that made it special.
I was one of many who were shocked by the violence of the opening scenes in the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ as the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed on Omaha Beach. The reality of course was much worse. I listened to a British veteran 75 years on describing his attempts to deliver the G I‘s and their equipment on to the beach. He was understandably very emotional as he recalled the horror of dropping the ramp of his Landing Craft on top of a mass of bodies unaware of whether they were alive or dead.
Some years ago I was talking with one of my wife’s relatives, a quiet, gentle, unassuming man, who on D Day took Landing Craft ashore on Gold Beach. The image of the bodies stacked up on the beach had remained with him. I felt privileged he was able to share his thoughts with me.
My father was also a Normandy veteran. He had trained for three years, apparently for some time at Lichfield Barracks but had been in Herne Bay in Kent prior to his deployment to France. He landed at Arromanche on June 20th 1944 with the 4th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, 71st Infantry Brigade, 53rd Welsh Division. They were in Hamburg by 4th May 1945, twelve months and 1,937 miles later. It is worth noting that for most of that time my mother, in common with all service wives had no letters or information as to where my father was. They were involved in many brutal battles in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. We have some pictures of my father in Nijmegen, and he sometimes referred to the horrors of fighting through the Reichswald Forest. In 1985 he was invited with other survivors of the 53rd Welsh Division to the town of s’Hertogenbosch the scene of one of their battles. It was the only time he ever went back and it was a very emotional experience for him. He was reminded of the comrades he lost, visited their graves and met their families. The town remembered my father, and until his death in 2003 still sent him a Christmas and Birthday card.
We should not forget the thousands of French civilians that were killed during the Normandy campaign, but the French continue to honour the veterans. On a few occasions when speaking with French families I would mention that my father was a Normandy veteran, and their response has always been ‘He was a hero’. Dad wouldn’t have thought that, but I am very proud of him.
The sacrifice of those men in Normandy was brought into perspective on my recent visit to Krakow. However well prepared or knowledgeable one might feel about the Holocaust there were still things I saw which were impossible to comprehend. Yet these behaviours were fundamental to the Nazi ideology and the policies of the Third Reich and at Auschwitz one sees part of their stated policy - to exterminate, among others, Jews, Poles Russians and Gypsies.
A number of people have said to me that they didn’t think they could visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I think we have a duty to visit.
Rather than give a catalogue of the things one sees in the various Blocks at Auschwitz, I would like to highlight a few things that had an impact on me. The Auschwitz site had been a Polish Army Camp until June 1940. The onsite Crematorium and Gas Chamber had been an ammunitions Bunker, and was in use until the newly constructed ones at Birkenau came into use. It appears that from as early as July 1942 the British Government was being made aware of what was happening at the Camp by the Polish Government in exile.
In 1940/41 the Germans evicted all the local population of an area called Oswiecim. In all eight villages were ‘cleared’. The Jews which constituted about 60% of the population were sent to ghettos, whilst the others were transported to Germany for ‘forced labour’. Factories which were of no use to the Third Reich were closed and a huge chemical plant was created for IG Fabenindustrie which used labour from Auschwitz and other satellite camps. Krupps and Siemens also used labour from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the former Prison Blocks at Auschwitz there are now various displays, similar to those in other Holocaust Museums. There are piles of shoes, glasses, prayer shawls, artificial limbs, luggage, metal utensils, empty Zyklon B tins, but perhaps most shocking of all human hair shaved from the victims. I noticed one pile of blonde hair still in its plaits, and needed a quiet moment just to take the horror of it all on board.
There were 15,000 Russian Prisoners of War at Auschwitz. These were among the first to be sent to the Camp and their first task was to build additional blocks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, using recycled materials from the destroyed villages of Oswiecim. It is estimated that about 1,000 of these Russian prisoners survived.
Close to the Crematorium in Auschwitz are the gallows where the Camp Commandant SS Obersturmbann Fuhrer Rudolf Hoss was hanged in April 1947. He had escaped in 1945 and had been working as a gardener, until his wife was forced to reveal his whereabouts. What is remarkable is that he and his wife and five children lived in a lovely house no more than 100 metres from the Crematorium.
It was raining and very cold when we arrived at Birkenau, a few kilometres from Auschwitz, which added to the bleakness of the site. We walked through the very familiar Entrance Gate and made our way to ‘The Ramp’ where the ‘selection’ was made. It was another of those moments for quiet contemplation. We made our way towards the blocks where those who survived the ‘selection’ were sent. They were awful, filled with three tiered wooden ‘bunks’ where as many as 12 people per bunk might sleep.
Although the Nazi ideology of mass extermination on an industrial scale was not part of German thinking in World War One, I have always believed that other similar behavioural traits and actions can be identified in the treatment of Prisoners of War and Civilians in 1914/18. Max Hastings in his book ‘Catastrophe’ refers to it as ‘German Beastliness’ and refers to the 129 documented atrocities committed by the Germans in the first weeks of the war in Belgium and France. These resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 civilians and the transport of many more for forced labour in Germany.
The transport of British Prisoners in 1914 was about humiliation and punishment. Crammed into often dirty cattle trucks with only a bucket for a toilet, the trains would stop at every station and the doors opened so that the men were often abused and sometimes attacked. The journey would often take days and no or little food or medical treatment was provided. The Work Camps behind the lines which seem to have existed from as early as 1916 were a serious breach of the Conventions. The men were expected to work a twelve hour day, often with just a small piece of bread and ‘German’ soup, similar to that provided in the Concentration Camps.
All this serves to emphasise the debt of gratitude we have to those men and women who fought for our freedoms in World war Two.