For years, I wondered why the staff at the Dachau concentration camp had left behind a gas chamber when they escaped the night before the American liberators arrived. The Americans had already found the Ohrdruf sub-camp of Buchenwald on April 4, 1945 and the main Buchenwald camp on April 11, 1945. Bergen-Belsen had been turned over to the British on April 15, 1945. There had been plenty of time to blow up the Dachau gas chamber before the Americans arrived on April 29, 1945. So why did the SS men leave evidence of war crimes behind for the Americans to find?
The fact that the acting Commandant, Martin Gottfried Weiss, and his men escaped before the Americans got there means that they were expecting to be charged with war crimes, or maybe even shot without being put on trial. So why did they leave evidence behind?
I finally learned the answer to this question a couple of years ago, and the answer may surprise you.
The SS didn’t just run away and leave incriminating evidence behind. No, they weren’t that stupid. Here’s what really happened:
Sgt. Scott Corbett, a correspondent for the official 42nd Division newspaper, who was at Dachau on the day it was liberated, wrote that the SS staff had set a time bomb to blow up the gas chamber after they left the camp on April 28th, the day before the American liberators arrived. The Americans got there just in time to cut the wires.
The following quote is from an article written by Sgt. Scott Corbett for the Rainbow Reveille, the 42nd Division Newspaper. This excerpt from Scott Corbett’s article is included on page 42 of the book entitled “Dachau 29 April 1945, the Rainbow Liberation Memoirs, Edited by Sam Dann”:
The first human beings ever to enter the infamous Concentration Camp at Dachau without despair and terror, entered it today. Infantry men of the XVth Corps, 42nd Division, are now in command of Dachau and they brought a new life to over 30,000 survivors among the prisoners of the horror camp.
What they found there bears out every atrocity told about the first great concentration camp in 12 years of its existence. In the crematorium, the skeleton-like bodies of the dead still lay in a room next to the furnace, stacked like cordwood. The cement floor slanted to a drain which carried off the blood, but not the unforgettable stench of death. Unlike Auschwitz, where the Gas Chamber and the Crematorium were demolished by the retreating SS, the destruction of this horrifying evidence at Dachau by a time bomb was prevented when doughboys discovered and severed the wire which would have set off the charge. In addition, the entire building was a maze of booby-traps.
The photo above shows the bodies stacked like cordwood in the room next to the ovens, and the drain for the blood.
Sgt. Corbett was already very well informed about the German war crimes since he knew that the SS had previously destroyed the gas chamber evidence at Auschwitz after they abandoned the camp in January 1945. The Germans left Auschwitz on January 18, 1945 and the first gas chamber was blown up on January 20, 1945, possibly with a time bomb set to go off after they left.
What would have happened if these brave American soldiers had not had the good sense to look for a time bomb and cut the wires in time. There could have been an explosion that would have killed hundreds of American soldiers, as well as the Dachau prisoners. Tourists would be looking at the ruins instead of being able to stand inside the gas chamber.
Most of the tour guides at Dachau now tell visitors that the Dachau gas chamber was used a few times for gassing small groups of prisoners, although not for “mass gassing.” Some of the Dachau tour guides tell visitors that Dr. Sigmund Rascher experimented with gassing prisoners in the Dachau gas chamber. What they don’t tell visitors, as far as I know, is that the gas chamber evidence was saved in the nick of time by the American liberators.