Scrapbookpages Blog

March 22, 2012

the liberation of Dachau — no two accounts agree

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — furtherglory @ 11:08 am

On my scrapbookpages website, I have written extensively about the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by American troops on April 29, 1945.  The anniversary of the liberation will be coming up soon and there will be a lot of discussion about which division actually liberated Dachau, the 45th division or the 42nd division of the US Seventh Army. Both divisions are officially credited with liberating the camp.

I have gone over the pages on my website about the liberation and picked out some of the highlights.

According to Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, the commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Thunderbird Division, he received orders at 10:15 a.m. on April 29, 1945 to liberate the Dachau camp, and the soldiers of I Company were the first to arrive at Dachau around 11 a.m. that day.

However, John Degro, a soldier in the 45th division, claims that he arrived at the Dachau SS garrison at 7:30 a.m. and by 11 a.m., he had made his way to the concentration camp where he  shot the lock off the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, which was the entrance into the concentration camp.  This is the exact same time that some of the 42nd Division soldiers say they were liberating the concentration camp.

Soldiers of the 45th division had entered the Dachau SS garrison through the railroad gate.  My 2003 photo below shows a short section of the train tracks at the location of the railroad gate.

A section of the tracks at the railroad gate into the Dachau SS garrison has been preserved. The tracks are about a mile from the concentration camp

The "railroad gate" into the Dachau garrison was formerly in this location

On their way to Munich, a few 42nd Division soldiers had met some newspaper reporters and photographers who told them about the Dachau concentration camp and offered to show them the way. Lt. William Cowling was with Brig. Gen. Henning Linden when the first soldiers of the 42nd Division arrived at the Dachau complex around 3 p.m. They were met by 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker who was waiting near a gate on the south side of the Dachau SS garrison, ready to surrender the concentration camp.

I have written here on my website about 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker.  The photo below shows the surrender of the Dachau concentration camp.

2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker and Red Cross representative Victor Maurer surrender the Dachau concentration camp

In a book entitled The Day the War Ended, Martin Gilbert wrote the following about the liberation of Dachau, based on the account given by Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent who was using the code name Patrick O’Leary:

As the first American officer, a major, descended from his tank, “the young Teutonic lieutenant, Heinrich Skodzensky,” emerged from the guard post and came to attention before the American officer. The German is blond, handsome, perfumed, his boots glistening, his uniform well-tailored. He reports as if he were on the military parade grounds near Unter den Linden during an exercise, then very properly raising his arm he salutes with a very respectful “Heil Hitler!” and clicks his heels. “I hereby turn over to you the concentration camp of Dachau, 30,000 residents, 2,340 sick, 27,000 on the outside, 560 garrison troops.”

The American major did not return the German Lieutenant’s salute. He hesitates a moment as if he were trying to make sure he is remembering the adequate words. Then he spits into the face of the German, “Du Schweinehund!” And then, “Sit down here” – pointing to the rear seat of one of the jeeps which in the meantime have driven up. The major gave an order, the jeep with the young German officer in it went outside the camp again. A few minutes went by. Then I heard several shots.

Lieutenant Skodzensky was dead. Within an hour, all five hundred of his garrison troops were to be killed, some by the inmates themselves but more than three hundred of them by the American soldiers who had been literally sickened by what they saw of rotting corpses and desperate starving inmates. In one incident, an American lieutenant machine gunned 346 of the SS guards after they had surrendered and were lined up against a wall. The lieutenant, who had entered Dachau a few moments earlier, had just seen the corpses of the inmates piled up around the camp crematorium and at the railway station.

Regarding the liberation of the Dachau camp, Nerin E. Gun, a prisoner in the camp who was the author of a book entitled The Day of the Americans, wrote the following about what happened when the American liberators reached the gate house into the prison compound:

Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate. Machine-gun fire burst from the center watchtower, the very one which since morning had been flying the white flag! The jeeps turned about and an armored tank came on. With a few bursts, it silenced the fire from the watchtower. The body of an SS man fell off the platform and came crashing loudly to the asphalt of the little square.

The 42nd Division soldiers had arrived in jeeps, but there was no armored tank there when the Arbeit Macht Frei gate into the concentration camp was opened.  On the day of the Dachau liberation, the 45th and 42nd Infantry Divisions were both rapidly advancing southwest toward Munich with most of the troops riding in trucks or armored vehicles; between the two divisions lay the town of Dachau. Both divisions had been told that there was a prison camp at Dachau.   (more…)