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.  

As Company I, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry, 45th Division approached the town, they saw that the only bridge across the Amper river had been blown up by the Germans in an effort to stop the advance of the Americans toward Munich. Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Felix L.Sparks ordered Company I to go into the town of Dachau to look for another bridge. The Company I soldiers finally found a railroad bridge that had been only partially destroyed. The bridge could be used for soldiers on foot and for light vehicles, but not for tanks. The tanks of the 20th Armored Division, which accompanied the 45th and 42nd Divisions to Dachau, could not get to the camp because of the destroyed bridge over the Amper river.

Company I crossed the railroad bridge and then headed northeast to return to the point where the destroyed bridge had halted the advance. Lt. Col. Sparks and a couple of his radio operators accompanied Company I, as they followed the tracks of a railroad spur line that led to the Dachau camp complex. The first thing they saw was the infamous “Death Train,” filled with dead bodies. The railroad gate was open because the train was part way inside the camp. After entering the railroad gate on the southwest side of the Dachau complex, the Company I soldiers realized that they were inside an SS garrison.

Meanwhile, between three and seven US Army jeeps, carrying soldiers of the 42nd Division, drove toward the Dachau complex and stopped briefly to look at the bodies on the Death Train before driving down the road known as the Avenue of the SS. In one of the jeeps was Sgt. Peter Furst, a reporter for the Stars & Stripes, and Maggie Higgins, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. Two Belgian correspondents were in another jeep. About half a mile down this road, Brig. Gen. Henning Linden and others in the group came upon the main gate into the Dachau complex. A short distance from the gate, 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker and a Red Cross representative were waiting to surrender the camp under a white flag of truce.

While the surrender was taking place, the soldiers of Company I were moving through the SS camp, headed toward the prison camp. The group of 42nd soldiers at the gate could hear gun fire and they took cover until it stopped. Then Brig. Gen Linden ordered Lt. William J. Cowling to enter the prison compound.

Nerin E. Gun wrote that the International Committee of Dachau, headed by Patrick O’Leary, had set up its headquarters at 9 a.m. on April 29th in Block 1, the barracks building that was the closest to the gate house of the prison compound. This was the building that housed the camp library. Gun also wrote that Lt. Heinrich Skodzensky had arrived at Dachau on April 27th and on the day of liberation, he had remained in the gate house all that day.

According to the Dachau archives, there was no German soldier named Heinrich Skodzensky at the camp.  The man who surrendered the camp was Heinrich Wicker.

Read more about the surrender of the camp here on my website.

Moat in front of the gatehouse into the Dachau concentration camp

1945 photo of the Dachau gatehouse with a bridge over the moat in front of the building

Ditch along the west side of the Dachau camp was also called a moat by some of the American liberators

The photos above show that there were two places on the west side of the Dachau concentration camp which were referred to by the American soldiers as a “moat.”  Only the one in front of the Dachau “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate was actually a “moat.”  The ditch in the last photo was inside the concentration camp.  Hopefully, this will clear up some of the confusion in the accounts of the liberation given by the soldiers who were at Dachau.

The photo below shows the moat that flows in front of the gatehouse at Dachau. The photo was taken at the entrance to the crematorium area.  Note the wall in the background; this wall was not there when the camp was liberated.

Moat on the west side of the Dachau camp; the wall in the background was not there on April 29, 1945

This entrance gate into the crematorium area at Dachau was not there on April 29, 1945; the gate and the white wall in the background were added later

The old photo below shows that there was no wall on either side of the Würm river canal, which the American liberators referred to as a “moat.”  In the background can be seen a guard tower and in the far background, the gatehouse.

Würm river river canal with the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gatehouse in the background


  1. In a Letter that my Uncle Joe Lehan B co,179TH Infantry 45th DIV. wrote to my father on May 20,1945,he writes: “John,you asked if I helped to liberate Dachau,no I didn´t.We had a hell of a fight on the outskirts of Munich,the Krauts wouldn´t let us in.The 157th liberated Dachau,but we got up there in time to do a little mopping up,it sure was a hell of a sight” Note The 179th was attacking an S.S.Kaserne Training center in North Munich on April 29th.Later that afternoon,they were ordered to help secure Dachau.I have seen His pictures that he Took of Dachau,he was a Squad Leader Sgt.,and some of his men are in the pictures as well.
    Danny Lehan

    Comment by Danny Lehan — April 3, 2014 @ 6:59 pm

  2. “Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate.”

    My dad told always told us he opened the gates of Dachau. And, unfortunately, shot the guard dogs.

    Comment by diane thornton — March 23, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    • Those dogs had likely raped Jews—so they deserved it.

      “I shall never forget the agony of one mother who told me that she was
      forced to undress her daughter and to look on while the girl was violated
      by dogs whom the Nazis had specially trained for this sport”
      – Auschwitzer: Olga Lengyel

      “(Klaus) Barbie kept two German shepherd dogs. One was trained
      to lunge and bite. The other was trained to mount naked women
      who had first been ordered on their hands and knees.”
      – Erna Paris

      Comment by The Black Rabbit of Inlé — March 24, 2012 @ 2:56 am

    • Did he personally shoot the guard dogs in the kennels near the gate? Which division was he with?

      Comment by furtherglory — March 24, 2012 @ 7:41 am

  3. The slides are quite different.
    Sachsenhausen is a slide alongside steps, Buchenwald is a drop chute.

    What was dropped downed this chute? Bodies? Sacks of coal? Sacks of flour?

    If you want to look for Buchenwald photos, this is a good place

    Comment by littlegreyrabbit — March 23, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  4. Well, I have already pointed out USHMM video clip RG 60.0864 that shows the 157th regiment in Dachau town on the 27th. Perhaps it took 2 days to cross the Amper.

    BTW, I have written a post mainly about the cellar of the Buchenwald crematorium that may or may not be of interest

    Comment by littlegreyrabbit — March 22, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

    • Very interesting post about the Buchenwald crematorium. Lots of good photos that I had never seen before.

      If the basement of the Buchenwald crematorium was not a corpse cellar, how do you explain the presence of the corpse slide? The basement crematorium at Sachsenhausen is similar to the one at Buchenwald and also has a corpse slide.

      With regard to the 157th regiment being in the town of Dachau on the 27th of April, it is possible that it took two days to get across the Amper river since the bridges had been blown up by the Germans. They had to find a remaining bridge that was strong enough for tanks.

      Comment by furtherglory — March 23, 2012 @ 8:37 am

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