The Trial of Werner Röhde and 8 others in a British Military Court at Wuppertal, Germany began on May 29, 1946 and ended on June 1, 1946. The nine men were charged with the murder of four British SOE agents on July 6, 1944 at the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace.
Werner Röhde was a medical doctor who had allegedly murdered the four SOE agents by giving them a lethal injection. It was the custom of the Allies to strip the title of Doctor from the accused in war crimes proceedings.
The 8 others in the dock were Fritz Hartjenstein, the Commandant at Natzweiler, Max Wochner and Wolfgang Zeuss from the Political Department at Natzweiler, Peter Straub who was the man in charge of executions, Franz Berg who was a prisoner in the camp, Emil Brüttel, Emil Meier and Kurt aus dem Bruch. Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who had also allegedly participated in the lethal injection of the women, was not on trial because he had not been captured.
In all of the Allied Military Tribunals, the concept of a “common plan” or co-responsibility for war crimes was used. This meant that anyone, who was present when a war crime was committed, was equally guilty because the accused should have acted to prevent the crime from taking place.
The evidence for the prosecution had been gathered by Major Bill Barkworth of the SAS War Crimes Investigation team and Vera Atkins, a Squadron Officer of the British SOE, who had interrogated the Natzweiler staff and some of the Natzweiler prisoners, who were also captured SOE agents.
The four SOE agents, who were allegedly murdered at Natzweiler, had been captured by the German Gestapo and had not returned after the war ended. The key prosecution witnesses, Albert Guérisse, Brian Stonehouse and Dr. Georges Boogaerts, who were all members of the SOE, had a motive for wanting these 4 women SOE agents to go down in history as heroines, not as missing persons.
The first witness for the prosecution was Vera Atkins, who testified on May 29, 1944 that Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Noor Inayat Khan had been murdered at Natzweiler. It was not known until much later that Noor Inayat Khan was allegedly executed at Dachau and that Sonia Olschanezky was the fourth victim at Natzweiler. However, before her testimony, Vera Atkins had made sure that the Court would not allow the names of the victims to be published. Atkins herself was referred to in the press as a “WAAF officer” and her name was withheld.
According to Sarah Helm, who wrote a biography of Vera Atkins, entitled “A Life in Secrets,” Atkins did not want the SOE to be “exposed to any close scrutiny as a result of the case.” The SOE was a secret organization, also known as Churchill’s Secret Army, and it was engaged in espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. The four women agents had been in the F section which operated as illegal insurgents in France after that country had signed an Armistice with Germany in 1940.
The attorney for the defense, Dr. Grobel, argued in court that “international law allowed for the execution of irregular combatants” and that the court should “consider this case from the point of view that it was a normal and simple execution of spies.” Vera Atkins was quoted by the press as saying that “the women were not spies.”
One thing the Allied Military Tribunals would not tolerate was any mention by the defense that the Allies had committed similar acts. During World War II, the British executed 15 German spies. The last person to be executed at the famous Tower of London was Josef Jacobs who was captured after he broke his leg during a parachute jump. He was shot on August 15, 1941.
In America, 8 captured German saboteurs were sentenced to death and 6 of them were executed in the electric chair. The other two sentences were reduced because the men had turned against their countrymen and cooperated with the Americans. Although the 8 Germans were caught before they had the opportunity to commit any acts of sabotage, 6 of them were executed because they had violated the Laws of War by going behind enemy lines to commit hostile acts without being in uniform.
According to Rita Kramer, who wrote a book entitled “Flames in the Field,” the proceedings of the British Military Court were widely publicized by the press, but the names of the women who had been allegedly executed at Natzweiler were not published until two years later, and even then it was not revealed that they had been the subject of a British Military Court where nine men had been prosecuted for their alleged execution.
In 1958, a series of articles in a British newspaper, which was a condensed version of a book entitled “Death be not Proud” by Elizabeth Nichols, accused the authorities of keeping the names of the dead women secret as a “War Office cover-up of official blunders,” according to Rita Kramer. The alleged “cover-up” was for the purpose of keeping secret the accusation that the British SOE had deliberately sent radio operators to France to be caught so that the British could transmit false information to their radios after the agents were captured by the Germans.
The senior counter intelligence officer with RSHA, the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin, was Horst Kopkow; he was responsible for all orders pertaining to the SOE agents captured in France. If any order was given for the execution of four SOE agents at Natzweiler, he would have been the man who signed it. He had not yet been captured when the trial of Dr. Röhde and 8 others began.
By the end of 1946, Kopkow was in British custody, but he denied any responsibility for the murder of any female F section SOE agents, saying that it was Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler who had personally decided their fate, according to Sarah Helm’s book “A Life in Secrets.” Himmler was the head of the SS and all the concentration camps. All punishments in all the camps had to be approved by the head office in Oranienburg and all punishments of female prisoners had to be personally approved by Himmler, including executions.
Sarah Helm wrote that Kopkow was taken to England for interrogation in 1948, but when he arrived, he was found to be running a temperature, and two days later he died from bronchial pneumonia before any information could be obtained from him. A death certificate was issued for him and information was released that he had been buried in the POW section of a Military Cemetery.
By 1948, the Allies had realized that the real enemy was the Communist Soviet Union. Kopkow had not died; he had been “released from custody to work for British and American intelligence,” according to the book “A Life in Secrets,” by Sarah Helm. Kopkow’s death had been faked so that he could help the Allies in fighting the Cold War against the Soviets.
If Kopkow had authorized the execution of the 8 women SOE agents, he would have given the order to Herman Rösner of the Karlsruhe Gestapo to carry out. Rösner would then have instructed Max Wassmer and Christian Ott to take the women to Natzweiler and Dachau. Under the “common plan” concept used by the Allies in all their war crimes trials, Rösner would have been guilty of murder, but he was never prosecuted. In the 1960ies, he was hired by the British to provide intelligence for NATO, according to Sarah Helm’s book.
The men who were brought before the Allied military tribunals were called the accused, not the defendants, because they were considered guilty until they were proven innocent. They were guilty from the moment that they had allegedly committed a war crime. As war criminals, rather than POWs, they were not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. It could be argued that the execution of the British spies was not legal under international law because they had not been given a trial, as required by the Hague Convention of 1907. However, using the standards of the Allied war crimes trials, spies were not entitled to a trial because they lost their protection the moment they parachuted behind enemy lines with the intent to commit war crimes.
The procedure was to interrogate the accused before the proceedings began and to obtain depositions which the accused would then repeat before the Court. However, in the British and American proceedings, the accused were allowed to have an attorney to represent them. Their attorneys were allowed to use any means to defend them, including the accusation that their clients had been unduly persuaded to give incriminating information in their depositions which they now wanted to recant on the witness stand.
Testimony or confessions about prior bad acts could be admitted, even though it had nothing to do with the crime that was being prosecuted. For example, one of the accused, Peter Straub, who had worked for a number of years in Auschwitz before being transferred to Natzweiler, had supposedly told Walter Schultz, a prisoner at Natzweiler, that he had “put four million people up the chimney.” What kind of a person voluntarily confesses to such barbarity, knowing that he would surely be executed, and uses the terminology of Auschwitz survivors to describe his crime?
According to Rita Kramer, all of the accused would “later deny their complicity,” after giving depositions beforehand in which they stated that they had been involved in the execution of the four SOE agents at Natzweiler. The fact that all of the accused wanted to change their previous testimony, given in their depositions, indicates that they had somehow been induced to incriminate themselves before the proceedings began.
Peter Straub, the executioner at Natzweiler, denied everything, claiming that he was not present when the executions took place. Straub was the hangman; executions at Natzweiler were normally carried out by hanging and all the prisoners were required to watch.
The photo below shows the hangman’s noose at the Memorial site of the former Natzweiler camp.
Prisoners were normally executed by hanging on a gallows, as shown in the photo above.
The following quote is from “Flames in the Field,” by Rita Kramer:
During the period of their detention together at Recklinghausen awaiting trial, several of the defendants had second thoughts about the statements that they had made to Barkworth and sworn to earlier. At the trial they expressed the wish to revise some of the evidence they had given in their affidavits implicating each other. Some lost their memories, others refreshed theirs. This led to some retractions having to do with just exactly who was present in the crematorium that night. But it didn’t matter. There was ample evidence to convince the court of the guilt of those in the dock.
Ms. Kramer used the expression “ample evidence,” when what she obviously meant was “ample testimony.” There were four women SOE agents missing and presumed dead. There was no hard evidence whatsoever that these four women had been executed at Natzweiler: no death records, no execution order, no autopsy report, no bodies, not even the correct name of one of the alleged victims. Vera Atkins had to prevail upon Dr. Röhde to sign death certificates for the four women because there were no official records of their deaths.
Emil Brüttel was a medical orderly in the dispensary at Natzweiler. Under interrogation by British investigators before the trail, Brüttel said that, on the evening that the women were executed, he had received a phone call from Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who was having dinner in the officer’s mess outside the camp. Dr. Plaza inquired about how many capsules of Evipan were available, then called again and asked how much phenol was on hand. When Dr. Plaza called a third time, he instructed Brüttel and Eugen Foster to be ready for duty and to bring the phenol and a 10cc syringe and one or two larger-gauge needles. Dr. Plaza escaped justice because he was never captured after the war.
One of the accused at the proceedings of the British Military Court was Franz Berg, who was a Kapo or one of the prisoners who assisted the guards in the camp; it was his job to stoke the crematorium furnace.
During the proceedings, Berg told the incredible story that he had been ordered by Peter Straub, who was in charge of executions, to heat up the oven in the crematorium and then to disappear. At 9:30 p.m. Berg was still stoking the oven when Dr. Werner Röhde and the camp Commandant, SS-Obersturmbanführer Friedrich “Fritz” Hartjenstein, came into the crematorium. Both Dr. Röhde and Hartjenstein had previously worked at the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau, before being transferred to Natzweiler. Dr. Röhde had just arrived at Natzweiler; he was replacing Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who was already wearing civilian clothes in preparation for his departure.
Accompanying them were Obersturmführer Johannes Otto, the adjutant to the Commandant, and Wolfgang Zeuss, who worked in the Political Department. A medical orderly named Emil Brüttel and Robert Nietsch were also in the group.
Berg was ordered by Dr. Röhde to go to his quarters in a dormitory room in the crematorium. He pretended to be asleep when Commandant Hartjenstein and his adjutant, Johannes Otto, came to check on him a few minutes later. They locked the door from the outside to keep Berg from witnessing the secret execution of the four women. However, Georg Fuhrmann, a prisoner in the top bunk of the dorm room, was able to see through the transom over the door into the corridor.
The dormitory room in the crematorium is shown in the photo below.
Dormitory room in Natzweiler crematorium
Berg testified that Fuhrmann whispered to him, giving him a running commentary on what was happening in the corridor. There was the noise of bodies being dragged across the floor and the sounds of heavy breathing and low groaning combined. The fourth woman resisted and Dr. Röhde told her that she was being given an injection for typhus, according to Berg’s account.
Part of Berg’s deposition was quoted by Rita Kramer in “Flames in the Field”:
From the noise of the crematorium oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium oven. When [the officials] had gone, we went to the crematorium oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink woman’s stocking garter on the floor near the oven.
Oven where bodies were burned at Natzweiler-Struthof
As the above photo of the oven at Natzweiler shows, the bodies were put inside by means of a stretcher. Berg testified that afterwards, he had seen four blackened bodies inside, apparently not completely burned. The bodies had been undressed before they were cremated, and Berg had found a tell-tale piece of feminine clothing right beside the oven.
Berg referred to the women as “Jewish” in his testimony, according to Rita Kramer, but only one of the four women, Sonia Olschanezky, was Jewish. There were 29 Jewish women who had been brought to Natzweiler from Auschwitz in the Summer of 1943 to be gassed, but their bodies had not been cremated.
There were medical experiments being done at Natzweiler, including experiments done on Gypsy women. One of the experiments was an attempt to find a vaccine for typhus, which the Germans had not yet successfully developed. The four women SOE agents were allegedly told that they were being given an injection for typhus, but were instead given phenol injections.
The following quote is from “Flames in the Field,” by Rita Kramer:
The most dramatic testimony came from Walter Schultz, who had been an interpreter in the camp’s Political Department. It was here the orders came regarding prisoners transferred to the camp by the Gestapo for ‘special treatment,’ a euphemism the meaning of which was clearly understood by all. It was not necessary for files to be made for new arrivals accompanied, like the four women, by requests for special treatment.
Hearsay testimony, which would not be allowed in a normal trial, was acceptable at the Allied Military Tribunals. Schultz claimed that Peter Straub was very drunk on the day of the secret execution of the four women and that Straub had told him all about the women being killed by phenol injection. One of the women had regained consciousness after the injection and had scratched his face, as she fought being put into the oven alive. According to Rita Kramer, the author of “Flames in the Field,” when Straub was interrogated by Vera Atkins, he still had scars on his face from the scratches inflicted by Andrée Borrel.
Dr. Heinrich Plaza was leaving the Natzweiler camp on the day of the alleged execution of the women, and there was a party for him that night. This could explain why Peter Straub was drunk, as Schultz testified at the trial. Could the four “well-dressed” women who arrived in the camp at 3 p.m. that day have been the wives of the SS men, or perhaps prostitutes, who were brought to the camp for the party? According to several witnesses who saw the women when they arrived, each of them was carrying a box or a small suitcase. Who brings a suitcase to an execution?
It was not until 1956 that the public learned the fate of the men who were brought before the British Military Court at Wuppertal on May 29, 1946. The British had kept the sentences and the execution of the accused secret.
The commandant at Natzweiler, SS-Obersturmbanführer Friedrich “Fritz” Hartjenstein, was convicted, and on June 1, 1946 he was sentenced to life in prison. He was tried again for complicity in the hanging of an RAF pilot at Natzweiler; he was convicted again, and was sentenced on June 5, 1946 to death by firing squad. Then he was extradited to France for another trial by a French Military Tribunal for the mass murder of prisoners at Natzweiler. He was convicted and sentenced to death once again, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died of a heart attack in a French prison at Metz on October 20, 1954.
Dr. Werner Röhde was sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on October 11, 1946. The date of his sentence was June 5, 1946 although the proceedings in the case of the four SOE women ended on June 1, 1946. This indicates that he might have been charged with more crimes in a subsequent trial, along with Commandant Fritz Hartjenstein, who was sentenced on June 1, 1946 and then sentenced a second time on June 5, 1946.
Peter Straub, the SS officer in charge of executions, was convicted and was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison on June 1, 1946. This was a remarkably short sentence, considering that Straub had told a prisoner named Walter Schultz that he was responsible for killing 4 million people at Auschwitz and that he had shoved a woman into a crematory oven alive and had the scars to prove it.
Straub was tried again by another British Military Court at Wuppertal for complicity in the hanging of an RAF pilot who was a prisoner at Natzweiler in the Summer of 1944. He was convicted of this crime and on June 5, 1946 he was sentenced to death. He was hanged on October 11, 1946.
Magnus Wochner was sentenced to 10 years in prison for carrying out the alleged order from RSHA to execute the four SOE women. He was then turned over to the French for prosecution but was released.
Emil Brüttel was sentenced to prison but was released by the French after he was turned over to them.
Wolfgang Zeuss and two others were acquitted.
Johannes Otto was never prosecuted because he committed suicide after the war ended.
According to Sarah Helm’s book “A Life in Secrets,” Franz Berg was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Other sources say that Berg was sentenced to death and hanged on October 11, 1946. He may have been tried again on other charges for which he received the death penalty.
Max Wassmer and Christian Ott, the two Gestapo men from Karlsruhe, who allegedly accompanied the four women SOE agents to Natzweiler and also accompanied four other women SOE agents to Dachau, were never charged with a crime for their part in the alleged murders of the eight women. They were rewarded for giving information to their interrogators by being released from custody. Both were in their late fifties and were highly experienced in Gestapo work; they knew how to tell investigators what they wanted to hear.