Scrapbookpages Blog

June 27, 2012

Who shot the lock off the gate into Dachau when the camp was liberated?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 1:43 pm

The famous “Arbeit macht Frei” gate into the Dachau concentration camp  (Do you see any lock on the gate?)

The photo above shows the gate into the Dachau concentration camp. The gate is wide enough for vehicles to enter the camp, but it also has a pedestrian gate, which is the section that has the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over it.  The pedestrian gate was opened and closed by remote control from inside the gatehouse, which is shown in the photo below.  As far as I know, the pedestrian gate had no lock which could have been shot off to open the gate.  The whole gate could be opened by removing the bar across the top of it.

The Gatehouse at the Dachau concentration camp

I read a recent article in the online Sun Sentinel newspaper here, which included this statement:

Accompanying [Julius Eisenstein] on the dais was George Katzman, in the olive-green jacket he wore in 1945 as his U.S. Army platoon shot the lock off the gates of Dachau and liberated the 30,000 prisoners there. Katzman, also 92, gave testimony in the documentary from the liberators’ viewpoint.

It is not clear to me whether Katzman said that his U.S. Army platoon shot the lock off the gates of Dachau, or the reporter who wrote the story added this detail.  I searched and searched on the web and could not find any information about which U.S. Army platoon George Katzman was with on the day that Dachau was liberated.  There were two divisions involved in the liberation of Dachau: the 45th division and the 42nd division.

The main gate into the Dachau complex

The Dachau concentration camp was inside a 20-acre complex that included an SS training camp. To get to the gate into the concentration camp, one had to first go through the main gate, or one of the other gates into the complex.

In his book The Rock of Anzio, which is the history of the 45th Thunderbird Division, Flint Whitlock quoted extensively from what Lt. Col. Felix Sparks told him about the liberation. According to Sparks, 45th Division soldiers arrived at the concentration camp gate shortly before the three jeeps carrying officers of the 42nd Division drove up.

Whitlock also quoted Pfc. William Donahue of the 42nd Division who said that he was already at the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate into the concentration camp when the men of the 45th Division arrived at the gate. Some of them had been drinking, according to Donahue.

John Degro, a soldier in the 45th division, claims that he shot the lock off the gate into Dachau, before the 42nd Division soldiers arrived, but Flint Whitlock does not mention John Degro at all in his book.  It is not clear to me when and how Degro could have shot the lock off the gate, nor how the gate would have been secured again, once the lock was destroyed.

Lt. Col. Sparks told Whitlock that his orders had been to liberate the camp and then to secure it and not let anyone in or out. If Sparks passed these orders down to his men, then John Degro would have been disobeying orders when he shot the lock off the gate and then let some of the prisoners out, as he claims.

In his book about the liberation, John H. Linden (the son of Brig. Gen. Henning Linden) mentioned that it took an hour to get all the prisoners safely back inside, once the gate had been opened by the men of the 42nd Division.

According to Lt. Col. Sparks, as told to Flint Whitlock, he met Brig. Gen. Henning Linden just after Linden arrived in a jeep at the concentration camp gate. Prior to this, Brig. Gen Linden had accepted the surrender of the concentration camp from SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker near the gate at the southwest corner of the camp. 1st Lt. Cowling, of the 42nd Division, claimed in a letter to his family that he had entered the concentration camp while Brig. Gen. Linden was still talking to Lt. Wicker.

According to Flint Whitlock’s account, Brig. Gen. Linden told Lt. Col. Sparks that Marguerite Higgins, a newspaper reporter, wanted to enter the camp to get the story on the famous people that were prisoners at Dachau. Sparks replied that his orders prohibited anyone but his men from entering the camp. By this time, the prisoners had come out of their barracks and were rushing the gate; they were also climbing up to the windows of the gate house and trying to get out, according to Sparks.

Whitlock wrote the following in his book:

Sparks reiterated his orders, adding, “Look at all those people pressing against the gate.” Undeterred, Higgins ran to the gate, removed the bar that was holding it shut, and was nearly trampled by the mass of prisoners attempting to get out. Sparks and his men were forced to fire warning shots over the heads of the prisoners to regain order and reclose the gate.

However, Higgins mentioned in her news story that all the prisoners were inside the barracks when she first entered the camp. Was she asking permission to enter the camp a second time in order to interview the VIP prisoners? If so, she was out of luck because the important prisoners had all been evacuated on April 26th for their own safety.

Whitlock also quoted John Lee of the 45th Division who was present:

While General Linden and Colonel Sparks were talking, Higgins went up to the gate and removed the restraining bar. This caused panic and the prisoners began rushing toward the gate. We were ordered to fire in the air and push the inmates back in behind the gates.

It is clear from these quotes that the lock on the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate into the concentration camp did not need to be shot off. The whole gate could be opened from the outside by removing a bar which locked it. The pedestrian door could only be opened by remote control from inside the gatehouse. There were SS guards inside the gatehouse, waiting to surrender. Twelve of them surrendered to 1st Lt. Cowling, according to John H. Linden, the author of Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 Apr 45, the True Account.