Staggering down off the trains after their long journey, the men took little note of the suitcases and abandoned belongings gathered in heaps by the side of the platform. Had they crossed the border? Was this freedom?
“Bewegen sie! Bewegen! Schnell!”
The cries of the German guards brought them back to reality. It was the end of 1943. The temperature was dropping. The tide of the war may have been turning, but for Arthur Dodd, a young Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) driver captured in North Africa, the hell was only just beginning.
Auschwitz. The name conjures images of despair and the evils of the Holocaust. Of bodies lying by the hundreds in huge pits and sadistic SS guards mercilessly forcing women and children into gas chambers.
It was here that Hitler’s fanatical regime unleashed the machinery of destruction and experimentation that would ensure its infamy: The Final Solution. Jewish, gypsy and other “degenerate”, Untermenschen (under-men) prisoners were gassed and cremated in their millions.
The largest of the Nazi concentation and extermination camps, located in southern Poland, Auschwitz consisted of Auschwitz I, the administrative center; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager; and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a work camp. With around 40 satellite camps as well, each had prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand.
It was in Auschwitz that Zyklon B (a crystalised cleaning acid) was used on an industrial scale to gas Russians prisoners-of-war (POWs) and later the masses of Jews deported there. The number of murders peaked in May 1944, with 10,000 a day being killed.
Arthur Dodd, whose story is told in Colin Rushton’s newly-revised and upated book, Spectator In Hell (Summersdale), found himself crossing the border of Germany into Nazi-Occupied Poland because he had missed out on an escape attempt.
Captured along with thousands of others after the disastrous battle of Tobruk, he had suffered appalling conditions in overcrowded Italian POW camps. He then drew a short straw during an audacious breakout (with men hidden inside tea chests) and had to remain behind. It was a decision he would come to rue in the following weeks and months.
Born and raised in rural Cheshire, an only son, Dodd, 87, had volunteered for service despite having a foot crushed in a machinery accident. Having barely survived Dunkirk, the RASC driver had been dispatched in a mass convoy to North Africa, to fight the “Desert Fox” Rommel. At Tobruk he had seen his first action, coming under tank fire and then machine-gun ambush. A two-day walk to freedom, from the wreckage of death, landed him straight into the arms of the waiting Germans.
After six months in a camp at Farasabrina in Italy, Dodd and his fellow prisoners were dispatched to work in Nazi-run quarries and pits in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Poland. When they refused to help the Germans – “The Geneva Convention strictly forbids forcing POWs to help the enemy’s war efforts! We will not go down a mine!” shouted Dodd – they earned themselves a severe beating at the end of rifle butts.
Early one morning, after this show of force, the rebellious Brits were crammed onto a train and taken south. Twenty-four hours later they had travelled 200 miles to a small town west of Krakow.
On the day Arthur Dodd and the British POWs arrived, the first thing they noticed as they approached was the cold. And the stench.
“It was unbelievable... unbelievable,” says Cyril Quartermaine, 87, a RASC contemporary captured, like Dodd, after the battle of Tobruk in North Africa.
“You could see the smoke coming from the chimneys. Then as you got off the cattle trucks at the gates, there was this terrible meaty smell that got on your clothes, into your nose. You couldn’t get rid of it. I’ll never forget it. I still can’t eat most meat to this day.”
Marched by German soldiers to their new barracks, Dodd saw a young Jewish girl being savagely beaten by a pistol-wielding SS officer. She was naked from the waist and clearly undernourished. For many of the Brit POWs, it was too much. Dodd stepped forwards, growling, “Come on lads, I’ve had enough of this bastard!”
A rifle stopped him in his tracks. “Anhalten sie! Er werde getut!” The meaning was clear – another step forwards and he would be shot. Trying to eyeball the officer, his rage overcoming the menace, Dodd took a dreadful risk.
“Ein anderer Zeit” – “another time”, the SS man promised. The guards began striking the girl even more brutally. She was never seen again.
Life in the camps for the Brits, at first, was bearable. Daily life began at five, with the macabre sounds of a Jewish orchestra playing as the trains disgorged their latest human cargo – some to the gas chambers, others to work details. Escape was near-impossible: there were triple rows of electrified fencing, together with machine-gun towers and sentries.
Unlike the Jewish prisoners, though, they were set to skilled work and fed and housed in slightly more tolerable conditions. “If you could call a bit of liquid they called soup, with some moldy carrot at the bottom, food,” he remembers. Sometimes it was accompanied by a small chunk of black bread, made from wild chestnuts and sprinkled with what looked and tasted like sawdust. The men had all dropped to near-skeletal weight by the end of the war.
“The Jews had it far worse, of course. We used to give them our Red Cross parcels [containing chocolate, butter, bully beef, tinned ham], sometimes,” says Cyril Quartermaine. “They could speak to us in broken English, one or two of them, and they’d hide them in the toilets in the factory. It was the best we could do.”
Soon after his arrival, Dodd was put to work in the plant manufacturing benzene and synthetic rubber. As the tide of war was slowly beginning to turn against the Nazis, many large German industrial firms were desperately searching for manufacturing capability and innovations to help their cause.
Indeed, one day Dodd remembers seeing the now-famous industrialist Oscar Schindler arrive at the camp. Schindler was hunting for more Jews to work in his factories. At the time, Dodd saw him as just another Nazi profiteer. Now, many years later and thanks to the book and film Schindler’s List, the world knows that the Nazi millionaire was secretly saving thousands of Jews from persecution.
All the while the death machine rolled on. The Nazis were looking for ever-shorter times to make the gassing and cremations more efficient. Jewish prisoners were made to dig out drainage ditches for fat to run from their own bodies, when killed and burned.
Each Jewish gang was watched by one of the Kameradschafts Polizei, known as a kapo, who would kick and beat them around the head if they were slow in their work – or sometimes even if not. These kapos were drawn from the ranks of the Jews themselves and if they weren’t harsh enough, the Nazi guards would demote them back into the ranks of the prisoners. Few would last long after that.
The British lads kept up spirits by playing football, the England E175 team (named after their E175 hut) led by Terry ‘Spud’ Murphy and camp leader Charlie Coward. (Murphy went on to survive the war and manage a football club, even living near Dodd back in England.) But many went mad whilst inside – “shoot me, go on, shoot me!” screamed one at the guards, who then beat him – and it took all their reserves to keep up spirits.
Despite this, Dodd, Quartermaine and many others attempted to sabotage what they could. “I don’t think there was a thing went out there worked properly,” Quartermaine chuckled. “Too much sand in the cement for the Germans’ air raid shelters, for example, so they cracked more easily when hit.”
Dodd was to face torture and beatings as a result of this suspected sabotage: his sergeant major went missing afterwards, accused of being a spy by the Germans, after he had taken part.
In one case, a brave Yorkshireman vowed to have revenge on a brutal SS guard who had pushed an exhausted Jewish prisoner into a cement pit. Disguising himself in a Jewish uniform the next day, he snuck up and overpowered the Nazi, dispatching him in the very same manner.
Perhaps the very worst times were to come when they were bombed by Allied aircraft – nearly 40 POWs died during the raid – and after the camp opened its doors. Fleeing the oncoming Russian Red Army, the German guards force-marched the remaining POWs ahead of the Soviets. This was the infamous “Death March” of March 1945.
“The guards and police stopped the people giving us any food,” Quartermaine writes in his diary. “Germans are mad to see us get food.” In some places, signs were posted saying the men were gangsters and war criminals.
The temperatures dropped to 25 degrees below zero. Men froze, starved to death. They took to sharing their great coats – if they had one – and sleeping together to stave off the cold. In one stables they had to sleep in the urine trenches for horses. In the towns they passed, they witnessed the slaughter by the retreating Nazis; in a Russian POW camp, they came across prisoners who were cannibals. Only the bravery of Canadian POWs, delivering Red Cross parcels, helped save them from total starvation.
“My wife could never read these stories,” says Quartermaine now. “I still have nightmares to this day. Oh yes. It took me eight years before I even told her where I’d been.”
After the return home to Blighty, the War Office simply told relatives that the POWs would be “slightly odd for a while”. Their wages, whilst in captivity, were even deducted for allowing the Germans to take their webbing and their rifles! To make matters worse, the German government handed over £1 million as compensation for this treatment – none of which reached the POWs themselves.
Now barely a handful in number, surely they deserve better recognition than that. As for Dodd, he is elderly and frail now. His Bible sustained him through the years.
As Colin Rushton writes in Spectator In Hell: “... the memory of it now only comes to him in waking moments when he thinks back to an extraordinary episode in his life. He will forever be able to recall the most minute detail of what happened in Polish Silesia, but the nightmares have stopped.”
Spectator In Hell: A British soldier’s story of imprisonment in Auschwitz, Colin Rushton (Summersdale £8.99) www.summersdale.com
This story was commissioned for The Express, as well as Shortlist magazine © 2007
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