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Hitler’s Berlin Bunker: Then & Now

Schorner 1945

Adolf Hitler greeting Colonel-General Ferdinand Schoerner inside the Führerbunker, April 1945.

There are few stories as enigmatic as the last days in the Berlin Bunker. Historians cannot agree on what exactly occurred 8.5 metres below the Reichs Chancellery garden, providing for some intriguing theories. As I was in Berlin exactly 71 years to the month of Hitler’s death, I thought I’d see what remains. The answer is ‘not a lot’, but with a little detective work, some maps, some old photos and a splash of imagination its possible to find yourself standing on the spot where the final death throes of the Thousand Year Reich were played out.

Following the failure of the last German offensive in the West, a dispirited Hitler returned to Berlin on 16 January 1945 aboard his private train, the Führersonderzug.

Hitlers train

As the long train wound its way through the devastated capital Hitler reportedly looked out at the ruins from his Pullman carriage, both surprised and depressed by the grim sights that greeted him. He needed no more than to look out the window to see the reality of his military failure.


The bomb destroyed spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church today.

Arriving at Grunewald Station at 9.40am, Hitler climbed down from the Führersonderzug for the last time and was driven in a convoy of armoured Mercedes to the Reichs Chancellery, passing through bomb-damaged streets whose gutted and roofless apartment buildings and shops bore silent witness to the final collapse of the Third Reich.

A huge Soviet winter offensive began just two days later. By the end of the month the Soviets were only seventy miles from Berlin. Hitler continued to live in his apartments in the Old Reichs Chancellery until mid-February before moving into the Führerbunker to sleep. Until mid-March 1945 Hitler also continued to take his meals in the New Reichs Chancellery and to hold his military situation conferences there inside his enormous study. The grand hallway outside was still intact, though the artworks and priceless tapestries had been removed to protect them from the bombing.

Reich Chancellery Berlin destroyed

The bomb-ravaged Reichs Chancellery in May 1945

Although Hitler continued to come up from the Führerbunker into both Chancelleries, to continue working in his study and used some of the building’s other rooms, he did not see the vast amount of damage that had been caused to both buildings by British and American aerial bombing. Staff officers visiting the Reichs Chancellery for meetings had to take long and circuitous routes to reach Hitler’s study, as corridors had been reduced to rubble by direct hits. Soon the Reichs Chancellery would start to come under artillery and rocket fire from the advancing Red Army.

ADN-ZB/Archiv Berlin Der sogenannte "Führerbunker" im Garten der im II. Weltkrieg zerstörten Reichskanzlei. Links der Eingang, in der Mitte der Bombenunterstand für die Wache. Aufn. Juli 1947

A view of the Führerbunker’s emergency exit (the concrete cube on the left) in the ruined Old Reichs Chancellery Garden in 1947.

IMG_2603The same view in April 2016. The emergency exit and conical guard tower would stand about halfway into the current road. The remains of the Führerbunker still exist below the road and pedestrian path. The Vorbunker or Upper Bunker has been removed. 

Because of the constant bombing raids and air raid alerts Hitler decided to move his headquarters underground into the Führerbunker beneath the Old Reichs Chancellery gardens in mid-March 1945. Although now safe from aerial attack, the Führerbunker was completely inadequate for use as a military headquarters as it was too small to accommodate sufficient staff or visiting generals attending conferences. It came to be described by many who visited it during the last weeks of the war as a fetid hole in the ground or a ‘concrete coffin’.

HitlerOne of Hitler’s last public appearances – congratulating Hitler Youths who had been awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class fighting the Soviets in East Prussia. A stooped and exhausted Hitler is pictured walking to the ceremony in the Reichs Chancellery Garden on 21 March 1945. Other leading ‘Bunker’ personalities in the photo are, third from left Hitler Youth Leader Artur Axmann, 4th from left SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison at the Bunker, 5th from left SS-Obergruppenführer Julius Schaub, Hitler’s adjutant.

Hitler March 1945


The Führerbunker had its genesis in air raid shelters built under and adjoined to buildings on Wilhelmstrasse and Vossstrasse in 1935. When the New Reichs Chancellery complex was completed in January 1939 it included more air raid shelters. One was the Vorbunker, or Upper Bunker. Architect Leonhard Gall submitted plans in 1935 for a large reception hall cum ballroom to be added to the Old Reichs Chancellery. Completed in 1936, the Vorbunker had a roof that was 5.24 feet (1.6 m) thick, the bunker’s thick walls partially supporting the weight of the large reception hall overhead.

Reichs Chancellery


A Nazi eagle salvaged from the Reichs Chancellery in 1945, and now displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Some idea of the scale and style of the New Reichs Chancellery can be derived from one of two surviving Nazi-era ministry building in Berlin – Hermann Goring’s Air Ministry on Wilhelmstrasse. The other is Dr. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry.




There were two entrances into the Vorbunker; one from the Foreign Ministry garden and the other from the New Reichs Chancellery. Both led to a reinforced steel gas proof door leading to a set of small rooms.


This photo is of the interior of the SS bunker beneath Hitler’s house, the Berghof, on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria. It hints at the look of the Berlin bunker.

On the left was the Water Supplies/Boiler Room, to the right the Airfilters Room. Moving forward there was a middle Dining Area with a Kitchen to the left, which was where Hitler’s cook/dietician Frau Constanze Manziarly prepared the Führer’s meals. There was also a well-stocked Wine Store. To the right of the Dining Area was the Personnel/Guard Quarters. Moving forward again, there was a Conference Room in the middle and on the left two rooms that originally housed Hitler’s physician Dr. Theodor Morell and, following his dismissal in April 1945, Dr. Goebbels’ wife Magda and her six young children. To the right of the Conference Room was a room used for guest quarters, two storerooms and then a stairway set at right angles connecting to the Führerbunker that was 8.2 feet (2.5 m) lower than the Vorbunker and west-southwest of it. Steel doors could close off the Vorbunker and Führerbunker from one another and the SS closely guarded all entrances and exits.


Beneath this nondescript patch of grass was the connecting staircase between the Vorbunker (Upper Bunker) on the right, which was constructed beneath the Reichschancellery and the deeper Führerbunker (left)

Hitler’s Führerbunker, or Lower Bunker, was built in 1942-43 28 feet (8.5 m) beneath the Old Reichs Chancellery Garden 131 yards (120 m) north of the New Chancellery at a cost of 1.4 million Reichsmarks. It was deep enough to withstand the largest bombs that were being dropped by the British and Americans over the city.

Designed by the architectural firm Hochtief under Albert Speer’s supervision, the Führerbunker was one of about twenty bunkers and air raid shelters used by Hitler’s inner circle, bodyguards and military commanders in the region of the Reichs Chancellery. Many cellars in the surrounding buildings were also utilised as auxiliary bunkers during the Battle of Berlin.

The Führerbunker suffered from noise caused by the steady running of aeration ventilators twenty-four hours a day and also had a problem with cool moisture on the walls as Berlin has a very high ground water level.


Steel safes photographed inside the Vorbunker by an East German in 1987, when the authorities pumped out the upper bunker preparatory to destroying it.

Entry into the Führerbunker was via the Vorbunker, passing down the dogleg staircase, which led to a guarded door giving access to a long Hall/Lounge, where RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando sentries checked identity papers before permitting entry to the Führerbunker proper.

NATIONAL ARCHIVE WASHINGTON 242-HB-48400-89 HOFFMAN COLLECTION: Adolf Hitler with earliest members of his personal bodyguard unit, the SS Begleit Kommando: Bruno Gesche on Hitlers immediate left, Erich Kempka on Hitlers immediate right, Adolf Dirr, August Koerber, Franz Schaedle.
Hitler with some of his SS-Begleitkommando guards at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia

This was through double steel gas proof doors set into the bunker’s 7.2 feet (2.2m) thick protective wall. The Führerbunker was divided along a central corridor that gave access to an emergency exit staircase at the far end that led up to the surface in the Reichs Chancellery Garden.


Another 1987 shot of the Vorbunker. This structure has now been erased, though the Fuhrerbunker remains intact 2.5m beneath.

This corridor was divided into two long rooms. The first of these on entering the Führerbunker was the Corridor/Lounge. A door on the left led to the Toilets and Electricity Switch Room. From the Toilets a connecting door led to the Bathroom/Dressing Room with Eva Braun’s Bedroom on the right of the Bathroom.


View behind the Vorbunker looking towards the Führerbunker today. In 1945 you would have been standing inside the Old Reichs Chancellery.

A door connected the Bathroom with Hitler’s Sitting Room. To the right of this room was Hitler’s Study, dominated by a large painting of King Frederick the Great that Hitler would spend much time staring at as the Soviets fought their way into Berlin’s suburbs, hoping that he could emulate Frederick and turn back the Bolshevik horde with some final grand military gesture.

Hitler's Bunker Study

A recreation of Hitler’s study in a German museum – this was where Hitler and his wife killed themselves.

A door connected Hitler’s Sitting Room with Hitler’s Bedroom. A door on the right of Hitler’s Study led back into the central corridor, this section called the Conference Room.


Mark standing above Hitler’s suite of rooms that still exist 8.5 metres below ground.

The last three rooms on the left of the Führerbunker were not connected to Hitler’s suite and consisted of the Map Room where Hitler held most of his military situation conferences during the last weeks of the war, the Cloakroom and a Ventilation Room.


The left side of the Führerbunker consisted, moving from the staircase connecting it with the Vorbunker to the emergency exit tothe Reichs Chancellery Gardens, of a series of rooms. First was the Generator/Ventilation Plant Room. This was connected to the Telephone Switchboard Room where SS-Oberscharführer Rochus Misch of the SS-Begleit-Kommando worked, Martin Bormann’s Office and the Guard Room. Hitler’s loyal valet SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Linge lived here. Next were two rooms: Goebbels’ Office and the Doctor’s Room. The last two rooms on the right of the central Conference Room were Goebbels’ Bedroom and the Doctor’s Quarters. Parts of the two bunkers were carpeted and one section of this material was recently discovered in a British regimental archive. It reveals that the carpet had a floral pattern of yellow flowers and blue leaves on a fawn background. The rooms were furnished with expensive pieces taken from the Reichs Chancellery above and there were several framed oil paintings on the walls. But the interior, in keeping with Hitler’s other field headquarters, could not be described as anything other than Spartan and functional.

Hitler views damage

Hitler viewing bomb damage inside the Reichs Chancellery, April 1945 (purportedly the last picture ever taken of Hitler)

On 16 April the Red Army commenced the operation to capture Berlin, assaulting the Seelow Heights, the last significant German defence line east of the city. The fighting was fierce, the Soviets suffering heavy casualties, but by the 19th they had broken though and there was now no longer a proper defence position left to protect the city.

On 20 April, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery came in range of the Berlin suburbs and opened fire. By the next evening T-34 tanks had arrived on the outskirts.


Soviet T-34 that fought in the battle mounted on a plinth along the East-West Axis through the Tiergarten, Berlin.

As the Red Army began to close a ring around Berlin and began to fight through the city suburbs in several directions aiming for the nearby Reichstag building, efforts were taken to increase the protection afforded to the Reichs Chancellery and the Führerbunker.


Severe battle damage on the Brandenburg Gate three minutes walk from Hitler’s bunker. When Hitler died, the Soviets were at the nearby Reichstag and very close to the Gate.

On 22 April 1945 Kampfgruppe Mohnke was formed out of all available elite guard units from across Berlin and sent to defend the government quarter, Sector Z (Citadel), from the Soviets. Its commander, 34-year-old SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke had been one of the founding members of the SS-Stabswache (Staff Guard) in Berlin in 1934. A highly decorated WaffenSS field commander, by 1945 Mohnke commanded the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division.


A Soviet heavy artillery gun from the battle preserved on Berlin’s East-West Axis near the Brandenburg Gate.

By 22 April the Germans defending Berlin were outnumbered virtually 10-1, German units had been severely degraded and worn down by almost continuous fighting since the start of the Soviet spring offensive in January. One hundred thousand Volkssturm, mostly consisting of older men above military age, Hitler Youth and foreign SS volunteers, was backing up the regular troops in the hopeless defence.


With virtually no tanks, limited artillery and no viable Luftwaffe over the capital, the defence of Berlin would not last for long.


The focus of the Soviet assaults was the Reichstag, abandoned since 1933, close to the Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker


The repaired (though heavily scarred) Reichstag from the same angle today.

Hitler grasped at anything that he thought might turn the tide. When he observed the vulnerability of one of the Soviet flanks he gave orders for SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s Army Detachment to counterattack, refusing to accept that Steiner’s forces were severely depleted and simply not up to the task. When Hitler discovered at the afternoon situation conference in the bunker that Steiner had failed to attack he suffered a complete mental collapse and once he stopped screaming declared to his shocked audience that the war was lost. Later that day Hitler consulted SS-Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr. Werner Haase on the best method to kill oneself. Haase suggested that he bite down on a cyanide capsule whilst simultaneously shooting himself in the head.

By the last week of April 1945 Hitler’s world had shrunk to a few grey concrete rooms deep beneath the Reichs Chancellery Garden in Berlin. Up above, Soviet artillery shells and rockets blasted the once immaculate Chancellery buildings into ruins. Huge sections of roof and walls had collapsed, while the remaining structures were shell- and shrapnel-scarred, fire scorched or windowless.

RC Damage

The Reichs Chancellery Garden, its trees blasted and stripped of their foliage and the lawn churned up by shell craters, was only passable between bombardments and Hitler’s RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando guards were largely withdrawn from exposed sentry posts on the Chancellery roof and outside the bunker entrances. Each time another Soviet barrage went up the guards fled inside the bunker entrances, slamming the thick steel doors closed behind them. Hitler forbade smoking in the Führerbunker, so smokers had to go up to the Vorbunker to enjoy a cigarette. With their nerves on edge, many of the bunker inhabitants were smoking and drinking heavily. Some hardier souls would emerge into the shattered gardens to smoke or catch a few minutes of fresh air before Soviet shelling forced them once more into the dank subterranean bunkers, while Hitler’s dog Blondi was still walked in the garden by his handler.

berghof-hitler-blondi-view-hoffmannHitler & Blondi on the Obersalzberg

By 27 April 1945 Berlin was completely surrounded. The bunker had lost secure radio communications with the main German units fighting desperately in the ruins and had to rely on the telephone network for news. To all intents and purposes the last Führer Headquarters was blind and incapable of really commanding anything. Soviet troops were on the Alexanderplatz and would soon reach the Potsdamer Platz, where the bunker was located. Efforts were still being made to affect a linkup between the remnants of the 9th Army defending the city and General Wenck’s 12th Army that was attempting to fight its way into Potsdam.


The famous Victory Column on the East-West Axis in 2016 (above) and 1945 (below)

Eine sowjetische Soldatin regelt an der Siegessäule den Verkehr - 1945 Fotograf: Jewgeni Chaldej - 01.01.1945-31.12.1945

As this last desperate attempt was being made SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke reported that enemy tanks had penetrated the nearby Wilhelmsplatz – they had been repulsed this time, but time was running out.


Hitler RC

The following day’s news of Heinrich Himmler’s entreaties to the Western Allies reached the bunker. Hitler was incensed and ordered Himmler’s arrest for treason. He demanded to see SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s representative in the bunker, but he was nowhere to be found. An RSD snatch squad was dispatched that discovered Fegelein in his apartment with his mistress, drunk and with a suitcase of civilian clothes packed along with false identity papers. He was escorted back to the bunker, summarily sentenced to death by a court martial and shot in the Reichs Chancellery garden. By now, the Red Army was at the Potsdammer Platz and was evidently preparing to storm the Reichs Chancellery.



The Brandenburg Gate 1945 and 2016

Berlin Adlon Hotel

Topside, the remaining men of Kampfgruppe Mohnke fought the Soviets around the Chancellery site from prepared positions and a multitude of other bunkers and cellars, as well as utilizing the remaining portions of the underground railway system that was still in German hands. The French SS of the Charlemagne Division in particular distinguished themselves as tank destroyers, knocking out dozens of Soviet T-34s with handheld Panzerfaust rocket launchers. Ironically, it was two Frenchmen who were the last soldiers to be decorated with Nazi Germany’s highest bravery award, the Knight’s Cross. Ammunition supplies were dwindling rapidly alongside the mounting casualties. The main Reichs Chancellery bunker had been transformed into an emergency casualty clearing station and refuge.

Knowing that the end was near seemed to make up Hitler’s mind concerning a personal matter. Just after midnight on 30 April Hitler married his longtime girlfriend Eva Braun in a simple ceremony inside the bunker. It was her reward for her years of loyalty to him. She was under no illusions – she had come to Berlin to die with Hitler.

Hitler and Braun

At 1am on 30 May Generalfeldmarschall Keitel reported to Hitler that all German forces that had been ordered to relieve the capital were either surrounded or had been forced on to the defensive. No relief of the government quarter could be expected. Later that morning the attacking Soviets managed to penetrate to within 1,600 feet (500m) of the Führerbunker, despite the fanatical resistance being put up by Hitler’s guard detachments. Hitler met with General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the Berlin Defence Area. He informed the Führer that there was enough ammunition to sustain the defence for a maximum of twenty-four hours. Weidling asked permission for the remaining troops to attempt a breakout, but Hitler did not reply. Weidling returned to his headquarters at the Bendlerblock. At 1pm he received permission from Hitler for a breakout.

Hitler had lunch with two of his secretaries and his cook and then he bade farewell to his staff and the remaining bunker occupants, including Bormann and Goebbels. With his wife, Hitler went into his study and closed the door at 2.30pm. Differing accounts of what happened next have surfaced over the years. The officially accepted story is that at shortly after 3.30pm Heinz Linge, with Bormann right behind him, opened the study door and was met with the strong smell of burnt almonds, a signature of hydrogen cyanide. Again accounts differ in the details but according to Linge, Eva Hitler was slumped to the left of the Führer on a sofa, her legs drawn up. Hitler ‘sat…sunken over, with blood dripping out of his right temple,’ wrote Linge. ‘He had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65.’


Hitler shot himself somewhere below this modern pavement. Due to the redevelopment of the area by the East Germans it is almost impossible to visualise how it looked in 1945. Red Army Bunker
A Red Army soldier inside Hitler’s study deep in the Bunker shortly after its capture. Flooding has occurred after the pumps were switched off, due to Berlin’s high water table.

Hitler’s adjutant Günsche then entered the room, surveyed the scene and left shortly afterwards to declare to those waiting outside that the Führer was dead. Preparations had already been made to dispose of the bodies of Hitler and his wife as Hitler had made sure that Günsche understood that on no account was his body to be found intact by the Soviets. A few hours before Hitler killed himself Günsche had telephoned the Reichs Chancellery garage and spoken to Hitler’s principal driver, Erich Kempka. Günsche ordered Kempka to bring over a large quantity of petrol. ‘I was…to ensure that five cans of gasoline, that is to say 200 litres, were brought along,’ recalled Kempka. ‘I at once took along two or three men carrying cans. More were following, because it took time to collect 200 litres of gasoline.’ The cans were left near the bunker’s emergency exit.


Mark standing just outside the bunker’s emergency exit in April 2016, through which the bodies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were brought outside to be cremated on 30 May 1945.

Emergency Exit

The same view in 1945. Mark would be standing just in front of the doorway on the left

Bunker ExitCloser shot of the Bunker Emergency Exit, with an American officer passing Red Army sentries, showing the narrow metal staircase leading down to the Führerbunker. 

Hitler’s body was wrapped in a blanket and carried up the stairs to the bunker’s emergency exit by Linge, SSHauptsturmführer Ewald Lindloff and SS-Obersturmführer Hans Reisser of the SS-Begleit-Kommando, and SS-Obersturmbannführer Peter Högl, deputy commander of the RSD. Bormann carried Eva Hitler’s body upstairs. Once outside, the SS officers placed both of the bodies, still wrapped in grey blankets, into a shell crater and then doused them liberally with petrol. An attempt was made to light the petrol, but it was unsuccessful. Linge went back into the bunker and returned with a thick roll of papers. Bormann lit the papers and threw them into the hole, the petrol igniting with a whoosh. Others had joined them. Standing just inside the emergency exit door Günsche, Bormann, Högl, Linge, Lindloff, Reisser, Kempka and Goebbels raised their arms in the Nazi salute. But the party was soon driven inside as Soviet shells began to land in the Reichs Chancellery garden.


Mark pointing at the shell hole where Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned in the Reichschancellery’s Wintergarten.

Hitler Pit

The same place in May 1945. The shell hole is visible at the bottom left of the photograph.

BunkerAnother view of the shell crater where the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were burned.

RC Garden

The shattered rear of the Reichs Chancellery facing on to the formal gardens above the Hitler’s lower bunker. This wall was directly behind the Bunker emergency exit. The Vorbunker (or Upper Bunker) was beneath this building.


The same view looking the opposite direction in 2016. The Reichs Chancellery’s rear would have roughly corresponded with the modern pavement and dirt tracks beside the low wooden fence above.

Thirty minutes after the cremation of Hitler and his wife was begun, Günsche ordered Lindloff to go out and see how it was progressing. Lindloff reported that both bodies were charred and had burst open. He also said that they had been damaged by shellfire. During the afternoon, SS-Begleit-Kommando guards continued to add jerry cans of fuel to the burning hole in between the Soviet barrages.


A closer view of the site of the shell hole where Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned.

At 4.15pm Linge ordered SSUntersturmführer Heinz Krüger and SS-Oberscharführer Werner Schwiedel to roll up the bloodstained rug from Hitler’s study, carry it up to the Reichs Chancellery garden and burn it. At 6.30pm Lindloff reported to Günsche that he and Reisser had disposed of the remains. It appears that from the remains later found by the Soviets some days later that the bodies of Hitler and his wife were burned beyond recognition and possibly damaged by shellfire, if indeed they were the mortal remains of the tyrant and his spouse.

Hitler's CorpseA Soviet ammunition crate said to contain the charred remains of Hitler. This is the only photograph that the Russians have released that claims to show Hitler’s corpse. No photographs from his autopsy have been made public. In contrast, there are numerous Red Army photos of Dr. Goebbels’ partially cremated body, both at the Bunker site and in a pathology laboratory.

Although Hitler was dead, the business of government continued as well as the defence of the remaining areas of the government quarter by Hitler’s bodyguard units and associated troops. Hitler’s Last Will and Testament had broken up the position of ‘Führer’ into three separate offices. Goebbels was named Reichs Chancellor; with Grossadmiral Dönitz appointed Reich President and Bormann made Party Minister.

Bormann    Reichsleiter Martin Bormann

But at this stage, only Dönitz could exercise any limited control from Flensburg in the north. Goebbels made it very clear that he and his wife Magda would emulate their beloved Führer and commit suicide when the time came.

On 1 May Chancellor Goebbels drafted a letter to the Soviets and ordered 47-year-old General der Infanterie Hans Krebs, Chief of the Army General Staff (OKH), to deliver it under a white flag of truce to General Vasili Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army which was occupying central Berlin. The letter informed the Soviet High Command of Hitler’s death, the appointment of Goebbels as Reich Chancellor and his offer of a cease-fire. When Krebs was sent packing with the clear instruction that the Soviets would only accept unconditional surrender, Goebbels knew that it was futile to continue. Later that day Vizeadmiral Hans-Erich Voss and almost a dozen other military officers arrived at the Führerbunker to say farewell to Goebbels as their supreme commander.

At 8pm that evening Goebbels instructed dentist SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kunz to drug his six children with morphine. Then Hitler’s personal physician, SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, crushed a vial of cyanide in each of their jaws, killing them.

Magda_Goebbels          Magda Goebbels

A little while later a subdued Goebbels pulled on his gloves and hat, and arm-in-arm with his wife, climbed the stairs to the bunker’s emergency exit and emerged into the Reichs Chancellery garden. His adjutant, 29-year-old SS-Hauptsturmführer Gunther Schwägermann, followed him. (Historical Footnote: at the time of writing in 2016 Schwägermann remains alive, aged 101. He is certainly the last living witness to the events in the Bunker, but has refused to give any interviews.)

Schwägermann went to collect more petrol to burn the Goebbels’ bodies while Goebbels and his wife went around the corner out of sight. Schwägermann said that he heard a pistol shot and came upon his master and Magda Goebbels dead. She had taken poison while Goebbels had shot himself in the head. Schwägermann ordered the SS-Begleit-Kommando sentry at the bunker emergency exit to shoot Goebbels again in the head to make sure – Schwägermann could not face doing so himself. The two men then poured petrol over the bodies and set fire to them. Unfortunately, there was insufficient petrol remaining to burn the bodies and the fire-blackened corpses remained easily recognizable to Voss when he was forced by the Soviets to identify them the following day. The shape of Goebbels’ head and jaw as well as his leg brace were unmistakable, along with the remains of his brown Nazi uniform and Golden Party Badge.

Goebbels Corpse

Dr. Goebbels’ charred corpse

Between 1945 and 1949 the Soviets levelled the battle-damaged Old and New Reichs Chancelleries. A failed attempt was also made to destroy the Führerbunker. Because the site was close to the Berlin Wall, it remained essentially untouched until the late 1980s when East Germany built residential housing units and a new road system over the site. In 1988 the Vorbunker was torn out. The massive roof of the Führerbunker was broken up and allowed to fall into the rooms below before it was buried under a nondescript car park. So, the Führerbunker still exits, buried beneath modern Berlin, its historical significance marked only by a small information board erected on the site in 2006.


As for the New Reichs Chancellery building, this was knocked down by the Soviets shortly after the war. However, some of the marble panels that once lined the huge reception halls were used to refurbish Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn Station, the entrance to which is just across the street from the site of Hitler’s bunker and though rather shabby and dirty, the huge blocks of marble cover the walls and pillars. Here are some pictures:



Escape from Sobibor


For more dramatic stories like this check out Mark’s book Holocaust Heroes

Holocaust Heroes 2

We knew our fate. We knew that we were in an extermination camp and death was our destiny. We knew that even a sudden end to the war might spare the inmates of the ‘normal’ concentration camps, but never us. Only desperate actions could shorten our suffering and maybe afford us a chance of escape. And the will to resist had grown and ripened.’

Thomas Toivi Blatt, Sonderkommando Sobibor

The small group of Jewish prisoners inside the camp tailor’s shop exchanged fearful glances, as the sound of hooves grew louder outside. One of them quickly peeked out of one of the hut’s small windows.

‘He’s arrived,’ he muttered. ‘Get ready.’

A few seconds later and the hut door opened and in stepped SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann, the 30-year-old deputy commandant of the Sobibor Extermination Camp. Outside, another prisoner held the bridle of Niemann’s chestnut horse that he used to ride imperiously around the camp. Niemann tucked his riding crop under one armpit and began to slowly remove his gloves, his hard eyes moving around the room and settling momentarily on each of the Jewish faces before him. The prisoners took in Niemann’s uniform and shuddered. A devil walked among them, the SS death’s head badge grinning at them from Niemann’s cap band and from his right collar patch. As a concentration camp officer in the notorious SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) Niemann did not wear the twin lightning flash runes of the Waffen-SS on his collar. His rank was indicated by three silver pips arranged in a diagonal line on his left collar patch and army-style silver shoulder straps. The prisoners glanced at his waist, where his black belt with its silver SS buckle supported a leather holster. Inside sat Niemann’s Luger pistol, ready for instant use against any ‘problem’ prisoners.

One of the tailors brought out an unfinished officer’s uniform ready for Niemann to try on. After removing his belt and tunic, the prisoners were helping him into the new jacket when Niemann sensed movement behind him. He turned his head to one side and managed to mutter ‘Was?’ before Soviet prisoner-of-war Alexander Shubayev buried a homemade hatchet in his skull. Niemann didn’t scream, just grunted at the impact, which killed him instantly. He collapsed onto the hut’s wooden floor, dark rivulets of blood running across its dusty surface from the gaping wound in his head. One prisoner picked up Niemann’s heavy gun belt and drew the Luger from its holster. It felt solid and cold in his grasp. He looked at his comrades and nodded slowly. The Sobibor Revolt had commenced.

Beginning in 1940, the Nazis had established sixteen labour camps in the Lublin region near the village of Sobibor. It was intended that the Jews sent to these camps would work as agricultural labourers under German colonial overseers. Over 95,000 Jews expelled from Warsaw and Vienna were shipped in for this task, and paid for their labour. They were housed in a network of subcamps based on the Concentration Camp at Krychow.

Sobibor Camp was constructed by SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla between March and April 1942, using Jewish Sonderkommando labour after German policy towards the Jews had dramatically changed. The location, marshy woodland with a sparse population, was chosen because it was close to the rail line that ran between Chelm and Wlodawa connecting the General Government with Reichskommissariat Ukraine. The garrison would consist of a German commandant, initially SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, 29 SS non-commissioned officers, and between 90 and 120 Ukrainian SS auxiliaries, or “Trawnikis” after the concentration camp where the ex-Red Army prisoners-of-war were trained.  At the end of August 1942 a new commandant was appointed after Stangl was moved to take command at Treblinka, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner.

An Austrian, Reichleitner had been born in 1906 and was another Aktion T4 veteran. At the Hartheim Institute, Reichleitner had worked alongside Franz Stangl under the command of Christian Wirth. The prisoners at Sobibor regarded Reichleitner as an austere figure who was always immaculately turned out in his uniform, and always wore gloves. He had very little to do with the Jews, relying on his trusted second-in-command Niemann and a coterie of efficient SS-TV sergeants and corporals. But it was obvious that Reichleitner was feared and respected by the other SS.

Sobibor was small compared with Auschwitz or Dachau, consisting of three camps, surrounded by a barbed wire fence into which tree branches had been woven. Trees had also been planted around the camp’s perimeter to further shield it from public view and it was also surrounded by a deep water-filled moat. Camp I, under the command of SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel consisted of the main administration offices, housing for the German SS and Trawnikis auxiliaries, and barracks for a large detachment of Jewish Sonderkommandos. Here also was the prisoners’ kitchen.



Karl Frenzel

Thirty-two-year-old Frenzel had been active with the Nazis since 1930 when he had enlisted in the SA. When war broke out in 1939, Frenzel had been drafted into the Reich Labour Service but soon after released to help take care of his five children. Desperate to take part in the war effort, Frenzel volunteered through his SA connections and was recruited into the SS-TV and was assigned to the highly secret Aktion T4.

The T4 euthanasia programme that was partly based at Schloss Hartheim in Austria was the bloody prelude to the industrialized murders that were to follow in places like Sobibor and Treblinka II. The mentally retarded and physically disabled were murdered on the recommendations of doctors as the Nazis attempted to remove all ‘defectives’ from their population. Over 70,000 ‘patients’ were to die during the course of the programme, which continued in operation until just after the war ended in 1945. Told that the killings were the responsibility of doctors, Frenzel, Stangl, Reichleitner and the other SS-TV men had set aside their moral reservations and done their duty, as they conceived of it. Frenzel’s primary job was removing bodies from the small gas chambers, wrenching out any gold teeth and then burning the bodies in the crematoria.

On 20 April 1942 Frenzel was assigned to Sobibor, where he was widely detested and feared by the prisoners, and was known for using his whip on them frequently. In one notorious incident in spring 1943, two Jews from Chelm were caught trying to escape from Sobibor. Frenzel decided, in consultation with the other SS senior NCOs, that an example should be made. At roll call every tenth Jew was taken out of the line to be shot, twenty being murdered in this way. Following this escape attempt, a minefield was laid around the outside of the camp’s perimeter as a further deterrent.

Camp II, or the Vorlager, consisted of the railway platform where evacuation trains were off-loaded, a ramp, the undressing barracks and warehouses where 400 of the Jewish Sonderkommandos worked. They sorted and stored property confiscated from Jews that arrived by train at the camp platform. There was also a building where the newly arrived Jews had their heads shaved, and their valuables taken from them before they proceeded into Camp III and the gas chambers.

Camp III contained a further Sonderkommando unit’s barracks, these men tasked with the open-air cremation of the bodies of the dead and the disposal of these bones and ashes in large pits.

The evacuation trains that brought the Jews to Sobibor consisted of between forty and sixty freight cars. The platform in Camp II was large enough to permit the unloading of twenty cars at a time. On arrival, the SS told the Jews that the facility was a transit camp, where they would be disinfected for lice and processed through to working parties in labour camps elsewhere. ‘I helped Jews out of the trains with all their baggage,’ said Sonderkommando Philip Bialowitz. ‘My heart was bleeding knowing that in half an hour they would all be reduced to ashes. I couldn’t tell them. I wasn’t allowed to speak. Even if I told them, they wouldn’t believe they were going to die.’

Fresh arrivals were met by SS NCOs whose welcome speech was designed to make the Jews cooperate in their own destruction. ‘The Jews of Warsaw, your attention!’ one of the SS would shout along the length of the platform. ‘You are in a transit camp from which you will be sent to a labour camp. As a safeguard against epidemics you must immediately hand over your clothing and parcels for disinfection. Gold, silver, foreign currency and jewellery must be placed with the cashier, in exchange for a receipt. These will be returned to you at a later time upon presentation of the receipt. For bodily washing before continuing with the journey all arrivals must attend the bathhouse.’

Some of the new arrivals would be hived off into the ranks of the Sonderkommandos to replace those who had died from disease, exhaustion or murder. In this way, tens of thousands of people arrived at the railway platform in front of the camp with no idea of what awaited them.

The main deportations to Sobibor were made between May 1942 and autumn 1943. The Jews came primarily from the ghettos of the General Government, with others from the Soviet Union, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Bohemia and Moravia, Netherlands and France. Altogether, upwards of 170,000 people entered Sobibor.

The events that led to a Sonderkommando rising at Treblinka had their roots elsewhere. Rumours arrived in Sobibor that most of the 600 Sonderkommando workers would soon become surplus to requirements and that the Germans planned to kill them. The reason for this was that another Aktion Reinhard death camp at Belzec had been closed and dismantled, the Germans shooting the remaining Sonderkommandos. The Sonderkommandos realised that the same thing would probably happen at Sobibor as the number of evacuation transports had noticeably slowed. The Jews needed a plan of action to save themselves. ‘We started organising and talking and it gave us something to live for again,’ said Esther Raab, a female prisoner. ‘[The idea] that maybe we’ll be able to take revenge for all those who can’t.’

The leader of the Jews in Sobibor was the 33-year-old son of a Polish rabbi named Leon Feldhendler. He had been head of the Judenrat in his home village of Zolkiewka in Lublin. With a hardcore of conspirators, Feldhendler considered several possible avenues of escape. The initial plan was to poison the SS and seize their weapons. But vigilant SS guards discovered a secret batch of poison and five Jews were shot in retaliation. Another plan was to set fire to the camp and try and escape during the subsequent confusion. But the mining of the camp perimeter by Wehrmacht engineers following the attempted escape of two Jews made such a plan extremely risky. The plan was eventually rejected as impractical. What Feldhendler and his fellow plotters lacked was organizational ability and who better to possess those skills than soldiers? The answer to Feldhendler’s problems was the arrival at Sobibor on 23 September 1943 of a man called Sasha.

11 Leon Feldhendler

Lieutenant Quartermaster (Class II) Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky was a 34-year-old Jewish Red Army officer who had been captured during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. The son of a lawyer, Sasha was born in the Ukraine, gained a degree in music and literature in Rostov and was working as an accountant and manager of a small music school when he was conscripted into the Red Army as a Junior Lieutenant on 22 June 1941, the day the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. Promoted to Lieutenant in September 1941, Sasha was captured in October at the city of Vyazna. He suffered seven months of typhus before escaping with four other POWs in May 1942. Recaptured the very same day, Sasha was sent to a penal camp in Belorussia, then to another harsh camp near Minsk. During the routine medical examination it was revealed that he was circumcised and Sasha immediately admitted to being a Jew. On 20 August 1942 he was separated from non-Jewish prisoners-of-war and sent to an Arbeitslager in Minsk. On 18 September 1943, 2,000 Minsk Jews, including 100 Jewish Red Army POWs, were herded on to a cattle train and sent to Sobibor, arriving on the 23rd. Sasha was among eighty Jews selected to join the Sonderkommando in Camp II. The sudden and unexpected arrival of prisoners who were trained soldiers provided the conspirators with a considerable morale boost. Perhaps these Russians could help?

Sasha also made an impression on the SS quite early on. He was clearly a man who commanded respect among his peers, and also a proud military officer and no mere slave. Three days after his arrival, Sasha was outside the camp on a working party that was chopping up tree stumps. In command of the party, which was guarded by a detachment of SSTrawnikis, was SS-Oberscharführer Frenzel. Impatient at the exhausted manner in which the Jews were tending to their tasks, Frenzel had decided to punish certain workers with twenty-five lashes from his whip. Frenzel noticed that Sasha had stopped work during one of these ‘punishments’.

‘Russian soldier,’ shouted Frenzel, ‘you don’t like the way I punish this fool? I give you exactly five minutes to split this stump.’ Frenzel kicked a large tree stump with the toe of his black jackboot. ‘If you make it, you get a pack of cigarettes. If you miss by as much as one second, you get twenty-five lashes,’ said Frenzel, a cruel smile creasing his face.

Sasha attacked the stump with his axe like a madman, Frenzel timing him with his watch. He finished in four-and-a-half minutes. Frenzel, his face a mask of anger, proffered a pack of cigarettes. ‘Thanks, I don’t smoke,’ said Sasha. Frenzel, muttering under his breath, stalked off while the other prisoners continued chopping, astonishment drawn across their sweaty faces. They were even more surprised when Frenzel returned with a lump of bread and some margarine and offered them to Sasha. The big Red Army officer shook his head slowly. ‘Thank you, the rations we are getting satisfy me fully.’ Frenzel’s face turned beetroot red, his fist tightening around his whip handle. He stared at Sasha for a moment, clearly debating in his mind what he should do, while Sasha ignored him and returned to chopping wood. Frenzel once again stalked off. The incident deeply impressed the other members of the working party and that night the proud defiance of the Soviet officer was the talk of the Sonderkommando barracks in Camp I.

It was obvious that the resistance organisation desperately needed someone like Sasha and Feldhendler reached out to him on 29 September. He hoped that Sasha might be able to contact the partisans, many of whom were escaped Soviet POWs, to enlist their aid in liberating the Sobibor Jews. But Sasha was unequivocal in his response. ‘The partisans have their own tasks,’ replied Sasha to Feldhendler, ‘and no one can do our work for us.’ The meaning was clear – if the Jews wanted out of Sobibor, they would have to do all the work themselves. Some of Sasha’s fellow Soviet prisoners were already exploring an escape from the camp, but only for themselves. They were reluctant to let untrained and disorderly foreign civilians join them. But Feldhendler countered that if the Soviet POWs managed to escape the SS would retaliate against the innocent Jewish civilians left behind in the camp. He managed to convince Sasha that any escape should include everybody.

It was decided that it would be better from a security standpoint if the Germans did not see Sasha and Feldhendler constantly meeting. Instead, a young Jew named Shlomo Leitman would act as a go-between for the two leaders. Sasha and his men carefully gathered intelligence on the layout of the camp, the number of guards and their personalities, routines and armament, as well as the all-important perimeter defences. In this, the Jewish civilian members of the Sonderkommando proved invaluable, having been imprisoned in Sobibor for much longer than the Soviets.

The first plan proposed by Sasha was a tunnel. Digging began in early October 1943 beneath the carpenter’s workshops in Camp II. On 7 October, Sasha became very concerned. It was clear that there weren’t enough hours of darkness for all of the camp’s prisoners to successfully pass through the long tunnel to freedom, and he knew that the non-military backgrounds of the civilian workers would probably lead to arguments and fights breaking out amongst those waiting to go. Before Sasha was forced to call off the tunnel break, the diggings were destroyed by two days of very heavy rain on the 8 and 9 October. It was back to the drawing board.

The second plan was a much more dangerous proposition – a revolt. This would involve attacking and overpowering the guards and seizing the camp. Though this appeared to be a tall order, Sasha believed that the key to the plan’s success was to remove the German brain from the larger SS body – that was, to kill the small number of German SS-TV officers and NCOs that administered the camp. It was the same conclusion that was reached by the desperate resisters at Treblinka II. Sasha believed that if the prisoners succeeded, the remaining Ukrainian SS guards would be confused and possibly open to negotiations. If all else failed, the prisoners could fight them with weapons captured off the dead guards, or they could try to storm and capture the camp’s armoury. It was known that the Trawnikis were not completely trusted by the regular SS, and only issued with limited ammunition for their weapons. The gravity of what the prisoners were planning to do was not lost on any of them for a second. ‘We had no dreams of liberation,’ said Thomas Toivi Blatt, ‘we hoped merely to destroy the camp and to die from bullets rather than from gas. We would not make it easy for the Germans.’

The Trawnikis that provided the bulk of the guards in the camp were armed with five-shot bolt-action Mauser 98K rifles, the standard German infantry weapon of the Second World War. The guard towers also contained MG42 machine guns, extremely rapid firing and highly effective belt-fed weapons. The SS-TV men were routinely armed with Luger or Walther P38 semi-automatic pistols and had access to Schmeisser MP40 machine pistols. In response, Sasha asked the prisoners to begin manufacturing large knives and small hatchets. These would be used to dispose of as many of the German SS NCOs as possible in a series of carefully planned ambushes.

The Trawnikis were even more strongly despised than the Germans. ‘We were terrified of the Ukrainian guards at Sobibor,’ said Blatt. ‘They were worse than the Germans. They mistreated us; they shot the old and the sick new arrivals who couldn’t walk anymore. And they were the ones who drove the naked people into the gas chambers with their bayonets.’ Blatt’s job involved cleaning SS boots. ‘They would come back with splashes of blood on their boots. I often had to work a few feet away. If they [the Jews] refused to go on, they hit them and fired shots. I can still remember their shout of ‘Idi suida’, which means ‘come here.’’

Camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Reichleitner left on leave shortly before the revolt. On 12 October, the hated and feared senior SS-TV NCO in the camp, SS-Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner, also departed on leave. This was a great relief to everyone. The tall, blond and sadistic Wagner was known to be exceptionally cunning and unrelenting in his efforts to uncover subversive activity among the Sonderkommandos. ‘Wagner’s departure gave us a tremendous morale boost,’ said conspirator Thomas Toivi Blatt. ‘While cruel, he was also very intelligent. Always on the go, he could suddenly show up in the most unexpected places. Always suspicious and snooping, he was difficult to fool. Besides, his colossal stature and strength would make it very difficult for us to overcome him with our primitive weapons.’

With Reichleitner and his chief guard dog Wagner gone, Sasha ordered that the final revolt plan be ready by the end of 12 October. The Soviet POWs were dispatched singly to each of the huts where an ambush killing was to be perpetrated in order to stiffen the resolve of the resisters and to do the actual killing if necessary. Each hut had organised a ‘combat team’ consisting of about three men, with their knives and hatchets carefully concealed. The targeted German officers and NCOs would be lured singly into the huts and then dispatched. Lures included appointments for uniform or boot fittings, or to peruse expensive coats taken from recent transports. ‘The planning took into consideration the German’s brashness and power-hungry mistreatment of the seemingly subdued Jews,’ said Blatt, ‘their consistent and systematic daily routine, their unfaltering punctuality, and their greed.’

The targets were carefully selected. The most important was deputy commandant SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann. In the absence of Reichleitner on leave, Niemann was acting commandant of the camp. Born in 1913, Niemann had joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and the SS in 1934. He had served at another Aktion Reinhard camp, Belzec, as an Oberscharführer, commanding Camp II. Transferred to Sobibor, Niemann was commissioned as an officer after Heinrich Himmler’s visit to the camp on 12 February 1943. According to Karl Frenzel, Niemann was a brutal officer. ‘A Polish Kapo [Jewish worker appointed to oversee other Jews] told me that some Dutch Jews were organising an escape, so I relayed it to Deputy Commandant Niemann. He ordered the seventy-two Jews to be executed.’ The Jews were also aided by the fact that almost a dozen SS NCOs were away from the camp on leave when the revolt was launched.

The method for killing the SS was to be as quiet as possible. They were to be axed in the skull or stabbed to death and their bodies quickly hidden. X-day, the day the revolt would be launched, was set for 13 October. But in the morning, Sasha and the rest of the plotters were disconcerted by the sudden arrival in the camp of a company of SS men. There was much confusion among the prisoners, who initially feared that their plot had been discovered and the extra manpower brought in to deal with them. But instead the SS piled out of their trucks and started eating and drinking with the Sobibor SS-TV men in the main canteen. As the extra SS were still in the camp at lunchtime, Sasha decided to postpone the revolt until the following day. Later in the afternoon, the visiting SS company packed up and drove away.

On 14 October everyone was ready. It was now or never. At noon, each battle team commander secretly met with Sasha for final instructions. There was one nasty moment when Frenzel marched into the carpentry shop and noticed that one of the prisoners was dressed in his best clothing. The prisoners had gathered their few possessions ready for the revolt. Unlike Wagner, who would undoubtedly have become suspicious, Frenzel instead sarcastically asked the man whether he was off to a wedding.

At 2pm, SS-Unterscharführer Walter Hochberg, who was not on the target list to be killed, suddenly entered Camp I armed with an MP40 machine pistol. This was unusual, as the SS-TV men rarely carried such firepower. Hochberg took away four prisoners. Sasha discovered that Hochberg was so armed because he hadn’t had with him because of the recent leaves a Ukrainian Trawniki as backup. By 4pm the battle teams were ready and in position.

The first to die was acting commandant Niemann. Once he was dead, his body was quickly dragged into a hiding place and the blood cleaned up. The officer’s loaded Luger pistol was added to the resisters’ meagre stash of weapons. Another prisoner led Niemann’s horse back to the camp stables to complete the illusion of normality.

SS-Scharführer Josef Wolf entered a storeroom shortly after 5pm, lured there by the offer of a nice coat that the prisoners had taken off a transport. As one prisoner helped Wolf into the coat, two others quickly pulled out hatchets and drove them into Wolf’s head, killing him. His body was carefully concealed beneath a pile of clothes, his blood mopped up and his pistol taken. Close by, 33-year-old SS-Oberscharführer Rudolf Beckmann, the head of sorting commands in Camp II, was lured towards a storeroom to view a leather coat. But Beckmann suddenly changed his mind and strode off to his office instead. A little later a combat team entered his office and stabbed him to death with knives. His body was left in a pool of blood on the floor behind his desk.

SS-Unterscharführer Walter Hochberg suddenly appeared in the SS garage and was there killed by the momentarily surprised Jewish prisoners. A major target was the commandant of Camp II, SS-Oberscharführer Göttinger. He was lured into the Shoemakers’ Shop to try on some new jackboots. As he leaned over he was struck in the head with a hatchet and killed.

The NCO in charge of the Ukrainian guards, 27-year-old SS-Oberscharführer Siegfried Graetschus, entered the Shoemakers’ Shop and was axed in the head by Soviet POW Arkady Wajspapir. Soon after, SS-Mann Ivan Klatt, one of the Trawnikis, came into the Shoemakers’ Shop looking for Graetschus, and he was similarly dispatched, his Mauser rifle being added to the pistols that the Jews had now procured from the dead SS. Jews also cut the camp’s telephone and electricity cables to prevent the remaining SS from calling in reinforcements. SS-Scharführer Friedrich Gaulstich was killed in the Carpentry Shop, while SS-Unterscharführer Ernst Stengelin was also dispatched without trouble. So far, everything was progressing perfectly to plan. The alarm had not been raised and the SS were none the wiser.

Around 5pm, the camp prisoners, most of whom had little idea that a revolt was underway, began to assemble on the Appellplatz, the area the Germans used for roll call parades. At 5.10pm Sasha blew an SS whistle, used to summon the prisoners to attention. It was twenty minutes early and the bemused prisoners turned and stared as Sasha stood to address them. ‘Our day has come,’ he shouted. ‘Most of the Germans are dead. Let’s die with honour. Remember, if anyone survives, he must tell the world what has happened here.’

At this point shouting was heard – a Ukrainian guard had discovered the bloody corpse of SS-Oberscharführer Beckmann lying behind his desk. The guard ran out shouting ‘A German is dead!’

Sasha didn’t hesitate and shouted ‘Forward, comrades!’ at the top of his voice. Someone behind him yelled ‘Forward!’ while several others screamed ‘For the Fatherland!’ or ‘For Stalin!’ Although the Jews had managed to kill a total eleven SS men, plus a few of the Trawnikis, Frenzel and the remaining SS quickly armed themselves with Schmeisser machine pistols and opened fire on the prisoners as they attempted to storm the wire.

The prisoners fired back at the Trawnikis manning the gates and guard towers, killing or wounding several, while hundreds flung themselves at the fences, and began to clamber over. The assault on the arms store failed, machine gun fire barring the way. ‘Most of the people who were escaping turned in the direction of the main gate,’ said Sasha. ‘There, after they finished off the guards, under cover of fire from the rifles that a few of them had…[they] broke through the gate and hurried in the direction of the forest.’


‘We rushed to the fence,’ said Philip Bialowitz. ‘We were shooting back as the men in the guard towers were shooting at us with machine guns.’

‘We ran out of the workshop,’ recalled survivor Ada Lichtman. ‘All around were the bodies of the killed and wounded. Some of them were exchanging fire with the Ukrainians, others were running toward the gate or through the fences.’ The SS opened a vigorous fire, shooting down people as they ran or climbed. Many people were killed after getting over the wire when they stepped on landmines. In horrific scenes, hundreds of survivors, many wounded, charged for the forest with German bullets stitching the earth around them.

‘We ran through the exploded mine field holes,’ said Thomas Blatt, ‘and we were outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further…100 yards…50 yards…20 more yards…and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes. In the greyness of the approaching evening, the towers’ machine guns shot their last victims.’

Once in the forest and out of range of the guards, the survivors searched around desperately for friends and relatives before striking off in large groups. But these large groups eventually broke up into smaller and smaller groups as the pressures of searching for food and water took its toll. Sasha initially led a party of about fifty survivors. But on 17 October, he halted the group in the forest and selected several men. They were all armed with Mauser rifles taken from the Trawnikis. Sasha only left one rifle with the main group. Though the people protested at his decision to leave on what he said was a ‘reconnaissance’, they couldn’t stop him and he promised to come back for them. He never did. Sasha, as a soldier, probably realised that trying to feed and protect such a large group was foolhardy, so he took a hardcore of armed men and struck out on their own, giving them a better chance of making it. Some Sobibor survivors never forgave Sasha for abandoning them in the forest in this way.

An estimated 158 Jews were killed by the guards during the revolt, or blown up by mines. The SS, Wehrmacht and Order Police murdered a further 107 during hunts for the escapees. Another 53 died from other causes before the end of the war. There were only 58 known survivors (48 men and 10 women) from Sobibor.

After the revolt the SS decided to close down killing operations at Sobibor. Camp III was disassembled and the remaining Sonderkommandos shot. Furious that the revolt could even have occurred, the SS took further revenge measures against the Jews that were under their control, culminating in the murders of 42,000 in Lublin District three weeks after the revolt in an operation codenamed ‘Erntefest’. The Germans had plans to use the remainder of Sobibor Camp for other purposes, and although they based a small guard detachment of Trawnikis at the site until March 1944, the camp never held any more prisoners.

Leon Feldhendler hid in Lublin until the end of the German occupation in July 1944. He was shot dead in his flat on 2 April 1945 in mysterious circumstances – possibly murdered by a rival Zionist group or the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Thomas Toivi Blatt was initially hidden by a Polish farmer after the escape, but was later shot and wounded by this same farmer. Blatt survived the war, moving to Israel and then the United States. He wrote the book ‘Escape from Sobibor’ in 1983, seeing it turned into a successful film, and two further books on the camp. He is one of a tiny handful of survivors who is still alive and lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Sasha joined the Soviet partisans, sabotaging railway lines, cutting telephone wires and conducting hit-and-run attacks on the Germans. Once the Red Army had occupied Poland, Sasha, like all other Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, was punished on Stalin’s order. He was conscripted into a tough penal battalion and sent to the front. But Sasha’s commanding officer was so shocked by Sasha’s story of what happened at Sobibor that Sasha was sent to Moscow where he spoke before a commission of inquiry. Promoted to captain, Sasha was decorated for gallantry and finally discharged after suffering a foot injury. The Soviets refused to allow him to testify before the Nuremberg Trials and in 1948 Sasha was arrested during a campaign against ‘disloyal Jews’. Stalin’s death in 1953 saved Sasha from further suffering, and he was released. He worked in a small amateur musical theatre. Refused permission by the Soviet authorities to testify at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1960, Sasha died in 1990.

Commandant Karl Reichleitner was transferred to Trieste and Fiume in Italy along with nearly all the Aktion Reinhard death camp personnel where they formed a special SS unit, Sondertruppe R, detailed to fight partisans and murder Jews. Reichleitner was killed at the age of 37 by partisans on 3 January 1944.

For more stories like this check out Mark’s forthcoming book Holocaust Heroes

Holocaust Heroes 2

Adlerhorst – The Führer’s Secret Castle

Hitlers train

The Führersonderzug pulled into Giessen Station in the German state of Hesse, a small, pretty town of large half-timbered houses. There were no adoring crowds awaiting the Führer – instead the platform was carefully guarded by SS. Outside, in the station courtyard stood a fleet of polished midnight-blue Mercedes-Benz limousines and more SS-Begleit-Kommando guards. Hitler stepped slowly down from his Pullman carriage, a black cape over his uniform tunic. It was blustery and cold and the Fuhrer, walking with a slight stoop, headed straight for his car where Erich Kempka, his personal driver for so many years, sat waiting, the engine running. Hitler’s entourage settled themselves into the fleet of cars, turning up their collars against the cold wind. Twenty minutes later the procession of gleaming vehicles swept uphill through the tiny village of Ziegenburg towards a large, gloomy Gothic castle that stood on a hill above the houses, perched atop a lofty promontory. It was 11 December 1944 and Hitler had arrived at the Adlerhorst (Eagle’s Eyrie), his top secret Western Front headquarters. He was happy and excited, for he came with a new plan prepared that he hoped would win him a great victory against the Western Allies. As his car entered a narrow approach tunnel to Ziegenberg Castle, Hitler felt energized. As he stated to his generals that evening: ‘If forced back on the defensive, it is all the more important to convince the enemy that victory was not in sight.’ At the Adlerhorst he would change the course of the war back into Germany’s favour.

Hitler would have several military headquarters for his campaigns in Western Europe. They were built and used during three specific periods: the German invasion of France and the Low Countries during 1940; the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944; and the Ardennes Offensive of 1944-45. Hitler spent most the war, over 800 days, at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia demonstrating that his strategic focus was primarily upon the monumental fight with the Soviet Union. When not at the Wolf’s Lair he was mostly to be found at his private house, the Berghof, in southern Bavaria. Because of this, his visits to the Western Front were often short affairs. But a considerable amount of money, effort and time was expended in finding and creating suitable headquarters for Hitler and his large entourage, the most significant but perhaps least known of the Führer Headquarters being the Eagle’s Nest in western Germany, hidden as with most of Hitler’s HQs in a gloomy forested area with more than an element of the Brothers Grimm about the place.

On 10 October 1939 Hitler’s first FBB commander, Irwin Rommel, was sent West to find a suitable location for a new Fuhrer Headquarters for the forthcoming campaign against France and the Low Countries. Hitler also dispatched his architect Albert Speer along with the Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition, Dr. Fritz Todt, to help with the search.

Speer and Todt recommended Ziegenberg Castle in Langenhain-Ziegenberg, 22 miles (35km) from Frankfurt-am-Main. The castle, looking like something out of a fairytale, sits in the densely wooded Taunus Mountains and was codenamed ‘A’ for ‘Adlerhorst’ (Eagle’s Eyrie) by the Nazis. Originally constructed in the 12th century, the castle had fallen into disrepair by the mid-19th century.

Kransberg Castle

(Kransberg Castle, near Ziegenberg, was also to be utilised as part of the Adlerhorst complex)

This was to be Hitler’s showpiece headquarters for the campaign in the West and no expense was spared. Incredibly, the local villagers who lived below the Castle in Ziegenberg do not appear to have realized that it was now a Führer Headquarters. The Germans kept the secret well, using labour that was brought into the area to complete the building work. As far as locals were concerned, Ziegenberg Castle was just another military installation during a time of war. The castle was extensively renovated and seven concrete bunkers that were disguised as half-timbered cottages were built nearby at Wiesental. These were connected with extensive underground bunkers in turn were themselves connected with the main castle by tunnels.

Another local castle, Schloss Kransberg, was seized from its owner and converted into a massive Luftwaffe headquarters for the coming campaign, and was later utilised by Heinrich Himmler alongside Reichsmarshal Göring.

But when Hitler visited the Adlerhorst he rejected it as too luxurious and not in keeping with his image as a simple and frugal leader. He was particularly worried that after the war his loyal disciples would visit the castle as a kind of shrine and be dismayed to find out that their beloved Führer lived in such opulent surroundings while they suffered air raids and food shortages. Hitler demanded a different headquarters on a more modest scale.

The Adlerhorst would not be used until 1944, when Hitler finally moved in to direct the Ardennes Offensive, but although mothballed for the time being the site nonetheless still had to be carefully protected. Speer modified the complex for use by the Luftwaffe as their HQ for Operation ‘Sealion’, the planned invasion of Britain in 1940. After Hitler cancelled Sealion the castle was used as a recuperation centre for wounded German soldiers and as a private retreat for the corpulent Luftwaffe leader Hermann Göring.

Hitler’s RSD commander, Johann Rattenhuber, provided nineteen of his men to guard the Adlershorst complex, plus 106 military policemen – a considerable use of resources to guard an empty headquarters. This activity served as a useful distraction from Hitler’s real HQ, the considerably more basic ‘F’ or ‘Felsennest’ (Mountain Nest) that was occupied at Rodert near the town of Munstereifel, 22 miles (35km) southwest of Bonn and only 28 miles (45km) from the Belgian frontier.

NATIONAL ARCHIVE WASHINGTON 242-HB-48400-89 HOFFMAN COLLECTION: Adolf Hitler with earliest members of his personal bodyguard unit, the SS Begleit Kommando: Bruno Gesche on Hitlers immediate left, Erich Kempka on Hitlers immediate right, Adolf Dirr, August Koerber, Franz Schaedle.
NATIONAL ARCHIVE WASHINGTON 242-HB-48400-89 HOFFMAN COLLECTION: Adolf Hitler with earliest members of his personal bodyguard unit, the SS Begleit Kommando: Bruno Gesche on Hitlers immediate left, Erich Kempka on Hitlers immediate right, Adolf Dirr, August Koerber, Franz Schaedle.

At the Felsennest, Hitler took over an already existing site that consisted of some anti-aircraft positions and a few wooden huts. Engineers built catwalks between the buildings so that Hitler and his officers did not have to wade through mud, renovated the existing structures, put up security fences and gates, and built some small bunkers and air raid shelters. Hitler’s personal bunker was very small. It consisted of one room that he could use for meetings and military briefings plus a modest bedroom, bathroom, bedrooms for Keitel and adjutant Schaub, one manservant and a kitchen. ‘Jodl, Dr. Brandt, Schmundt, Below [Luftwaffe aide], Puttkamer [naval aide], and Keitel’s adjutant were in a second [bunker]. The rest had to be accommodated in the nearby village.’ But the headquarters was in keeping with Hitler’s simple nature, and importantly it reinforced his own image of the straightforward and frugal leader.

Hitler returned to the Western Front in June 1944, shortly after the D-Day landings in Normandy. His headquarters for his short visit was Wolfsschlucht II near Margival in France. He flew to Metz aboard his personal Condor aircraft on 16 June and then travelled by motorcade through the early hours of 17 June to his conference with Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt and Rommel, his two Western Front commanders. The Führer’s safety when airborne was assured by the grounding of all Luftwaffe aircraft along the route and an order that no German anti-aircraft batteries would be permitted to open fire. It should be noted that by this stage of the war Hitler was taking a considerable risk still travelling by air because the Allies had managed to achieve almost complete aerial superiority over Western Europe.

Hitlers Plane

The meeting with von Rundstedt and Rommel was deeply acrimonious, Hitler blaming them for their failure to force the Allies back into the sea at Normandy. They first had lunch together. Hitler watched as his special vegetarian food was tasted for him before eating any himself. Two RSD officers stood behind Hitler’s chair, their faces hard and their eyes constantly scanning the Führer’s lunch companions. Rommel told Hitler that in his opinion the German Army would collapse in France, as well as in Italy, and Hitler should end the war as soon as possible. An air raid alert forced the group underground into Hitler’s personal air raid shelter. Hitler was due to visit Army Group B front headquarters at the Chateau of La Roche-Guyon on 19 June but Hitler had suddenly departed for Germany on the night of the 17th. The reason for this was the impact of a brand new V1 flying bomb on the headquarters at Margival that night. V1 launches against London had begun on 12 June and by the 15th over 500 of these primitive cruise missiles were being launched daily. One malfunctioned and landed on Führer Headquarters, frightening Hitler enough that he decided to return to Germany and from there take his personal train back to his Eastern Front headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair.

Hitler came West once again on 11 December 1944 when his personal train arrived at Giessen Station in Hesse where a fleet of armoured Mercedes took him and his party to the Adlerhorst, the command complex that had been built several years before adjacent to Ziegenberg Castle. Although Hitler had previously refused to use the complex, complaining that it was too luxuriously appointed, by December 1944 he required a large headquarters base with excellent communications and a co-located army high command facility for the forthcoming Ardennes Offensive. His other Western Front headquarters were none of these things. The Eagle’s Eyrie was the only Führer Headquarters in the West that met these criteria and so preparations had been made for Hitler’s arrival.

The Adlerhorst consisted of seven large “cottages” set in a heavily wooded compound at Wiesental beyond Ziegenberg Castle’s main entrance. In reality, each cottage was in fact a large two-storey concrete bunker that was disguised to look like a typical “Fachwerk” or half-timbered wooden cottage.


Although constructed of concrete with walls 3 feet (0.91m) thick, the second storey included fake dormer windows with flower baskets under a sloped tiled roof. The interiors of the bunkers were kept simple, as befitting Hitler’s personal taste. They were furnished in traditional German style, with oak floors, pine wall panelling, functional brown leather furniture, wall lamps, and wall hangings depicting hunting scenes or Teutonic battles, and deer antlers.

Haus I was the Führer’s personal bunker. The decoration and furnishings were not embellished in any way. Haus II was also known as the “Casino”, a German military term for an officers’ mess. It consisted on a lounge and a café on the ground floor with bedrooms on the first floor. An entrance to the bunker below gave access to a secure situation room and communications centre outfitted with radio transmitters and Enigma coding machines. The Casino was connected to the Führerbunker by a short covered walkway so that Hitler could stay out of the elements.

Kransberg Castle

(Kransberg Castle – part of the wider Adlerhorst command complex)

Haus III was occupied by a section of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German High Command – OKW) and was the residence of the commanding general. At various times this building housed Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt, Albert Kesselring and Wilhelm Keitel as well as Reichsmarschall Göring and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl.



Haus IV was known as the “Generals’ House” and was used by second echelon general staff, for example Hasso von Manteuffel, Ferdinand Schorner and Heinz Guderian.

Haus V was occupied by a section of Dr. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry while Reich Ministers and very senior Nazi officials including Martin Bormann, Alfred Rosenberg and Robert Ley used Haus VI. The final cottage, Haus VII, was known as the “Wachhaus” and was the largest of the seven. It housed Hitler’s adjutants, bodyguards, personal secretaries and housekeeping staff. This building was connected to Ziegenberg Castle, as we have seen already previously converted into a secure army headquarters complex, by a 0.5-mile (0.8 km) long tunnel.

The largest building in the Adlerhorst complex was called the Kraftfahrzeughalle (Motor Pool Garage) and this was located in the village below Ziegenberg Castle. It housed the armoured Mercedes limousines used by Hitler and his henchmen as well as fire engines, busses and ambulances. There was also Fachwerk-style accommodation for the families of personnel working at the Adlerhorst.


The entire site was carefully guarded, with disguised concrete guard bunkers covering all approaches and a network of anti-aircraft batteries sited around the surrounding hills. Above the Castle, located to the north in the hills, was a disguised Wehrmacht depot that housed additional army units for the defence of the Adlerhorst.

Hitler would use the Eagle’s Eyrie between December 1944 and January 1945 during the Ardennes Offensive, his last gamble in the West. The Adlerhorst became Hitler’s last field HQ after the abandonment of the Wolf’s Lair to the advancing Soviets. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, moved into Kransberg Castle in October 1944 in preparation for the coming offensive but when Hitler arrived by train at the Adlerhorst on 11 December, von Rundstedt and his headquarters moved forward to near Limburg in Belgium.

On the morning of 15 December Hitler hosted a planning conference to discuss the Ardennes operation attended by von Rundstedt, Keitel, Jodl and Gunther Blumentritt and the ground commanders including von Manteuffel and Sepp Dietrich. Many of these top commanders didn’t even know of the existence of the Adlerhorst and before they had arrived they had been driven in an SS bus on a long and circuitous route through the mountains to deliberately confuse them about the headquarters location.

After Christmas 1944 Hermann Göring arrived and took up residence at Kransberg Castle. It was at a briefing inside Haus II at Wiesental that the Reichsmarschall destroyed his relationship with Hitler after he suggested, in light of the evident failure of the Ardennes offensive, that Hitler seek a truce with the Allies through neutral Swedish contacts. Hitler flew into a rage and threatened to have Göring placed before a court martial and shot.

On New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1944, Hitler made a rare radio broadcast to the German people before going to Haus I to welcome in 1945 with his close intimates including Bormann, Dr. Dietrich and two of his secretaries, Traudl Junge and Christina Wolf. Two inches of snow had fallen, giving the Castle and the surrounding pine forest a pretty and festive aspect. Hitler’s Austrian dietician, Constanze Manziarly, had laid out a buffet and there were chilled bottles of Mosel-Sekt.

Whilst Hitler was preoccupied with the Ardennes Offensive, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff of the Army, had visited the Adlerhorst on several occasions trying in vain to warn Hitler of the growing Soviet threat on Vistula River south of Warsaw. Intelligence summaries suggested that in the predicted main assault areas the Red Army would outnumber the Germans by 11-to-1 in men, 7-to-1 in tanks and 20-to-1 in guns. Hitler rubbished the intelligence and refused to transfer divisions east.

"Naziverbrechern auf der Spur", "Albert Speer." Albert Speer gehörte zu den führenden Architekten des Dritten Reiches. Das grausamste Kriegsverbrechen von Albert Speer war die Ausbeutung seiner sklavenähnlich gehaltenen Zwangsarbeiter, die in seinen Fabriken zu Millionen ums Leben kamen. Nach Kriegsende zeigte sich Speer bei US-Befragungen äußerst kooperativ. Er entging später bei den Nürnberger Prozessen der Todesstrafe und wurde zu 20 Jahren Gefängnis verurteilt.Im Bild ( Adolf Hitler, Albert Speer. SENDUNG: ORF3 - SA - 15.03.2014 - 21:05 UHR. - Veroeffentlichung fuer Pressezwecke honorarfrei ausschliesslich im Zusammenhang mit oben genannter Sendung oder Veranstaltung des ORF bei Urhebernennung. Foto: ORF/ZDF. Anderweitige Verwendung honorarpflichtig und nur nach schriftlicher Genehmigung der ORF-Fotoredaktion. Copyright: ORF, Wuerzburggasse 30, A-1136 Wien, Tel. +43-(0)1-87878-13606
Hitler at the Adlerhorst, January 1945 with (l-r) Albert Speer, Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Joachim von Ribbentrop. 

At 4am on 1 January 1945 Hitler attended a conference in Haus II to discuss his counter offensive in the West, Operation North Wind. Launched at midnight, the counter offensive ran out of steam by 25 January 1945 when it became clear that Germany had lost the battle and in the process used up its last remaining reserves of manpower and equipment. Also on 1 January Guderian attended another meeting with Hitler where he continued to plead for to transfer of forces east, before it was too late. Hitler only permitted the transfer of four divisions, and promptly ordered them to Hungary instead of the threatened sectors of the front.

On 9 January Guderian was back at the Adlerhorst, pestering Hitler again about the Eastern Front. At this time Hitler’s great offensive in the west was faltering, and Hitler flew into a rage, refusing to transfer divisions or even to consider permitting exposed German formations to pull back to more defensible positions. It was at this point that Guderian made his famous remark: ‘The Eastern Front is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point, all the rest will collapse.’

On 15 January, with the western campaign virtually ended and with increasing signs of an imminent Soviet assault across the Vistula, Hitler left the Adlerhorst for the last time. As he was leaving aboard his train, one wit among his staff pointed out that ‘Berlin was preferential as a headquarters; it would soon be possible to travel from there both to the eastern and western front by suburban railway.’ Apparently Hitler actually laughed. He had probably been encouraged to move out of the Adlerhorst not only by the obvious failure of his offensive in the West and by the imminent Soviet onslaught from the East, but also by another close call with death.


On 6 January a RAF Lancaster bomber, possibly in trouble, jettisoned a huge Blockbuster Bomb over Ziegenburg, the town that lay at the foot of the castle. The late-war Blockbuster, known to the RAF as the “Cookie”, was the largest conventional bomb used by any of the Allied air forces and was packed with 12,000-lbs (5.4 tonnes) of Amatol high explosive and they were designed to level entire city blocks with one strike. One bomber crew recorded that when they dropped one into the centre of Koblenz the tremendous explosion damaged their Lancaster flying at 6,000 feet (1,829m). The explosion at Ziegenburg, which was not densely populated or built-up, killed four civilians, wrecked the local church and caused extensive damage to surrounding houses. If the bomb had landed on the Führerbunker Hitler could have conceivably been killed. Hitler returned to Berlin on 16 January 1945 aboard his private train, the Führersonderzug.

The Western Allies thought that Hitler was still at the Adlerhorst, his headquarters at Ziegenberg Castle, and they determined to try and kill him. Although Hitler had already been gone for two months, on 19 March 1945 a squadron of P-51 Mustangs launched a precision attack on the Castle and its environs, dropping high explosive and incendiary bombs that killed ten civilians and did huge damage to both the Castle and surrounding buildings. But the Allies completely missed the real headquarters complex – the disguised bunkers at Wiesental. Ziegenberg Castle was burned out by napalm and turned into a ruin.


Ziegenberg Castle following the US air raid. (

The bunker complex at Wiesental was still functioning as a headquarters at the time of the raid and afterwards. On 11 March the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief West, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, had moved in with his large staff. He immediately ordered that all sensitive documentation and cipher machines be removed from Ziegenberg Castle, after which he moved with his staff into Haus III, the purpose-built OKW command bunker at the Adlerhorst. Kesselring and his staff escaped harm during the 45-minute American air raid.

By 28 March, with US forces only 12 miles (19 km) from the Adlerhorst, Kesselring ordered the evacuation by means of all the remaining motor transport of civilian employees and the families of soldiers who were serving at the headquarters. He then ordered that the Adlerhorst complex should be blown up. This was only partially successful. When the US Army arrived they discovered that the Führerbunker and several other structures had been reduced to burned-out shells, but two buildings were captured intact. The first was Haus V or ‘Pressehaus’, used by Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry. The second was the largest building on the site, Haus VII, the ‘Wachhaus’ with its long concrete tunnel that connected directly with the Castle.

Today, both Ziegenberg and Kransberg Castles remain in private hands, and are not easily accessed by the public. The bunker complex at Wiesental is also mostly intact.

See also Tiger Hunting in the Ardennes


Gestapo Cologne

Probably one the best preserved Gestapo Headquarters in Germany today, the Cologne building has a fascinating history and remains an eerie and horrific reminder of the once all-powerful Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police).


The EL-DE Haus – the name derives from the phonetic German pronunciation of the owner’s initials, L.D. for Leopold Dahmen. He constructed the building in 1933, renting it to the Gestapo until March 1945. The Gestapo modified the building by the inclusion of 10 prison cells in the basement.


The entrance to one of the communal cells that could hold up to 25 people in extremely cramped and unsanitary conditions. The prisoners slept on the floor or on hard wooden pallets, and were denied blankets by the Gestapo.


A very stout cell door with peep hole. Prisoners would be dragged out of these cells to the interrogation room, where they would be beaten and tortured for hours by the sadistic guards.


Mark standing in the air raid shelter entrance beneath Gestapo headquarters. It was protected by a thick metal blast door (left). During the frequent and devastating air raids on Cologne by the RAF and USAAF the Gestapo would take shelter here, leaving the prisoners locked inside their cells.


A sink (right), one of three inside a primitive bathroom that prisoners were permitted to use twice a day. The room also contained one toilet. In their cells, the prisoners would use a bucket in the corner to relieve themselves. No showers were available – the prisoners instead hastily washed themselves in cold water in this bathroom.


Corridor with a row of cells on the left. The Gestapo NCOs who ran this prison wore field grey SS uniforms with ‘SD’ cuff diamonds and carried dog whips.

Polen, Verhaftung von Juden, SD-Männer



Heavy duty air raid shelter door. Cologne was one of the heaviest bombed cities in Germany, with almost 35,000 tons of explosives dropped on it. Ironically, Gestapo headquarters was one of the few important buildings that survived this maelstrom largely untouched.


Outside is a courtyard that was used for executions. It contained a three-noose gallows for hangings. Many prisoners were executed with a shot to the back of the neck. Shortly before the US Army captured the city, on 1 March 1945 the Gestapo hanged 70-80 young women and 30 men in the courtyard. The corpses were loaded aboard three trucks and dumped in a grave in the city’s West Cemetery.


Two views outside Cologne Cathedral. (Top) a knocked out Panther tank, April 1945. (Below) the same area in 2015.

For more like this, read:

SS King Tiger Last Stand: Ardennes 1944


To watch the accompanying video, visit:

On 16 December 2015, I was lucky enough to be in the Belgian Ardennes, exactly 71 years since Hitler launched the Battle of the Bulge. It was gloomy, foggy and very wet, and I decided to do a spot of tiger hunting. I would follow the route taken by Kampfgruppe Peiper, the lead armoured fist of the elite 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler in its drive towards the Meuse River.


SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochen Peiper’s battle group crossed through the Losheim Gap into Belgium on 16 December 1944.


The unit, with SS Panzer Abteilung 501’s massive King Tigers in the vanguard, took an American fuel dump at Honsfeld before continuing on to Malmedy. I drove first to Malmedy from Germany, site of the infamous Malmedy Massacre when a reconnaissance unit of the 1st SS Panzer executed over 80 American prisoners-of-war in cold blood. History buffs will enjoy the nearby Baugnez 44 Historical Center, with its superb collection of exhibits and more information about the dark event that forever carries the name of the local town.


Moving on from Malmedy through the thick pine forest, I followed Kampfgruppe Peiper’s original route to the village of Trois-Ponts. On 18 December 1944 Peiper’s unit had run into stiff resistance at Stavelot. Leaving a blocking force in place, the bulk of Peiper’s forces had been directed to Trois-Ponts. However, when the SS arrived they discovered that American engineers had blown the bridges across the Ambleve River and were putting up stiff resistance.


Peiper left another blocking force in position at Trois-Ponts and then headed for La Gleize. I too then swung north away from the Ambleve, climbing like Peiper up into hilly, wooded terrain towards Grand Coo on narrow country lanes that must have been ground to mud by King Tigers, eventually arriving after some GPS confusion at the tiny village of La Gleize.


This village marked the limit of Peiper’s advance towards the Meuse, and outside the December 44 Historical Museum opposite La Gleize church stands one of the rarest tanks in existence – the Tiger II, or King Tiger. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that this tank, 213, was actually abandoned by the SS almost exactly where it still stands today.


It remains an incredibly powerful sight, an incongruously massive beast sitting impassively beside a narrow village road, its huge 88mm gun pointing across a shallow valley towards where American armoured forces were advancing to recapture the village 71 years ago.



Kampfgruppe Peiper had captured the area around La Gleize without undue difficulty, but it had failed to secure another nearby American fuel dump. At this point, the SS simply ran out of fuel, and Peiper was forced onto the defensive.


Although SS Panzer Abteilung 501 had 45 King Tiger’s on strength on 16 December 1944, many failed to make it far into Belgium to the constant mechanical difficulties. Some had been left at Stavelot and Trois-Ponts by Peiper to cover the flanks of his advance. Six made it intact to La Gleize. Peiper positioned King Tigers 213 and 221 near the church, their 88mm guns covering all approaches to the village from the east and southeast.


Forced onto the defensive, Kampfgruppe Peiper defended a perimeter around La Gleize in the hope that the Luftwaffe could airdrop supplies of petrol to the stranded armour. But when the Luftwaffe tried, they dropped the fuel in the wrong area, right into the hands of the Americans. Below is a photo of one of the petrol containers dropped by parachute:


On 22 December 1944 King Tigers 213 and 221 engaged US Sherman tanks from Task Force McGeorge at a range of 2,000 yards, as the American noose was tightened around La Gleize and Kampfgruppe Peiper became progressively surrounded. The two King Tigers scored many hits on the inferior US tanks, halting the column. But the remaining Shermans concentrated their fire at the two immobilised King Tigers.


SS-Obersturmfuhrer Dollinger’s 213 had the front third of its massive gun blown off by a lucky shot, while SS-Untersturmfuhrer Hantusch’s 221 received damage to its reversing mechanism. Even if fuel now reached the battle group, these two tanks were now useless and were abandoned by their crews.


When it became clear that he could expect no relief or fuel, Peiper decided to abandon his attack and retreat back to German lines. This meant abandoning all his vehicles, the SS walking 20 miles through the snow to reach safety. An astonishing 135 German vehicles were left behind in La Gleize alone, including all six King Tigers and 13 Panther tanks.


By the summer of 1945 US Army clean-up crews had arrived at La Gleize to begun towing away wrecked vehicles for scrapping. King Tiger 213, owing to its being located up a narrow and curving little road outside the church, was the last to be removed. But just as it was being towed off, local bar owner Jenny Geenen ran outside and ‘bought’ the tank for a bottle of cognac. She believed that the tank should remain in La Gleize as a memorial to the village’s wartime suffering. Left to deteriorate until 1951, the King Tiger’s gun was repaired with parts from a couple of Panther tanks, before it was moved to its current position outside the war museum. In 1975 King Tiger 213 was overhauled and repainted. It remains a potent symbol of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last throw of the dice in the West.


Kill Hitler! The World’s First Suicide Bomber

‘Hitler is the arch enemy not only of Germany but of the world…A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defence of his convictions.’

Generalmajor Henning von Treskow, 1944


His back ramrod straight, Rudolf von Gersdorff raised his right hand in the Nazi salute as Hitler entered the large covered courtyard. Outside, the thunder of applause still hung in the air from Hitler’s rousing and defiant speech to the assembled party faithful. Gersdorff looked at Hitler, careful to keep his face blank, as the Führer approached him. Hitler, who was slightly stooped by this stage of the war, was dressed in his customary field grey jacket and black trousers, his valet Heinz Linge just a step behind him carrying Hitler’s grey and brown cap. Flanking the Führer were several tough-looking RSD bodyguards in grey SS officers uniforms, their gloved hands never straying far from their pistol holsters. Gersdorff’s right hand remained in its rigid ‘German greeting’ while his left hand quickly and surreptitiously reached into his tunic pocket. He set the fuse to the bomb that he was carrying and spoke: ‘Heil, mein Führer!’ Hitler barely acknowledged him, just slightly raising his own right hand in a perfunctory salute. Gersdorff smiled inwardly – in just a few minutes this monster would be dead and Germany would be saved.

With the debacle of Stalingrad in early 1943 finally revealing the military incompetence of Hitler’s leadership, as well as his evident willingness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of German soldiers in such a needless battle, the mood in Germany was both depressed and shocked. It was probably the best time to launch a successful coup against the Nazi government. ‘A successful undertaking at that time might, despite the recently announced ‘Unconditional Surrender’ strategy of the Allies, have stood a chance of splitting them,’ notes Sir Ian Kershaw. ‘The removal of the Nazi leadership and offer of capitulation in the west…would at any rate have placed the western Allies in a quandary about whether to respond to peace-feelers.’

But the plotters had much to lose, and although they schemed and encouraged, they were unlikely to raise a hand personally against Hitler. Any attempt on the Führer’s life would have been suicidal, and such self-sacrificial behaviour was left to more hotheaded junior officers. This posed a serious problem for the resistance, for, as the war continued, Hitler’s security began to limit the numbers and the ranks of the officers who could be in his presence, perhaps sensing a latent threat from particular groups.

Though attempting to kill Hitler would be a virtual suicide mission, one officer, Rittmeister Eberhard von Breitenbuch, had already contemplated shooting Hitler using a concealed pistol at the Berghof, but the plot was thwarted at the last minute. Breitenbuch was not the only young patriot to step forward and volunteer to do the unthinkable. One such officer, Oberst Count von Stauffenberg, summed up the feeling among the German Resistance: ‘Since the generals have up to now managed nothing, the colonels have now to step in.’

One such colonel was Oberst Rudolf Christoph Baron von Gersdorff who said to von Treskow a few days after Breitenbuch’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life: ‘It must be done. This is our only chance…Hitler must be cut down like a rabid dog.’ Gersdorff, Head of the Staff Section at Army Group Centre had just volunteered to become the world’s first suicide bomber.


Gersdorff volunteered to kill Hitler when he discovered that he had been selected to act as a tour guide while the Führer perused captured Soviet weaponry at the Zeughaus, the old Berlin Arsenal, on the Unter den Linden.



The Zeughaus in 2016

It was part of the celebrations for Heroes Memorial Day. Gersdorff believed that he had a real chance at killing Hitler because he would be close to him for about thirty minutes. He ruled out using a pistol, as he believed that the security would be too tight at the event and that Hitler’s RSD bodyguards would shoot him down before he had a chance to take proper aim. It was also suspected by the plotters that Hitler routinely wore a bulletproof vest under his tunic. Gersdorff first decided instead to blow Hitler up by planting a bomb in his speaker’s rostrum shortly before Hitler arrived to deliver his annual speech.

Gersdorff flew to Berlin on 20 March with Generalfeldmarschall Walther Model, Commander-in-Chief of the Ninth Army, who would also be attending the ceremony. He carried two Clam Mines, small but powerful British explosive devices about the same size and thickness as a paperback book. Treskow had given these to him after he had retrieved them following the failed attempt on Hitler’s plane.

Gersdorff carried out a quiet and unobtrusive reconnaissance of the Zeughaus on the afternoon of 20 March and soon realised that planting a bomb was out of the question. Wherever Hitler would walk, stand or sit was carefully guarded or watched, so Gersdorff rejected any notion of a Georg Elser-style attack on the Führer. Instead, Gersdorff decided upon a radical course of action. He would conceal one of the clam mines in his pocket. As soon as Hitler entered the glass-covered Zeughaus courtyard where the exhibition of weaponry had been set up, Gersdorff would start the timer. He would then stand as close to Hitler as possible and die in the resulting explosion, hopefully taking Hitler with him. Gersdorff faced several significant problems. Firstly, he had no idea of Hitler’s security and guarding arrangements and whether he would be permitted to stand close enough to Hitler for the bomb to be lethally effective. He had noticed that the covered inner courtyard where the display was to be held was huge and airy – any detonation by a small bomb would be quickly dispersed. Secondly, and most importantly, he could not find a sufficiently short fuse; the best that he could manage was one of ten minutes. This meant that Gersdorff would have to closely shadow the Führer to keep him in range of the bomb blast. Would the RSD permit an officer to trail along behind Hitler after the Führer had moved on from Gersdorff’s section of the exhibit? It appeared unlikely, so Gersdorff resolved to try and engage Hitler in conversation whilst demonstrating the Soviet weapons to try and keep him close while the fuse counted down to destruction.

Gersdorff stood next to Model as Hitler entered the covered courtyard at the head of practically the entire senior Nazi leadership circle. Behind Hitler was Hermann Göring dressed incongruously in a white uniform of his own design and wearing red leather jackboots and wearing makeup. Heinrich Himmler’s cold eyes stared out from behind his wire-framed glasses, his lips pursed and disapproving while Hitler’s two senior military commanders, the tall, pompous and slightly rotund Generalfeldmarschall Keitel and Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, both men grasping their ornate rank batons in their right hands, followed behind the Nazis.

Hitler had already delivered his short speech outside, and Gersdorff had listened, as the German national anthem was played followed by the Horst Wessel, the Nazi’s unofficial anthem. Hitler now had thirty minutes to use up at the exhibition before the wreath laying ceremony commenced once more outside the Zeughaus.

Hitler moved towards Gersdorff’s section of the exhibition, the gallant Baron arming his bomb as the Führer approached. Gersdorff had ten minutes left to live and determined to kill Hitler he smiled and attempted to interest the Führer in the display of Soviet weaponry laid out on table before him. Hitler, a disinterested scowl on his face, moved along the tables with Gersdorff staying as close to Hitler as possible, all the time trying to talk to him. It is a measure of Gersdorff’s incredible bravery that he showed absolutely no outward sign of the impending and horrifically violent end of his life, carrying on as if everything were absolutely normal. The RSD guards never suspected a thing. But suddenly Hitler, instead of asking questions about the weapons, ‘went – or rather ran – out of the side door,’ recalled Gersdorff. ‘During his short tour around the exhibition, he had barely looked at anything and had not said a word.’  A tour that was supposed to have taken thirty minutes had lasted for barely two. Gersdorff considered attempting to follow Hitler from the courtyard but quickly realised that this forbidden behaviour would only alert the RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando guards in the Führer’s vicinity and have led to his apprehension. Instead, Gersdorff made his excuses and locked himself inside a toilet cubicle. He frantically managed to disarm the bomb with only seconds to spare.

Later that same day a fellow army officer approached Gersdorff and jokingly explained how he could have ‘killed Adolf today.’ Hitler, he said, ‘drove very slowly in an open top car down Unter den Linden, right in front of my ground-floor room in the Hotel Bristol. It would have been child’s play to heave a hand-grenade over the sidewalk and into his car.’ Gersdorff, white faced, just stared at him blankly. The following day Baron von Gersdorff was transferred back to Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front and his plot to kill the Führer was never discovered.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Transporting the Führer


A Mosquito fighter-bomber roared down towards the long train that snaked through the dark forest of Eastern Germany. Behind the aircraft several more followed in tight formation, each driving home devastating attacks. The British aircraft, armed with bombs, rockets and cannon, screamed along the length of the train. Two steam engines hauled smart Pullman carriages at almost full speed. Cannon shells ripped through the surrounding treetops, or thudded like crazed hornets into the roofs of the carriages, gouging out great holes. Rockets and bombs smashed down, the train rocking as blasts impacted close by, uprooting trees and throwing huge showers of dirt high into the air. German anti-aircraft crews fed box after box of 20mm shells into the four-barrel guns mounted on special carriages at each end of the train, a constant barrage peppering the sky with black puffs of smoke. One-by-one the Mosquitos dove on the train, expending their munitions, many taking shrapnel hits from the intense flak screen, one peeling away with its port engine on fire before ploughing into the surrounding forest in a massive fireball. But, suddenly the leading locomotive’s boiler exploded as RAF cannon shells punched through it, and the train started to slow down. More Mosquitos piled in, one scoring a direct hit with a bomb on a carriage midway down the length of the train, its metal body absorbing the hit, the interior instantly reduced to a burning charnel house of wrecked furniture and smashed bodies. The train was strafed from end to end before a British air-to-ground rocket slammed into the second carriage, severely wounding Hitler and his closest staff who were crouched beneath the conference room’s wooden table. RSD personnel fought their way into the burning carriage with fire extinguishers before rescuing their boss who had severe shrapnel wounds to the head and chest. As the last of the British aircraft made a pass, the train came to a shuddering halt while onboard the doctors desperately tried stem the Führer’s bleeding and the heavily armed RSD organized a hasty evacuation to the nearest town.

The preceding never happened, but the scenario was one of three plans hatched by the British to kill Hitler whilst he was aboard his personal train. The others were to detail it with explosives or poison its drinking water supply. Hitler continued to use his train until the last few weeks of the war even though the Allies had air superiority over the Reich, a move that was seen by many as an unnecessary security risk. Special Operations Executive, ingenious as ever, saw Hitler’s train as the perfect target but in the end the British failed to launch an assault on the Fuhrer Special.

Throughout the war Hitler travelled constantly. He used three methods to get around his empire: planes, trains and cars. As his security became more professional it was deemed important that Hitler no longer use public transport, where he would be vulnerable to assassination. Instead, the security agencies that protected the Führer began to acquire private means of transport that eventually resulted in Hitler being able to travel widely without having any contact with his people or those outside of his inner circle of advisors and generals. One of his favourite modes of transport was the train, and Hitler’s train was a truly awesome sight.

Hitler's Train

Emperor Wilhelm II had had the use of several plush railway carriages that formed an Imperial Train before the end of the First World War. The German government during the Weimar period then re-used some of these carriages. Hitler ordered the construction of several special coaches between 1937 and 1939 for his own train. Each coach was constructed entirely from steel and weighed over 60 tons. The Führersonderzug, as Hitler’s train was known, came in two configurations – peacetime and wartime. The peacetime train consisted (in order) of a locomotive, baggage and power engine car, Führer’s Pullman, conference car, escort car, dining car, two sleeping cars, Pullman coach, personnel car, press chief’s car, baggage and power-engine car. Codenamed ‘Amerika’ until 31 January 1943, it was then renamed ‘Brandenburg’. During wartime Hitler’s train was officially an Führerhauptquartier (Führer Headquarters – FHQ).

An FHQ, whether a mobile train or static headquarters complex, was a command facility for Hitler’s use. The Wehrmacht always had its own headquarters nearby and liaison officers seconded to the FHQ. But the FHQ was not a military headquarters in the strictest sense, but rather was de facto because of Hitler’s interference in the military command structure.

Hitler's train 2

The Army, Navy and Air Force had received nominal oversight since 1938 by one unified organisation, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces – OKW). For most of the war Generalfeldmarshall Wilhelm Keitel acted as its commander, with Generaloberst Alfred Jodl as Chief of Operations Staff. In reality Hitler personally controlled OKW.

The German Army was under the command of Oberkommando des Heeres (Supreme Command of the Army – OKH), headed until December 1941 by Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch. Hitler sacked him after he failed to capture Moscow and appointed himself Supreme Commander of OKH. During wartime, OKH was responsible for strategic planning of Armies and Army Groups and the OKH General Staff managed operational matters. Both OKH and OKW were co-located in a huge bunker complex at Zossen outside Berlin, and both had large numbers of staff officers and adjutants attached to FHQ.

Little is known today about Hitler’s wartime train, but an idea of its likely regular composition comes from information leaked in June 1941, when the Führersonderzug departed the Anhalter Station in Berlin for Hitler’s gloomy pine forest HQ at Rastenburg in East Prussia. For the overnight journey the train consisted of fifteen carriages pulled by two large Deutsches Bahn K5E series war locomotives. The Führersonderzug was a self-contained rolling headquarters that enabled Hitler, much like the present British Royal Family and their Royal Train, to travel in safety and comfort to any part of his empire whilst remaining wired in to the communications grid. If the train stopped, the Führer’s Pullman, dining car and sleeping cars could be quickly connected with the postal telephone network. When on the move, communications were conducted by encrypted radio.

Hitlers train

Behind the two locomotives was a flatbed Flakwagen mounting two Flakvierling 38 four-gun anti-aircraft cannon manufactured by Mauser. Sitting on a traversing platform, the Flakvierling 38 consisted of four individual 0.78 in (20mm) cannons mounted together that were each fed by twenty round magazines. In combat, the Flakvierling 38 could fire 800 rounds per minute (involving ten magazine swaps per minute on each of the four guns). The weapons’ effective range was 2,406 yards (2,200m). The flatbed was disguised to look like an ordinary wooden freight wagon, the guns being raised up when brought into action against low-flying aircraft. Each Flakwagen had five crew compartments for the seventeen gunners. The officers and men were drawn from 9 Regiment General Göring, supplied to Hitler by the Luftwaffe chief.

Behind the Flakwagen was a baggage carriage, then the Führerwagen, Hitler’s personal Pullman carriage that contained a bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, valet’s quarters, and a conference room. Behind Hitler’s carriage was the Befehlswagen or Command Car, where Hitler’s staff officers worked. This carriage contained another conference room and a communications centre incorporating a 700-watt short wave radio transmitter. Next was the Begleitkommandowagen, a barracks on wheels for Hitler’s twenty-two-man SS-Begleit-Kommando and RSD detachment. Behind this was the dining carriage, two guest carriages, the Bodewagen or Bathing Car, another dining carriage, two sleeping cars for staff, then the Pressewagen or Press Car for Hitler’s press chief, Dr. Otto Dietrich, and his staff. Finally, another baggage carriage and another Flakwagen completed the train.

Using the Führersonderzug required several hours’ notice. The train was usually kept at Tempelhof maintenance depot and was shunted to the chosen departure station, usually taking two hours. Security concerns meant that the number of railway employees who knew the departure and arrival times, the route and any stops planned along the way was kept to an absolute minimum. One time, Hitler’s train pulled into a station and stopped beside a trainload of Jews who were being shipped off to a concentration camp. Whether he actually looked out of the window and saw this horrific sight is unknown. The blinds in his personal Pullman were usually kept lowered during the war.

The entire route that Hitler’s train would travel was patrolled – railway policemen would each be allotted a short ‘beat’ beside the track, this precaution making it almost impossible for anyone to plant a bomb on or beside the tracks to attempt to derail the train. Only collusion by the police would have made such an attempt feasible, which was an unlikely scenario.

At every station enroute where Hitler’s train was scheduled to stop the platform had to be kept completely clear of all luggage, packages or crates, anything that could conceal a bomb. Railway police guarded all entrances, exits, underpasses, bridges and stairways. Hitler’s RSD commander, Johann Rattenhuber, assumed command of all railway police for the duration of the train’s journey. Railway police also travelled aboard Hitler’s train, and one of their jobs was to carefully search every carriage for bombs and concealed weapons before a journey commenced. Technicians also travelled on board to rectify any faults that occurred during the journey. At the end of the journey all the written orders, timetables and documents that had been distributed to interested parties were gathered up, counted and then destroyed, to make sure that no one could plan a future attack on the same route.

One of the enduring images of Nazism is Hitler standing in the front of a large Mercedes-Benz limousine saluting as he is driven through dense throngs of adoring Germans. Hitler loved cars, took an interest in motor racing and enthusiastically supported the 1936 International Motor Show in Berlin. Hitler was the first world leader to use specially modified and armoured cars. The trend had begun in Prohibition America where gangsters like Al Capone paid huge sums to have their cars armoured and bullet proofed. As with everything to do with Hitler, security considerations revolutionized VIP transport, resulting in some truly monstrous machines.


The giant limousines were often Hitler’s first line of defence against lunatics and against more well organised assassination plots. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Hitler was repeatedly shot at whilst he was on the move, and providing properly armoured vehicles became paramount once Hitler became chancellor in 1933.

The Führer required serious cars, and the German carmaker Mercedes-Benz was more than happy to accommodate his wishes, particularly his interest in personal security. Hitler had first owned a red Benz in 1923 – it was this car that he had used to drive to the Burgerbraukeller in Munich shortly before launching his abortive putsch. During these tumultuous years Hitler was even involved in a car accident. ‘Rudolf Hess once told me that just before the seizure of power [in 1933], Hitler, Hess, Heinrich Hoffmann and Julius Schaub were all nearly killed in Hitler’s Mercedes due to an error made by a lorry driver,’ related Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge. ‘Hitler was injured in the face and shoulder but with great composure calmed his co-passengers, still paralysed with shock, with the observation that Providence would not allow him to be killed since he still had a great mission to fulfil.’

Hitler stated in 1934 that he ‘did not tolerate a car manufactured by other companies in his escort and entourage,’ a ringing endorsement of what was now called Mercedes-Benz (though not something they like to highlight today). Between 1929 and 1942 Mercedes-Benz delivered a total of forty-four cars to the Reich Chancellery, the majority during the Nazi period.

Before 1935 Hitler used ordinary tourers and unarmoured limousines but his vulnerability to assassination caused a change in vehicle type. One incident in particular forced a change. After the marriage of Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg, Hitler drove to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s former mansion and hunting range on the Schorfheide to be with Göring. ‘Himmler drove ahead of us,’ recalled Hitler’s valet Linge. ‘Suddenly shots cracked out from the forest undergrowth. Himmler’s car stopped after being hit. Himmler, deeply shocked and pale, told Hitler that he had been shot at. Driving on after the incident, Hitler said: ‘That was certainly intended for me because Himmler does not usually drive ahead. It is also well known that I always sit at the side of the driver. The hits on Himmler’s car are in that area.’ Following this incident, Hitler took delivery of three specially modified Mercedes-Benz 540KW24 limousines, known with good reason as the “Swabian Colossus”.


Introduced at the 1936 Paris Motor Show, the 540K was one of the largest cars produced at the time. A total of twelve specially lengthened wheelbase cars were manufactured for use by the German government, huge six-seater convertible saloons. Hitler’s three personal 540K Paradewagens were kept in service until 1943. The Führer had had the vehicles ‘panzered’ or armoured with 4mm steel body armour, a 0.98 in (25mm) thick bulletproof windscreen and side windows and bulletproof tires. They weighed close to four tons each, reducing their top speed from 110 mph (177 kph) to just 87 mph (140 kph). They could withstand pistol and rifle fire and probably a bomb or grenade blast at close range. It was these cars that Hitler used to visit the Nuremberg rallies and one was even used to drive British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain up to the Berghof in 1938 during crisis meetings over the future of Czechoslovakia. Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler also utilised 540Ks, and many were kept at the New Reich Chancellery motor pool for the use of visiting VIPs and government ministers.

Berghof Drive

Hitler also used the 520G4W31 and 131 models. These equally huge vehicles had three axles and were used for cross-country driving and for military parades. Protection included a 1.18in (30mm) thick windscreen, 0.78in (20mm) thick roll-up windows, rear side windows armoured to 1.18in (30mm) and the back of the rear seat was reinforced by 0.31in (8mm) of steel plate. But the security features on the cars were only as good as the security protocols that governed the cars’ use. Hitler consistently toured around in armoured limousines with the top down. Although the side windows were rolled up, he was vulnerable to either a rifleman shooting from higher up (as in the case of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963) or from a tossed grenade or bomb.

In 1942, following Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination in Prague, when British-trained Czech agents ambushed the Reich Protector, one throwing a grenade which exploded against the open-topped vehicle, the German government ordered another twenty 540Ks for the exclusive use of Nazi ministers and other leaders. Hitler’s protection, and that of his ministers and inner circle, became increasingly stringent as the war turned against Germany. Battlefield reverses left all of the Nazi leaders feeling increasingly vulnerable to assassination. In 1944 a final order for seventeen 540Ks was placed with Mercedes. The most famous 540K was probably “Blue Goose”, the car owned by Hermann Göring. Blue was the Reichsmarschall’s favourite colour and his personal 540K had Göring’s family crest on both rear doors.

From 1938 Hitler upgraded his collection of 540Ks with the addition of the Mercedes-Benz 770K150. Seven of these enormous vehicles were often used during the war years as Hitler’s personal transports. The chassis was twenty feet long and loaded down with 2,000-lbs (907kg) of armour plating and bulletproof glass. With fuel, oil and radiator fluid each 770K weighed almost 10,000-lbs (4,536kg). Side and floor armour consisted of 0.70in (18mm) of steel. The windows consisted of 1.575in (40mm) of armoured glass. Hitler allegedly tested the glass himself by firing a Luger pistol at it.

Hitler's Car

The 770K “Grosser Mercedes” was powered by a 230hp straight 8 with dual carburetors and dual ignition; superchargers would cut in automatically if the driver floored the accelerator. The armour reduced the vehicle’s top speed to about 100mph. Although fitted with fifty-one gallon fuel tanks, Hitler’s 770Ks made barely three miles to the gallon giving a range of only 150 miles (241 km). There was a compartment in the front dashboard and two more in the rear seats to hold pistols and an armoured plate could be raised behind the rear passenger seat. Hitler’s 770Ks were all painted midnight blue.

13 March 1943. An airfield set amongst dense forest just outside of the Ukrainian city of Smolensk. Hitler and his entourage walked towards two huge Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor aircraft belonging to the Führer transport squadron. A young army officer, Oberleutnant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, walked slightly behind the large party of senior officers headed for Hitler’s plane, carrying a medium-sized wooden box in his arms. As the Führer climbed a short ladder into the Condor, followed by his senior staff members, Generalmajor Henning von Treskow reminded Oberstleutnant Heinz Brandt, who would be travelling with the Führer, to take the parcel. Unnoticed, Schlabrendorff had opened the top, crushed a short metal tube with a pair of pliars, resealed the package and then stepped forward smartly and handed it to Brandt. Inside are what appeared at first glance to be two bottles of French cognac. Treskow inveigled Brandt into taking the liquor to Germany for him as payment for a bet lost to Generalmajor Helmut Stieff, Chief of Organisation at Army High Command. Brandt was more than happy to oblige and such behaviour was not unusual among the senior military officers who worked around the Führer.

Hitlers Plane

As the two Condors powered down the grass landing strip and headed off into the wide blue sky towards Germany Treskow and Schlabrendorff exchanged a knowing look. In thirty minutes Hitler would be dead and the plan to take back Germany from the Nazis would swing into action.

Due to the size of Hitler’s empire, the most efficient way to get around it was by plane. As with so many aspects of Hitler’s leadership style and security arrangements, he set a standard by using aeroplanes in an era when air travel was still a novelty. Hitler was the first modern politician to regularly use an aircraft, beginning during his election campaigning in the 1920s and 1930s. Once he became a war leader he utilised a fleet of aircraft to move speedily between his various headquarters, much like modern presidents and generals today. The speed of the modern battlefield dictated that if he wished to exercise effective command and control, and Hitler became increasingly ‘hands on’ as the war progressed much to his generals’ indignation and frustration, then air travel was really the only way that he could do this. But air travel is intrinsically dangerous, particularly during wartime, so extreme precautions were taken by the Germans to ensure that Hitler travelled not only in comfort, but also in safety, including some very novel emergency equipment designed to preserve the Fuhrer’s life if his aircraft was ever fatally damaged.

Hitler first flew to a war front during the Polish campaign in September 1939. Two modified Junkers Ju 52/3m transport planes, the tri-motor corrugated metal workhorses of the German armed forces, were used to fly Hitler and his military entourage to a recently captured Polish airfield closely escorted by several Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes. Following a short meeting at an army headquarters at the front Hitler was flown back to Berlin by his personal pilot and friend, Hans Baur.

Baur, who was born in Ampfing, Bavaria in 1897, had transferred to the flying service in 1915 as an artillery spotter. By 1918 he claimed six aerial victories, plus three probables, and had been awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for bravery. After the war Baur worked as a courier pilot and was one of the first six pilots employed by the fledging German national carrier Lufthansa. In 1926 he pioneered Lufthansa’s new ‘Alpine Route’ between Munich, Milan and Rome, one of his passengers being Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria. That same year Baur joined the Nazi Party and later came to Hitler’s attention. He first flew Hitler during the 1932 elections. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he acquired a Junkers Ju 52/3m that he named ‘Immelmann II’ in honour of a famous First World War German fighter ace. Baur was selected to be the Führer’s principal pilot. At this time because of the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles, the Luftwaffe did not exist, so in order to give Baur some authority and power Hitler had him appointed an SS-Standartenführer. Because of this, Hitler’s personal pilots were never Luftwaffe officers, always SS.

After the old Reich President Paul von Hindenburg died in 1934 Hitler was able to absorb the posts of president and chancellor into one new office, becoming ‘Führer’. He also reorganized the government and, with Lufthansa help, acquired a further Ju 52/3m, which he christened ‘Richthofen’ after the Red Baron. In 1935 ‘Immelmann II’ was replaced by ‘Buddecke’ and ‘Richthofen’ was renamed ‘Immelmann II’. Hitler used his new powers to create the Regirungsstaffel (Government Squadron) with Baur as its commander headquartered at Berlin’s vast Tempelhof Airport.


The new Government Squadron was quickly expanded to included eight Ju 52/3ms, each capable of carrying seventeen passengers in relative comfort. These aircraft were to be used to ferry around Hitler, his senior inner circle of ministers and the all-important army generals. Some leaders were of such importance that they were assigned their own personal pilots, all of the flyers being former Lufthansa captains. Baur’s second-in-command and co-pilot on Hitler’s aircraft was Georg Betz. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess was assigned Kurt Schuhmann. Propaganda Minister Dr. Goebbels’ pilot was Max von Muller, while Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, professional head of the German Navy, was assigned Peter Strasser. An aristocrat, Count Schilly, flew the two chiefs of the army general staff, Werner Frengel and Walther von Brauchitsch.

Baur soon became one of Hitler’s court favourites. Hitler knew how to extract personal loyalty from his immediate subordinates and Baur was no exception. To celebrate Baur’s 40th birthday in 1937 Hitler hosted a lavish dinner in his honour at the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. He also presented him with a brand new Mercedes car as a present. It is small wonder that so many of Hitler’s subordinates stayed close to the Führer until the regime’s very bitter end.

In September 1939 Hitler ordered the government squadron renamed. It would now be called Die Fliegerstaffel des Führers (F.d.F), becoming in effect Hitler’s private squadron.

On 5 October 1939 Hitler first flew in the aircraft that was to become his primary means of aerial transport during the war – the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor. Baur had convinced Hitler that the Condor was a superior aircraft over the older Ju 52, as well as being much safer. Hitler, who often consulted Baur on matters aerial, including Luftwaffe strategy, was easily won over by his trusted subordinate. Originally proposed to Lufthansa as a transatlantic airliner by Kurt Tank of Focke-Wulf, the aircraft entered service in 1937. In Luftwaffe service the Condor, named for the famous Andean bird because of its huge wingspan, was utilized as a transport, maritime reconnaissance aircraft and bomber. In the transport configuration a Condor could carry thirty full-armed troops. With a length of 76ft 11in (23.45m) and a wingspan of 107ft 9in (32.85m), the Condor had a maximum speed of 224mph (360km/h) at 15,750ft (4,800m) with a service ceiling of 19,700ft (6,000m). The aircraft’s range was an impressive 2,212 miles (3,560km).

Hitler Condor

As well as Hitler, some of the Reich’s more important military commanders were assigned personal aircraft, but not at this stage the new Condor. These aircraft were mostly converted Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 52/3m, Siebel Fh 104A or the small Fieseler Fi 156 Storch spotter plane.

In Berlin on 10 November 1939 Hitler flew for the first time in his new personal transport aircraft – an Fw 200A-0 named ‘Immelmann III’, taking off from Templehof Airport. The day before Hitler had narrowly avoided being killed by a bomb planted by a carpenter called Georg Elser inside the Burgerbraukeller beer hall in Munich.

By 1942 Baur had requested three armed Condor aircraft for the F.d.F. At the Wolfs Lair at Rastenburg, Hitler’s main Eastern Front HQ, the runway had been strengthened and also lengthened to accommodate these larger aircraft. The first aircraft delivered was an Fw 200C-3/U9 marked KE+IX. This plane was not intended as the Führer’s personal transport – instead it would act as a passenger plane for ferrying around Hitler’s large retinue of staff when visiting the front. It was armed with a 0.5 in (13mm) MG131 machine gun in an upper turret just behind the cockpit and a 0.3 in (7.9mm) MG15 firing from a raised dorsal position aft of the main door. Another MG15 was mounted in the nose. Under its fuselage was a long gondola with a machine gun position. The other two aircraft were also delivered at this point. Of course, these weapons would be a last resort for it was never expected that F.d.F. should have to fight it out with enemy fighters. When they were airborne these large transports were well protected by a strong Luftwaffe fighter escort.

Hitler’s personal plane, the “Führermachine”, was an Fw 200C-4/U1 (CE+IB). It had the same comfortable layout as the older ‘Immelmann III’. Behind the cockpit was an equipment compartment containing the flight engineer’s panel and positions for the radio operator and navigator. From here two of the gun positions could also be accessed. The next small compartment housed equipment, lubricants and fuel tanks, with a small toilet on the starboard side. Behind this, accessed through a door, was Hitler’s specially insulated cabin containing an elaborate ‘parachute seat’ on the right facing forward, with a wooden table in front.

Hitler__s visit to Finland

According to Baur the Führer’s seat was fitted with a parachute harness. This harness was installed in the back of the seat cushions. The backrest was attached above by two buttons in the chair, and this had to be pulled forward to reach the stowed parachute. In an emergency Hitler would have donned the parachute harness in the back of the seat and pulled hard on a red lever on the wall. This would have opened a spring loaded escape hatch in the floor of the aircraft in front of him. The seat back cushion and seat bottom cushion remained attached to the jumper with the parachute harness. Hitler would then had climbed through the hatch and baled out. Once free of the aircraft he would have manually released his parachute and floated down to safety. However, the likelihood of a middle aged and increasingly infirm man managing this in an emergency does seem a little far-fetched. Normal parachutes were stored in the cabin for Hitler’s other passengers who would have presumably baled out through the main door or through one of the gun positions. Needless to say, none of this was ever put to the test in reality, though a Luftwaffe volunteer made a successful test of Hitler’s parachute seat, proving the theory at least. All parachutes were checked at least once a month.

On the left side of the cabin were four seats, two side by side. The cabin was armoured against enemy machine gun bullets, cannon shells and anti-aircraft bursts. The walls, floor and ceiling were lined with 0.47 in (12mm) thick armour plate and the windows were 1.96 in (50mm) thick bulletproof glass.

The crew consisted of pilot Baur, co-pilot Betz, a flight engineer (who also doubled as a gunner), navigator/radio operator (also working as a gunner if required), and a steward. Moving aft beyond Hitler’s cabin was another passenger cabin that was fitted with six seats, two on the right facing each other, and four on the left that also faced one another. Maximum passenger capacity on Hitler’s personal aircraft was thirteen.

In both cabins the windows had curtains for privacy and to prevent sun glare and the interior was finished in highly polished wood so that it more closely resembled a railway carriage or a ship’s cabin than an aircraft. ‘The inside of Hitler’s Condor looked like a gent’s salon,’ recalled Hauptmann Alexander Stahlberg, who flew in the aircraft in his capacity as an aide to Generaloberst Erich von Manstein in mid-April 1942 from his headquarters in the Crimea to a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair. ‘The walls were wood-panelled and the furniture leather covered. China and cutlery were solid silver and bore the NSDAP insignia. A steward was on board and served meals and drinks as desired.’

At the rear of the plane was a small galley, located behind the rear gunner’s position. No cooking was permitted on Hitler’s plane; instead a specially insulated cabinet contained pre-heated meals that were similar to those found on today’s commercial airliners. Hot coffee and hot water for tea were also available, though not alcohol. Luggage and clothing was stored separately in an unheated cargo hold and for safety each passenger had an oxygen tank under his seat.

The third Condor acquired by Baur for the F.d.F. was an Fw 200C-4/U2 (CE+IC). This plane was used primarily for transporting staff and guests but Hitler did travel on this and KE+IX occasionally. CE+IC was fitted with fourteen seats in a single large panelled cabin, but lacked a special parachute seat for the Führer.

Because of the added weight caused by bulletproof windows and armour plating CE+IB and CE+IC had a maximum ceiling of 19,030 feet (5,800m), a top speed of 205 mph (330 kph) (though they cruised at 174 mph (280 kph)) and normally loaded could travel just over 2,000 miles (3,219km) without refuelling.

Before every trip that carried the Führer was very carefully managed. In particular, measures were taken to prevent the use of bombs onboard the plane. The best type of bomb to be successfully smuggled aboard Hitler’s plane would have been one fitted with a barometric fuse that detonated when the plane reached a certain altitude. This avoided the need for ticking parts in the bomb. To counter anyone trying something like this before every trip Hitler’s aircraft was taken for a ten or fifteen minute test flight, including up to cruising altitude. Of course, such measures were useless had anyone managed to smuggle a time bomb aboard Hitler’s plane.

The Condor also had a significant Achilles heel, a design fault that could have killed Hitler on several occasions. In June 1942 when his Condor landed at Michaeli near Wiborg in Finland so that Hitler could have a meeting with Finnish leader Field Marshal Mannerheim, Finnish ground crewmen were filmed running towards the plane’s landing gear armed with fire extinguishers. The problem was in the design of the brake actuating cams. When the brakes were used ‘forcefully’, such as in landing, they overcentred and locked over-so slightly in the ‘on’ position, with the brake shoes dragging on the drums. This friction would cause the linings to catch fire on landing. The problem could also manifest itself during take off as well. If the plane was parked overnight with the brakes on, or if the brakes had not released cleanly on parking, they did not free up fully when taxiing and this would lead to the linings catching fire on take off. This could be lethal, and several Condors were lost in Luftwaffe service because of this small technical fault. The wheels retracted into bays that were adjacent to the wing fuel tanks, the last place one would want to have a fire.

Air travel was dangerous, particularly during wartime, yet Hitler seemed to prefer the risks rather than using his train for most long-distance journeys. Hundreds of even thousands of railway workers, any one of whom could have been a potential assassin, would know about Hitler’s train and its route, whereas air travel and Hitler’s unpredictable changes in his plans, better protected the Führer from plotters. But in flying he risked thunderstorms, burning wheels, foggy takeoffs and landings, soft ground, and later in the war enemy fighters and flak.

The 13 March 1943 should have been Hitler’s last day alive. Oberst Brandt handed the parcel to the plane’s steward, who placed it with the other luggage in the unheated cargo hold. This was in direct contravention of the accepted rules for loading Hitler’s aircraft. All servicing, repairs and loading of luggage at any airport only could be done in the presence of the flight engineer or another member of the crew, as well as in the presence of RSD guards. Brandt knew this full-well, but as with many security procedures the people most likely to break them were those who lived within this restrictive arena day in, day out. Perhaps it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

As the two Condor’s taxied down the grass strip and lifted off into the clear blue sky Treskow and Schlabrendorff exchanged a look before settling into a radio truck to listen for news of the Fuhrer’s demise. In thirty minutes, with Hitler dead, they would institute a takeover plan. General der Infanterie Friedrich Olbricht in Berlin would order the Replacement Army to seize the capital as well as Vienna and Munich.

At the airfield outside Smolensk the expected news that Hitler’s plane had crashed did not arrive. Something had gone terribly awry. ‘Treskow and I,’ wrote Oberleutnant von Schlabrendorff, ‘judging from our own experiments, were convinced that the amount of explosive in the bomb would be sufficient to tear the entire plane apart, or at least to make a fatal crash inevitable.’ No word came for two agonizing hours. The two men could not understand what had happened – the plan and the equipment appeared to be foolproof.

Generalmajor Treskow was suddenly informed by phone that the Führer’s plane had landed safely at Rastenburg airfield. It was almost unbelievable. Schlabrendorff hurriedly took the next plane to Germany and retrieved the parcel before Brandt became aware of its true contents. When the bomb was examined it was found that it had actually worked perfectly. The acid had released the spring hammer and struck the percussion cap. But because of the intense cold inside the unheated cargo hold, the percussion cap had failed to detonate and the bomb had not exploded. Hitler had been saved from certain death once again by the tiniest of flaws, one conspirator commenting bitterly that he appeared to have a ‘guardian devil.’ If the parcel had been carried inside the heated passenger cabin everyone onboard the plane would have perished. The explosives were returned to storage until they could be used for another attempt to kill Hitler. That attempt would come on 20 July 1944.


Suicide Commandos

‘Born of Desperation. With their air force in tatters and their navy cut to shreds, the enemy was preparing for a last-ditch defense by any means at hand. And to the Japanese, that meant murder and suicide.’ Time, 11 June 1945

A large, camouflaged twin-engined bomber lay at a crazy angle across the runway, smoke and dust rising from where it had come to rest. Japanese blood-red roundels were displayed prominently on its wings and fuselage. Muffled sounds of shouting and violent movement emanated from inside the aircraft that had landed wheels-up with a screeching of metal a few moments before. Suddenly, the aircraft’s Perspex nose cone was kicked away and out crawled several Japanese soldiers dressed in beige uniforms that had been blackened with soot and soft forage caps, their web equipment festooned with weapons. Beneath their caps most wore white hachimachi headbands just like their Kamikaze brothers in the Army Air Service that were emblazoned with Japanese characters or the red rising run. More soldiers’ flung open the fuselage doors and tumbled out onto the tarmac. Quickly sorting themselves out, they ran off in small groups screaming, shouting and firing their rifles and machine guns in all directions, while others ran along carrying long poles and lengths of rope, their faces blackened with camouflage cream. American tracer rounds whipped across the airfield, and the dull boom of anti-aircraft guns provided a cacophony of noise as the Japanese soldiers raced determinedly through the darkness and set about their destructive tasks.


The unrelenting B-29 bomber offensive against the Japanese Home Islands in 1944-45 led the Japanese to attempt to deny the Americans the use of their new airfields in the Mariana Islands. The Japanese Military Police (Kempeitai) had a special services department that dreamt up commando operations to rival some of the great raids launched by the British and Americans during the war.

The Kempeitai was a huge organization that administered a myriad of very different departments. One of its areas of speciality was the launching of commando-style reconnaissance and sabotage missions using units drawn from the regular army with attached Kempeitai specialists. Three such organizations were created in the latter part of the war. Matsu Kikan (Pine Tree) undertook secret reconnaissance missions to Australia; Minami Kikan (Little Tree) was a secret unit attached to the puppet Burmese National Army; and the Giretsu Airborne Unit was a specialist kamikaze raiding force assembled to neutralize American B-29 bomber bases. All three came under the command of Japanese Army Intelligence, the Japanese Army Espionage Service and the Kempeitai Intelligence Unit.

By late 1944 B-29s were flying in force against targets in mainland Japan, and Japanese air defences were inadequate to stop them burning down cities virtually at will. Desperate times called for desperate measures. The B-29s flew from a handful of large airbases on Okinawa, Saipan, Tinian, Guam and the Ryukyu Islands. The Kempeitai, working closely with army intelligence, decided that the best way to neutralize the B-29 threat was not by trying to knock them out of the skies over Japan, but by destroying the aircraft at source – that is, on their newly captured airfields. The Japanese had already tried launching conventional bombing missions against these airfields, but the results had been negligible as American fighter cover and anti-aircraft defences were extremely strong and Japanese losses in men and planes made the missions pointless. The Kamikaze operations around Okinawa had, however, borne some fruit for the Japanese, and it was becoming clear to higher command that the only way to strike the Americans hard was to send young, determined, and brave men on one-way missions. They would sell their lives dearly for their Emperor and nation without harbouring thoughts of survival, making such men formidable and determined adversaries. The Japanese plan called for a new kind of Kamikaze unit – a commando force able to land by sea or by air to physically destroy the parked B-29s on the airfields and cause as much damage and confusion as possible before they were killed in action.

The Japanese Army already had a division-sized force of paratroopers that had been raised in 1941 and formed part of the Army Air Service. The Imperial Navy also maintained Marine Parachute Units. The army paratroops were divided into raiding brigades and regiments, and they had first seen action in 1942 when they had dropped on the oil fields at Palembang in Sumatra during the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies. The 1st Raiding Regiment under Colonel Seiichi Kume and elements of the 2nd Raiding Regiment under Major Niihara had quickly overwhelmed the enemy and achieved all of their objectives. The idea of taking out American airfields using special raiding forces had also already been attempted by the Japanese. On 6 December 1944 a 750-strong detachment from the 2nd Raiding Brigade had dropped on American airfields in the Burauen area of Leyte in the Philippines. They had managed to destroy some aircraft and inflicted casualties on the Americans, but ultimately the entire Japanese force had been wiped out.

Now, in late 1944, the Japanese searched around for a man to lead a new Kempeitai-controlled commando unit and discovered the bespectacled Captain Michiro Okuyama, the commanding officer of the 1st Raiding Regiment’s Engineer Company. He and his men were highly trained in sabotage and demolition, and Okuyama had been the first member of the original army parachute training unit. He was known as an outstanding officer and leader of men and he was highly respected by his superiors. Headquarters ordered Okuyama to select 126 men to form the new Giretsu (Respect for Faith) Airborne Unit, making it clear that the mission they would be training for was a suicide assault from which none were expected to return from alive.

Okuyama selected his men, most of whom were fellow combat engineers and sabotage experts from his own regiment. Okuyama would lead the Command Section, while the assaulting groups were divided into five platoons. 1st Platoon was led by Lieutenant Utsuki, 2nd by Lieutenant Sugata, 3rd by Captain Watabe, 4th by Lieutenant Murakami and lastly, 5th Platoon was under the command of Lieutenant Yamada, all experienced and respected officers. On 5 December 1944, Giretsu Airborne Unit was assembled at the Army’s Air Academy at Saitama. Okuyama’s unit was joined by ten Kempeitai intelligence officers from the Nakano Intelligence School, two officers being assigned to each assault platoon, bringing the unit’s strength up to 136 men.


At the academy a mock-up B-29 was constructed and two new explosive devices quickly developed to deal with the American aircraft. The first was a 2kg explosive charge on the end of a pole. On top of the charge was a rubber suction cup. The saboteur pushed the pole under the B-29s wing; the explosive charge stuck to the aircraft skin, and then a cord was pulled to ignite a delay fuse. The second new weapon was a chain charge. It consisted of a rope measuring 13-16 feet in length that was fitted with explosive charges along its length. A small sandbag weighted one end. The weapon could thus be thrown over a B-29s wings or fuselage and ignited to cause maximum damage to the aircraft.

The training was intense. Captain Okuyama ordered that each commando must try to destroy at least three enemy aircraft, regardless of the risk to his own life. The hours spent making dummy attacks on the mocked-up B-29 soon turned the unit into an efficient raiding unit, with each man sure of his job and the unit able to operate in the dark against its targets. This was demonstrated to invited senior officers on the night of 22 December, and the observers were mightily impressed. A mission was planned almost immediately on the basis of the demonstration, but the availability of aircraft to transport the commandos to their target was to cause a delay. The air squadron assigned to transport the commandos to their target was Captain Suwabe’s 3rd Independent Flying Unit that transferred onto the Mitsubishi Ki-21-II “Sally” bomber in readiness for the mission.

The plan was deceptively simple. The Giretsu Airborne Unit would board a collection of Ki-21 bombers and fly south from Japan to the lonely volcanic island of Iwo Jima where they would be refueled. The planes would then fly on to the American-occupied Mariana Islands and crash-land on selected B-29 airfields. The commandos would then storm the parked B-29s and destroy as many aircraft and crewmen as possible before taking up positions close to the airfields to deny their use by the enemy with small arms fire. The attack was scheduled for 17 January 1945, and would be launched from Hamamatsu Airbase on Honshu Island.

American air attacks on the airfields located on Iwo Jima intensified before the Giretsu attack was launched, as part of the softening up of Japanese defences before a full-scale invasion was launched. America wanted to use Iwo Jima as a kind of lifeboat anchored in the Pacific between the bases in the Marianas and Japan, so that damaged B-29s could divert and make emergency landings. The American bombardment of the Japanese airfields on Iwo Jima meant that refueling the Ki-21 medium bombers to be used by the Giretsu Unit was out of the question. On their own, the Ki-21s lacked the range to fly directly from Japan to the Marianas, so the operation was cancelled.

US Marines captured the airfields on Iwo Jima in March 1945, and it was proposed to use the Giretsu Unit to effect their recapture, but the island’s garrison fell before the plan could be put into operation. The commandos waited in a state of readiness for another mission. They did not have long to wait. On 1 April, a massive American amphibious assault hit the big island of Okinawa, south of Kyushu. American forces captured the Japanese airfields at Yontan and Kadena on the island’s west coast, and fighter interceptors shot down many of the Japanese Kamikaze aircraft that launched massed attacks on American and British shipping supporting the invasion. Although the Kamikaze’s managed to sink several ships and damaged many others, American fighters flying from the two recently captured airbases seriously disrupted their effectiveness. Suddenly, the solution presented itself to the Japanese High Command on 15 May – use the Giretsu Airborne Unit to neutralize Okinawa’s airfields.

Codenamed Operation Gi, the plan had a distinct advantage over the former operation against the Marianas. The Ki-21 medium bombers would be able to fly directly from Japan to Okinawa without requiring any refueling. The Giretsu Unit and the 3rd Independent Flying Unit were immediately moved south to Kengun Airfield on Kyushu. Preparations were hastily made for the assault on the two American bases. 3rd Flying Unit was equipped with sixteen Ki-21s, with a further four in reserve. All of the bombers were stripped of their guns to save on weight. Captain Okuyama with the Command Section and 1st, 2nd and 5th Platoons would fly in eight Ki-21s and assault Yontan Airfield. Captain Watabe with the 3rd and 4th Platoons would take four aircraft and attack Kadena.

The Giretsu Unit would take off from Japan in the evening, timing their arrival at the American airfields just before midnight. Just before the commandos landed fifty army and navy Kamikazes would launch a mass attack on the airfields to provide a diversion, allowing the bombers to glide in and make wheels-up crash landings. The Japanese commandos would then storm from the bombers, using their pole and chain charges to cripple American aircraft and destroy vital facilities before taking up positions overlooking both bases where their small-arms fire would disrupt their effective operation. The following day, Operation Gi called for a mass Kamikaze attack by 180 Japanese aircraft on the enemy fleets off Okinawa, supported by thirty conventional attack aircraft including a few fitted with the Ohka jet-powered flying bomb (which was also a suicide weapon). All going well, the American fighter defences should have been severely damaged, and their remaining planes grounded by Giretsu commandos firing across the runways. Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo believed that Operation Gi could have meant the defeat of the American invasion of Okinawa. It was a good plan, and although the American and British fleets had rapidly become accustomed to Kamikaze air attacks on their ships, no-one was expecting over 130 heavily-armed and well-trained Japanese commandos to suddenly appear behind the American lines, all of whom expected to die in the course of the mission.

Captain Okuyama’s men were well armed and psychologically prepared for a bitter fight. They were armed with Arisaka Type 99 rifles, sub- and light-machine guns, grenade dischargers (what American soldiers erroneously called ‘knee mortars’) and the specialist explosive devices invented for the unit. Additionally, each commando also carried a Nambu Type 14 pistol and high explosive and white phosphorous grenades.


X-day was set for 23 May, but bad weather over Okinawa led to the operation being postponed for twenty-four hours. On the evening of 24th a short and moving ceremony was held at the airfield at Kengun at the men raised cups of sake arranged on long wooden trestle tables on the airfield and shouted ‘Banzai!’ twice before taking a final sip. Captain Okuyama then gave the men a final rousing speech before the men boarded their aircraft and made ready for departure. At 6.50pm the first of the twelve bombers roared down the runway and took off, headed the 480 miles to Okinawa and what the men hoped would be a glorious death in battle. They were seen off by the ground crews who furiously waved Japanese flags as the bombers powered down the runway.

Four of the bombers aborted the mission with engine trouble and returned to Kengun. The remaining eight flew on in formation before arriving over Okinawa. A radio message from the lead aircraft was picked up at Kengun, but nothing further was then heard from the Giretsu Unit as the planes began to make their descent into Yontan Airfield. The diversionary attacks had been launched by seven waves of conventional bombers that had started a large fire on the base, but not caused any significant damage. Marine Corps and US Army anti-aircraft gunners shot down eleven Japanese bombers. At 9.25, a Type 97 was observed approaching the airfield much lower than the conventional bombers and was immediately shot out of the sky. At 10.30pm three Ki-21 bombers appeared to be trying to land at Yontan, but their slow air speed, low altitude and regular course made them easy targets for the anti-aircraft batteries. These three all carried Giretsu commandos, and were among only four aircraft that actually got onto the airfield, the other four being shot down by American fighters. The pilots of the three damaged Japanese bombers attempted to use their aircraft as a giant Kamikaze’s, and with their commandos still aboard they slammed into the ground. A number of the commandos actually survived the crashes and rushed out of the wreckage firing their weapons into parked aircraft and setting demolition charges. Only one of the Giretsu Unit’s aircraft actually landed as planned. It swung in low through a hail of flak and, wheels-up, safely skidded across the runway coming to rest only eighty yards from the control tower before ten commandos poured out from its nose cone and doors and began to attack American aircraft.

As soon as it became clear that Japanese troops were on the ground, the American forces defending the airfield panicked and began firing literally in all directions. It has been surmised that some of the damage inflicted on the airfield’s facilities and aircraft, and some of the American casualties, were the result of this indiscriminate firing. All across the airfield both Americans and Japanese were discharging weapons, and planes and vital facilities were going up in smoke. At first light a Marine Corps unit was hastily dispatched to the airfield to hunt down and kill the remaining Giretsu commandos. The Japanese were all dead by 12.55pm, when the last one was shot whilst hiding in some brush on the base. Many of the Japanese airmen from the 3rd Independent Flying Unit, who had piloted the planes, had taken their own lives while the commandos had gone about their mission. Altogether, the Americans collected together sixty-nine dead Japanese from the wrecked planes or those strewn about the airfield.

The Japanese commandos had managed to destroy four F4U Corsair fighters, and to damage a further twenty-two. They had also destroyed two four-engined PB4Y Privateer patrol bombers and four Dakota transport planes. Damaged aircraft included three F6F Hellcat fighters, two Privateers and a pair of Dakotas. The Giretsu commandos also set on fire a massive tank containing 70,000 gallons of precious aviation fuel. American losses were three killed and eighteen wounded. All of this destruction was largely caused by only ten Giretsu commandos from the one intact Ki-21 that had belly-flopped on Yontan’s runway, as well as a few dazed survivors from the crash-landing of another. If the entire commando of 136 men successfully landed the damage they would have caused, and the confusion they would have sown in the enemy’s ranks, does not bare thinking about. If the Giretsu Unit had parachuted onto the target rather than attempted the assault it by the dangerous method of crash-landing planes, more would have survived to continue with their mission.

The mass Kamikaze attacks were launched against the Allied fleet on 25 and 27 May, the Japanese not knowing it the Giretsu Unit had successfully silenced at least one of the enemy’s airfields. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Yontan was fully operational again by the afternoon of the 25th and the Kamikazes were heavily defeated. The Giretsu commandos were undoubtedly brave and resourceful soldiers who died for a cause they believed in implicitly, but ultimately their sacrifice did not save Japan from inevitable defeat.

Death March

Death March

1945’s Forgotten Tragedy

‘I moved with the rear party…Each morning all those POWs who were unable to travel were placed in groups…The disposal was done behind me, and I never knew who killed them.’

Lieutenant Watanabe, Sandakan-Ranau Death March, 1945

In Borneo the situation for thousands of Australian, British and Indian POWs had been steadily deteriorating ever since they had been shipped to the festering jungle-covered island of death in 1942 and 1943 to labour for the Japanese on illegal military projects. In one month at the camp at Kuala Belait fifty-five Indian prisoners had died of starvation. By July 1945 only a month of the war remained, but no help had yet reached the Borneo camps. At Kuala Belait the Japanese finished off most of the remaining Indian soldiers. ‘About 13th or 14 June, 1945, the Indians were ordered, to fall in and were then bayonetted or beheaded by the Japanese,’ recalled Naik Changdi Ram, who escaped the slaughter by hiding in some bushes. ‘I did not actually see the killing,’ recalled Ram, ‘but I heard the Indians crying; and in the morning I went in and saw that all of the Indians’ heads had been cut off.’ In total, sixty-five Indian prisoners had been murdered.

The Allies had the opportunity to save thousands of Australian, British and Indian POWs from a certain death at the hands of the Japanese – but they did not act and a huge number died as a result. In one of the greatest scandals of Second World War bureaucratic incompetence, national distrust and weak leadership allowed the Japanese to commit mass murder at the point of their nation’s surrender and immediately afterwards. The truth of this terrible crime, and the Allied operation that could have prevented it from occurring, has only begun to emerge in the last two decades. It was far from the Allies finest hour in the war in Asia, and a human tragedy of quite terrible proportions.

It was revealed to the Australian and British public after the war that a rescue operation aimed at securing the prisoners held in the three Sandakan concentration camps had been drawn-up but that this was never fully implemented by the Australian Army. Codenamed Operation ‘Kingfisher’ it was the brainchild of the Australian version of SOE, Special Operations Australia (SOA). By June 1945 SOA had accumulated a considerable amount of intelligence from operatives who had been inside Borneo for years, and the Australian, British and American military commands and their governments all knew what was being done to POWs in Borneo and elsewhere across the region. Small parties of Australian commandos had been inserted by parachute into Borneo with the aim of disrupting the Japanese occupation and gathering intelligence. By 1945, the SOA had established a network of operatives and informers in and around the major towns in Borneo, including close to the three camps at Sandakan.

The camps established by the Japanese on the island of Borneo were spread across what had been four separate colonies before the invasion. Half of the island had been hived off decades before to become a part of the Netherlands East Indies, and unsurprisingly was known as Dutch Borneo. The rest of the island was split into the three British colonies of Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei. Planning for the invasion of Borneo was complicated because the island had been divided by MacArthur and Mountbatten along the line of the Equator, with everything south of this line falling under the responsibility of Britain’s South-East Asia Command (SEAC), and everything north of it the responsibility of MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area Command (SWPA).

The administrative capital of the British colony of North Borneo was the coastal town of Sandakan, situated in the northeast of the island. The Japanese constructed three prison camps to house the thousands of Australian and British POWs who were shipped in from the comparative safety of Changi Camp in Singapore, some via other camps in Borneo. Several thousand had found themselves packed tightly onto filthy and unmarked tramp steamers and sent to the steamy island. The camps and their guards came under the administrative control of the Japanese 37th Army, under the command of Lieutenant-General Masao Baba. This officer ultimately bore command responsibility for allowing the Sandakan Death Marches to occur under his military jurisdiction.

Borneo remained a backwater for Allied planners throughout most of the war. In fact, General Douglas MacArthur had very little interest in Borneo. Despite possessing extensive oilfields, the attention of his SWPA was obsessively focused upon the liberation of the Philippines and the restoration of MacArthur’s own tarnished military reputation. Borneo only figured in American plans when MacArthur came to capture the southern Philippines after his successful landings on Luzon in January 1945. This was Operation ‘Montclair’, aimed at not only the southern Philippines but also British North Borneo and large areas of the Netherlands East Indies. However, MacArthur refused to commit American ground forces to the liberation of Borneo, and instead this task was turned over to the Australians who were under SWPA command.

Special Operations Australia had first inserted small teams into Borneo by parachute in October 1943. From the very beginning, the two central objectives of the SOA operatives was to gather intelligence useful for any future invasion and organize, train and arm locals into resistance groups to harass the Japanese garrison which numbered in the region of 35,000 troops. The SOA units soon located the major POW camps on Borneo, which was an added bonus to their mission, but they did not make contact with the prisoners. One very brave Australian POW, Captain Lionel Matthews, had managed to organize a resistance network inside the Sandakan camps, and he had been gathering weapons preparatory to a massed breakout when he and his men were betrayed to the Japanese Kempeitai military police. Even though Matthews had extensive contacts among friendly locals and non-interned Westerners outside the camps, direct contact was never established between himself and SOA. Sadly, liberating POWs remained a secondary consideration for SOA until the end of the war, and by that time Matthews and his men had been put up against a wall and shot by the Japanese. Preparing the way for the landing of Australian troops was the main objective of Canberra’s secretive infiltrators.

By the time American soldiers were striding ashore on Luzon, conditions for the Allied POWs at Sandakan and elsewhere in Borneo were appalling. The physical abuse of POWs at the three Sandakan camps by the Japanese had increased in ferocity and frequency through 1943 and into 1944, fuelled in part by the knowledge that the Japanese were only too aware that they were losing the war. Undoubtedly, local camp commandants and Kempeitai officers had been appraised of the War Ministry’s instructions, dated 1 August 1944, for the eventual disposal of Allied POWs in Japanese hands. Evacuation from Borneo had become a physical impossibility for the Japanese Army as the Allies sent Japan’s merchant fleet to the bottom of the ocean in record numbers and while American and British submarines sat boldly astride the Japanese supply routes. Like the local Japanese garrison, the prisoners would not be going anywhere either, and with their construction tasks long since completed, they had become surplus to requirements. The order of 1 August 1944 presented Japanese commanders with a solution to the problem of feeding, housing and guarding thousands of defeated and despised men.

In September 1944 Allied aircraft started raiding the Japanese airstrip at Sandakan. It signalled to the Japanese that an invasion was imminent. The idea was clearly to knock out the airfield, thus depriving local Japanese units of air support during the invasion. After a few raids the base was permanently out of commission and the Japanese withdrew their surviving aircraft to safer fields in the rugged interior. The airstrip was eventually abandoned by the Japanese as completely unusable, and so this meant that they no longer had any use for the Allied prisoners languishing inside the three camps at Sandakan who had been put to work repairing and maintaining the field and its facilities since construction work had been finished. All those Australian and British men they had shipped to the island were now just so many more bodies using up vital and shrinking supplies of food.

From December 1944 the Japanese drastically reduced the POWs already meagre rations to about 200 grams of rice per man per day. Added to the rampant tropical diseases that surged through the camps, starvation now became widespread, and concomitantly the death rates soared. In January 1945 the commandant of the three camps, Captain Hoshijima, ordered that no further food was to be distributed to the prisoners. Instead, every grain of rice would be preserved for the Japanese soldiers, who were now completely cut off from their supplies due to the advances made by General MacArthur’s army. If the Japanese desired to kill their prisoners, refusing the feed them appeared to be an expedient solution.

The only food that was now available was a supply of rice that the remaining Australian and British officers had wisely ordered their men to store during better times, and the prisoners now had to make do on only 85 grams of food per man per day. Their calorific intake consequently plummeted. By February 1945 the POWs in the Sandakan camps understood that they would not be able to survive for much longer. Without direct Allied intervention of some kind every one of the thousands of prisoners at Sandakan would inevitably die of a combination of starvation and disease within just a handful of weeks. But, at this point, the Japanese instituted a new programme for the prisoners that sped up their destruction at a truly shocking rate.

The constant air attacks on Japanese positions along the Borneo coast, and on the airfields inland, concerned the Japanese greatly. It was official Japanese policy, as shown by an order from Tokyo dated 1 August 1944 that prisoners would not be left behind to be liberated by the advancing Allies. The War Ministry in Tokyo had issued clear instructions to Japanese occupation forces across Asia to ‘prevent the prisoners of war from falling into the enemy’s hands.’ The War Ministry had further instructed, regarding POWs, that commanders were well within their rights to kill all of their prisoners without fear of censure or punishment. The stage was thus set for one of the most heinous massacres perpetrated during the Second World War.

Sadayoshi Nakanishi, Acting Director of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau in Tokyo, had in his possession when captured after the war a document that reiterated the earlier orders issued by Minister Shitayama. Dated 11 March 1945, it stated: ‘Prisoners of War must be prevented by all possible means [my italics] from falling into enemy hands.’ It also reiterated that changing the location of prison camps ahead of the advancing Allies was necessary to preserve the prisoners as slave labour for as long as possible, but that prisoners could be released ‘In the event of an enemy attack which leaves no alternative…’ This is obviously a contradictory stance, but typical of Japanese bureaucratic confusion present throughout the Japanese gulag system. There is some suspicion that orders were left vague and contradictory so that local commanders could interpret them as they saw fit in the circumstances that they found themselves in.

The surviving documentary evidence strongly suggests that Japanese commanders were under specific orders to keep Allied prisoners and internees alive for use as labour, but if faced with imminent defeat and the liberation of those prisoners by advancing Allied forces, the commanders were ordered to kill them by any means at hand. In Borneo, Captain Hoshijima decided that a terminal march would be the perfect means of ridding himself of his unwanted prisoners.

From the Sandakan camps, the Japanese decided to force the prisoners to march inland for 260 km to the small town of Ranau. The Japanese medical officers knew full well that such a journey would kill hundreds of men who were already barely alive after months of systematic starvation and disease. The move would inevitably lead to the deaths of large numbers of POWs, thereby preventing their liberation as per government policy. The POWs final service as slaves of the Japanese would be to haul tons of military supplies and ammunition inland for their captors before they expired. The continued desire to use POWs right up to the end of their lives as labourers had also been outlined in the orders given to Hoshijima and his superiors by the War Ministry. The document dated 11 March 1945 stated: ‘…the location of camps will be changed as much as possible, and we shall not let prisoners of war fall into enemy hands until we have got some results from them.’ The document also states that when moving prisoners ‘emergency measures shall be taken without delay against those of antagonistic attitudes, and we shall hope for nothing regrettable by taking proper measures to suit the occasion.’ This last sentence instructed Japanese commanders to eliminate their prisoners, with the term ‘emergency measures’ a cover phrase for murder.

If it was the intention of the Japanese to kill the Sandakan POWs by marching them to their deaths then the route that was selected seems to bear this assumption out. The track, for there was no surfaced road to Ranau, ran through some of the most horrendous country on the planet, taxing for even the fittest modern hiker, let alone emaciated and starving prisoners. For the first three miles the prisoners had to wade through a muddy swamp that teemed with bloodsucking leeches, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes that was also bisected by several creeks. There then followed forty miles of dryer high ground, which consisted in the main of short, very steep hills that were covered with brush and bisected by several rivers. After this had been negotiated the prisoners faced forty-two miles of serious mountain country before their eventual arrival at Ranau. The Japanese arbitrarily decided that the POWs should march six and a half miles a day (which was fine for the Japanese escorts as they were all well-fed), but most of the POWs could barely manage to stagger a mile before collapsing in a state of complete, life-threatening exhaustion.

The prisoners were divided into fifty-man parties. The Japanese issued each party a 100-pound bag of rice. A leader, usually an officer or a senior NCO prisoner, was given a sheet of paper and a pencil and told to make a roll of the prisoners in his charge. Accompanying each fifty-man party was a Japanese escort group consisting that consisted of one officer, three NCOs and fifteen privates who were armed with rifles with fixed bayonets.

The first to begin the trek were the Australians. A party that numbered 455 was subdivided into nine separate groups that departed from Sandakan between 29 January and 6 February 1945. The Japanese told them that they were going to a new camp at Ranau, where supplies of food awaited them. This was only half true, as the Ranau camp was actually completely devoid of food. Each prisoner was issued with four days marching rations (these rations not even equating to one standard day’s food for the soldiers before they were captured). Evidently, the Japanese intended that the prisoners should survive long enough to haul the rice sacks, ammunition boxes and other military equipment to Ranau, but if many of them expired along the way it did not matter. Most of the prisoners marched barefoot, as their boots had long since fallen to pieces, and their uniforms were similarly in tatters. They would therefore suffer under the sun, and traversing the rough country would turn many lame – which was a death sentence. As well as the terrain and heat, the prisoners also suffered with the weather. Heavy rainstorms turned the track into a muddy quagmire and flooded the low-lying areas, making each step a terrible effort that sapped yet further the will to live.

The nine groups of Australians were nonetheless determined to reach the camp at Ranau, most believing that some form of relief would be waiting for them. They were among the fittest prisoners left in Japanese hands in Borneo, but the death toll among them during the march was still huge. For example, Groups 1-5 started out with a total of 265 men, but an astounding figure of seventy perished on the track. Of these groups, No. 3 took seventeen days to reach Ranau and of the original fifty men only thirty-seven staggered weak and near death into the new prison camp. The Japanese ruthlessly murdered every prisoner who stopped on the march or fell out too sick or weak to continue. The accompanying Japanese guards were under orders to shoot or bayonet halted or slow prisoners and to leave their bodies by the side of the track. Local Chinese peasants were recruited to clean up the mess left by each passing Japanese murder squad, and the prisoners’ bodies were dumped into shallow unmarked graves beside the track. In some cases prisoners were abandoned by the guards from their own groups and finished off later by a roving Japanese rearguard traversing the trail with orders to kill very straggler that it encountered. Marching behind Group 9 was a murder squad that consisted of Lieutenant Kazuo Abe and a handful of troops with explicit orders to kill every POW that they encountered, without exception. Abe diligently obeyed his instructions to the letter and butchered dozens without remorse or pity.

One of a handful of survivors of the death marches later recalled the deaths of two men from his party who could not go on. ‘When we were about a week away from Ranau we crossed a large mountain,’ said Australian Private Keith Botterill, ‘and while we were making the crossing two Australians, Private Humphries and a corporal whose name I cannot remember, fell out. They were suffering from beri-beri, malaria and dysentery and just could not continue any further. A Japanese private shot the corporal, and a Japanese sergeant shot Humphries. Altogether we lost five men on that hill.’ Faced with certain death if a man tried to rest, Botterill was one of many who somehow found the will to keep putting one foot in front of the other. ‘I just kept plodding along. It was dense jungle, I was heartbroken; but I thought there was safety in numbers. I just kept going.’

From the rear of each column came the loud reports of rifles and pistols that echoed off the mountains as the Japanese executed the helpless white prisoners. ‘As we were going along men would fall out as they became too weak to carry on,’ recalled Botterill. ‘We would march on and then, shortly afterwards, hear shots ring out and the sound of men screaming.’ The psychological pain for the men still marching was horrendous, knowing that their mates were being ruthlessly slaughtered and they could do nothing to help them. Many also knew that due to their own fast collapsing health, they would shortly find themselves staring down an Arisaka rifle barrel.

Groups 6-9 marched on to the village of Paginatan near Ranau, but only 138 reached their destination: ‘Men from my party could not go on,’ recalled Lance-Bombardier William Moxham of the 2/15th Australian Field Regiment, who was marching in Group 7. ‘Boto was the first place where we actually had to leave anyone. They remained there, at this Jap dump. At the next place, at the bottom of a big hill, we left two more men. Later, we heard shots, and we thought the two men must have been shot…once you stopped – you stopped for good.

How could all of this be permitted to happen, when Special Operations Australia had good intelligence from their agents and informants on the ground in Borneo about the location of the POW camps and the conditions being endured by the prisoners? Could the Allies have intervened at this point and stopped the death marches? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ to the latter question. The Allies could have stopped the death marches and saved thousands of men from perishing, but for reasons that remain unclear even in the present day, those in power chose not to do so, even when a rescue was about to be attempted. There was still a chance, in April 1945, to have intervened and saved a significant number of Allied POWs who had remained behind at Sandakan when the first group of Australians had been marched out to Ranau. Whilst the first death march was underway, starvation, disease and physical abuse killed an astounding 885 British and Australian prisoners who were still in the Sandakan camps. The graveyard was overflowing with corpses, and a sea of makeshift crosses surrounded the camps. Yet still the Allies did nothing.

It was long suspected, and indeed still is by some historians, that General MacArthur was ultimately behind the decision not to launch Operation ‘Kingfisher’, the rescue plan to save the prisoners at Sandakan. ‘MacArthur had given the highest priority to finding and freeing POWs and civilian internees,’ writes Davan Daws in Prisoners of the Japanese, ‘in the middle of large-scale fighting, and with no expense spared. But that had been in the Philippines; it was part of the grand gesture of MacArthur returning, and the prisoners to be rescued were Americans. The POWs at Sandakan were many times the number at Cabanatuan and Bilibid [the main prison camps in the Philippines], but they were not Americans.’ This is rather disingenuous, as American forces on Luzon were better placed to liberate the prison camps to their immediate front as it was a land-based campaign, whereas liberating Sandakan would have involved the use of airborne and naval forces and an amphibious assault onto a hostile shore.

Daws is one of several historians who have continued to defend the fiction that Operation Kingfisher was never activated because General MacArthur was only interested in liberating American captives because of the propaganda value to himself. All areas of Borneo lying above the Equator came under the operational authority of the SWPA, and therefore American planning control. The operation was Australian, using Australian military assets, but ultimately in the American sphere of influence. Some authors have maintained that MacArthur was therefore responsible for the deaths of thousands of Australian and British servicemen because he withheld the resources from the Australians that could have been used to save prisoners, and instead callously abandoned them to pointless deaths at the hands of the Japanese.

Abandonment certainly plays a central role in the story of the Sandakan Death Marches, but the evidence now seems to point to the abandoning of the prisoners by the Australian authorities rather than MacArthur and the American-led SWPA. Australian researcher Lynette Ramsay Silver, author of what many see as the definitive work on the subject, Sandakan – Conspiracy of Silence, as well as fellow writers Ooi Keat Gin and Alan Powell, have firmly placed the blame for Sandakan onto the Australians. Specifically, the Australian chief of staff, General Sir Thomas Blamey has been revealed as the root cause for the operation’s failure as he dithered and prevaricated and made excuses for not involving Australian personnel in a rescue attempt, even though he had before him reports that clearly outlined the dire straits the prisoners were facing and the likelihood of their deaths.

General Blamey spent a good part of the war flattering MacArthur, and studiously avoiding making any military decisions that might annoy the Americans. Devoid of a single original idea, Blamey, described by Sir Max Hastings as a ‘conceited, corpulent, devious autocrat, sixty in 1944,’ made absolutely no effort to carry forward original and independent Australian strategy, instead content to shackle Australia’s Far Eastern war effort to MacArthur’s American bandwagon. Blamey was a former teacher, lay preacher and First World War veteran who had controversially been dismissed for corruption from his position of Commissioner of the Victoria Police in 1936 (not exactly an ideal qualification for high military office), but he had nevertheless been appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Army at the outbreak of war in 1939. Whilst he was deputy to General Sir Archibald Wavell in Greece in 1941, Blamey had been embarrassingly accused of cowardice by his own chief-of-staff.

Roundly disliked by the British, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder once describing Blamey as ‘a rather unpleasant political soldier…a tubby little man with a snub nose and expensive complexion, high blood pressure and a scrubby little white moustache,’ no one had any faith in his martial abilities. General Sir Claude Auchinleck, British Commander-in-Chief India, had a strong opinion of Blamey: ‘He wasn’t a general I should have chosen to command an operation,’ he wrote. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, promoted to Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who often had his hands full trying to rein in the wilder ideas of Churchill and Lord Mountbatten, called Blamey ‘…not an impressive specimen. He looks entirely drink sodden and somewhat repulsive.’ Blamey was no more popular among his own people. Many Australians actively detested their nation’s senior soldier. It was Blamey, and only Blamey, who could have ordered the activation of Operation Kingfisher and saved the men on Borneo.

SOA has also come in for some fairly heavy criticism from historians over its handling of the intelligence that its operatives behind the lines in Borneo had gathered on the locations, condition and treatment of Australian and British POWs. It has been suggested that there was a cover-up at the highest levels of government over the failure to launch Operation Kingfisher, especially when it became widely known after the war how many prisoners had been murdered by the Japanese on the death marches. The fiction that General MacArthur sealed the fate of the starving prisoners at Sandakan and rubbished Kingfisher by refusing to provide materiel support for the mission is not correct. The story originated with General Blamey when he stated that insufficient aircraft and ships were available to support Kingfisher, and that all Australian resources were dedicated to supporting MacArthur’s final push on Japan.

Advanced planning and preparations for Kingfisher were well underway when the operation was cancelled. In Australia, a parachute battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Overall had been in training specifically for Kingfisher. Their job was to drop over the Sandakan Camps, take out the small numbers of Japanese guards, and liberate the prisoners. Blamey further made it clear where the blame for the failure of Kingfisher should lay in a speech he made in Melbourne in 1947:

We had a complete plan for them [Overall’s battalion]. Our spies were in Japanese-held territory. We had established the necessary contacts with prisoners at Sandakan, and our parachute troops were going to relieve them…but at the moment we wanted to act, we couldn’t get the necessary aircraft to take them in.

Blamey meant, of course, the necessary American aircraft to fly Colonel Overall’s paras in. Ergo MacArthur and the Americans at SWPA left Australian and British prisoners to die. MacArthur possessed 600 Douglas DC-3 Dakota transport aircraft. Kingfisher required thirty-four Dakotas to fly in Colonel Overall’s paratroopers. Was MacArthur unable to spare such a tiny number of aircraft and crews for a single short-term mission to save Allied soldiers? If it was true, MacArthur was shown to be almost beyond the pale.

Unfortunately for some historians, the story told by Blamey is just that – a story. The Australians had absolutely no reason to ask MacArthur to divert some of his aircraft to support Kingfisher because they already had more than enough themselves, something that Blamey conveniently forgot. The declassification of the Kingfisher files in the 1970s revealed that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had a total of seventy-one Dakota transport aircraft based within easy range of Sandakan. There was also an additional source of aircraft available to the Australians, as SOA possessed its own clandestine air wing, No. 200 Flight, RAAF, which had spent the war airdropping personnel and supplies into Japanese-occupied territory. No. 200 Flight possessed six large Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers.

While Blamey and the Australians dithered, men continued to perish at Sandakan and on the track to Ranau. In April 1945 the Japanese decided to move the remaining POWs who were able to walk to Ranau Camp, beginning the running down and final closure of the Sandakan Camps. For those Australians who had been on the original death march, their sufferings were not yet over. Group 7 had been held at the village of Paginatan for a month until they were suddenly ordered to resume their march to Ranau. Although they had been static at Paginatan for four weeks, the Japanese had not fed them properly, nor provided any medicines to the sick, so the Australian prisoners’ health had deteriorated even further. ‘One man was puffed up with beriberi in the legs and face,’ recalled Lance-Bombardier Moxham, ‘and he was getting along all right on his own and could have made it; but the Japs would not let him alone, but tried to force him along, and eventually he collapsed.’ The Japanese guards set about assaulting the Australian prisoner. ‘The Jap turned and saw the man had gone down, and he struck him over the head with his rifle butt. The soldier was left there. The party marched on.’ Sixty-eight prisoners in Group 7 were still alive when the march began from Paginatan, and forty-six made it to Ranau.

Ranau proved a big letdown for the prisoners. What awaited them the town was a so-called ‘camp’ consisting of a few native atap huts that were in a poor state of repair, and were filthy and ridden with rats and mice. The dirt and squalor caused an outbreak of dysentery among the prisoners that proved to be the last straw for many of the seriously ill. ‘You’d wake up of a morning and you’d look to your right to see if the chap next to you was still alive,’ recalled Private Botterill of the camp. ‘If he was dead you’d just roll him over a little bit and see if he had any belongings that would suit you; if not, you’d just leave him there. You’d turn on the other side and check your neighbour; see if he was dead or alive.’ The figures were stark. Four hundred and fifty-five Australians had left Sandakan on the first death march. By April 1945 only 241 of them were still alive at Ranau Camp. Ranau took even more lives: within a month of arrival another eighty-nine POWs had died. The Japanese, ignoring the unfolding humanitarian disaster and confirming by their actions their intention to kill all of the prisoners, then forced the ‘fittest’ POWs to march to Paginatan carrying rice for future evacuation groups on the trail from Sandakan. Twenty-one men perished completing this task, in addition to the eighty-nine deaths at Ranau. Four hundred and fifty-five POWs had left Sandakan – by 26 June 1945 that number had been reduced to just six surviving Australians who were still alive at Ranau.

In May, the Japanese decided to force their remaining prisoners at Sandakan onto a similar death march to Ranau. The orders were duly presented and at 9am on 29 May the commandant of No. 1 Camp at Sandakan, Captain Takakura, accompanied by his adjutant and the quartermaster, conducted an inspection. No. 1 Camp was the Australian camp, and was the only one of the three original prison camps that was still open. In April, the British prisoners had been moved into a wired-off enclosure inside No. 1 Camp and No. 2 British Camp was permanently shut. No. 3 Australian Camp had also been shut and cleared after its occupants had been forced onto the death marches to Ranau. This movement to concentrate all of the remaining prisoners in one place had been clearly outlined to Japanese commanders when they had been issued orders to dispose of their POWs in the event of an invasion.

At 9.15 am on 29 May, Captain Takakura ordered that No’s 2 and 3 Camps were to be burned to the ground and the nearby ammunition dumps were also to be blown up. At 10.30 am Takakura issued further orders to clear No. 1 Camp of all prisoners within ten minutes, an order later extended to twenty minutes after representations from the remaining Allied officers. Their comrades carried the last sick POWs out of the camp at 11 am. Japanese soldiers then ran from hut to hut, setting the roofs on fire with burning torches. In the distance could be heard the sound of exploding bullets as the munitions dump also went up in flames.

Takakura’s order now meant that 800 Australian and British POWs were forced into the garden area in No. 2 Camp and left to sit in the open under guard for the rest of the day until a parade was called at 6 pm. At the parade, the Japanese set about selecting the first groups of prisoners who were immediately to begin the second death march to Ranau. Eventually, 536 POWs were forced into columns of four and started on their way to Ranau through the main gate under a heavy guard while the rest were left to sit among the smouldering ruins of the camps with little to eat and no hope of relief. The fate of these prisoners was uncertain, while their mates struggled off out of sight over the horizon towards Ranau.

The 536 Australian and British POWs trudging along on the second march were in a far worse condition that those who had managed to complete the first forced march. They had deteriorated further from hunger and disease in the weeks spent at Sandakan, and these men died like flies. For example, Group 2, which consisted of fifty men, lost twelve dead on the very first day of the march. Captain Takakura was actually shot and wounded by one of his own guards during the march, the guard driven to this act of rebellion by the appalling sights he witnessed. The guard committed suicide after killing and wounding several of the Japanese headquarters detail that accompanied this ‘column of the damned’ to Ranau.

Accompanying one of the groups was the adjutant at Sandakan, Lieutenant Watanabe, who witnessed the executions of about ninety POWs during the journey. Watanabe later tried to justify the actions of his men at his war crimes trial. He stated that the prisoners ‘were ill and were put out of their misery by being shot. They asked for death rather than be left behind.’ The handful of Australian prisoners who managed to escape from the death marches confirmed that Watanabe was lying to save his own neck from the gallows. The Japanese simply executed any man who could not go on. All of the Japanese officers were complicit in this crime, and they urged their men to dispose of stragglers by the side of the track.

The vanguard of the second death march began to arrive in Ranau twenty-six days after leaving Sandakan. A total of 536 men had begun the trek, and 183 made it (constituting 142 Australians and 41 British). Their Japanese guards murdered all the remaining 347. ‘[If] blokes just couldn’t go on, we shook hands with them, and said, you know, hope everything’s all right,’ recalled escapee and survivor Private Nelson Short of 2/18th Australian Battalion. ‘But they knew what was going to happen. There was nothing you could do. You just had to keep yourself going. More or less survival of the fittest.

At the Ranau Camp in Borneo there were only six Australian survivors in May 1945, all that remained of the original marchers who had first made the epic trek from the three camps at Sandakan. The 183 survivors of the second march joined them and immediately started to die. The Japanese were certainly aware that they were committing a crime in either allowing the prisoners to die from disease and starvation, or from bullet wounds. They actually tried to force the fittest POWs to collude with them in concealing what was being done. Warrant Officer William Sticpewich, Australian Army Service Corps, later testified that he was forced to forge death certificates for the POWs, and that a Japanese medical orderly, who supervised the burial of the dead, had told him ‘…that he had seen an order that all prisoners were to be killed. He had seen it in the Hombu, the officer’s quarters. He told Sticpewich to keep the information to himself.’ This information and a warning from another friendly guard encouraged Sticpewich and a Driver Reither to escape on 28 July. Reither didn’t make it, but Sticpewich’s testimony was crucial at the post war trial of Japanese officers and men who had perpetrated the heinous massacres.

Although by July 1945, most of the prisoners who had been originally housed inside the Sandakan camps were either dead or at Ranau, if the Allies had launched Operation Kingfisher they would still have saved hundreds of lives. Living among the ruins of the burnt-out camps were 288 Australian and British prisoners. A few guards remained, but not enough to pose any serious opposition to a tough Australian parachute battalion as the Kingfisher operation called for. The window for saving these last, desperate men was also rapidly closing. In mid-July, the Japanese officer left in command of the few hundred prisoners at Sandakan received an order to move any remaining ‘fit’ prisoners to Ranau. Most of these men were in such bad physical shape that they could not stand, let alone trek through swamps and over mountains. The Japanese, employing their usual combination of hollow promises and extreme brutality managed to assemble just seventy-five men who could actually walk. This was the third, and final, death march to Ranau. None of the prisoners managed to get more than 40 miles from Sandakan before they collapsed and were summarily executed by their guards.

Back at Sandakan the Japanese still had a few dozen Australian and British prisoners who were managing to cling to life among the ruins. By the 13 July only fifty-two POWs were still alive. The Japanese commandant ordered Sergeant-Major Hisao Murozumi to ‘dispose’ of twenty-three of them at the abandoned airfield, and Murozumi and his men set about doing so with alacrity. ‘[We] lined them up and shot them,’ recalled Private Yashitoro Goto. ‘The firing party kept firing till there were no more signs of life. Then we dragged the bodies into a near-by air-raid shelter and filled it in.’

The twenty-nine Australian and British prisoners who were not executed at the airfield were simply left to their own devices in the former camps. When Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 only one Australian prisoner was still alive from this group. At the moment of the Allied victory, Sergeant-Major Murozumi murdered this last survivor. ‘[The prisoner’s] legs were covered with ulcers,’ recalled Wong Hiong, a Chinese labourer who was working at the airfield and witnessed the last Australian POW’s fate. ‘He was a tall, thin, dark man with a long face and was naked apart from a loin cloth.’ The prisoner was marched over to an open storm drain by two Japanese soldiers. Murozumi ‘made the man kneel down and tied a black cloth over his eyes,’ recalled Wong. ‘He did not say anything or make any protest. He was so weak that his hands were not tied. Morojumi [Murozumi] cut his head off with one sword stroke.’ The Japanese then pushed the decapitated corpse into the drain where the soldier’s head already lay. ‘The other Japs threw in some dirt, covered the remains and returned to the camp,’ said Wong. Inland, the human tragedy at Ranau had continued unabated, resulting in scores more deaths.

The death rate among the remaining prisoners at Ranau had reached seven per day by July 1945. The Japanese, however, had not quite finished with these walking skeletons just yet. In an act of calculated cruelty, the guards forced these men to labour, cutting bamboo, collected wood and atap for the camp huts, and carrying 20 kg bags of food to Ranau from a Japanese supply dump established nearly two miles away. The Japanese officers’ quarters was kept supplied with fresh water by tottering gangs of emaciated prisoners who were forced to haul an average of 130 buckets full of water up a steep hill each day. The ration level had sunk so low as to be virtually non-existent. ‘They were given a small cup of rice water a day with about an inch of rice in the bottom,’ recalled Private Botterill, who later managed to escape. ‘Plenty of rice was available and the Japanese used to get 800 grams a day themselves, they also used to get tapioca, meat, eggs and sweet potatoes and showed no signs of malnutrition.’

The Japanese, even at this stage when death through starvation seemed the only option for the prisoners, did not let up on beating and brutalizing them. Sapper Arthur Bird of the Australian Engineers was one of the six men who by a miracle had survived the first forced march to Ranau. On 7 July 1945, Bird was dragged out of a hut to work by a Japanese guard. Bird tried to explain that he was completely unfit for labour as he was suffering from beriberi, malaria and tropical leg ulcers. The guard responded by savagely kicking Bird on the ground for ten minutes until the emaciated Australian had been put into a coma. Bird never regained consciousness, and two days later he died of his injuries.

For the prisoners at Ranau, the end of the war and the Japanese surrender did not save them. When the Emperor had ordered his people to ‘endure the unendurable’ on 15 August 1945, several dozen Allied POWs were still alive at Ranau. In a ghastly war crime committed on 27 August, twelve days after the Japanese surrender, the last forty POWs at Ranau were lined up and each was shot in the back of the head. Apart from six men who managed to escape from the earlier marches, the Japanese murdered every single POW that was held in the three camps at Sandakan – a total of 2,770 men. The six survivors, all of them Australians, evaded capture and execution because they were sheltered and protected at great risk by local people and were eventually passed to advancing Australian forces.

So why was the rescue plan, Operation Kingfisher, never enacted? We know that the Australians possessed sufficient aircraft to mount the operation and we know that a parachute battalion had been training hard to assault the Sandakan camp complex. The Australians had excellent and detailed intelligence on Japanese troop numbers and the location of the prison camps from SOA sources. Lynette Ramsay Silver asserts that Kingfisher was cancelled because SOA had bungled. The organization was not all it was cracked up to be. For example, for over two years SOA had not realized that its operations inside Japanese-occupied Timor had been blown to the enemy, and they had continued to drop large amounts of supplies, including arms, ammunition and money, directly to the Japanese. Thirty-two brave SOA operatives had also been lost when they had parachuted straight into the clutches of the dreaded Kempeitai military police. Silver has argued that a similar bungled operation was underway in Borneo when Kingfisher was dreamed up. Someone suspected a mess inside the Australian high command and held off on Kingfisher long enough until the whole rescue operation was superseded by an Australian invasion of Borneo. By then, of course, nearly all of the prisoners at Sandakan and Ranau were dead and the whole question of a rescue was academic.

The Australian invasion of Borneo was a sideshow to the main American effort and largely just an exercise in wasting lives. It was a political rather than a military gesture. Two Australian infantry divisions were committed to the operation, which was ordered by General MacArthur. Whether the operation served any really useful military purpose, unlike Kingfisher, which had clear objectives, continues to generate intense debate in Australia and among historians. The invasion’s stated objective was to secure the valuable oilfields of the Netherlands East Indies, but those planning the operation knew that these oil fields, already extensively damaged by the Japanese, could never be put right before the end of the war, so they would play no part in the Allied war effort. ‘The view was widely held that the only purpose of the operation was to keep other Allied forces off America’s pitch for the last round of the Pacific War,’ writes Sir Max Hastings.

On 1 May 1945, Australian troops invaded Tarakan, an island off the east coast of Borneo and north of Sandakan, and they suffered 894 casualties by the end of July. On 10 June, the 9th Australian Division landed at Brunei Bay and a further 114 Australians were killed in action before the end of the month. On 1 July the 7th Australian Division stormed ashore at Balikpapen in Dutch Borneo. In a week’s fighting a further 229 Australians were killed. Many asked why Australian lives were being thrown away on operations against a Japanese garrison that was already cut off from the main war and isolated by the American advance. Some thought it was MacArthur’s most cynical use of Australian forces in the whole war, and a damning indictment of how far the Americans were prepared to go to keep other nations out of the final victorious push on Japan. ‘I happen to entertain the strongest possible view that it is wrong to use the Australian forces…in operations…which seem to me to have no relation to any first-class strategic object in this war,’ lamented Opposition Leader Robert Menzies in the Australian House of Representatives on 26 April 1945.

General MacArthur had ordered American forces in the region to maintain a passive stance against Japanese garrisons that were already cut off and isolated from the war, whereas General Blamey had actually volunteered Australian fighting divisions for what were in effect pointless mopping-up operations in the Allied rear. Blamey, as usual, defended his controversial decision by claiming that ‘The Australian government…wished its troops to be seen to liberate territories under Australian colonial guardianship. This was a policy which might win some headlines, but was certain to cost lives.’

The charge that bungling by SOA could have contributed to the delay and then cancellation of Kingfisher is serious. For the prisoners dying in the camps any SOA incompetence surrounding the planning of Kingfisher was tantamount to a death sentence. Lieutenant-Colonel Overall, commanding the parachute attack force, believed Blamey’s ridiculous lie about the Americans refusing to release aircraft as the reason why Kingfisher was cancelled, and he was joined in this misguided belief by Athol Moffitt, Allied prosecutor at the Labuan war crimes trials convened after the war to try those Japanese who were responsible for the Sandakan death marches. Major Chester, who commanded SOA operations in Borneo, admitted to a colleague, Sergeant Jack Wong Sue, just after the war that Blamey was lying, and he even published this fact in his memoirs: ‘You know what they’re going to do? Blamey’s going to shift the blame for all of their bungling onto MacArthur,’ said Chester in 1945. Before Chester could be questioned in more detail he unfortunately died of blackwater fever at Jesselton in August 1946, and Jack Wong Sue, as an NCO, could not very well go up against the commander of the entire Australian Army. Therefore, Sir Thomas Blamey’s version of events quickly came to be perceived as the truth, and has received the aura of historical fact by being repeated so many times in print over the intervening seven decades.

Would Operation Kingfisher have been successful if SOA and the Australian military leadership had coordinated their efforts? ‘If the March rescue operation had gone ahead, well over a thousand prisoners would still have been alive to be lifted out of Sandakan,’ writes one historian, adding: ‘…with no serious Japanese opposition to be concerned about – on the northeast coast…there were only about fifteen hundred troops, at the camp itself only a handful of guards.’ Certainly, Colonel Overall’s paratroopers would have made short work of the small Japanese forces remaining in the immediate vicinity of the Sandakan camps and would have rescued hundreds of men. It can be cogently argued that it was virtually a war crime not to have launched Kingfisher when the opportunity was there, especially as those in the higher reaches of the Allied command were fully aware of what the Japanese were doing to Australian and British prisoners in their hands. Either way, Kingfisher was quietly shelved and largely forgotten soon after the war, along with the thousands of men lying in shallow graves in Borneo.

One reason that some historians have proposed for not rescuing the desperate men at Sandakan was that SOA was not interested in the plight of POWs. This is in stark contrast with the activities of the British SOE’s Force 136 in Malaya and Thailand, where identifying POW camps was a very important task for the organisation. This theory should not be discounted. Planning for the invasion of North Borneo took precedence over all other Australian operations, including Kingfisher. Historian Alan Powell has suggested, as another possible reason for Blamey refusing to green light Kingfisher, was the fear of failure. If the rescue attempt had not been completely successful, the Japanese may well have killed all of the remaining POWs in their hands in revenge, following the clear order dated 1 August 1944 that allowed Japanese commanders to make on-the-spot decisions regarding preventing the liberation of prisoners in their power. As it turned out, this particular argument is irrelevant, for the intention of the Japanese all along was to kill all of the prisoners that they held at the Sandakan camps, so as an excuse for doing nothing, it is indefensible.

We may never know the true reason why Operation Kingfisher was cancelled, and 2,770 Australian and British soldiers left to die. There may not have been one reason, but rather a combination of factors that unfortunately conspired to cause torpor in the Australian leadership when swift and decisive action was required. An opportunity was definitely missed for the Allies to have saved thousands of lives. The assault forces were ready and trained to a high state, the aircraft were available, and the Australians knew where the prisoners were, their condition and the strength of the Japanese forces guarding them. Blamey and his colleagues were evidently ashamed of their actions, and so ashamed that they felt compelled to concoct a lie to cover their own culpability in the affair and instead shift the blame conveniently on to General MacArthur and the Americans.

Those Japanese who were responsible for the terrible atrocities committed at Sandakan, Ranau and on the rough Death March trail were tried after the war for their crimes. Eight Japanese, including Captain Susumi Hoshijima, the Sandakan camps overall commandant, were found guilty of war crimes and executed by hanging. A further 55 Japanese soldiers were found guilty of lesser counts of brutality and received terms of imprisonment. Lieutenant-Colonel Tatsuji Suga, the overall commander of the prison camp system on Borneo, unfortunately escaped Allied justice by committing suicide whilst a POW of the Australians. He stabbed himself in the throat with a small knife, and then his batman beat him to death with a water canteen half filled with sand. The Japanese general who commanded the 37th Army garrisoning North Borneo in 1945, Lieutenant General Masao Baba, was arrested and later stood trial for war crimes at Rabaul in 1947. Although the prison camps fell under the jurisdiction of the Kempeitai and Colonel Suga, General Baba was nonetheless the highest Japanese military authority in Borneo and he could have overruled the Kempeitai in its treatment of the Australian and British prisoners. At his trial, Baba put forward the defence that the evacuation of POWs from the Sandakan camps in May 1945 was ‘operationally necessary’. He told the court that the first evacuation order was issued before he took over command, and that he admitted that he knew that the Allied POWs under his jurisdiction were in poor physical condition. Baba said that he received reports of the first death march and the high death toll among the prisoners, but he nevertheless ordered a second evacuation along the same difficult route. His argument was based on the fear of an imminent Allied invasion of Borneo, and he had orders to move the prisoners away from advancing forces. The court rejected Baba’s plea and he was hanged for war crimes in 1947.

Latest Film & Television News

Movie adaptations of two of Mark’s books are currently in pre-production by Hollywood:


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Castle of the Eagles, a thrilling escape adventure set in Italy during World War II, has been optioned to film company Moonriver Content .

Moonriver Content

Producing for Moonriver Content is Xavier Marchand, who’s credits include Spotlight (Academy Award Best Picture 2016), Eye in the Sky with Helen Mirren, Suite Francaise with Michelle Williams & Kristin Scott Thomas, and The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe.
Also producing is Brad Luff, who’s credits include US show Siren, and movies such as Extinction with Matthew Fox and Parker with Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez.
Author of the screenplay is one of Britain’s most respected scriptwriters, Jeff Pope. His amazing credits include Cilla with Sheridan Smith, and the movies Philomena with Judi Dench & Steve Coogan (Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations shared with Steve Coogan) and Stan and Ollie with Steve Coogan. He has also won three BAFTA awards.

Latest news – a director has been attached to the project, more to follow…


Zero Night Paperback

Mark’s hit book Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Great Escape has also been optioned to Hollywood.


Essential Media is currently developing the movie adaptation, produced by Simonne Overend and Ian Collie (who produced Saving Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson), with a screenplay by Yolanda Ramke (director of Netflix original film Cargo starring Martin Freeman). ESSENTIAL-LOGO-orange


Two of Mark’s books, The Real Tenko and The Devil’s Doctors, have been optioned by Zen Productions in the US for television episode adaptation.



Mark often appears as an expert in major television documentaries and is much sought after as an authority in many areas of military history.

Mad Science: Nazi Killer Bugs (2015)

Mad Science‘The Nazi work on developing a biological weapon to use against the Allies and change the course of World War II.’ American Heroes Channel.

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Evolution of Evil (2015)
Evolution of EvilA 10-part American Heroes Channel docuseries that traces the personal trajectories of 10 notorious world leaders. Mark discusses the rise and fall of Japan’s infamous wartime leader General Hideki Tojo in Episode 4: Tojo: Japan’s Razor of Fear.

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Combat Trains (2015)
Combat trains

Trains have played a crucial role in the war effort in the major conflicts of the past 150 years. These trains were a vital cog in the military machine from carrying troops, to moving hospitals, to being transformed into actual weapons.

In this compelling 8-part History Channel series, the stories of these incredible trains is told. Combining expert interviews, authentic reconstruction, engineering graphics and archive, highlighting the extraordinary human stories alongside the engineering detail and military perspective. Mark appears Series 1 – Episode 1: Nazi Railways

Top Tens of Warfare (2016)

Top Tens of Warfare, a new 10-part Discovery Quest documentary series, uses archive footage straight from the battlefield to identify and rank the iconic features of war and explain how technology has advanced through to modern-day conflicts.

Mark appears in the following episodes:


Nazi World War Weird (2016)
Nazi World War Weird

New series presented by Dr. Sam Willis for National Geographic. Mark helps Sam discover more about diabolical Japanese plans to bomb the US with plague and other nasties in Episode 6: Secret Flea Bomb.

LA BÊTE D’ACIER (Hitler’s Steel Beast) (2017)


A French documentary for RMC Decouverte/Netflix on Hitler’s train called “La Bete D’Acier or The Beast of Steel“, directed by famous French filmmaker Daniel Ablin.  The Beast of Steel

French Filming



This is a fascinating new RMC Decouverte/Netflix documentary looking at Hitler’s security.



Three Minutes of Mayhem (2015)
bbc-logoZero Night has been the subject of an excellent BBC Radio documentary. Listen here: Three Minutes of Mayhem

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Zero Night US Cover

The Film Programme (2016)

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An in depth interview about the process of writing Castle of the Eagles is available on Colne Radio. The Film Programme