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Operation Performance - Page 3
Life in Imprisonment
The prisoners from Buccaneer, Charente, Gudvang and Skytteren arrived Tarmstedt by train from Bremen late in the evening of Apr. 6-1942 and were taken to Milag by truck. They had previously been held at Lager Hindenburg in Fredrikshavn, before being transported through Flensburg, Hamburg and Bremen. 2 of Skytteren's crew, who had been injured during the explosion when she was scuttled, were not doing too well, but the others arrived in good shape, considering what they had been through. One of the messboys from Skytteren, Peter Jebsen had managed to slip away from the train, just outside Fredericia, Denmark, after having gotten permission to use the bathroom. He was accompanied by a guard who waited outside, but Peter opened a window and squeezed himself through it. He later reached Sweden, then travelled on to England, and ended up in Denmark until the end of the war, having landed in a parchute.
There were initially 204 of them, 147 Norwegians, 54 British, 2 Dutch and 1 Polish (6 women and a little girl was among them), but after the crew from Storsten arrived at the beginning of June that year the number increased to 382. (Note: This number does not match up with the total number of prisoners taken from the Kvarstad ships, which makes me wonder if there were already other Norwegians there). The latter crew had spent a few weeks at Akershus (a fortress in Oslo, used as jail), where treatment had been rough. They had subsequently been sent to Wilhelmshaven for further interrogations, then on to Milag to join the other "pirates" from the Kvarstad ships. According to the book "Kvarstadbåtene" the sanitary conditions were not very good at Milag at first, and food rations were small. In their description of the camp the authors say it resembled a desert, so much so that Rommel had previously used it to train his Africa troups. Surrounded by a double set of barbed wire fences on all sides, with guard towers in each corner, the camp was located on a large open, sandy area which was always windy, nicknamed "Siberia" by the prisoners. They were kept in isolation in barrack No. 24, except for the women and little girl who were placed in the guardhouse across from the entrance gate, outside the camp itself. They had no other clothes than the ones they were wearing, no toiletries and very little water. For toilets they had to use buckets, placed in the hallfway, and a hole in the ground outside the entrance to the barracks. When this hole had filled up, which didn't take long, a new hole had to be dug. The only thing they had an abundance of was lice, the walls being full of them.
Interrogations started already in the middle of April, performed by German Naval officers speaking English and Swedish. At first these took place at Wilhelmshaven, with the prisoners being taken there in groups of 25-30 (later they took place at Milag as well, at Lager 3, which was a camp for the German guards). During one such transport Einar Sørensen (from Buccaneer, see also my "Note" under Buccaneer's crew list on Page 2) managed to get away, simply by stepping out of the group of prisoners and mixing with regular travellers at the station in Bremen. He later came to Hamburg, but due to mishaps and hunger he had to give himself up and back to Milag he went. He tried again in August that year, this time with more success. On that occasion he was, because of his previous escape attempt, on transport to a more secure camp, Toost when he jumped off the train near Berlin, and after a dramatic voyage through Germany he hid on a Swedish ship at Wismar. Shortly afterwards a card arrived from him, post stamped Stockholm. He was the only one who managed to get out of Germany, though there were several more escape attempts, the best known of which being the tunnel dig underneat barracks 19, where the Norwegians lived for a short while. It was located 6-8 meters from the barbed wire and the plan was to dig underneath the fence and let the tunnel come up 20-30 meters out on the field, behind a little hill. Everything went well for a week, and they had already reached a ways past the fence when their dream of freedom abruptly came to a halt. One of the diggers, an Englishman, hit a large rock, and instead of digging around it he proceeded to try and get it lose, with the result that his laborous efforts were heard by one of the guards above who sounded the alarm, and that was the end of that. Strangely, no-one was punished for this, the Germans appeared content with the fact that the attempt had been interruped. A similar tunnel was dug further up in the camp, without success, and yet another tunnel was dug at Marlag, this one with great success, resulting in the escape of 53 prisoners, but whether any of them were able to get out of the country is unclear.
The Kvarstad people stayed for a short while at a smaller subcamp "Aufnahmelager", where they got to meet the commandoes from the St. Nazaire raid (see link below), who had taken up residence nextdoor, but by the beginning of June the Norwegians were back in their old barracks. Conditions had improved considerably during the spring; for one thing the weather was easier to deal with and they also received Red Cross parcels. In the middle of that month, on the evening before a German admiral was due to arrive for an inspection the barbed wire in front of their barracks was removed and they received the news that they could move around freely, but this lasted only for 3 days before they were again isolated in Barrack 24. However, the following month another inspection, this time by representatives for the Swiss government and the International Red Cross resulted in the fence being removed for good, and they became "citizens of the male community of Milag, a community of 48 different nationalities, between 2000-3000 inhabitants, with barber shops, theaters and movies, gambling and dancing halls, schools, churches, football and cricket fields etc., and where the war was far, far away".
With regard to The Red Cross, the authors of "Kvarstadbåtene" credit their survival to that institution, saying that without it Milag would quickly have become like so many other camps in Germany, where prisoners died of hunger and under-nourishment. When they first arrived the distribution of parcels was still not quite organised, so that 7 men had to share 1 parcel, but this gradually improved until they by August that year got a parcel each per week. This meant that when they were eventually fetched by Gestapo in Febr.-1943 they were all still strong and in good health, which in turn meant that they had a better chance of surviving what was to come. The Red Cross also saw to it that there was enough hospital equipment, medicines, equipemt for the dentists to work with, as well as materials for their leisure time, like sports equipment, games etc.
The hospital at Milag is described as "excellent". At first the head doctor was a Czechoslovakian by the name of Sperber, a very competent man who earned the full confidence of the prisoners, but due to his nationality he had problems getting the Germans to agree to the improvements he saw necessary. Later, a British military doctor, Major Harvey took over, and under his leadership the hospital became a first class institution, with no lack of medicines. (Dr. Sperber was later arrested by Gestapo and jailed in Bremen). Skytteren's own doctor, Bård Brekke was employed at the hospital, and primarily took care of the Norwegians.
The 6 women and the little girl (see Skytteren, page 2) were sent to a camp in Würtemberg, Bieberach in Nov.-1942. Gudvang's steward, Altmar Andersen was fetched by the police just before Christmas, while a man referred to as "Arendal" was sent to a sanatorium just a few days before the others were told they were leaving. "Kvarstadbåtene" states that this "Arendal" pretended to be English and managed to get repatriated together with sick Englishmen. When the remaining Kvarstad crews departed on Febr. 3-1943, 2 men were left behind at the hospital, because the English doctor, Major Harvey refused to release them. Time and again Gestapo came to get them, but Mjor Harvey would not let go of them and they stayed at Milag until the war was over.
The others arrived Rendsburg by train on Febr. 5, and at the sight of the jail they were taken to their hearts sank. For quite some time they had thought perhaps they would be sent home to Norway. Most of them were to stay at Rendsburg for over 4 months, some for 6 months, while others were simply "forgotten" and ended up staying there for over a year before they were transferred to another jail. While there, they were interrogated, jailed and finally sentenced by Schleswig-Holsteinisches Sondergericht, with the first interrogations starting the very day they arrived. In the beginning they took place at Kiel, where they were sent in groups of 25, but later, in order to get things over and done with a little more quickly, questioning took place in Rendsburg as well, with those being questioned in Kiel having a rougher time of it than the others. They were still optimistic.
Some of the Kvarstad crews had not been home since before the war, having been on board their ship for several years, then stayed on for the breakout from Gothenburg, and it was hard to see how they could have comitted a "crime". Others where in a different situation, having escaped from Norway after the occupation, thereby breaking the German rules; quite a few of them had also been involved in resistance work and sabotage. As mentioned they had already been questioned by representatives from the German Navy at Milag, and when similar questions were asked this time, they - wisely or not - answered them in the same manner as before, namely openheartedly, though this time it was Gestapo who were to judge their answers. Their interrogators were lawyers (except for one by the name of Glang) who behaved correctly the whole time, with no threatening going on. Usually there was an interpreter present who spoke Danish. The questions revolved around conditions in Norway and Germany before and after the occupation, the King and his government, Quisling and Wehrmacht. The prisoners stated their duty lay with the exiled government in London, with the interrogators doing their best to convince them their loyalty should be to the Quisling government. (Interestingly, one of the interrogators stated that there were differing opinions among German lawyers as to which government should be regarded as the legal one). The questioning would then lead to the reasons for the breakout, what did the prisoners think the British would have done if the Germans had not invaded Norway on Apr. 9 etc. There seemed to be great interest in knowing their opinion on Russia, and the fact that they considered Germany a greater danger in Europe than bolsjevism from the east appeared to cause genuine surpise. They were never allowed to see what they were accused of.
At the beginning of April the questioning was over and there was a break of about 3 weeks, during which time the state lawyer who had lead the questioning travelled to Berlin. He also visited Bieberach where the women were questioned, but they were told they would not be formally accused of anything. Upon his return to Rendsburg, those who had escaped from Norway were called down in groups to hear their order of commitment. It had been determined that they were to be regarded as German citizens, and sentenced according to German law. The fact that they had paid on using British papers and were under British command was not considered. So now, after 2 months behind bars, they were formally imprisoned. The order of commitment included some privileges as compared to other prisoners at Rendsburg, like being allowed to keep their tobacco, an hour more light in the evenings, permission to receive food from the Swedish Red Cross and private parcels from home etc., but they only received two Red Cross Parcels in the course of the spring, and as the food in general was insufficient, they quickly started to lose weight.
The main "court case" did not start until the end of April, with Schleswig-Holsteinisches Sondergericht in a former school room in the administration wing of the jail. They were called in in groups of 6-8 men, accused of high treason by aiding the enemy. There's an interesting footnote to this; one of the accused wrote down the endictment on some pieces of toilet paper and hid them under the cover of a book he had in his cell. The suitcase containing this book ended up at Neuengamme just before the war was over (this was used as a collection camp for the so-called "Bernadotte Aid") and was found by one of his friends. Although everything of value had been removed from the suitcase by then, there were still some books left in it, including the book with the "Sonderichtsanklage", and this is included in its entirety in the book "Kvarstadbåtene".
Those who had escaped from occupied Norway received a 5 to 9 years penitentiary sentence, most of the others got 4 - 9 years, while 11 got a 1 year jail sentence. Later on it was discovered that 3 had simply been forgotten, they had not been questioned or sentenced which resulted in them spending almost a year longer at Rendsburg than the others. 1 of the crew members managed to be sent back to Milag. He had a Swedish father, and since he was at the age where he was to choose which Nationality he wanted to be he chose to be considred Swedish, and the Swedish legation was subsequently able to get him out of jail and back to Milag.
On June 11-1943 about 110 men arrived Sonnenburg (a former convent located 14 kilometers northeast of Küstrin, near Oder), followed by the remaining men at the end of July, except for the 11 who had received a 1 year jail sentence; they were transferred to the Tegel jail in Berlin. (The 3 who had been forgotten did not arrive Sonnenburg until May-1944). From the time they left Rendsburg and until the end of the war they would be treated as Nacht und Nebel prisoners, in other words no-one was to know where they were and no help from the outside world could be received (see "related link" below for more on Hitler's Nacht und Nebel order). As they were to find out later, those who got only 1 year in jail were at a disadvantage, because once that year had been served they were automatically sent to camps like Natzweiler or Dachau, and conditions in these camps were much worse than the penitentiary. The majority of those who were sent to Sonnenburg remained there all through the rest of the war, except 13 who were transported to Wolfenbüttel near Braunschweig after having spent 1 year at Sonnenburg. (After having been evacuated they were eventually freed in Brandenburg when the Russians arrived there). After Italy had capitulated in Sept.-1943, resulting in the Tegel jail being filled up with Italians who were in Germany, and who did not want to fight on the German side, the 11 Kvarstad men who were there were sent to Bautzen in Sachsen. That same month 2 died at Sonnenburg, and others were admitted to the hospital in increasing numbers, some never to leave it again. During the winter of 1943-1944 even more died. Tuberculosis was rampant, food scarce and the work hard. In Febr.-1944 the 11 who were at Bautzen were sent on a 5 week transport to Kiel, taking them from prison to prison, through Breslau and far into Poland, then through Danzig and to Kiel, a transport costing 2 lives. After Kiel had been the object of continuous bombing, survivors temporarily ended up in Haase, outside Kiel. In July they were sent to Sachsenhausen, where they stayed for only 2 weeks before being sent to Natzweiler in Elsass, except for 3 whom Norwegian doctors at Sachsenhausen were able to keep there because they were too sick to travel. When the Germans evacuated the Natzweiler camp at the end of 1944 the remaining 6 ended up at Dachau, to be moved to Neuengamme following the Swedish Bernadotte actions.
Related external link:
In Nov.-1944, after the Russians had pushed the German armies quite a ways into Poland, the Nacht und Nebel prisoners at Sonnenburg were evacuated to Sachsenhausen, for "security reasons". 800 men were transferred, including all the Kvarstad crews, clearly marked by their year and a half of suffering and hunger. At that time they had no way of knowing how "lucky" they were to be taken out of Sonnenburg. When the Russians approached the penitentiary in Jan.-1944, having gotten as far as Landsberg 30 kilometers away, Sonnenburg, which by then was crowded by evacuated prisoners from the east, was taken over by an SS command. Tied together in groups of 10 they were taken out to Holzhof and shot. 3 were still alive when the Russians arrived Sonnenburg the following day. The penitentiary was subsequently set on fire.
Coming to Sachsenhausen was like arriving in heaven for the former Sonnenburg prisoners. Food was smuggled in to them and gradually they started to regain their strength and weight; some were even able to send a message home. In the middle of January the Kvarstad people were let out into the camp itself to join other Norwegians who were already there, with the same benefits as the others. Efforts were made by the Germans to get them transferred to Mathausen in Austria, but by this time the Bernadotte aid was in full swing and in March most of them were picked up by the Bernadotte aid*. However, 9 of the Kvarstad people were among about 1000 prisoners (all of whom were sick) who were transferred to Bergen-Belsen near Hannover. What they encountered there was worse than anything they had ever seen, but fortunately their stay was to be brief. After 2 weeks orders came for all Norwegian and Danish prisoners to move to another area of the camp, and 32 were moved a couple of days later. Meanwhile another 32 were waiting for the next transport, which was rumoured to be Red Cross vehicles, but by the time they arrived 23 were sick with Typhus and within 2 weeks 12 were dead. When help arrived on April 8 only 10 Norwegians and 1 Dane were still alive. The Red Cross vehicles arrived in the middle of the night and the 11 patients were taken out to the gate, and were among the first free prisoners to cross the Danish border a few days later.
* Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden organized the Swedish Red Cross to rescue Danish and Norwegian prisoners of war and Jews from German concentration camps.
That same day the group at Wolfenbüttel were also transported out, after a long hard year which had taken the lives of 2 (Tuberculosis), meaning 9 were left, also very ill. The Americans were at Hildesheim on that date, heading east towards Elben, and at Wolfenbüttel the order for immediate evcuation of prisoners was given. 200 of them were transported on an ammunition train, arriving Magdeburg the following day, where they were temporarily placed in the ruins of the Halberstädterstrasse jail, while the Americans at the same time marched into Wolfenbüttel, then into Magdeburg 2 days later, whereupon another evacuation order was given and the 200 dragged themselves through town while the Germans were in their positions, waiting for the enemy on the west side of Elben. The prisoners walked all night long, then continued by train to Brandenburg-Görden the next day, where they were placed in a jail, having arrived Friday the 13th of April. The Russians were now surrounding Berlin, and were rolling towards Elben from the east. In the following 2 weeks the prisoners heard and saw the war at close range, until finally, on Apr. 27, after bitter fighting around the jail, the 9 Kvarstad people still remaining in Germany were free.
The way this is described in "Kvarstadbåtene" is extremely moving: "The clock showed 4 in the afternoon. A strange atmosphere had prevailed all day, and they sensed something was bound to happen. Then, a distant mumbling was heard from the cells on one side of the jail, and the mumbling rose and rose. Finally a scream, a scream of joy. There could no longer be any doubt. The Russians had reached the jail, and the hour of freedom had come. French prisoners ran along the corridors and opened the cell doors, and in less than 5 minutes over 3300 prisoners of all nationalities were free men. Deep down in the cellar a wave of ecstatic prisoners flowed back and forth, and Russian tank crews were embraced and kissed, thrown high into the air and kissed again. A choir of a thousand hoarse voices sang the Marseillaise and every other possible national anthem and psalms at the same time".
The 9 remaining Kvarstad people still had a long ordeal ahead of them. The swarm of hundreds of thousands hungry, freed prisoners were spread around the entire area between Berlin and Elben, taking food wherever they could, "like a swarm of grasshoppers". Life on the road was not without danger, there was still a war on. For 3 weeks the 9 were wandering around, alone or in small groups, until they were finally taken on a transport over to the American zone and into Magdeburg.
Source for the text on this page: "Kvarstadbåtene" by Alf Pahlow and Helge Stray Johansen (1948); both took part in the breakout on board Skytteren.