Dachau to the Dolomites: The Untold Story of the Irishmen, Himmler’s Special Prisoners and the End of WWII, by Tom Wall, Merrion Press, 274 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1785372254
Since 1945, there have been very many books that have explored and analysed the events that led to the outbreak of the Second World War and innumerable ones that have provided detailed accounts of military action in all its major theatres. Indeed, so much has been written that one might assume there was little left to be said. However, for understandable reasons, this global war continues to preoccupy us and command our attention: it was, after all, the most momentous conflict in human history, it occurred within living memory, and we continue to live with many of its consequences.
In recent years, some of the war’s lesser-known episodes have been investigated, and these have often provided unexpected and revealing insights. In his new book, Dachau to the Dolomites, Tom Wall has focused on one of these neglected episodes, and in so doing he has cast light on some of the internal contradictions of the Nazi state as it entered the death throes of its squalid existence.
By the start of 1945, the regime was facing its Götterdämmerung. The broken remnants of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS divisions had tried to defend the east bank of the Rhine, but, by mid-March, the Western Allies had crossed the river at Remagen and established a new bridgehead. As the invasion of Germany gained further purchase, it was decided to move a select group of 160 prisoners to a new location. These prisoners came from eighteen different countries and from several different concentration camps, and they were taken to an Alpine valley in the South Tyrol, close to the former border between Austria and Italy.
This was the region where it was believed that fanatical Nazis would form their last redoubt. The prisoners who were moved there were referred to as Prominenten (celebrities), and they had been spared the usual vicious and criminal treatment meted out to the other inmates of camps such as Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau. By the spring of 1945, it was believed that these ‘”celebrities” might have some value to the Nazis as hostages, and could even be used to help save the lives of their captors.
By any standards, these hostages represented an extraordinary collection of individuals, and this is evident in the cast list that Tom Hall presents at the start of his book. Among the assorted priests, politicians and princes were Kurt von Schuschnigg, a former chancellor of Austria; Léon Blum, the former prime minister of France and one of the very few Jews to receive favourable treatment in a Nazi camp; Prince Xavier de Bourbon, the Carlist pretender to the Spanish throne; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister who had opposed the Nazis on moral grounds.
The Prominenten also included a number of high-ranking German army officers, such as General Alexander von Falkenhausen, a former governor of Belgium who was suspected of plotting against Hitler, and General Franz Halder, the former chief of the Wehrmacht General Staff. There were also those who had been judged guilty of so-called Sippenhaft (family liability), a legal mechanism by which relatives of those accused of crimes against the Reich could also be held accountable. It was on account of this concept that relatives of Claus von Stauffenberg, the Wehrmacht colonel who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944, found themselves imprisoned in Dachau.
There were two British officers who had the good fortune to be named Churchill, and were wrongly believed to be related to the British prime minister. Two of the other British prisoners were RAF officers who had taken part in what became known as “The Great Escape” from the Luftwaffe’s POW camp of Stalag Luft III, and who had escaped being shot by the SS, unlike fifty of their comrades. Perhaps the most surprising of all the Prominenten in the Sachsenhausen camp was Lieutenant Yakov Dzhugashvili, who was Stalin’s son from his first marriage. The Germans had hoped to use him as a bargaining chip, but were disappointed by the apparent indifference of Stalin to his son’s fate. He was shot dead by an SS guard while apparently trying to reach the camp’s perimeter fence. Since he would have known that the fence was electrified it would seem that his intention was suicidal.
Yakov Dzhugashvili was not part of the group which was moved from Sachsenhausen to Dachau, but that group did include a number of Irishmen who had been in Sachsenhausen with him. These men had all been serving in the British army when they were captured by the Germans: one was an officer and the other four were ordinary soldiers. All of these men had previously been selected by the Abwehr (German military intelligence) as possible recruits for a so-called “Irish Brigade” that would join with the Nazis in their war against the Allies. More than a hundred Irish soldiers had been sent to a secret training camp, Stalag XXA (301), which was also known as Camp Freisack. These Irish soldiers had been encouraged to collaborate with the Nazis by the novelist Francis Stuart, and by Helmut Clissmann – both of whom would enjoy considerable acclaim and success when they settled in Ireland after the war.
It appears that very few of those who were sent to the Freisack camp had any real intention of fighting alongside the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS. In fact, according to Fr Thomas O’Shaughnessy, an Irish priest who visited the camp to cater for the prisoners’ spiritual needs, most of them had volunteered for Freisack simply in order to receive what they hoped would be better treatment, and an opportunity to get back to Ireland. The senior officer in this camp was Colonel John McGrath, and it seems that he had been ordered to go there by MI9 ‑ the section of British military intelligence that liaised with soldiers in German captivity.
McGrath had been born in Roscommmon to a family with strong Republican credentials. However, he had served in the British army during the First World War, and was still in the army reserve when war broke out again in 1939. At that time, he was employed as manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin ‑ reputed to be the largest theatre in Europe ‑ but he decided immediately to return to his regiment. He was captured while serving in the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940, along with around 40,000 troops who were not able to escape from Dunkirk. McGrath would spend the remainder of the war in German custody.
While he was in the Freisack camp, McGrath attempted to sabotage the Germans’ plan to recruit Irish soldiers. When the camp was visited by Fr O’Shaughnessy, they both tried to undermine the Nazi propaganda with which the Irish prisoners had been bombarded. This propaganda was unpopular with the prisoners in any case, and less than a handful of Irishmen were ever willing to serve in the German armed forces.
Later, Fr O’Shaughnessy was able to smuggle a document written by McGrath out of the camp. In it, McGrath gave detailed information about Freisack and, after the war, this enabled him to prove that he had never collaborated with his captors. However, it seems the Germans learned about the existence of the document while McGrath was still in the Freisack camp. The realisation that he was acting as a double agent may have contributed to their decision to write off Freisack as a “hopeless effort”. Most of the Irish prisoners were sent back to regular POW camps, but McGrath was dispatched to Sachsenhausen, where he was kept for eight months in solitary confinement before he was moved to Dachau.
By then, Dachau had already become an assembly point for a variety of “celebrity prisoners” whom the Nazis considered to be of potential value. These Prominenten had their own compound and, while their living conditions were basic, they were still infinitely better than those endured by the other inmates.
From Dachau, McGrath became part of the group of celebrity hostages who were eventually taken to the picturesque resort of Lake Bries, and the village of Niederdorf, high in the Dolomite mountains. In the turmoil of that time, these prisoners faced an uncertain and dangerous future. By then, it had become common practice for the SS to destroy all the records of their camps and to kill all their remaining captives so that there would be no evidence or witnesses to their crimes. The Allies had believed that the Nazis would make their final stand in the Dolomites. That never happened, but the region was contested by units of the Wehrmacht as well as by those of the SS, by approaching Allied armies, as well as by several groups of local partisans.
Against this chaotic background, the lives of McGrath and the others seemed to hang by a thread. Indeed, there is some evidence that their SS guards had been ordered to execute many of their hostages before they could fall into Allied hands. However, the SS units in the region were eventually disarmed by regular Wehrmacht troops and, when the news of Hitler’s death arrived in May, the prisoners began to believe that they would manage to survive their long ordeal.
They ended the war in the relative comfort of a deserted hotel. It may have been without heat or other basic facilities, but at least this accommodation afforded the prisoners their first chance in many years to sleep in a proper bed. Before long, they had even managed to establish a library, pharmacy and a laundry operation, and to enjoy reasonably nutritious meals. Sadly, their liberation was not an occasion of joy for all of the prisoners. Those from Russia, in particular, were reluctant to return home: with good reason, as it turned out, since a number of them received summary trials and were executed soon after they arrived back in the Soviet Motherland.
Within a few months, McGrath had been able to return to Ireland. He comes across in Wall’s book as a man of principle and a courageous soldier. Sadly, the same cannot be said for all the other Irish prisoners. When they were in Camp Freisack, at least one of them, Gunner John Spence, worked for Irland-Redaktion, a radio service in Germany that was aimed at an Irish audience. This service operated under the authority of Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda, and featured regular broadcasts by Francis Stuart, in which he spoke with open admiration of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. While they were based in the Freisack camp, Spence and some other Irish prisoners were allowed to visit bars and clubs in Berlin, and even to live outside the camp’s confines. It appears that Spence used this opportunity to inform the Nazis that a young Jewish woman was hiding in the house where he was staying.
The fortunes of those Irishmen who were once classified as Prominenten were mixed. One continued to serve in the British army for many years and saw further action in Korea and Palestine. Another seems to have drifted into crime and was suspected of involvement in several armed robberies. McGrath’s subsequent life appears to have been rather unhappy. It emerged that he was not entitled to call himself “Colonel” ‑ although he claimed he had only done so in order to secure a tactical advantage over his German captors. Shamefully, after his harrowing experiences in the war, the British authorities still tried to insist that he was only entitled to a junior officer’s pension.
It also appears that he paid a high price in terms of his physical and mental wellbeing as a result of his prolonged incarceration. After the war, he resumed his former post as manager of the Theatre Royal, but was soon compelled to resign due to what was described as a “nervous disorder”. He died within a few years of his return to Ireland: the priest who conducted his funeral service was Fr O’Shaughnessy, who had first met him in the Freisack camp and who had become his close friend.
Tom Wall’s book paints a vivid picture of the confusion and mayhem that characterised the last days of Hitler’s Reich, and provides a corrective to those who may believe that the Nazi state operated with consistent efficiency and on a coherent ideological basis. His book also raises another important and underlying issue: the role that Irish citizens played in the Second World War. The Irish state remained neutral throughout the duration of the conflict. But that did not stop tens of thousands of Irishmen and women joining the Allied armed forces, or working in Britain’s armaments factories.
It is reckoned that more than 9,000 Irish citizens were killed while serving with the Allies ‑ many more than died during our own War of Independence. It could be argued that we have still to come to terms with the role that they and many thousands of other Irish citizens played in the ultimate defeat of fascism. Tom Wall’s illuminating book will contribute to that growing understanding.
David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films.