At the entrance to the exhibition in the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, there is a large wall map listing the numbers of prisoners from each country held in that notorious place. The figure 1 is superimposed on the map of Ireland. Three years ago, intrigued by who this prisoner might be, I began a journey of discovery. It was not difficult to find the name. The website “Come here to me” ran an article (subsequently included in their published compendium of Dublin stories) about “The Dublin Cinema Manager Who Became the Only Irish Prisoner of Dachau”. It identified him as John McGrath, from Elphin, Co Roscommon, who had managed the Savoy cinemas in Dublin and Cork before becoming the manager of the rebuilt Theatre Royal in Dublin in 1935.
As I was soon to discover, what little is known about the man is erroneous. His name fora start; he was christened Michael Joseph McGrath in 1894. Different military files record him as having various ‑ and invariably wrong ‑ ages. There are also more startling inaccuracies, as we will discover later. But by far the most interesting discovery was that, while in Dachau, he had become part of a hostage group, one of about one hundred and thirty men, women and children, from eighteen countries, assembled by the Nazis. He moved with them to Innsbruck and onwards, to a supposed Alpine redoubt, during the final weeks of the Second World War. What follows is the story of how McGrath came to be in Dachau and his subsequent life. It is an unavoidably short biography for, apart from information gleaned from military records, a few newspaper articles and local Roscommon knowledge, much of his life remains a mystery. Nevertheless, it can be said with confidence that he was a brave and dedicated British officer who frustrated Nazi plans to recruit Irishmen to their cause.
As a sixteen-year-old, McGrath moved to Lancashire, where he enrolled in an officer training corps. In his application as Joseph McGrath (he only later switched to John; he apparently didn’t want to be known as a Mick) he added two years to his age and made the unlikely claim of having attended Trinity College Dublin. Officer training corps catered for students in public schools and universities, and so, to gain entry, it was essential to list a college. A few fibs seemed worth the risk to earn a commission in the British army. It was conceivably McGrath’s only point of entry into polite society. His was an ambition shared by many young Irishmen of modest upbringing; Brendan Bracken, a contemporary who became Churchill’s parliamentary private secretary, springs to mind. McGrath though, unlike Bracken, didn’t deny his Irishness. Instead, he recreated for himself a middle class pedigree; he listed his father, admittedly a “strong farmer”, as “Judge Ja. McGrath”. One can only wonder what it was that prompted such precocious reinvention.
The young man gained his commission and, during the First World War, saw action in Gallipoli and France. He distinguished himself, was promoted to captain and twice wounded before being shipped home and hospitalised in 1916. He had hoped to remain in the army but was transferred to the Territorial Force Reserves in 1922. He remained a reservist after his return to Ireland in the late 1920s, when he began a career in cinema management. When recalled to the colours at outbreak of the Second World War, he was manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Although he could easily have ignored the summons, he immediately reported for duty and was assigned to the Royal Engineers regiment.
From the little we know of his personality, he seems to have been an avuncular man, well-liked and generous, but with few, if any, close friends. A record in the Elphin parish register indicates that he married a Jane Balford in August 1918, but as no record of the marriage can be found, it is more likely that this arose from a request for a letter of freedom to enter into a marriage that for some reason never took place. After being demobbed, he moved to a number of locations in Britain and Ireland, never staying for long in the same location, and doesn’t appear to have ever owned a property. The impression is of a restless individual, for whom a return to the army promised new adventures. We cannot, however, discount more noble reasons for him wanting to join the fight in 1939. If he was close to anyone in 1939, it was to Louis Elliman, whose family owned the Savoy cinemas and the Royal. Through him, he would have become acquainted with the Jewish community in Dublin, so it is probable that he was appalled by the Nazi persecution of Jews.
His active service in the Second World War wasn’t to last long, for he was among those who didn’t make it back across the channel from Dunkirk. Nevertheless, he must have been well-regarded during his short spell with the British Expeditionary Force in France, for he won a field promotion to major. After being wounded and captured at Rouen, he joined thousands of others in a horrendous 350-mile trek from Normandy to Trier in Germany. He claimed to have temporarily escaped at one point together with a group of soldiers, some of whom were subsequently shot. This incident was recounted during his postwar debriefing, but, as he couldn’t recall any names or other details, we are left with the impression that his interrogator was unconvinced of the veracity of the story. In Germany, he was placed in a conventional, and not entirely disagreeable, officer prisoner-of-war (POW) camp near Salzburg. His real problems only began when he was transferred to a special camp for Irish POWs.
The Germans, following their victory in France, had begun a process of identifying and segregating military prisoners along ethnic and national minority lines, with a view to winning recruits to their cause. As part of this strategy, an Irish camp was established at Friesack, north of Berlin. The aim was to form an Irish Brigade, along the lines of Roger Casement’s in the previous conflict. The project was the responsibility of German military intelligence, the Abwehr, who moderated their ambitions for the camp when the level of recruitment proved lower than expected. The revised plan was to train a few suitable candidates for espionage or sabotage work, for which they were to be parachuted into Ireland or Britain.
At its peak, about one hundred and eighty Irish POWs were housed in the camp. When one considers that there were likely to have been about a thousand Irish-born British servicemen in POW camps at this time, this represented only a small percentage of the total. Even then, because of haphazard selection, many of those transferred were entirely hostile to the Germans. Of those who went willingly, most were attracted by the promise of better food and conditions and were angry when these failed to materialise. As a consequence, the camp was becoming unmanageable and the Germans sought an Irish officer who might calm things and assist their project.
The Abwehr looked for an officer with an Irish nationalist background and John McGrath seemed to fit the bill. They were encouraged by the fact that he had volunteered for the post, and had relatives who had been active in nationalist politics. His uncle, Michael McGrath, was a Fianna Fáil county councillor, and cousins on his mother’s side, O’Haras from Cootehall in Roscommon, had been in the IRA during the War of Independence. Like the vast majority of his class and religion, McGrath himself was brought up as a nationalist. However, his nationalism would have been of the early twentieth century, constitutional and parliamentary variety that was, to quote Diarmaid Ferriter, “culturally and politically comfortable with the trappings of empire”. For Home Rulers of his generation, careers in the RIC or British army were legitimate options and, by the time things changed, he was a serving British officer.
Like many Irish in the British army, McGrath would have had mixed allegiances, but he was never going to become a Nazi collaborator. He only volunteered to move to Friesack after being encouraged to do so by his superior officer in his POW camp. His mission was to “investigate and to endeavour to smash this movement”. It was a difficult and dangerous assignment; he had to pretend to cooperate with the Germans while secretly conspiring to undermine their scheme.
On arrival in Friesack, he learned that a number of the prisoners had already agreed to undergo training by the Germans. Some were pretending to collaborate in the hope of getting home, others had undoubtedly been turned. McGrath’s approach was to sanction their training, provided they agree that, on landing in Ireland or Britain, they would immediately report to the authorities and make no contact with the IRA. He promised that “he would stand by all” provided “they were not influenced by the Germans to undertake anything behind my back”. There were three Tipperary men among those who had agreed to undergo training in Berlin, and, in addition to getting them to promise to contact the authorities should they get home, he asked that they report on his presence in Friesack to Louis Elliman at the Theatre Royal. As he could no longer send or receive letters, he presumably wanted news of his continued existence to circulate.
The Germans, after a few months, became suspicious about McGrath’s true intentions, especially as he became less cautious in his obstructionist endeavours. At his instigation, prisoners began to refuse private interviews with Germans sent to proselytise them. A breakout led to the temporary escape of about a dozen prisoners. German literature was burnt and a minor insurrection occurred when prisoners cut down wires to the loudspeakers which bellowed out non-stop propaganda. But it was two unrelated incidents that provided the Germans with direct evidence of his duplicity. Four prisoners undergoing training in Berlin, including the Tipperary men, were arrested when the Germans realised that they were intending to double-cross them. Under interrogation by the Gestapo they blamed each other, and at least one of them accused McGrath of having ordered them to betray the Germans. The second disclosure was inadvertent. A young Irish priest based in Rome, Thomas O’Shaughnessy, who had been inveigled into serving as chaplain at the camp for six months, had became a close ally of McGrath. When he was due to return to Rome, McGrath asked him to carry out a report he had written for the British and Irish authorities, containing information about the camp and the names of those undergoing training. This document would provide British and Irish intelligence with valuable insights into Abwehr operations. But it had an additional value for McGrath: it would prove his loyalty and dispel any suspicion of collaboration on his part.
At some risk to himself, the priest managed to smuggle the report out of Germany. When he reached Rome, however, instead of going directly to the Irish embassy, he telephoned them, telling them about the contents of the report. The Germans had a wire tap on the embassy line and the content of the conversation was passed on to the Abwehr. This information was especially damning, for it suggested that McGrath was involved in espionage; a capital offence.
At 8am on May 17th, 1942, McGrath was taken out of the camp and handed over to the Gestapo. He was stripped and his uniform, and even his shoes, were ripped apart, presumably in the hope of finding documents or other incriminating items. When nothing was found, he was driven to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and deposited in a cell in the camp’s prison. There he was kept in isolation and intensively interrogated. He survived; possibly because the Germans knew that information about his whereabouts had been passed on to the Irish authorities by O’Shaughnessy, and because they feared that his execution might have implications for Irish neutrality. However, as he knew too many secrets, he could not be sent back to a POW camp and was henceforth to be a concentration camp prisoner.
The next ten months were, undoubtedly, the darkest days of McGrath’s life. Although there is no evidence of physical torture, to judge from the experience of others he would have been manacled at night and was kept in his cell in complete isolation from all other prisoners. He would have regularly heard the cries of prisoners in the yard outside his cell, who were being tortured by being suspended on a pole, their wrists tied behind their back and connected to a high hook so that their toes were just off the ground. Left in this position, their shoulder ligaments would tear and joints dislocate, causing excruciating pain.
Alone in his cell, he must have contrasted his dire circumstances with what would have been the proudest day of his life. On September 23rd 1935, during the opening night of the new Theatre Royal, he stood on the stage, in the company of Seán Lemass and Dublin’s lord mayor, Alfie Byrne, and was warmly applauded by an audience of four thousand. He had just presented, on behalf of the proprietor, a charity donation to the mayor, who, responding, told the audience that “it gave him the greatest pleasure to reintroduce to them Mr John McGrath, whom they formerly knew at the Savoy, and who had now come back to Dublin to manage that wonderful new theatre”. He must have wondered if he would ever set foot on that stage again.
McGrath languished in Sachsenhausen, until February 13th, 1943, when he was transferred to the even more notorious Dachau. He would have been pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that the move precipitated an improvement in his conditions. He began to receive occasional Red Cross parcels, although he was still not allowed letters. His elderly widowed mother in Roscommon, anxious that she had not heard from him for over a year, wrote to the military authorities in August 1943 seeking information. Based on a response received through the Swiss Red Cross, she was told that her son had escaped from a POW camp some time before and had not been recaptured. It was a lie repeated the following year after the War Office in London obtained a firsthand account of McGrath’s presence in Dachau. He had been designated by the Germans a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) prisoner; one who is made to officially disappear, whose existence is to be denied, so that his eventual elimination could go unnoticed. Mrs McGrath never knew if her son was alive or dead, although she must have feared the worst before she herself died in October 1944.
In Dachau, McGrath shared a cell with a fellow British officer, Major Richard Stevens, in the prison section of the camp. Stevens was a former Indian Army officer who had been transferred to work for the Secret Intelligence Service in 1939. He and another intelligence officer, Sigismund Payne Best, had been kidnapped by the Germans at Venlo, just inside the Dutch border, during the “phoney war”. Unfortunately, the relationship between McGrath and Stevens in Dachau was strained. The Irishman distrusted Stevens and suspected that he was benefiting from a close and cooperative relationship with the SS.
The day before the capture of the two British intelligence officers in 1939, a bomb, intended to kill Hitler, exploded in the Bϋrgerbräukeller in Munich. The man who constructed and placed the bomb was George Elser. Although savagely tortured, he insisted he had acted alone. His interrogators refused to believe this and were convinced that British intelligence, and more specifically Stevens and Payne Best, were involved. The story became an international sensation and German newspapers linked the two Englishmen to the bomb plot. The SS later came to accept that Elser acted alone, but the story had propaganda value and, in any event, Hitler, who may have continued to believe in it, had ordered that all three be kept in segregated confinement until a show trial could be arranged. Elser was also in solitary confinement in Dachau prison when McGrath was there. In early April 1945, Stevens’s former colleague, Payne Best, also arrived in Dachau, having been transferred with other special prisoners from Sachsenhausen to keep them from falling into the hands of the rapidly approaching Red Army. An SS officer accompanied the party on their journey, carrying a set of instructions for the Dachau camp commander, one of which was that Elser be executed. He was shot that same day.
The prisoners who arrived with Payne Best included three former high-ranking German generals and Hjalmar Schacht, the former president of the Reichsbank. Also now housed with them in the prison block was Léon Blum, the former French prime minister and socialist party leader, along with his wife, Janot, who had volunteered to join him in captivity. There was also another couple present: Kurt Schuschnigg, the former chancellor of Austria and his wife, Vera, who had also volunteered to join her husband. With them was their four-year-old daughter, Sissi, who had been born in captivity. This group comprised part of a larger group of VIP prisoners – Prominenten – whose lives the Nazis hoped to barter for advantage. By design or happenstance, John McGrath became a member of this hostage group, which, relative to the general concentration camp population, was privileged, being spared from work detail and allowed the same food portions as the guards.
The existence of hostages, selected by the SS from among the more prominent concentration camp prisoners, is one of the lesser known stories of the war. There were other groups of VIP hostages held elsewhere, but this one was the most diverse, for it included men and women from eighteen different countries. They were a diverse group in many respects, for they included heroes, mavericks and villains.
The use of hostages by the Nazi regime towards the end of the war was connected to frantic efforts to engage the Western powers in negotiations. Many senior Nazis were deluded enough to think that Britain and America could be persuaded to allow the German army to concentrate their remaining resources against the Red Army. An offer to release these prisoners might provide an opportunity to instigate contact. Hitler was never enthusiastic about negotiations and eventually ordered a halt to the bargained release of any prisoners. As defeat dawned, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner and others ignored him and took ownership of particular VIP prisoners in the vain hope that it would save their skins.
In mid-April 1945, as US forces neared Munich, the special prisoners were evacuated from Dachau in a convoy of buses and trucks. The last of the Prominenten left just three days before the camp was liberated. McGrath, before leaving, visited, on some pretext, the typhus-ravaged and body-strewn main camp for the purpose of learning if there were other British army personnel detained there. There he met Lieutenant Commander Patrick O’Leary – in reality Albert Guérisse, a Belgian resistance fighter who had adapted the name and persona of a Canadian friend – who gave him the names and details of five British prisoners.
As McGrath left Dachau in an overcrowded bus, thousands of ordinary prisoners were being herded out of the camp on a forced march towards the Alps. Mile after mile, the bus passed columns of these unfortunate prisoners in their striped concentration camp uniforms. One of McGrath’s fellow passengers, Fey von Hassell, described the harrowing scenes they witnessed:
Thin and worn out, they lurched along in their wooden clogs. Some of the prisoners were too weak to walk any distance, and I could see several of them on their hands and knees. The guards would go over and shout at them, poking them with their rifles. If they couldn’t get up, they were shot through the back of the neck.
The buses halted in Innsbruck at the gates of a camp with a sign that identified it as “Police Education Camp – Reichenau”. The title, as usual, was misleading: it was a punishment camp for Italian, French and other nationals forced to work in the Reich and deemed “in breach of contract” for being “workshy” or some other perceived violation of SS regulations. It was filthy and louse-infected, but during the day the special prisoners were free, for the first time, to mingle and converse. McGrath was happy to meet a group of RAF officers who were survivors of the great escape from Stalag Luft III. Their acknowledged leader was Harry “Wings” Day, whom McGrath was to befriend. McGrath may have been astonished to see among them the three Tipperary men, his former charges from Friesack: Thomas Cushing, Andy Walsh and Patrick O’Brien. After their arrest, they had been housed with the RAF officers in a special section of Sachsenhausen, distant from the prison bunker where McGrath was held. McGrath must have been even more astounded to learn that they had been billeted with Stalin’s son Yakov Djugashvili, before he tragically died there following a confrontation with Cushing.
The gathering in the square in Reichenau allowed McGrath to meet more of the Prominenten. The Hungarian prime minister, Miklós Kálley, with most of his cabinet, would have been pointed out. The bishop of Clermont-Ferrand was striking in his somewhat tattered ecclesiastical robes. Other clergy were there, including Martin Niemöller. Sante Garibaldi, the grandson of the Italian liberator, was among a group of fellow Italians that included Mario Badoglio, the son of Marshal Badoglio, who had ousted Mussolini. The Carlist pretender to the Spanish throne, Prince Xavier de Bourbon, was present, as were two German aristocrats, Prince Leopold of Prussia and Prince Philipp of Hesse. A group of Soviet prisoners, some of them renegade generals, were conspicuous. They had changed sides, but having somehow displeased their new masters they were thrown into Sachsenhausen. Vassily Kokorin, a nephew of Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, was among them. There was also present a large group of men, women and children: relatives of those implicated in the plot to kill Hitler, among them Count Alexander von Stauffenberg, the only surviving brother of Claus, who had placed the bomb that nearly killed the Führer in his field headquarters on July 20th, 1944.
Innsbruck was only an intermediate stop before the group were taken on a hair-raising night-time journey over the Brenner Pass, with the five buses being driven, without lights to avoid attack by Allied aircraft, around hairpin bends edged by yawning precipices. The tension was relieved in the bus carrying most of the British servicemen by a sing-song. The Irishman Cushing led the chorus and was accompanied by a young accordion player, Isa Vermehren, a popular pre-war Berlin cabaret artist, who had been arrested after her brother defected to the British. The mood was more sombre in one of the other buses, where two SS guards were overheard discussing how they might eliminate the hostages.
The convoy came to a halt near the village of Niederdorf in Italy, within the ethnically German-populated South Tyrol. The buses had run out of petrol and the SS guards were uncertain about what to do. When their leaders headed for the village in search of food and drink, surveillance lapsed, allowing different prisoner groups to explore their surroundings. Garibaldi managed to make contact with Italian partisans in the area. Schuschnigg, a South Tyrolean by birth, was warmly greeted by villagers who longed for a postwar return to Austrian jurisdiction. A member of the German-speaking resistance movement introduced himself. One of the German generals met an old friend who was part of a small Wehrmacht garrison stationed in the village. The senior Wehrmacht and SS generals in Italy became involved. These various encounters led to rival plans being hatched, all directed towards protecting the hostages from a feared massacre by the SS guards.
To recount the detailed working out of these schemes would involve a lengthy excursion away from the subject matter of this essay. Suffice to say that one group preferred an alliance with the Italian partisans while others sought German army protection. This led to some tension among the British. Payne Best sided with the German prisoners, who feared the partisans as much as they did the SS, while McGrath sided with Day and most of the other British officers who would have preferred to join with the partisans in an attack on the SS guards. Following a tense night, a dramatic showdown took place in the village square on a Sunday morning. On the same day, an international committee was formed from among the hostages. John McGrath was a member of the committee.
The community in Niederdorf housed and fed their unexpected guests for two eventful days before the group moved for safe keeping to the Hotel Pragser Wildsee, 1,500 metres above sea level in the Dolomites. This hotel is beautifully located, beside a turquoise lake and overlooked by towering mountains. However, when the group arrived on April 30th, 1945, cold and tired after trudging through snow, they were in no condition to admire the view. This was to be the group’s home for the next week. A management committee headed by Payne Best, with McGrath assisting, took charge of arrangements. Payne Best later described McGrath as being extremely active, although he said he was never sure what his exact functions were. This, though, might have had something to do with the fact that the Englishman had by then begun to consume a “the best part of a bottle of brandy a day”.
Apart from one mysterious death, everyone survived until their rescue by the American army on May 4th. By then, the war in Italy was over and their evacuation began a few days later. McGrath was flown to the Allied POW Repatriation Camp in Resina, outside Naples, before being shipped home. He arrived back in Dublin in June and was immediately reinstated to his managerial position in the Theatre Royal. His return attracted the attention of the Irish newspapers. He was interviewed, not about conditions in the concentration camps, which the rest of the world was learning about in gruesome detail, but about, as one headline put it, “the attempt to enlist Irishmen as agents” in the Irish camp in Friesack.
McGrath, unfortunately, didn’t have much opportunity to enjoy his freedom. His incarceration had taken a toll on his mental and physical health. He had to resign from the Royal due to “nervous disorder”. He also suffered from intestinal problems and died just seventeen months after his return home. He had, by then, become reacquainted with Thomas O’Shaughnessy and the priest ministered to him during his final illness. He is buried in his native Elphin alongside his father and mother.
The tombstone records that Colonel John McGrath OBE died on November 27th, 1946. But there is no record of him ever having been awarded an OBE, or a CBE, as he is credited with having in some newspaper reports. Nor was he a colonel; in his dispatch smuggled out of Friesack by O’Shaughnessy, McGrath informed his superiors that he had promoted himself “as I find this useful in dealing with local officers [in Friesack]. I also thought it might get me extra German pay as I need money for outside information but so far I am only paid as a major. Please cover me for this for the present.” He might have reasonably expected that they would have made his promotion official giving the risks he had taken. On the contrary, when he returned home he was told that his “substantive rank is captain” on the basis that he only held the rank of acting major for less than three months before being captured. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a hint of suspicion about McGrath’s role in Friesack, although entirely unwarranted, clouded the minds of the authorities. He eventually had his rank of major restored for pension purposes, but the unfairness of it must have rankled, especially knowing that his Dachau prison adversary, Richard Stevens, had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel while in captivity and others among his Prominenten compatriots had been included in honours lists.
The claim to have been honoured with an OBE, which can only have emanated from him, is puzzling. It could be viewed as an attempt at self-aggrandisement, but there may be a kinder, if sadder, interpretation. While McGrath was never a mainstream concentration camp prisoner, his treatment during his time in Sachsenhausen was severe. Moreover, the ever-present threat of being killed, and his probable witnessing of the torture and death of others, is likely to have had a traumatic impact. This, along with the discovery on his return that his mother was dead, and that his brother, his only sibling, was in a mental institution, together with the disgraceful postwar treatment of him by the army authorities, may have pushed him over the edge. If so, he may well have taken the mental leap from reality to what should have been. The British army was vitally important to him; it made him, and in the end it may have broken him. After all he’d sacrificed and experienced, perhaps he had to believe that right prevailed.
Note on Sources
It was a rare stoke of good fortune on my part to establish contact with Tom Callan, who knew John McGrath. I am forever indebted to him, and to his good friend John Kelly, for their assistance, and for the research they themselves undertook concerning McGrath and his Roscommon family background. I supplemented this by obtaining his military records and by searches in the British National Archives. One large file, KV 3/345, is of particular relevance and contains a copy of the document, handwritten by McGrath and smuggled out of Friesack, as well as his interrogation report. Quoted remarks attributed to him are extracted from these documents. Another document used in the compilation of this essay is an interrogation report of one of the Abwehr agents assigned to Friesack, (KV 2/769). Also relied on were the papers of Sigismund Payne Best, which contain a letter from McGrath, and are held in the Imperial War Museum in London. Information was also sourced from newspaper reports accessed in the National Library in Dublin and cuttings kindly provided by Caitlín Brown of Roscommon County Library. I am also grateful to the proprietors of the Pragser Wildsee Hotel for granting me access to their impressive archive on the Prominenten.
A number of books informed this essay. These include:
Fallon, Donal; McGrath, Sam; Murray, Ciarán: Come Here To Me! New Island (2102).
Carter, Carolle, J: The Shamrock and the Swastika, Pacific Books (1977).
O’Reilly, Terence: Hitler’s Irishmen, Mercier Press (2008).
Payne Best, S: The Venlo Incident, Skyhorse Publishing (2016).
Smith, Sidney: Wings Day: the man who led the RAFs epic battle in German captivity, Collins (1968).
Hassell, Fey von: A Mother’s War, John Murray (1990).
Vermehren, Isa: Reise durch den letzten Ark, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag (2014).
Richardi, Hans-Günter: SS Hostages on Pragser Wildsee, Zeitgeschichtsarchiv Pragser Wildsee (2006).
The quote from Diarmaid Ferriter is taken from The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, Profile Books (2005).
Tom Wall is a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and an occasional contributor to the drb. The above is extracted for his forthcoming book about the Prominenten: the story of the SS prisoner hostages.