The lost story of our Nazi slaves
On March 2, 1945, William Hutchinson Knox, from Dún Laoghaire, a merchant seaman aged 59, died in the Farge concentration labour camp just outside Bremen after five years in captivity.
He died some days after an operation performed without anaesthetic, with four of his Irish comrades holding him down. This moving book by one of his relatives is the story of William and his 31 comrades, seamen from Ireland, who became Hitler's Irish slaves.
Their story is harrowing. During the early years of the war, the Germans, using less than a dozen specially designed and disguised ships – hilfskreuzers – wrought havoc on Allied ships, sinking or capturing almost a million tonnes of shipping. In the process they took thousands of prisoners, including a number of Irish merchant sailors.
Ireland was neutral during the World War II, though its neutrality was weighted very much in favour of the Allies. Many Irish fought on the British side honourably and with distinction. Many thousands more worked in Britain's factories.
Allied military straying into Ireland was routinely repatriated while their German counterparts were interned for the duration. There was close military and official cooperation between Ireland and Britain. The number of Irish siding with the Nazis was minute.
This neutrality may have been a factor in the treatment meted out to the Irish sailors. In those early years, with the outcome of the war uncertain, some on the German side, in part misinformed by some IRA figures, thought that Ireland could be of strategic value to Nazi Germany, and that some of the captured Irish could be persuaded to work for the Germans. Accordingly the Irish sailors were segregated and sent to Drancy camp, near Paris.
When they refused to serve the German war effort, they were sent first to a POW camp in Germany, where the regime was tough but where there were limited but acknowledged guarantees of protection, while pressure on them was maintained. When they remained steadfast, they were handed over to the SS in February 1943.
They were sent to a concentration labour camp in Farge in north Germany, being savagely beaten on arrival, some of the hundred thousand odd forced to work in the Neuengamme complex, building the Valentin Bunker, an enormous construction project (ultimately unfinished) dreamed up by Albert Speer to house the assembly of a new type of super submarine.
Two years of "sheer hell", as Christopher Ryan described it, followed. Their limited protection under the Geneva Convention and from the Red Cross was terminated. As civilians they should have been repatriated, as happened to some other seamen, but they received no consular visits until 1944 when the Irish Charge gained access and made attempts to have them repatriated, one of which was thwarted, ironically, by Allied bombing. The author is critical of what he perceives as official Irish inaction on their behalf for over a year.
The Irish group remained united, sustaining each other over two years of constant ill treatment, savage beatings and near starvation, as well as the ravages of camp disease.
They were forced to work 12-hour shifts (with one half-hour break) which began and ended with a 4km forced march from the camp. Their diet consisted of black bread and turnip soup.
The work involved lifting, carrying and emptying 50kg bags of cement (inhaling the dust) or shifting heavy steel girders.
Sometimes the prisoners were made fight each other for an extra ration of bread. The camp guards included sadists and murderers. The regime included routine beatings and murder for minor infractions. Bodies were left lying in the open for days.
Disease was a major threat. Apart from William Knox, four others died – all from typhus, (Anne Frank died of the same illness), which was endemic in the Nazi concentration and slave-labour camps.
Patrick Breen (58), from Wexford, died in May 1943, Gerald O'Hara (50), from Ballina, in Mayo, in March 1944, Thomas Murphy (53) and Owen Corr (29), both from Dublin, died a month later.
The rest made it home after the war, weak and emaciated, some ill for months or years – Christopher Ryan lost almost half his body weight and had typhus and TB. They were largely ignored in an era in which those who had deserted the Irish armed forces, many to serve with the British, were blacklisted from public employment.
However, four of the survivors, including Ryan, were well enough to travel to testify against their tormentors in Hamburg a year later. Some of their captors at least were punished.
The book is not an easy one to read. Interspersed with the story of the Irish are tales of the atrocities committed against other nationalities: the Jews, the Russians, the Poles – who were treated much worse than the Irish. Collectively the atrocities beggar belief. The death rate throughout the Neuengamme system, including Farge, exceeded 50pc. 43,000 of those who died have been identified; many thousands more remain unknown. The unfinished bunker remains.
There is now a monument at Farge and when the author visited last year he saw a wreath placed by the last Irish survivor, Harry Callan, above the crosses for the Irish who died.
The war was a titanic struggle between the two mightiest armies the world has ever seen – the Wermacht against the Red Army and the Allies. We know who won. This book gives an appalling glimpse of what might have resulted had it gone the other way.
Sean Farrell is a retired Irish diplomat.