In his new book, David Blake Knox tells the harrowing story of 32 Irish merchant seamen – his cousin William among them – who were captured by the Germans in 1940 and forced to work in a slave labour camp, despite being citizens of a neutral state. Only 27 of the seamen returned to Ireland after the war: Blake Knox's cousin was not among them
WHEN my father died a few years ago, he left a mass of papers in his house. Sorting through them, I came across some faded press cuttings. One of these, from the Irish Times, was dated May 17, 1945. It described the homecoming of a small group of Irish merchant seamen, who had just been liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, where they had been part of a slave labour force.
My father had told me that his cousin, William, died near Bremen in 1945. I had assumed that William was an Allied soldier who had been killed during the invasion of Germany, like another uncle. Now, I discovered that William had served in the Merchant Navy, and that the circumstances of his death were much darker than I had imagined.
From another cutting – this one from the Times of London – I learned that William's merchant ship was on its way from South Africa to India, in August 1940, when it was intercepted off the coast of Madagascar by a German raider. The raider, disguised as a Dutch freighter, took the crew prisoner and sank their ship. The prisoners were eventually brought to Bordeaux in Occupied France in November of 1940: from there, most were sent on to be interned in Germany.
However, the Irish prisoners were segregated, and taken to Drancy, a concentration camp near Paris that would later become notorious as the transit post for French Jews on their way to Auschwitz.
At this stage of the war, it was still believed that Ireland could be of strategic importance if Germany were to invade England. The Irish seamen were invited by the Abwehr – German military intelligence – to become part of the Nazi war effort. When they all refused, they were sent to a POW camp in Sandbostel in northern Germany. This camp would also become infamous as one of the most brutal in the entire POW system; tens of thousands of Russian prisoners would die there from exposure, starvation, disease or murder.
Towards the end of 1941, the Irish seamen were relieved to be moved to a new merchant navy internment camp at Milag Nord. This camp soon became crowded, but its conditions were still better than Sandbostel's.
Throughout their captivity in Sandbostel and in Milag Nord, the Irish seamen consistently refused to sign a contractual agreement to become freie Arbeiter (voluntary workers) for Nazi Germany.
This became a matter of principle both for the Irish prisoners and for their captors.
In January 1943, 32 of the Irish seamen were moved out of the Milag camp by the Gestapo, and sent to nearby Bremen. When they got there, the Gestapo tried once again to convince them to sign legal contracts, and to work for Germany. This time, the Irish prisoners were offered new incentives: their food rations were improved, and they were even allowed to walk around Bremen without constraint.
Once again, the seamen refused to take the bait – so the Gestapo decided to try harsher tactics.
On the night of February 6, 1943, the Irish prisoners were woken abruptly by the Gestapo and loaded on to two trucks. They were driven to a new camp near the village of Farge, a small inland port on the Weser. Until then, the Irish seamen had been held in prison camps controlled by the Kriegsmarine, the German navy. Now, they found themselves in a very different type of camp, and, from here on, their future would rest in the hands of the SS.
The Irish prisoners arrived at the Bremen-Farge camp in the early morning and within a few hours were subjected to a savage beating from their SS guards. They were told that, in future, they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, or the International Red Cross – in fact, they would have no further contact with the outside world. Then the seamen were deloused, their heads were shaved, and they were marched into the darkness ... as slaves of the Third Reich.
They did not know it then, but the Irish prisoners had been brought to an Arbeitserziehungslager – 'Education though Work' – camp that was attached to the large concentration camp at Neuengamme. The seamen would soon learn that they were in Farge to work on Project Valentin: the codename for an immense fortified bunker where Albert Speer planned to construct submarines on an assembly line, in pre-fabricated sections. Speer's ambition was to build a new U-boat every 56 hours and he was prepared to go to any lengths to achieve that objective.
When the Irish seamen arrived at the camp, the Nazis were already using slave labour on a massive scale. The concentration camp system had been born out of a vindictive desire to torture and torment the Nazis' political opponents, but, by 1943, it had also become the means through which the social, economic and racial policies of the Nazi state could be enforced.
Before long, the 32 Irishmen were joined by thousands of other slave labourers, mainly Russians, Jews and Poles. Christopher Ryan, from Tramore in Co Waterford, was just 21 when he had been taken prisoner. Many years later, he recalled that each morning began in 'an atmosphere of terror'. The morning roll call lasted for an hour, and, according to Ryan, "nobody was allowed to speak. We had to stand at attention the whole time, and prisoners were beaten right, left and centre."
After roll call, they were marched to the bunker. It was about four miles away, and the seamen were scheduled to start work as soon as they arrived. They had to work in thin jackets in a region of northern Germany where it is not unusual for winter temperatures to fall below -20 – and there was never any reduction in the 12-hour working day, no matter how cold it grew.
There was one half-hour meal break at midday for black bread and half a cup of ersatz coffee: the bare minimum calculated to keep prisoners alive. According to the survivors, the Irish seamen were assigned to some of the hardest labour. This could involve lifting, carrying and emptying 50kg bags of cement. The prisoners would inevitably inhale some of the dust during the day, and hack it up in wet balls during the night. Even worse than the cement detachments were those that involved transporting the huge iron and steel girders that supported the bunker. Life expectancy on these details was so low that they were known as 'suicide squads'.
After work, they were marched back to their camp. When they got there, they were made to wait in silence for several hours until they were given a final bowl of watery turnip soup. Sometimes, their SS guards would organise boxing matches between the prisoners for their own amusement. The winner would gain an extra ration of black bread, and the prisoners would fight with a passion that was born of hunger and despair.
Farge was run by a succession of kommandants. The most unstable and violent of these was an SS Sturmscharfuhrer called Heinrich Schauwacker. Schauwacker had served on the Eastern front as an officer in one of the Nazis' Einsatzgruppen death squads, and had overseen the murder of more than 6,000 Jews in a forest close to Minsk.
According to William English – a merchant seaman from Wicklow – Schauwacker went on a homicidal rampage in his last weeks in the camp: shooting many prisoners, strangling and suffocating others. English reported that Schauwacker knew he would be hanged by the Allies, and was determined to "take as many prisoners with him as he could". However, the Allies failed to capture Schauwacker after the war, and he is believed to have escaped to South Africa, where he lived comfortably under the Apartheid regime.
In the last years of the war, the greatest risk to the slave workers at the Valentin Bunker did not come from SS personnel, but from epidemic disease. Concentration camp prisoners were highly vulnerable to all sorts of illness. Malnutrition, injury, exhaustion and stress heightened their vulnerability. The lack of basic washing facilities, filthy clothing and blankets that were seldom changed also combined to create an ideal breeding ground for typhus.
The first of the Irish prisoners to succumb to this disease was Patrick Breen, from Blackwater in Co Wexford. He had been taken prisoner in the North Atlantic in 1941, when his convoy was attacked by the German battleship Scharnhorst. It is not known what happened to his body, but it seems probable that he was buried in a mass grave.
Four more Irish seamen died after Breen. The last of these was my cousin, William. According to one of the Irish prisoners, he had been ill for three or four days before the doctor who attended the camp decided to operate on him, on a table in the Irish hut. The table had not been sterilised – there was no hot water in the camp – and there was also no anaesthetic. Instead, in the words of one of the Irish seamen: "Four of us held him down: one at each shoulder and one on each leg. He was in great pain, and groaned a lot when the doctor cut into him." William survived the operation, but died in the early hours of the following morning.
For all its agonising labour, the terrible misery, and the human lives that it expended, the Valentin Bunker was still incomplete when the war ended and no commissioned U-boats ever left its pens. The bunker was attacked on March 27, 1945 by an RAF squadron which carried 'earthquake' bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis of Dambusters' fame. Two of the bombs managed to penetrate the thick concrete roof, and brought down more than 1,000 tons of debris. Two weeks later, the decision was finally taken to abandon work at the Bunker.
Within a few weeks of the war ending in Europe, 27 of the Irish seamen were able to return to Ireland. They were largely ignored by the Irish press, and soon disappeared from public view. All of them were badly emaciated, and some were seriously ill. Christopher Ryan was to spend most of the next eight years in hospital. Nevertheless, in 1947, Ryan and three other Irish seamen agreed to return to Germany to give evidence against SS personnel on trial for war crimes. The military court heard harrowing evidence of back-breaking work, prisoners shot and beaten to death, and pitifully inadequate rations. The evidence of the Irish seamen proved vital in securing convictions for most of the SS men on trial.
No representative of the Irish Government attended the hearing. In fact, our Government was actively opposed to such trials, and lobbied vigorously against them. This may not have come as any great surprise to the merchant seamen. Ireland was one of the few countries in Europe whose diplomats had remained in place throughout the duration of the war.
The merchant seamen held in the Farge camp might, therefore, have hoped that their country's representative in Berlin would intervene to secure their repatriation. They were, after all, non-combatants from a neutral country, and it was not uncommon for merchant seamen to be repatriated: in 1944 alone, more than 100 Allied seamen were repatriated from the internment camp at Milag Nord.
Several of the Irish seamen later claimed that they had written to the Irish Charge d'Affaires in Berlin, while they were held in in Sandbostel and Milag Nord, seeking his assistance. There is a good deal of other evidence to indicate that the Irish authorities were well aware that Irish citizens were being held in these camps. However, it was not until August 1944 that the Irish consul in Germany visited Farge, and met the Irish prisoners. But, by then, it had become too late to obtain their release. There is no obvious explanation for the apparent indifference that our Government and diplomats showed for these Irish citizens. And, sadly, the neglect did not end with the prisoners' release from captivity.
In 1991, a memorial was unveiled to the merchant seamen from Ireland who died during World War Two. It lists the names of more than 150 Irishmen who were lost at sea as a result of German naval action. However, the granite monument in Dublin's docklands does not bear the name of my cousin William, or Patrick Breen, or any of the other Irish seamen who were used as slave workers in Bremen-Farge, and who perished in the Nazi terror.
The reason given was that they were not serving on Irish-registered merchant ships when they were captured.
The Irish slaves held in the Farge camp came from Dublin and Cork, Blackwater and Ballina, Waterford and Wicklow, Tralee and Clifden, Kinsale and Rush, Clogher Head and Tramore, Galway and Carlingford, Bray and Dun Laoghaire, Rosses Point and Passage West. The Germans could identify these merchant seamen as Irish – even though they sailed under Norwegian, Dutch, Australian and British flags. It appears that some of their fellow countrymen have not been so sure.
Earlier this year, I visited the Farge Bunker. Part of the enormous building has now been converted into a museum, and I was pleased to see that the Irish prisoners are acknowledged as a distinct group of victims of the Nazis. It seems deeply ironic that their suffering is recognised in Germany, but not in their own country.
I believe these Irishmen deserve to be remembered not only because of their suffering and endurance, or because they steadfastly refused to collaborate with the Nazis. It is also because a number of them chose to return to Germany to testify about the brutality of their treatment. By giving evidence, these Irish seamen asserted the fundamental principle that – even in a time of global hostilities – there remain certain boundaries to the ways in which any war should be conducted.
In a small way, the merchant seamen contributed to the proposition that war criminals – whether they operate in Germany, Rwanda or Syria – should be held responsible for acts that deliberately hurt innocent civilians or defenceless prisoners. For that alone, I believe that we continue to owe a debt of gratitude to the Irish slaves in Bremen-Farge.
'Suddenly, While Abroad – Hitler's Irish Slaves' will be published on December 10 by New Island Books, €16.99.