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.
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.
Sunday Indo Living