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Sunday 24 March 2019

From the Theatre Royal to Dachau: Himmler's special Irish prisoners

At the end of World War II, 160 prominent prisoners were held hostage in the Dolomites by the Nazis. Author Tom Wall tells the story of the Irishmen among them

Last stand: US troops and partisans in Niederdorf
Last stand: US troops and partisans in Niederdorf
John McGrath (second left) during a 1937 visit to Dublin Zoo by American entertainer Jimmy Durante (third right)

In April 1945, as Allied forces advanced into Germany, a group of Nazi hostages were transported from various concentration camps to a remote Alpine valley. Five Irish prisoners of war, an officer and four ordinary soldiers, became part of this group. They were among 160 prisoners from 18 countries transferred from various concentration camps to Dachau. From there they were moved to a remote location in the South Tyrol.

The group included members of the former governments of France, Hungary, Greece, Austria, and senior military figures from a number of countries. There were also aristocrats, clergy, industrialists and diplomats, all held as hostages whom Heinrich Himmler, commander of the Schutzstaffel and the Gestapo, hoped to use as barter to save the regime or, as a final resort, himself.

The Irish officer of the group was John McGrath, from Co Roscommon. A World War I veteran, he left his job as manager of Dublin's Theatre Royal in 1939 to rejoin the British army. He didn't make it on to the boats at Dunkirk and, along with 40,000 other British servicemen, he was marched across France to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Initially held in an officer camp in Bavaria, he later became the senior British officer held in a secret camp north of Berlin designed to turn POWs with an Irish background into Nazi collaborators.

He had volunteered for this role on the urging of his senior officers in his POW camp, who wished to find out what was afoot. McGrath's subversive activities were soon discovered by German Military Intelligence and he was arrested and deposited in the notorious Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

John McGrath (second left) during a 1937 visit to Dublin Zoo by American entertainer Jimmy Durante (third right)
John McGrath (second left) during a 1937 visit to Dublin Zoo by American entertainer Jimmy Durante (third right)

Three Tipperary POWs - Thomas Cushing, Andrew Walsh and Patrick O'Brien - also ended up in Sachsenhausen. There they were joined by another Irishman, John Spence. All had, to some extent, been compromised by their agreeing to work for the Nazis, although some had been given leave by McGrath to take part in missions on the basis that on landing on Irish or British soil they would, at the first opportunity, report to the authorities.

Special status

When the Germans realised they were likely to be double-crossed, the Irishmen were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen, where they were placed in an isolated section distant from where McGrath was held. They were later joined by Russian, British, Polish and Italian special prisoners. All were now Nacht und Nebel - night and fog - prisoners, whose existence was a state secret. The Irish were given special status because they knew of German secret missions. Some later acted as 'orderlies' to British officers who came to inhabit the same special compound, including survivors of the famous 'Great Escape' from Stalag Luft III in 1944.

Prior to the British officer's arrival, the Tipperary men had become central to an event with international repercussions that occurred on April 14, 1943. Two special Soviet prisoners had been housed with the Irishmen: Yakov Djugashvili, Joseph Stalin's eldest son, and Vassily Kokorin, a nephew of the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. An argument arose about the state of a shared toilet that led to a fist fight that pitted at least three of the Irishmen against the two Soviet prisoners. One version of the incident has Stalin's son being chased by a knife-wielding Cushing, before jumping out of a window of their hut. Yakov ended up standing outside after curfew, where he was ordered by an SS guard to return or he would be shot. Watched by Cushing and the others, the young Georgian, instead of returning to barracks, ran to the electrified fence and was simultaneously electrocuted and shot. His death was to prove embarrassing for the British in their post-war dealings with Stalin.

McGrath had been transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau Concentration Camp in early 1943 where he shared a cell with Richard Stevens, an intelligence officer, kidnapped by the Germans in then neutral Netherlands in 1939. They were uncomfortable cell mates, as became apparent when Steven's former colleague, Sigismund Payne Best, later became a co-resident of that camp prison. Both officers had been treated with great leniency by the SS, perhaps because they were expected to play a part in a public show trial planned by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

The day before their kidnapping in 1939, a bomb had exploded beside where Hitler had spoken only 13 minutes earlier. The bomb was placed by a young man acting alone, Georg Elser, but Hitler became convinced that the British were involved, and Payne Best and Stevens were considered likely to have been directly implicated. Elser was held in the same prison bunker as McGrath and Stevens, before being executed on the day Payne Best was transferred there.

Dachau had become the assembly point for scores of prominent prisoners whom the Nazis considered to have value as hostages. Included among the hostages were a number of Wehrmacht generals who had fallen under suspicion of having plotted against Hitler.

Also present were dozens of German 'kin' prisoners, men, women and children, relatives of those executed after being implicated in the plot to kill Hitler in July 1944. Among them was Alexander von Stauffenberg, the brother of Claus, who placed the bomb close to Hitler in the Wolf's Lair. The British and Irish contingent became integrated into this enlarged group, collectively known as the Prominenten.

In late April 1945, accompanied by some notorious SS guards, the hostages were transported to Niederdorf, an Alpine village high in the Dolomite Mountains, the presumed location for a last stand by fanatical Nazis. This extraordinary collection of prisoners, of diverse nationality and background, thrown together by fate, found themselves interacting with Italian partisans, ethnic German South Tyrolean resisters, and Senior Wehrmacht Generals plotting to surrender.

The hostages elected an international committee within which McGrath played a significant role. Most survived, and some are revealed to have improbable post-war lives, including one of the Irish who was implicated in two major armed robberies. Captivity took its toll on McGrath, physically and mentally, and he died in Dublin 30 months after his liberation.

Tom Wall is the author of 'Dachau to the Dolomites: The Untold Story of the Irishmen, Himmler's Special Prisoners and the End of WWII', published by Merrion Press; see merrionpress.ie

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