HERITAGE - 28: DIRTY WAR, Massacre Prompts S.A.S. Search For Nazi War Criminals (1945-1948)
Even from the start, from the parachute drop in the Vosges Mountains in north eastern France...
From the drop that left them amid the Panzers, the SAS called for armed jeeps to be dropped for them to be able to create a real disturbance. Thirty-one men did not get away from the Vosges Mountains. Read about the outcome of the harrowing expedition
...Things began to go wrong
Patton's US Third Army had outstripped its supply line and had to wait for replenishment by road. The US Logistics Corps ('Red Ball Express') had the additional problem in transporting essential supplies across 'Injun Country', where German snipers and isolated SS units couldn't face the prospect of their Fuehrer's war being lost. Fuel through 'PLUTO' (Pipeline Under The Ocean') between England and Normandy was not coming through in sufficient quantities and pursuit of the retreating Germans ground to a temporary crawl.
Meanwhile the SAS men, having made nuisances of themselves and run rings around the Germans in their specially kitted-out jeeps were running out of ammunition, food and fuel. Some were captured trying to get back to their own lines, some were injured and needed the sort of medical attention for which their first aid boxes were inadequately equipped. Some got lost and in the mountains radio contact was not always possible amongst the deep, thickly wooded valleys.
And then many of the SAS soldiers were isolated from their comrades, captured and stripped of their uniforms one after another...
Identity discs were ripped from around their necks and discarded before SS guards stood them at the edge of a shallow bomb crater. Each soldier was then shot with one bullet to the back of the head and pushed into the crater before all were covered with earth and forest litter in a bid to hide the crime.
Eighteen months on, in May 1946 the Nazi officer who had given the order for their murder stood facing the mass grave. This time SS Oberwachtmeister Heinrich Neuschwanger was the one held at gunpoint by an SAS soldier who had resolved to make him aware of the enormity of the deed.
The Special Air Service Regiment established in the spring of 1942 (see HERITAGE 22: 'WELL MET ...') had been officially disbanded with the cessation of hostilities a year earlier. There is a new book by historian Damien Lewis that shows that was not strictly the case. A top-secret unit of thirty SAS men carried on with the grisly task of finding each of the perpetrators. The squad 'went dark' at war's end to take up the unofficial mission.
Their aim was to search out the SS and Gestapo fiends who had taken part in the murder of thirty-one of their comrades, captured in N E France in the last year of war. They would also seek out the many French civilians who had helped the men by trying to hide and feed them. Over a hundred of the perpetrators and instigators - each as bad as those who stood trial in Nuremberg - were located and taken prisoner by 1948, duly brought to trial after evading justice for three years.
The small SAS unit, known as the Clandestine Hunters was organised and directed from a shadowy HQ based in the Hyde Park Hotel, London W1. Funding, 'off the books' was underwritten by an exiled Russian aristocrat, Prince Yuri Galatzine who worked at the War Office.
This group of soldiers was the earliest to expose the real grisly facts of the Nazi extermination camps when they first stumbled across one in France in 1944, almost half a year before Soviet troops entered Auschwitz. The Natzweiler-Struhof Concentration Camp lay near Strasbourg, the location of sadistic experiment by twisted Nazi doctors. There commandant Josef Kramer had experimented with gas to exterminate Jewish inmates. He himself gassed eighty men and women for a skeleton collection at a nearby university. Kramer would be transferred to Poland to head proceedings at the new Auschwitz gas chambers before being put in charge of Belsen. He was hanged in 1945 together with one of his female 'wardens', Irma Grese.
The Natzweiler camp was the site of torture for many SAS soldiers* (as well as those shot in the forest). It was also where four female Special Operations Executive agents were callously dealt with. The women - one French, two British and one German - had operated undercover in France with the Resistance before being betrayed by collaborators. On the day they came to the camp they were injected - ostensibly to protect them from disease rife in the camp - with carbolic acid and pushed into the ovens for cremation. One, forty-one year old Leeds-born Vera Leigh recovered consciousness before she could be pushed in. Fighting vainly to live she clawed the camp executioner Peter Straub with her fingernails, leaving a large scar on his cheek.
* Hitler had ordered the execution of all commandos, the SAS included. He had a pathological hatred of non-conformist methods of pursuing warfare in common with many senior German officers who regarded them as 'Chicago gangsters'.
Trouble brewed, the Panzers closed in and with them the SS with instructions from Hitler to annihilate all commandos or special forces personnel ....
The hunt for the SS perpetrators took the team led by Major Eric 'Bill' Barkworth over a quarter of a million miles...
Back and forth they tracked their 'quarry' through Germany and the rest of war-torn Europe, from Italy to Norway, western France to Russia. They were set on gaining justice for their uniformed comrades, murdered in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention.
These thirty-one prisoners had been with the SAS force of eighty parachuted into the Vosges Mountains near the German border in 1944 as part of 'Operation Loyton', to aid the French Resistance. They were to have been reinforced by General Patton's army but owing to an accident in timing and poor intelligence they landed amid a whole Panzer division. They managed to destroy thirteen German vehicles and kill their occupants as well as destroy a number of strategic targets. Shelter was found in Moussey around which the enemy combed the forests and mountains. Over time dozens of uniformed SAS men were captured and given over to the SS and Gestapo. This was when they vanished, the thirty-one executed in the forest.
Many others were kept out of sight by the villagers. When the Germans saw they would not be able to kill or take all the commandos they rounded up the Moussey villagers and sent them to different concentration camps. None of the villagers gave away the whereabouts of the hidden SAS base. almost a thousand villagers were taken from the valley, over six hundred of whom never came back.
The commander of 2 SAS as he was then, Colonel Franks.told the remaining villagers he would find out what had happened to their kin and neighbours. He felt the regiment owed them that.
There was a problem nevertheless...
Franks knew the regiment was to be disbanded with the end of the war. Yet even as the veterans were sent back to their original units to be demobilised, a small band of hand-picked officers and men were sent to Germany to comb the POW camps and towns for the miscreants, to learn what became of the missing soldiers and villagers.
The units, still wearing their SAS berets with the famed cap badge would not accept the war as being altogether at an end. They would wage a very personal war to search out some of the worst Nazi war criminals, who would not admit to having done wrong. The group used wiles and low cunning to sniff out their prey, learned over the three years since initial recruitment into the new regiment in the spring of 1942. The methods and the training they used are still being taught to modern-day recruits from regular British Army regiments.
On the hunt...
One of the war criminals...
The former SS Oberscharfuehrer Max Kessler was tracked to an address in Germany where the two occupants maintained they had not set eyes on him for a long time.
Sergeant Fred 'Dusty' Rhodes spotted three plates of half-eaten soup on the table. He found a hidden cellar door next. The once ebullient Nazi cowered in a linen basket. At around this time Oberwachtmeister Neuschwanger, who had given the execution order on the SAS men was found hiding under an alias. Inmates of the camp he officiated at spoke of him as never being happier than when he beat or killed prisoners. He had been nicknamed 'Stuka' for making them lie down whilst he stamped on their stomachs. He had beaten one SAS prisoner, Major Dennis Reynolds so badly the man's bones poked through his skin.
After being taken to the woodland where the thirty-one had died Neuschwanger went before a war crimes tribunal. found guilty, he was executed on August 3rd, 1946.
Natzweiler camp executioner Straub was found at home in Mannheim...
Although he vehemently denied his identity he was betrayed by the scratch scars on his cheek from when Vera Leigh clawed him to keep from being pushed into the oven. He went to the gallows in October the same year as his colleague Neuschwanger.
Activity continued well into 1948, during which time they kept the identity of the SAS Regiment, long enough for Colonel Franks to set up the 21 SAS Artists' Rifles in the Territorial Army unit that would lead to the re-formation of the SAS Regiment when it was reinstated in the 1950s.
The regiment still annually marks the killings and Moussey deportations to the death camps, the hundreds who never rejoined kin and neighbours. The thirty-one SAS men were exhumed from their crater grave in the woods, the dead men from Natzweiler Camp and those civilians from Moussey and its valley buried with them in the village churchyard.
See also HERITAGE - 22: 'WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT...'
During the time Franks' team searched high and low for the SS and Gestapo perpetrators for the demise of their colleagues, another search was underway. Vera Atkins, Special Operations Executive (SOE) controller tried to find out what had happened to four of her girls, the ones who had been taken to Natzweiler. She learned of their fate from the SAS men who had tracked down Kessler, Neuschwanger and Straub.
The original regiment, the Artists' Rifles
Regimental History: From Artists' Rifles to SAS
The regiment's history and background is convoluted. Initially The Artists' Rifles was a regiment of the British Army Reserve, raised in London in 1859 as a volunteer light infantry unit, seeing active front line service in both the Second Boer War and First World War. Many battle honours have been won, including eight Victoria Crosses, 56 Distinguished Service Orders, 893 Military Crosses and over six hundred other honours won mainly in WWI. Serving with the regiment were Henry Wyndham Phillips and Frederic Leighton amongst other commanders notable for their leadership qualities.
During the Second World War the regiment was seconded for officer training, seeing no active overseas service as a unit. Disbanded in 1945 the regiment was re-established in 1947 as a step towards the reinstatement of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). Currently the regiment is better known as 21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) Reserve 21 SAS (R).
With 23 Special Air Service Regiment (Reserve) (23 SAS (R)) it forms the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS (R)). The Forces Branch is nevertheless Reserve and covered by strict security measures to protect its 'special' status. Details of operations are never given out, nor are personnel details. Selection is made from current service regiments on a regular basis after rigorous physical and mental trials. Captured SAS personnel might be tortured in secret, as has happened in the past, so physical and mental stamina needs to be in peak condition.
What is your opinion of the SAS search for the perpetrators?
Should they have followed through their actions or left it to the officials to bring Kessler, Neuschwanger and Straub to justice?
There are two other pages in the HERITAGE series linked to this one:
HERITAGE 21: 'LIGHTNING STRIKE ON CRETE...' tells of Laycock's Commandos being sent to Crete to aid the Army in its retreat to North Africa;
HERITAGE 22: 'WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT' paraphrases Shakespeare's play title with Laycock's commandos covering the Anzac and British retreat over the Cretan mountains from Maleme and the unit's metamorphosis into the SAS