Two Wrongs Make Right

Thanks to the Allied insistence that surrendered, disarmed German soldiers were not POW’s but “disarmed forces who had surrendered unconditionally,” treaties guarding against abuse could be ignored and were. One of the worst examples of this policy was the use of captives for slave labor preforming deadly tasks, in the case here, clearing land of mines.

In Norway, German protests that forcing POWs to clear mines was against international law, article 32 of the Geneva conventions, were rejected with the assertion that the Germans were not POW’s but “disarmed forces who had surrendered unconditionally.”

After the German capitulation in Norway on May 8, 1945, over 5,000 German prisoners of war were forced by the British, under the command of General Sir Andrew Thorn, to undertake clearance of land mines in clear violation of the Geneva Convention of 1928. The POWs had to walk arm-in-arm through mine fields already cleared of mines in hopes of triggering off land mines that were not found previously. Mine clearance reports received by the Allied Forces Head Quarter state: June 21, 1945 lists 199 dead and 163 wounded Germans. The registration from August 29, 1945 lists 275 dead and 392 Germans. Neither Thorn nor anyone else was ever held accountable for war crimes.

It happened in Denmark as well, and a Danish historian documented the killing of German POWs during such clearance of land mines. It is assumed that about 250 German POWs met their deaths in this way in Denmark when forced to perform this diabolical task. On the morning of July 22, 1945, seven Germans were blown into the air as 450 land mines detonated. The other German POWs had to then collect the body parts of their friends without using gloves or other protection.

At the end of the war, mines had been laid on more than 500,000 hectares of land in France. The French had asked the Americans and the British to hand German POWs over to them for use in mine-clearing operations. London and Washington agreed, and the French forced tens of thousands of German prisoners of war to clear minefields between mid-1945 and the end of 1947, regardless of whether the mines had been laid by German army engineers or by the French army against German forces. Possibly as many as 50,000 German POWs may have been used for this high-risk form of forced labor. An estimated 1,800 of them died. Some of the survivors are asking for compensation.

German prisoners of war being used as mine clearers although they should have been protected under the Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929. Article 32 unequivocally states that: “It is forbidden to use prisoners of war at unhealthful or dangerous work.”

There seemed to be a grim satisfaction in having German prisoners “clean up” the mess of war and the thought of exacting retribution from those unable to defend themselves made titillating news. Many were forced to perform “clean up” operations such as those illustrated above in a 1946 British magazine where the German prisoners were vindictively fanned out and made to sweep clean Dunkirk beach of “hazardous materials.”

It was not only male POWs who suffered the grim consequences of revenge. As shown on another page of this site, female German military personnel also paid the price.

On April 15, 1945, the Belsen prison camp was occupied by British troops who found thousands of decaying corpses scattered about the grounds. In the final, chaotic months of the war, trains had brought to Belsen thousands of new inmates from other camps in the east which had experienced catastrophic conditions during the final months of the war when food and medical transports were being destroyed on the roads and railways by Allied bombers. This made the conditions at Belsen even worse, and the ensuing shortage of food, water and medicines together with overcrowding and an uncontrollable outbreak of typhus had caused the deaths of thousands of inmates.

A few weeks after the British takeover, another 13,000 died, some 2,000 of them after eating the rich food given to them by the British. On May 2, some 95 medical students from London’s teaching hospitals were flown to Belsen to help treat the sick prisoners. It was acknowledged that there was no deliberate intention by the Germans to starve the prisoners to death at Belsen. There were no gas chambers and the “crematorium” consisted of only one furnace in which to dispose of the dead.

All the same, the British executed the camp’s commandant and his chief physician at the ‘Belsen War Crimes Trial’ in spite of valiant efforts they had made to remedy the horrible situation. They had quarantined the camp and done everything in their power to prevent the catastrophe, even begging the surrounding population to donate vegetables and food. Of a total of 86 staff members captured at Belsen, 28 were women. By June 17, twenty had died, most from digging graves to bury the dead inmates which the British forced them to do. By the end of the month the whole camp had to be burned down (also covered elsewhere).