Lest We Forget
During the spring of 1944, captured SOE agents, Vera Leigh, Sonia Olschanezky, Diana Rowden, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, Eliane Plewman and Odette Sansom were taken to Number 84 Avenue Foch, headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst, the counter-intelligence unit of the SS, and interrogated. On May 13th they were taken to the Paris railway station and each were handcuffed to a guard as they boarded the train to Karlsruhe prison.
“We were starting on this journey together in fear, but all of us hoping for something above all that we would remain together. We had all had a taste already of what things could be like, none of us did expect for anything very much, we all knew that they could put us to death. I was the only one officially condemned to death. The others were not. But there is always a fugitive ray of hope that some miracle will take place.” —Odette Sansom—
Prior to their arrival at Avenue Foch, they all had been beaten, raped and tortured but these atrocities were nothing compared to the unspeakable horrors they would be forced to endure over the next months. They all prayed and asked for salvation from Above, but God had bigger plans for these heros; maybe it was to warn the the world of what demonic evils our human race is capable of, if not held in check by the just and the righteous.
Only one woman would survive, she would tell their stories at Nuremberg.
Some time between five and six in the morning on July 6, 1944, Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Sonia Olschanezky and Diana Rowden were taken to a room, given their personal possessions, and handed over to two Gestapo officials who then took the four women to the Natzweiler concentration camp in France, where they arrived around three in the afternoon. They were led down to the cell-block at the bottom of the camp by SS officers and held there until later that night. They were initially together but later put into individual cells. Through the windows, which faced those of the infirmary, they managed to communicate with several prisoners, including a Belgian prisoner, Dr Georges Boogaerts, who had passed Andrée Borrel some cigarettes through the window; she then threw him a tobacco pouch containing some money.
The four women were told to undress for a medical check and have an injection for medical reasons by a doctor; it was in fact a lethal dose of phenol. According to a Polish prisoner named Walter Schultz, the SS medical orderly Emil Brüttel told him the following: “When the last woman was halfway in the oven (she had been put in feet first), she had come to her senses and struggled. As there were sufficient men there, they were able to push her into the oven, but not before she had resisted and scratched [Peter] Straub’s face.” The next day Schultz noticed that the face of the camp executioner (Straub) had been severely scratched; broken fingernails were also found.
At the post-war trial of the men charged with the murder of these four women, Dr Guérisse had stated that he was in the infirmary and had seen the women, one by one, being taken from the building housing the cells to the crematorium a few yards away. He told the court: “I saw the four women going to the crematorium, one after the other. One went, and two or three minutes later another went. The next morning the German prisoner in charge of the crematorium Franz Berg explained to me that each time the door of the oven was opened, the flames came out of the chimney and that meant a body have been put in the oven. I saw the flames four times.”
Franz Berg assisted in the crematorium and had stoked the fire that night before being sent back to the cell he shared with two other prisoners before the executions. The door was locked from the outside during the executions, but it was possible to see from a small window above the door, so the prisoner in the top bunk was able to keep up a running commentary on what he saw. Berg said: “We heard low voices in the next room and then the noise of a body being dragged along the floor, and he whispered to me that he could see people dragging something along the floor which was below his angle of vision through the fanlight.
At the same time that this body was being brought past we heard the noise of heavy breathing and low groaning combined…and again we heard the same noises and regular groans as the next two insensible women were dragged away. The fourth, however, resisted in the corridor. I heard her say ‘Pourquoi?’ and I heard a voice as I recognized as the doctor who was in civilian clothes say ‘Pour typhus’. We then heard the noise of a struggle and the muffled cries of the woman. I assumed that someone held a hand over her mouth. I heard the woman being dragged away too. She was groaning louder than the others. From the noise of the crematorium oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium oven. When the officials had gone, we went to the crematorium oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink woman’s stocking garter on the floor near the oven.”
Only the camp doctor Werner Rohde was executed after the war. Franz Berg was sentenced to five years in prison but sentenced to death in another trial for a different crime and hanged on the same day as Rohde. The camp commandant Fritz Hartjensteinb received a life sentence, while Straub was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
On September 4, 1944 the Gestapo collected Éliane Plewman, Yolande Beekman and Madeleine Damerment from Karlsruhe prison and drove them to the railway station to catch the early train to Munich. From there they caught a local train to Dachau and late in the evening, Gestapo officer named Max Wassmer who was in charge of prisoner transports walked the four women into Dachau concentration camp, arriving at about midnight. Between eight and ten the next morning on September 13, 1944, Éliane Plewman, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment and another female SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan were taken from their cell and forced to kneel in pairs before being executed by a single shot to the head by executioner Wilhelm Ruppert.
Another Gestapo named Christian Ott gave a statement to American investigators after the war as to the fate of the four. Ott was stationed at Karlsruhe and volunteered to accompany the four women to Dachau because he wanted to visit his family in Stuttgart on the return journey. Though not present at the execution, Ott told investigators what Wassmer had told him. After being walked from the barracks in the camp, where they had spent the night, into the yard where the shooting was to be done. Here Wassmer had announced the death sentence to them. Only the Commandant and the two SS men were present. Yolande Beekman who spoke german translated the sentence of death to her companions. All four grew very pale and wept. Yolande Beekman asked whether they could protest against the sentence. The commandant declared that no protest could be made against the sentence. She then asked to see a priest. The commandant refused this on the grounds that there was no priest in the camp.
The four women were forced to kneel with their heads towards a small mound of earth, the two English women held hands and so did the two French women. Each were shot, one after another, through the back of the neck by the two SS. For three of the prisoners death was instantaneously but for the Yolande Beekman, a second shot had to be fired for she was still alive after the first shot.
After the shootings, the Kommandant told the two SS to bring the women’s jewelry to his office.
Odette Sansom was taken to Fresnes Prison in Paris, where she was interrogated beaten and tortured, having her toenails torn out and her spine branded by a hot iron, and finally sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for execution.
Her execution was never carried out. The Gestapo believe that her “husband” Peter Churchill was related to Winston Churchill. The SS wanted to keep her as a bargaining chip. During her captivity, she suffered long periods of dark solitary confinement.
Eventually the camp was liberated on April 30,1945 by the Red Army; Odette Sansom, along with 3,500 other starved and sickly prisoners were discovered alive and she received her freedom.
“… the mind which is lastingly impressed and shocked by a single crime staggers and reels at the contemplation of mass criminality: becomes almost impervious to horror, conditioned against shock. And as events recede into the past, those who did not themselves experience them begin to question whether these things could indeed have happened and wonder whether the stories about them are really more than the propaganda of enemies.”—Sir Hartley Shawcross—British prosecutor at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in November 1945.
Thirty nine female SOE agents were sent to France and thirteen never returned. Twelve were executed by the Gestapo. Of the eight SOE agents which were taken from Number 84 Avenue Foch on that day, only Odette Sansom was to return home, where she died in 1995 at age 83. “Her wartime experiences had taught her two great truths; that suffering is an ineluctable part of the human lot, and that the battle against evil is never over.”
Lest We Forget