Join Date: Nov 2011
Account by David Blake Knox of the treatment of the Irish merchant navy prisoners in Bremen Farge Concentration Camp.
My father had mentioned that his cousin, William, had died in Bremen in 1945. I had assumed that William was an Allied soldier who had been killed during the invasion of Germany ‑ like one of my uncles. Now I discovered that he 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 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, which was “probably a disguised merchant vessel”, took the crew prisoner and sank their ship. The prisoners were eventually brought to Bordeaux in Occupied France; from there, most of them were sent on to be interned in Germany. However the Irish seamen were segregated, and, in the spring of 1941, they were taken with other Irish prisoners to be interrogated by German Military Intelligence.
The surviving seamen told The Irish Times how the Abwehr (German Intelligence) tried to persuade them that they had a common enemy in Britain. 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 asked to become part of the Nazi war effort. All of them declined the invitation and, towards the end of 1941, they were moved to a concentration camp in Germany. A year or so later, they were moved again: this time, to a merchant navy internment camp.
Throughout their captivity, the Irish seamen consistently refused to sign an agreement to become freie Arbeiter – voluntary workers ‑ for the German Reich. In early 1943 they were again segregated, and thirty-two of them ‑ including William ‑ were moved by the Gestapo to Bremen Farge. This was one of seven satellite labour camps attached to the large concentration camp at Neuengamme in northern Germany.
According to the survivors, they were beaten by SS guards when they arrived at Farge. They were told that, since they were civilians, they were not protected by the Geneva Convention, or the International Red Cross. Their new accommodation was a disused fuel tank buried beneath several metres of solid concrete. The seamen learned that they had been brought to Farge to work on Project Valentin: the codename for an immense underground bunker, where Reichsminister Albert Speer planned to construct submarines on an assembly line, in pre-fabricated sections – like the US “Liberty Ships”. Speer’s ambition was to build a new U-boat every fifty-six hours.
The thirty-two Irishmen joined more than ten thousand other slave labourers – mainly Russians and Poles ‑ who were working on Project Valentin. This operated on a twenty-four-hour-shift system, with each shift lasting for at least twelve hours. There was one half-hour meal break for soup and black bread: the bare minimum required to keep prisoners alive. According to the survivors, the Irish seamen were assigned to some of the hardest work. Usually, this involved lifting, carrying and emptying heavy 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.
Before they left for Farge, the merchant seamen had written a number of letters to the Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin, William Warnock, explaining their predicament and seeking his assistance. At that time Warnock held pronounced anti-British views. In a breach of diplomatic protocol, he had publicly applauded Hitler’s triumphant Reichstag speech of July 1940. In a dispatch sent to Dublin in the same year he predicted confidently that the Luftwaffe’s blitz of London would soon have a “shattering effect on the morale of the self-centred and self-satisfied British”.
Warnock had earlier advised against seeking the release of James Joyce’s Jewish friend Paul Léon from Auschwitz. He had been asked by Dublin to intervene “in case there is danger that Léon be shot”. Warnock claimed that the real danger was that such intervention might affect Ireland’s “good relations” with Nazi Germany. Dublin deferred to his judgement, and Léon was executed in April 1942.
In 1940, Léon had rescued many of Joyce’s original manuscripts when their author fled the Nazi occupation of Paris ‑ including the only known drafts of the “Ithaca”, “Scylla and Charybdis” and “Penelope” episodes of Joyce’s Ulysses. Léon died in Auschwitz, but ‑ sixty years later ‑ the Irish Government paid €11 million to acquire those same manuscripts from his family. It is not known if Warnock ever received the Irish seamen’s letters: what is quite clear, however, is that he did nothing to help them.
As the tide of war began to turn against Germany, Dr Edward Hempel, the German minister in Dublin, complained that the Irish Government’s attitude had also changed: becoming “unhelpful and evasive”. In this context, it seems that Warnock’s apparent sympathy for Hitler’s regime came to be viewed as potentially damaging to Irish interests. In late 1943 he was replaced by Con Cremin, whose view of Nazism appears to have been a good deal more critical. Cremin sent reports back to Dublin of the Nazis’ genocidal treatment of Europe’s Jews, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to rescue some of them. In August 1944 he visited the Irish merchant seamen in Bremen Farge. According to the survivors, he told them he was determined that they would be repatriated to Ireland.
Cremin argued that, as non-combatants from a neutral state, they should not be treated as prisoners of war – let alone slave workers. By the end of 1944, his campaign for their release appeared to have succeeded. The Irishmen were loaded onto a train and sent to the port of Flensburg where they were to be dispatched to Sweden ‑ and, thence, home on board a Swedish merchant ship. However, Allied bombing prevented them from reaching Flensburg and they were returned to the camp at Bremen Farge.
The camp was run jointly by the SS and the Gestapo and according to the Irish survivors its Kommandant was an unrestrained sadist. In the last weeks of the camp’s existence, he went on a homicidal rampage, shooting many prisoners, strangling and suffocating others. On April 10th, 1945, Bremen Farge was abandoned by the SS and most of the prisoners were forced to march to another camp, further from the Allied advance. Farge was finally liberated by British troops in the first week of May ‑ but liberation came too late for William. He had survived nearly five years of captivity, but died on March 2nd – either from starvation or typhus. He is buried in Rheinberg war cemetery, along with three of the four other Irishmen who died in the camp at Farge.
In 1947, thirteen of the Farge guards were tried for war crimes. The military court heard harrowing evidence of back-breaking work, prisoners shot or beaten to death and pitifully inadequate rations. Despite that, the German government denied legal liability for many years, insisting that the Irish seamen had been paid for their labour. In fact, all such payments were made directly to the SS, in alleged recompense for the prisoners’ food and board. It was not until 1999 that a proper scheme for compensation was established, and not until 2004 – fifty-nine years after his liberation ‑ that the one Irish survivor who was still alive received any money.
In 1991 a memorial was unveiled to the merchant seamen from Ireland who died during World War Two. It lists the names of more than one hundred and fifty men who were lost at sea as a result of German naval action. It took many years of patient lobbying for their deaths to be acknowledged publicly in this way. However, the granite monument in Dublin’s docklands does not bear the name of my father’s cousin William, or of any of the other Irish seamen who were used as slave workers in Bremen Farge and who perished in the Nazi terror. The reason given was that they were not serving on Irish-registered merchant ships when they were captured.
Three of the five Irishmen who died in Farge were from Dublin, one was from Mayo and another from Wexford. The Germans could identify these merchant seamen as Irish – even though they sailed under Norwegian, Dutch and British flags. It appears that some of their fellow countrymen have not been so sure.
Irish Times article that he refers to
Irish Times May 17th, 1945
IRISHMAN'S STORY OF "HORROR" CAMPS
The experiences of thirty-two citizen of Eire, all merchant seamen, in an S.S. camp in Germany, where five of them died from starvation or typhus, were described yesterday to an "Irish Times" reporter by William English, of Arklow, one of the thirty-two, who has just arrived in Dublin after his liberation.
He said the camp was at Bremen Farge, outside Bremen, and that the camp commandant - named Schaubecker - a month ago shot sixteen prisoners after announcing that he knew he would be shot or hanged by the Allied armies, and he "would take as many as he could with him."
Mr English saw a naked Belgian prisoner beaten to death with rubber hose for attempting to escape. A Pole was shot in the thigh while trying to escape, and the S.S. guards rubbed salt into the wound and beat him with electric cable. He walked from the end of the camp to the hospital, but a Russian doctor, also a prisoner, was refused permission to attend him, and gangrene set in. The doctor said it would be more merciful to shoot the man. The guard did so. Next morning a French prisoner who refused information was shot.
A Russian prisoner was thrown into the camp refuse heap and Schaubecker forced some of the muck from the heap into his throat with a wire before throwing him back on the heap. He was struck with a rifle butt on the head and killed. His body was left for three days on the heap.
The five citizens of Eire who died in the camp were:
W.H. KNOX, Dun Laoghaire;
Owen CORR, of Rush, Co. Dublin;
Gerald O'HARA, Ballina, Co. Mayo;
Patrick BREEN, Blackwater, Co. Wexford, and
Thomas MURPHY, of Dublin.
Mr. English said that he was a seaman on the Blue Star liner, s.s. Africa Star, and in January, 1941, while they were bound from South America to London, they were intercepted by the German surface raider, Steinmark, which took the liner's crew aboard and then sank her. The men were taken to Bordeaux and sent to Germany to camp Stalag XB, 10B Sandbostel.
The prisoners whose homes were in Eire were segregated and questioned by German intelligence officers and urged to work for Germany. They all refused.
In September, 1941, about fifty Irishmen, all seamen, were taken to Marlag, Nilag Nord, another camp, and thirty-two of them were sent to Bremen Labour Exchange. They were brought to a factory and again refused to work.
Their guards suggested to them that, being Irish, they ought to work against Britain in the war.
They were taken to Hamburg and asked to work on German ships, but again refused, and they were returned to Bremen Farge.
In the camp they worked 12 hours a day, mostly at carrying rail tracks. Russian girls, aged from 16 to 18, were doing the same kind of work. In Bremen Jewish girls of from 15 to 18 worked in demolition squads.
Mr. English said that, apart from the effort to get them to work for German, the prisoners from Eire got no special treatment as citizens of a neutral State. They repeatedly wrote to Mr. Warnock when he was Eire's representative in Berlin, but received no answer and did not know if the letters had reached him. On August 18th last, Mr. C.C. Cremin, the new representative of Eire in Berlin, visited them at the camp, and their treatment improved. He made every effort to get them sent home.
After twenty-six months they were put on a train for Flensburg, but were forced back because Allied planes had destroyed a bridge on the route, and a repatriation ship, which they had expected to meet in a Swedish port, sailed without them. They were sent to the camp at Marlag Nilag Nord, which was captured in April by a Guards armoured regiment.
The names of the 27 men, who came out of the camp alive, are:-
William ENGLISH and C. BYRNE, Arklow;
Valentine HARRIS, Pearse House, Dublin;
J.J. MOFFAT, Rosses Point;
Bernard GOULDING, Skibbereen;
Harry CALLAN, Derry;
Noel J. LACEY, Howth;
Richard FLYNN, Tramore;
Thomas COONEY, Wexford;
Edward CONDON, Passage West, Co. Cork;
William KELLY and J.J. RYAN, Waterford;
Patrick REILLY and Patrick KAVANAGH, Wicklow;
I.C. RYAN, Tramore;
T.C. BRYCE, formerly of Clontarf, Dublin, who lived in Australia before the war broke out;
Thomas KING, formerly of Clifden, now living in Newcastle;
Peter LYDON, Tralee;
P.J. O'Brien, Armagh, now of London;
Michael LOWRY, formerly of Galway, domiciled in Scotland;
J. O'BRIEN, of Kinsale, living in Wales;
James GORMAN, Clogher Head;
P.J. O'CONNOR, Carlingford;
Michael O'DWYER, Cork;
Robert ROSEMAN, Bray;
James FURLONG, Wexford, and
William KNOTT, Ringsend, Dublin.