On this date in 1945, American troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Upper Bavaria — and then proceeded to summarily execute a number of its SS personnel.
The “Dachau massacre” involves several distinct incidents of wantonly killing defenseless POWs by American troops, who may have been set on edge by warnings of potential fake-surrender gambits, and then evidently went right off the rails with discovery of emaciated dead bodies around the place. In particular, a stranded transport that had been sent from Buchenwald, christened the “death train”, greeted the liberators with a 40-car phantasmagoria of horror.
“We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open, a picture I will never get out of my mind. It seems they were looking at us and saying, ‘What took you so long?'” -Private John Lee
“It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists. I couldn’t even talk.” -Lt. William Cowling
These stunned, outraged soldiers, some of them still teenagers, would soon have a bunch of disarmed German troops from the camp under their power. Uh-oh.
As the dry but shocking (and also marked “Secret”: nobody ever faced a court-martial for the incident*) U.S. Army investigation remarked, “The sight of these numerous victims would naturally produce strong mental reaction on the part of both officers and men. Such circumstances are extenuating, but are the only extenuating facts found.” (Read the entire report in this forum thread.)
The behaviors these facts propose to extenuate may also produce a strong mental reaction. “‘After what we saw, we shot any German guards we saw on sight,” one of the Dachau liberators admitted in the 1990s.
A Lt. William Walsh took the surrender of four SS men near one of these train cars, then forced his prisoners inside the car and shot them on the spot.
About seven Germans taken prisoner at the camp’s Tower B were lined up a few steps away from the tower preparatory to marching them elsewhere, when for sketchy reasons one of their American guards started shooting, and then others followed suit.
And the most notorious of the incidents, about 50 captured SS men were segregated from other POWs — again, by Lt. Walsh — and lined up in the camp coalyard by the wall of the hospital. There they were machine-gunned, resulting in 17 deaths before a superior officer interceded.
Another 25 to 50 guards were killed by prisoners themselves, many with the implicit blessing of American infantrymen who stood by and watched, and or the explicit blessing of Americans’ weapons on loan from sympathetic troopers.
The irony in all this was that most of the camp’s regular guards had already fled the place. The SS men whom outraged Americans were shooting down in the Dachau charnel house were Waffen-SS who had been transferred from the eastern front just days before and whose specific purpose in the camp was to surrender it to the western Allies. They probably considered this assignment far away from the vengeful Red Army a very lucky break.
It wasn’t so lucky: this is the mischance of war. But they didn’t have anything to do with Dachau’s horrors, and their deaths in a unthinking bloodlust disgraced only their executioners.
“German soldiers after their surrender as prisoners of war to American troops were summarily shot and killed by such troops.”
-Conclusion of the Army Inspector General’s report
* Court-martial charges were filed, but quashed. The whole affair remained unknown to the public until the 1980s.