1936: Buck Ruxton, red stains 1631: Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven

1945: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck, Wehrmacht deserters

May 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, five days after the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in World War II, two deserting sailors were shot at Amsterdam.


Dorfer (top) and Beck.

The strangest thing: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck were deserters of the Wehrmacht’s Kriegsmarine … and they were shot by a court-martial conducted by the Wehrmacht itself.

This surprising and shameful story is told in full by Chris Madsen in “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945,” a 1993 Canadian Military History journal article available online in pdf form.

Basically, a pocket of fortified German resistance remained hunkered down in the Netherlands as the war approached its close. That force of 150,000 surrendered to a much smaller number of Canadians on May 5 on terms that maintained German responsibility for administering its armed forces and the civilian areas under its control — a highly anomalous situation in an occupied country as the Third Reich winked out of existence altogether.

Canadians and Germans, according to Madsen, enjoyed a collegial relationship as the Canadians gradually took German forces into custody … or received German forces who helpfully marched themselves into custody. But even under guard, these “imprisoned” Germans still retained significant autonomy and a German command structure that Canadians were loath to interfere with — an arrangement so expedient that it severely tested the bounds of propriety. So invested were the Canadians in maintaining their opposite numbers’ unit cohesion* that they handed some deserters (and plenty of men were deserting the German army) back over to the nominal prisoners!

Rainer Beck had been deserted for the best part of a year: the son of a Social Democratic father and a Jewish mother, he’d ditched harbor defense the previous September and had been laying low with his sister in Amsterdam. Bruno Dorfer was a more recent deserter. They naturally assumed that with the Canadian takeover, they’d be good to go: they turned themselves in to Canadian soldiers with an eye towards regularizing their status.

They were in for quite a surprise, as Madsen relates:

Major Oliver Mace, acting commanding officer of the Canadian regiment, ordered Major J. Dennis Pierce, the company commander in charge of the former factory [where the German prisoners were being held], to place the two deserters inside the compound because “they were certainly Germans and we had no other place to put them.” …

At 1005 hours on 13 May 1945, Pierce informed 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade of the intended German course of action: “German Marine deserters being tried this morning. German Commander intends [to] shoot them.” The German camp leadership established a Standgericht or a court martial within the camp … [and] brought Dorfer and Beck before three officers, a team of military lawyers “whom Pierce himself had ‘put in the bag’ in the streets of Amsterdam earlier in the week.” [Fregattenkapitan Alexander] Stein regarded the proceedings as a show trial for his authority. At the insistence of the German naval commander, the entire camp population witnessed the event. A parade state, taken earlier that morning, counted 1,817 German marines inside the camp. The two accused, represented by a German military lawyer, underwent rigorous cross-examination before this large staring crowd … Oberleutnantnginieur Frank Trmal, a young German officer present at the fifteen-minute trial, remembered Beck’s defense:

For some reason Beck, who was older, decided to defend himself and told the court that we (the Germans) all knew several weeks ago the war was all over for us and that it was a matter of time before we surrendered. He told the captain and the court that any further fighting by us against the Canadians would be senseless bloodshed. With this the captain jumped to his feet in a rage, screaming at Beck that he was calling all of us, his comrades, and his officers, murderers. It is something that I will never forget.

After the inevitable-yet-incredible conviction, Stein appealed to his Canadian guards for a bit of comradely assistance in carrying out the court-martial’s order.

The Seaforth Highlanders obligingly delivered up eight captured German rifles with ammunition, plus a heavy truck to help their “prisoners” execute their deserters. A Canadian military cable testifies in its clipped and plaintive language to the egregious moral vacuum afflicting the chummy occupation: “German marines in Amsterdam have picked up some of their own deserters. They have been tried by military law and sentenced to be shot. May they do this.”

The answer was determined not by any senior Canadian officer, but by the German high commander who had surrendered the Dutch pocket the week before, Johannes Blaskowitz. It was on his approval that Dorfer and Beck were shot against an air raid shelter wall at 1740, not eight hours after their bizarre public trial.

When the story surfaced publicly in 1966 as a result of Der Spiegel investigations, Stein was unrepentant. “Beck would never have been a credit to Germany anyway,” he told the Globe and Mail (Oct. 28, 1966). “Deserters only turn into criminals in civil life too.”

This execution is dramatized in the 1969 Italian-Yugoslav film Dio è con noi (The Fifth Day of Peace, also released as Gott mit Uns and The Firing Squad).

* Conceivably as part of a policy to have Wehrmacht troops in readiness in case the western allies segued directly into war with the Soviet Union. Jacques Pauwels writes in The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War:

it is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Germany,History,Military Crimes,Netherlands,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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5 thoughts on “1945: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck, Wehrmacht deserters”

  1. A fascinating and little-known story from the final days of WW2.

  2. RM1(SS) says:

    “Marines”? First I’ve ever heard of marines in WWII Germany. Wonder what other mistakes Madsen made….

  3. Dan says:

    Justified, you don’t desert your military and expect to walk away from it even if your country has faced defeat. Good on the Germans and the Canadians.

  4. Rose Maurer says:

    A perfect example of: “Man’s inhumanity to man”. and the despicable behaviour of (dare I say it) all politicians over the centuries. The latter to be distinguished from justified activism of all types.

  5. JCF says:

    Disgraceful. RIP.

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