1944: Joseph Watson and Willie Wimberly Jr.

Add comment November 8th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1944, Private Joseph Watson and Technician Fifth Grade Willie Wimberly Jr. of the U.S. Army were executed for a brutal attack on two French civilians.

They broke into a farmhouse only a few hundred yards from their company bivouac area, shot the elderly farmer and his unmarried daughter, and raped the woman. Their crimes and deaths are described in French L. MacLean’s book The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II.

At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of August 8, 1944, Watson and Wimberly, both of them already drunk, arrived at the farmhouse and bartered for a liter of apple cider. They spoke no French but were able to get their point across. The farmer and his daughter were wary of the inebriated pair and, after they left, barricaded the door.

Five minutes later, the two soldiers returned and battered it down.

Wimberly hit the man on the head with his Tommy gun and Watson forced the woman into a chair. Then, just like that, they left again. The two victims went upstairs, barricaded themselves into another room and double-locked it.

A few hours later the two soldiers returned and fired at least twenty .45 submachine gun rounds through the upstairs door, wounding both of the French civilians.

The farmer staggered downstairs and went to get help, but his daughter’s tibia was fractured and she was unable to flee. She was raped in turn by each of the men while the other held her at gunpoint.

At trial she couldn’t identify either of her attackers. The farmer identified Wimberly out of a lineup of six black soldiers, but wasn’t sure about Watson.

Their identification wasn’t really needed, however. Watson was found passed out at the crime scene in the morning, still wearing his bloodstained pants, with the fly unzipped. Wimberly had left, but he left his helmet liner (marked with a unique serial number) on the steps of the farmhouse.

When questioned, Wimberly blamed the entire thing on Watson. Watson made several contradictory statements about the night of the crime before pulling the old amnesia gag. He admitted he’d gone to the farmhouse with Wimberly and added, “I must have gotten drunk because the next thing I knew I was in the yard with a Colonel, two Lieutenants and two MPs.”

Given the circumstances, there wasn’t much either man could say to show why he should not be convicted and executed.

Justice was quick: they were hanged less than three months after their crime. Wimberly went first and was pronounced dead at 10:29 p.m. Watson followed and was dead by 10:48. Eight days later, General George S. Patton had a letter sent to the rape victim, apologizing for what she’d been through and for the soldiers’ part in it.

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1944: Jacques Stosskopf

2 comments September 1st, 2015 Golde Singer

For most prisoners at the Netzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in Alsace, the fall of 1944 marked a time of disbursement to other detention sites — a clear sign that Allied forces were close at hand.

But both the disbursement order (in mid-September) and the Allied arrival at Struthof (in November) were just a little too late for Jacques Stosskopf, who was executed by the Nazis on Sept. 1 that year, even as the Germans were beginning preparations to disband the camp. How he was executed is unclear; stories from witnesses differ about whether prisoners at the camp were hanged, shot or gassed.

But it isn’t Stosskopf’s end that catches attention; rather, it is how he spent the war years, and his involvement, as a Frenchman, in the German U-boat war.

A native of Paris (born Nov. 27, 1898, in the City of Light), Stosskopf was of Alsatian heritage and spoke fluent German. He joined the French artillery in 1917 and received the French Croix de Guerre for his actions in World War I.

After the war, he entered the Ecole Polytechnique and earned a degree in marine engineering. As World War II approached, Stosskopf was appointed to lead the naval construction unit at Lorient, on the French coast. He eventually was promoted to the rank of Chief Engineer, 1st Class.

In June 1940, the German army took control of Lorient and began using the naval facility there to repair and resupply their U-boats. When they realized that the U-boats were vulnerable to attack by Allied air forces, the Germans set about fortifying the base as a refuge for their submarines.

Stosskopf worked with the Germans to design the new U-boat station, creating one of the most famous and impenetrable naval bases of the war: the double roof over the bunkers allowed them to withstand even a direct bomb hit, so even though the city of Lorient itself was almost 90% destroyed by Allied bomb raids, the bunkers continued to stand.

Between 1940 and 1944, the Germans built three such bunkers, capable of sheltering more than 25 submarines; from these fastnesses, German U-boats carried out relentless attacks against both military and civilian targets.

Because of his involvement with the naval station, Stosskopf was considered a collaborator by the local French citizenry. So when he disappeared in February 1944, they assumed that he had been promoted by his German compatriots and had been called to work in Germany.

In fact, all the while he was working on the U-boat port, Stosskopf had been collaborating not with the Germans but with the Alliance Reseau, a French resistance group headed by Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Each week, he met with his resistance contact, providing information about boats going out to sea, the names of their captains, and the location of the missions. Because of these reports, many U-boats were intercepted at sea and their captains killed in Allied attacks.

In the end, Stosskopf was given up by a captured member of the Resistance, and he was caught up in the German Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) program. This roundup of suspected resistors of the Reich was undertaken by the Germans as a last-ditch attempt to regain some control over a war they could see slipping away; Nacht und Nebel abductees were spirited away at night and disappeared “into the fog” — never to be heard from again.

Stosskopf’s ultimate fate lay at Natzweiler-Struthof, a small concentration camp in the Vosges Mountains, in the Alsace region. Struthof, as it was called, was the only camp built on French territory, and it was the primary holding place for captured members of the French Resistance.

It was also the first camp liberated by the Allies (on Nov. 23, 1944), but by that time, most of the detainees had been evacuated. (For more detailed information on this camp and its prisoners, go to www.scrapbookpages.com/Natzweiler. Or, for a different perspective, read Night and Fog, by Arne Brun Lie, a prisoner’s account of life at Struthof, or the novel Necropolis, by Boris Pahor, a story based on his own experiences at the camp.)

At war’s end, the citizens of Lorient were amazed to learn the truth of Stosskopf’s activities, which were made public when he posthumously received the French Legion of Honour (1945). In 1946, the submarine base at Lorient was renamed in his honor. Today, visitors can tour the base at Lorient and see how it was operated.


Submarine Base Chief Engineer Stosskopf
Arrested and deported by the Gestapo Feb 21, 1944, for his activity in the resistance.
Disappeared.

To get a personal look at Jacques Stosskopf, read Jacques Camille Louis Stosskopf 1898-1944, a book of documents and testimony about his life compiled by his children, Francois Stosskopf and Elizabeth Meysembourg-Stosskopf.

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1944: Zinaida Portnova, Komsomol hero

1 comment January 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.

The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.

Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.

From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.

She was shot a month shy of her 18th birthday.

A large number of Pioneer youth groups were subsequently dedicated to Zinaida Portnova, as was a museum of the Komsomol underground and a public monument in Minsk. She remains to this day an honored martyr of the Great Patriotic War.

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1944: A Dutch Kapo named Raphaelson

1 comment September 27th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.

Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”

Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.

Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.

He met his death through sheer bad luck.

By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,

Book CoverThis Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.

While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.

And then … the SS let him go.

He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.

Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.

The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.

It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”

“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:

After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.

We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!

A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.

After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”

Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.

After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.

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1944: Three Soviet infiltrators, the last in Finland

Add comment September 3rd, 2014 Headsman

The last executions in Finland occurred on this date in 1944, claiming the lives of three Soviet spies who had been parachuted behind Finnish lines.

I have been unable to locate the names of these men. They’re invariably presented simply in connection with — or as the denouement following — the September 2 execution of Finnish deserter Olavi Laiho.

The next morning (Russian link), Finland announced its disengagement from its problematic German alliance, an arrangement brokered by the western Allies who wanted to keep Finland democratic and non-communist despite sitting in Russia’s back yard and joining the wrong team in World War II. The Soviet Union immediately redeployed its forces away from the Finnish theater; a formal armistice was signed before September was out and prisoner transfers began in October.

Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.

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1944: Olavi Laiho, the last Finn executed in Finland

1 comment September 2nd, 2014 Headsman

Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944.

Laiho (English Wikipedia entry | Finnish) was conscripted to the Finnish Navy to fight in Finland’s theater of war against the Soviet Union.

As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.

While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are the last ever put to death in Finland.

Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, but he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.

Readers with Finnish proficiency might enjoy the Laiho biography En kyyneltä vuodattanut (I Never Shed a Tear).

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1944: Durga Malla

Add comment August 25th, 2014 Headsman

Seventy years ago today, the British in Delhi hanged Gurkha soldier Durga Malla for spying against them — and on behalf of the army of the Japanese-backed nationalist provisional government, the Azad Hind.

World War II catalyzed India’s long-running national movement and helped lead directly to postwar independence. But during the war itself, it was a delicate relationship with the British Empire that still ruled the Raj.

Activists at the time took different views of how to proceed in wartime. For Gandhi, and this was also the predominant position of his Congress Party, India’s national rights overrode the mother country’s wartime exigencies: India must be free to choose her own part in the affair, as a coequal nation.

Unsurprisingly, London saw it differently. (The Raj sent over two million soldiers into the British ranks in these years.)

This led in August of 1942 to the Quit India movement, an attempted civil disobedience campaign against continued British rule. It was suppressed with difficulty — and with mass detentions, including of Gandhi himself. But hours before the arrest that would land him in British custody for the balance of the war, he delivered his Quit India speech, which warned in part against

hatred towards the British among the people. The people say they are disgusted with their behaviour. The people make no distinction between British imperialism and the British people. To them, the two are one. This hatred would even make them welcome the Japanese. It is most dangerous. It means that they will exchange one slavery for another.

Which brings us to Durga Malla.

For Gandhi himself, there was no question of going so far as to collaborate with Britain’s wartime enemies to force the issue. But not everyone eschewed the “enemy of my enemy” line, and behavior at once treasonable and intensely patriotic has excited controversy from the moment the guns stilled down to the present day. Azad Hind established itself as a government-in-exile in Japanese-occupied Singapore, making plans to invade British India. The fervidly patriotic Durga Malla joined that exile government’s army, and was eventually caught reconnoitering British deployments, then given a military tribunal and hanged. His last words on the gallows affirmed his purpose, and would be vindicated with the passage of just a few years.

“I am sacrificing my life for the freedom of my motherland … The Sacrifice I am offering shall not go in vain. India shall be free. I am confident, this is only a matter of time.”

There are public monuments in present-day India to Durga Malla.

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1944: Ferruccio Nazionale, Ivrea partisan

Add comment July 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the fascist frogman unit Decima Mas Flottiglia MAS (English Wikipedia link | Italian) executed and publicly gibbeted the partisan Ferruccio Nazionale in Ivrea.


The placard around his neck claims the hanged man “made an armed attack on the Decima.”

The square where he’s hanging in these images is today named in his honor — Piazza Ferruccio Nazionale.

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1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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1944: Six German POWs, for Stalingrad’s Dulag-205

14 comments October 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Wehrmacht Oberst Rudolf Körpert, his deputy Hauptmann Carl Frister, and officers Fritz Müsenthin, Otto Mäder, Richard Seidlitz and Kurt Wohlfarth, were shot in the Soviet Union for their treatment of Russian prisoners of war at Stalingrad.

This was nearly two years on since the Germans had surrendered the eastern front’s horrific signature battle.

The six captured men were principals at the little-known Dulag-205, a transit camp the Wehrmacht erected at Stalingrad for Soviet prisoners of war pending westward deportation to less extemporaneous prisons. (And less extemporaneous mistreatment.)

A minuscule 10 acres, the camp was eventually crammed with up to 3,400 prisoners, triple its anticipated capacity. There was nowhere to send them once the Germans were fatally encircled, and as supplies failed in the last terrible weeks of the besieged Kessel (“cauldron”), the subsistence prisoner rations of putrefying-horseflesh soup were cut off entirely.

Several dozen dropped dead of starvation, overwork, and summary execution each day thence until the merciful end. When the Red Army finally took control of the camp on Jan. 22, 1943, it discovered corpses with obvious signs of cannibalism.

Frank Ellis has the definitive treatment of this affair in “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006), and the facts in this posts are drawn from Ellis’s examination of the Dulag-205 interrogation and trial records.*

Our captured men enjoyed the company of NKVD and SMERSH interrogators for a number of months, under what duresses one shudders to imagine.

The rescued Soviet soldiers — who were themselves suspect in the eyes of Stalinist authorities merely for having been captured — provided ample firsthand corroboration of Dulag-205’s miserable conditions.

“The guards were allowed to shoot without any warning at prisoners who approached the barbed wire barrier, who tried to jump the queue for food and at prisoners who tried to have a piss in the wrong place,” one POW told his Soviet interrogators. “Hardly any water or bread was given to the prisoners. The prisoners slept in the dugouts without any bedding, jammed tight. The prisoners were never able to rest since they had to sleep standing and sitting. … There were no baths in the camp. During my whole time in the camp — about 5 months — I did not wash once.”

Moscow had by this time already begun rolling out war crimes trials relating to the German invasion. The guys who were captured with starving Red Army prisoners cannibalizing one another were going to be a prime target.

The subaltern officers, according to Ellis, generally tried to put the blame on Körpert and further up the chain of command, and understandably so. Mäder was a mere adjutant. Siedlitz was the director of camp construction. They weren’t the ones who got the Sixth Army encircled or cut prisoner rations or even made camp-specific decisions like when to set the dogs on a disobedient captive. They had no ability to transfer the prisoners back to the Soviets or to any less horrible detention on their side of the lines. Otto Mäder:

My service in the Dulag was a great spiritual torment for me. It was dreadful to see the terrible condition of Russian prisoners.

I stand before the court at that time when the main culprits responsible for the death of 3,000 Soviet prisoners — Field Marshall Paulus, the army’s chief-of-staff, General Schmidt, Lieutenant-Colonel Kunowski and the army quartermaster — do not stand before the court. They are not only guilty of the death of Soviet prisoners-of-war, but have put us on the accused’s bench!

You’d expect the guy to say that to a Soviet tribunal, certainly — especially a lawyer, which Mäder was also — but that doesn’t make it untrue. This case was actually evaluated in post-Soviet Russia for possible posthumous rehabilitation. (No dice.)

Intriguingly, the Wehrmacht officers were not tried for violations of the Geneva Conventions; indeed, the USSR had not ratified all of the Geneva Conventions, and this put Germany (which had ratified them) in an ambiguous position relative to its non-ratifying belligerent. (A less kind way to say it might be that the difference served to rationalize dreadfully inhumane treatment.)

Rather, Körpert et al were charged under Soviet laws promulgated only after the Battle of Stalingrad, a sketchy maneuver which Ellis thinks suggests that prosecutors hoped to avoid setting a precedent that could be cited by Germany relative to the USSR’s none-too-gentle treatment of its own prisoners of war.

* Ellis also has a topical recent book out, The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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