Liberation of Dachau - who was there first?

The following account of the liberation of Dachau was sent to me in e-mail by Frank Burns, a soldier in the 42nd Rainbow Division. My comments are in regular type and his words are in italics.

I have always told people that I was in the infantry company that was first to reach the Dachau concentration camp. After going through quite a few of the many web sites covering "Dachau Liberation" and reading a couple of books I still think we were. (The books are: "Dachau 29 April 1945" & "Dachau Liberated"). But my experience was quite different than the others that I've checked out. I was a Pfc in Company I, 242nd Infantry, 42nd Division. I'm quite sure it was the 3rd Battalion but I don't remember which platoon or squad I was in. I wrote the following (and other experiences of my time in combat and the occupation) in 1999 strictly from memory. Then last month I went to the Internet to find pictures to illustrate what I had written. I found lots of material and all the controversy as to who was first, etc. Following is what I remember. Following the story I have some observations and questions that you might be able to answer or comment on.

Aerial photo of Dachau SS garrison and concentration camp

The aerial photo above shows the Dachau concentration camp as a rectangle on the upper right hand side. To the left is the SS garrison that was right next to the camp. If an arrow pointing north were added to this photo, it would point directly at the upper left hand corner.

Liberation of Dachau:
When we were approaching München (Munich) we were told that we would be sent ahead of the general attack to take the concentration camp at Dachau. It was to be a predawn attack. We were shown maps of the area and were told that the camp would be defended by the SS. We were loaded onto personnel carriers at about 2:00 a.m. and started on our way. We were on roads in the forest. When we were part way there we got word that the SS had left the camp. So we slowed down and got there just before dawn, probably about 6:00 a.m.. Our first sight of the camp was the high wall and the guard towers that were at the corners and spaced along the wall. We were approaching a corner of the enclosure. At the corner the wall extended to our left perpendicular to the road we were on and the other leg of the wall was parallel to the road. I think we were traveling from west to east but we could have been headed south. So I think we were looking at the southwest or northwest corner of the compound.

If these 42nd Division soldiers were traveling towards Munich, they were probably going south. The guard towers at the corners of a wall and spaced along the wall were the guard towers of the prison enclosure, or the concentration camp. The concentration camp was a rectangular area on the east side of the SS training camp and garrison. The whole area that was occupied by the SS and the prison camp was huge, at least 20 acres in size. The prison enclosure was about 5 acres.

The soldiers were probably traveling south on a road that went along the east side of the prison enclosure which had a high wall on three sides of it. The fourth side of the prison, which was the west side, had a barbed wire fence and a moat in front of the fence. According to some accounts, there was a wall in front of the moat that separated the prison compound from the SS part of the complex. There is a wall in that location today, but I am not sure that it was there when the camp was liberated.

The corner that Pfc. Burns describes was probably the northeast corner of the prison compound. There is a road that runs along the east wall of the prison enclosure. To his left would have been the north wall of the prison, which was the concentration camp. There would have been a guard tower in the center of that wall. As the soldiers were going down the road, the east wall of the prison compound would have been on their right and parallel with the camp. The north wall would have been perpendicular to the road.

The soldiers must have turned right at the end of the east wall of the concentration camp and traveled along the south wall of the camp. There would have been a guard tower at the corner, but not in the center of the south wall. There were 7 guard towers in all. One at each corner, one in the middle of the east wall, one in the middle of the north wall and the seventh tower was on top of the gatehouse into the concentration camp. That is the gate which has the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" on the iron bars.

As we approached the camp we first looked at the guard towers to make sure that the SS had really gone. The towers were empty so we were sure they had. We then traveled along the outside of the high stonewall (concrete?) until we came to a high gate. Our view of the camp from the outside was the wall and the upper part buildings to our left. One of the buildings had a high smoke stack that we assumed was the crematorium.

This sounds like Pfc. Burns was in front of the main gate which was a large building with a gate through it. To the left of this gate was a large building that was probably a factory building. Standing in front of the building to the left of the gate, one could have fired a shot and hit the crematorium smoke stack. The crematorium was just outside of the prison compound, at the northwest corner of the concentration camp.

To get into the prison compound, which was the concentration camp, Pfc. Burns would have had to have gone through the main gate, then he would have had to turn right and go over a little stone bridge over the moat, then through the iron gate of the gatehouse.

There was a pedestrian gate, the size of a door, that opened in the middle of the iron gate. The whole gate had a bar over the top of it which could be removed to open it. The pedestrian gate had a lock which could only be opened by remote control from inside the gatehouse. John Degro, as soldier in the 45th Division, claims that he shot the lock off this gate.

Across the street from our location were residential type houses.

The SS men who were stationed at the camp had their families living there. The SS complex was like a small city. There were houses inside the complex. On the south side of the complex, across the street from the main gate was a small park called Eicke Plaza that had formal
landscaping. Today the spot where Eicke Plaza was located is a soccer field.

Across the street from the south wall of the prison compound today is the parking lot for visitors to the Memorial Site. There may have been houses there when the concentration camp was in operation, but they are gone now.

After we arrived we received orders that we were to not open the gate or enter the camp but were to guard the gate and wait for the support service troops--doctors, logistics, MPs, etc.-- to get there. We were informed that since the camp was not defended, infantrymen were not needed and wouldn't be much help to the inmates of the camp. The support forces didn't start to arrive for at least an hour. So we made sure that enough men were at the gate and the rest of us just roamed around the area.

Soon some Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and a few civilians came out of the houses in the area and talked to us. I think the civilians were the POWs' girl friends. There were no US POWs however. The British POWs told us that things had been bad for the Germans lately and that they just didn't kept track of POWs anymore except for the US POWs. The reason was that the other Allied POWs stopped all resistance when they were captured---"we gave it a good fight but now it is over" attitude. But the US POWs kept trying to cause trouble and to escape. So the US guys were housed in boxcars at the Munich rail yard that was getting bombed almost every night. We questioned the civilians about what they knew about the concentration camp that was across the street from them. They said that other than some government project, they had no idea what it was. We thought they should at least have smelled the crematorium. (I have since thought that maybe crematoriums don't emit a bad odor.) Part of infantry battle is the terrible smell of burned flesh, hair and whatever else it is. So we were expecting a bad smell but there was actually no distinctive smell where we were at that time.

It was very cold on that day and it had snowed the day before. This might have kept the bodies from decomposing. The ovens in the crematorium had not been used since October 1944, because they had run out of coal to fire the ovens. The bodies were being taken to a hill called Leitenberg, which was near the camp, for burial. I have corresponded with other veterans who were there who said that there was no smell of bodies. The cold weather must have helped.

When the support service people finally arrived they opened the gate and we were able to get a quick look into the camp. The picture that is stuck in my mind is of flat cars piled high with corpses on the right and a handful of inmates walking around the grounds in front of the buildings on the left. One of the buildings was the one we thought was the crematorium.

If Pfc. Burns went through the main gate and walked straight ahead, he would have passed some factory buildings and then come to the crematorium area. The crematorium building would have been on his left. The corpses might have been piled on wagons to take them to Leitenberg hill for burial.

If he went through the West gate or the railroad gate, the part of the train that was inside the camp would have been on his left. The gate into the prison compound would have been at least a half a mile southeast of the railroad gate. To his right, after going through the railroad gate, would have been a large open area, which he might have thought was the prison compound.

The handful of prisoners walking around must have been prisoners who were working in the factories. At that hour of the morning, there would not have been many prisoners who were outside the prison compound itself. There might have been prisoners working at the crematorium, stacking up the bodies that were removed from the camp each day.

From what Frank Burns has described, I am not sure if he went through the gatehouse into the prison enclosure, where there were 32 barracks buildings in two rows of 16 each. In the days just before the liberation, a group of Communist inmates had taken over the camp. The Commandant had left the camp on April 28th, and a Red Cross representative had arrived on April 27th. The Committee instructed all the prisoners to stay inside their barracks. There were rumors that the SS was going to kill all the prisoners, rather than let them be liberated. That's why the Committee advised all the prisoners to stay inside and be quiet, so as not to provoke the SS.

Comments and Questions:
(1) Major differences between the Company I story and most of the others are that we had information about the location of the camp, that it would be defended and we went there to liberate it. So there must have been G2 on what was going on in the camp. The other units that were there on the 29th including General Linden's group seem to have stumbled onto camp. If there was G2, why didn't the other units receive it when they communicated with their Headquarters?

The story told by Lt. Col. Felix Sparks of the 45th Division is that he was instructed to liberate the camp. General Linden's group met some reporters when they were driving through the town of Dachau and these reporters led them to the camp. General Linden had no orders to liberate the camp. General Linden arrived with reporter Marguerite Higgins and several other reporters.

(2) My "first there" contention is based on our arrival very close to dawn. Most of the other outfits got there considerably later.

The story told by the 45th Division soldiers is that they arrived around 7:30 a.m. John Degro, who claims to have been the first soldier through the gate, said that his group started towards the camp at dawn.

(3) I haven't found anything on the Internet or in the books that sounds like the location where we were. We were not at the main gate with the building around it. It was more like the gate with the German Eagle over it (West Gate?) but I don't remember the Eagle. I don't know if the smoke stack we saw was actually the crematorium. And nothing on the Internet describes a place where there were houses just across the street from the camp wall.

The West gate was near the southwest corner of the SS complex. However, this corner was not a right angle. The corner was more like a 45 degree angle. If Pfc. Burns was traveling west to east, he would have come upon this corner. There was a road along the south side of the camp, so if he was traveling west to east, he might have been on this road. To his right, would have been the wall around the west side of the camp, but it would not have been perpendicular, since the southwest corner was a 45 degree angle.

Across from the West gate would have been the town of Dachau with lots of houses. Today, there are some very nice houses there, which look expensive. Near the southwest corner of the SS complex is where John F. Kennedy Plaza is today. This is a small park there now, which would have been a wooded area at the time Dachau was liberated. A railroad spur line ran parallel to the wall around the west side of the SS complex. This was where the death train was parked. A railroad gate was a little bit north of the West gate, the one with the eagle over it. This gate was open because the train was half inside the camp and half outside it. I have read stories about some soldiers going through this gate. There would have been a little bit of space between the train and the open gate, maybe about three feet on each side. There were bodies on the train and some of the cars were open gondola type cars, although I've heard that there were any flat cars on the train.

If Pfc. Burns went to the southwest corner of the SS complex and turned northeast, he would have been traveling along the west wall of the SS complex which was a street going in a northeastern direction. The prison compound, which was the concentration camp, would have been at least a half a mile from the West gate.

The main gate, with the building around it, would have been at least a half a mile down the road along the south side of the camp. This road was called the Avenue of the SS, but the American liberators named it Tennessee Road afterwards. Inside the SS complex, there were beautiful white buildings that are still there, which face this road. These buildings are still very impressive. They were built in the 1920ies when the Dachau camp was a large factory complex.

If Pfc. Burns entered through the West gate or the railroad gate, the crematorium would have been about a quarter of a mile to his left and and then another quarter of a mile to the east. He might have been able to see it over the tops of the buildings.

(4) I think that whoever gave the order that no infantry should enter the camp did the smart thing. The internet data says that virtually all of the SS (1473 of them) had left. So the camp would have been defenseless against an infantry unit. The SS who stayed were either very courageous or crazy. It was assumed that the only reason the Wehrmacht were fighting was that the SS would kill them if they didn't. The SS were thus marked men.

There was a prison for SS soldiers inside the complex. There were 128 men in this prison who were released to replace the soldiers who had left. There was also a group of wounded men in the hospital there. There were 200 SS men and Wehrmacht soldiers, who had just arrived shortly before with instructions to surrender the garrison. According to some stories there were 160 men in the hospital and there were 40 guards who stayed behind to man the towers of the concentration camp. Altogether, there were supposedly 560 soldiers there.

(5) Many of the reports on the Internet talk about the terrible smell. There was none where we were. Of course we were outside and probably upwind of the bodies we saw. Also assuming they were people who died on the train, they hadn't been dead for very long.

The train had arrived on April 26, 1945 and 1300 of the passengers had entered the camp. The ones who were too weak to walk about a half a mile to the prison enclosure were left on the train to die. Maybe they had not been dead very long. It was also very cold so the bodies did not decay, so there was no smell.

(6) I don't remember how the service troops opened the gate. But it wasn't by breaking it down. They may have shot the lock out. In fact they might not have been service troops. In any case, whoever it was that relieved us and entered the camp had to have been there quite a while before General Linden's group and the 157th Infantry. I find nothing on the Internet about the service outfits entering the camp before the 30th of April.

The 45th Division supposedly arrived around 7:30 a.m. and went through the railroad gate. Brig. General Henning Linden supposedly arrived around 11 a.m. and went through the main gate.

(7) I can't find any pictures of what I remember from looking into the camp. My only doubt about the scene has been whether it is what I really saw or was a memory of a picture.

(8) I guess there weren't a lot of people (inmates) wandering around when we looked in because it was prior to their roll call or because they were huddled in their barracks waiting to be killed or liberated. When I wrote the above account I didn't remember that there was a threat to kill all the prisoners but I think it might have been given as a reason for our planned attack before dawn.

Allegedly Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of RSHA, gave the order that all the prisoners were to be either evacuated or killed. After Buchenwald was liberated on April 11, 1945, the American soldiers let the prisoners out and supplied them with guns and jeeps. They went to the nearby city of Weimar and there were stories about raping, looting and killing the civilians. Hitler was enraged when he heard this, so he gave the order that no more prisoners were to be liberated by the Americans.

However, Heinrich Himmler, as the head of the SS, was the one who was directly in charge of the camps. He had negotiated a surrender of the Bergen-Belsen camp to the British, who took over the camp on April 15th, and he was also trying to negotiate a surrender of Dachau. Because of Kaltenbrunner's order, which Himmler ignored, the prisoners all thought that they would be killed before the Americans arrived.

(9) I've always thought that all of Company I was involved in what we did. However, the stories on the Internet and books relate different events for other parts of Company I. I guess we were split up at one point.

On a kind of different subject, all the contradictory statements on the Internet are interesting and confusing. It is obvious there was a lot of confusion and not very good coordination among the attacking units headed for Munich. This is understandable because we were all going as fast as possible to drive through Germany and end the war. Another aspect is information that says that even though Hitler ordered that no prisoners would be surrendered to Americans (like kill them all), Heinrich Himmler was trying to negotiate the surrender of the camp. He must have been in contact with American authorities - but who? Also there is information that the camp counsel had contacted the American troops coming in. In addition there is mention of prisoners of war of many countries in the vicinity. The SS probably would have lost control of them before we reached the camp. We must have been talking to some of them when we were told about the US prisoners at the Munich train yards.

Frank Burns
Seattle, WA

John Degro's account of the liberation

Background - the days just before the liberation

After the liberation

Back to Dachau Liberation

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