Execution of British SOE agents
Four British SOE agents were released
from the civilian Karlsruhe prison in Germany on July 6, 1944,
and allegedly executed that evening at the Natzweiler concentration
camp in Alsace, exactly one month after the Allied invasion at
Normandy. Their names are Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diane
Rowden and Sonia Olschanezky.
The Karlsruhe prison has no record of
the name of the concentration camp where these four women were
sent when they were released. The alleged execution of the women
was top secret. So secret that there was no written execution
order and no records kept of their deaths.
A recently published biography of Vera
Atkins, entitled "A Life in Secrets," by Sarah Helm
gives the following account of what happened when the women were
brought to the offices of Magnus Wochner and Wolfgang Zeuss in
the Political Department, a branch of the Gestapo in the Natzweiler
The following is a quote from "A
Life in Secrets":
Then a man from the Karlsruhe Gestapo,
who had accompanied the women, walked into Wochner's office and
explained that there were orders from Berlin to execute the women
immediately. Wochner disputed this "unorthodox" procedure,
saying that such orders usually arrived in Zeuss's office by
secret teleprint, or by letter direct from Berlin to the commandant
of the camp. A carbon copy was always immediately made of such
an order and sent to the commandant. But the Karlsruhe Gestapo
man said the women's names should not be entered in any records
at all. Other witnesses, however, suggested he was simply lying
and that the camp executioner, Peter Straub, would never have
been authorized to kill a prisoner without Wochner's order.
Two months later, four more British SOE
women agents were taken to Dachau by Max Wassmer, the same man
who allegedly brought the women to Natzweiler. Again, there was
no proper order from Berlin, authorizing the execution of the
women, and no records of the execution were kept.
Even after the war, at the proceedings
against nine staff members of the Natzweiler camp before a British
Military Court from May 29, 1946 to June 1, 1946, the names of
the women were kept secret from the public, allegedly to spare
the feelings of the relatives. However, according to Sarah Helm's
book, the relatives didn't mind the public knowing the names
of the women and had given written permission to reveal their
The records of the British Military Court
were sealed and the transcripts of the trial were not published
until 1949. The fate of the accused was not publicly known until
1956 when a journalist named Anthony Terry persuaded the legal
department of the British Embassy to release the information
According to Rita Kramer's book, "Flames
in the Field," Terry also publicly identified the fourth
woman who was allegedly executed at Natzweiler after he discovered
that Sonia Olschanezky had been taken to the Karlsruhe prison
on the same day as Borrel, Leigh and Rowden, and that she was
released on July 6, 1944, the same day as the other three. In
the published trial transcripts, the fourth woman was not identified.
On September 12, 1944, four more women
SOE agents were secretly executed at Dachau. There are no records
of the execution of the four women at Dachau and all of their
names were not known until 1947 when the name Noor-un-nisa Inayat
Khan was added to the list of the Dachau victims. Until Sonia
Olschanezky was finally identified as the fourth Natzweiler victim,
it had been assumed that Noor Inayat Khan was executed at Natzweiler.
Brian Stonehouse, a British SOE agent who survived Neuengamme,
Mauthausen, Natzweiler and Dachau, had told Vera Atkins, who
was investigating the case, that he witnessed the women being
brought into the Natzweiler camp to be executed and that one
of them could have been Noor Inayat Khan, as she resembled a
photograph that he was shown.
According to a book entitled "Flames
in the Field," by Rita Kramer, a teletype message was sent
to the Karlsruhe prison by RSHA headquarters in Berlin, in response
to a request for instructions on what to do with the women SOE
agents. The women had been sent to Karlsruhe because this was
where the family of Hans Kieffer lived. Kieffer was the head
of counter intelligence in Paris, but he had previously worked
with the Gestapo in Karlsruhe. When he was transferred to Paris,
his family stayed behind. By sending the women to Karlsruhe,
Kieffer would have an excuse to visit his family. Now the prison
officials at Karlsruhe wanted to send them some place else.
The Karlsruhe Gestapo was allegedly instructed
to send the women to Natzweiler, which was exclusively a men's
camp, but there was apparently no execution order given. According
to Rita Kramer's book, the Karlsruhe records only show that the
women were taken to an unnamed concentration camp. The logical
place to send the women would have been Ravensbrück, the
women's concentration camp near Berlin, where they could have
been executed and their bodies disposed of in the crematorium.
The Natzweiler camp is in a remote area
in the Vosges mountains in Alsace, which is now in France; it
would have been a great place for a secret execution, except
that there were at least 6 British SOE agents there who were
potential witnesses to the arrival of the women. The gas chamber
at Natzweiler was about a mile from the main camp; this would
have been the best place for a secret execution.
Natzweiler had only one crematory oven
and prisoners were not normally brought there by the Gestapo
for execution since the closest railroad station was 5 miles
from the camp.
In spite of the strict secrecy surrounding
the execution of the four women at Natzweiler, the Gestapo was
remarkably careless in handling this important mission. For one
thing, the prisoners at the Natzweiler camp had not seen a woman
in quite a while, so their arrival in the camp was bound to attract
attention. The four women arrived around 3 o'clock in the afternoon
and were paraded through the entire camp in full view of all
the prisoners who did not work outside the camp.
Brian Stonehouse, the SOE agent who testified
that he had witnessed the arrival of the four women, was a prisoner
in the "Nacht und Nebel" category. The N.N. prisoners
were not allowed to work outside the camp, but Stonehouse was
doing manual labor that day near the gate and he was able to
get a good look at the women so that he could identify them later.
Stonehouse noted that one woman had "very
fair heavy hair," but her dark roots were showing; she was
wearing a black coat and carrying a fur coat over her arm, although
this was in July. Another woman was wearing a tweed coat, while
a third woman had a tartan plaid ribbon in her hair. He remembered
that the fourth woman was wearing clothes that "looked very
As British spies in France, it was important
for these women to pass for French women, especially because
the Prosper Network was based in Paris, but curiously, three
out of the four had on something that could be easily identified
as British, according to Brian Stonehouse. Part of Vera Atkin's
job was to make sure that these secret agents didn't give themselves
away by wearing something that was obviously not French. One
of the women had disguised herself by bleaching her hair blonde,
but blonde hair made her look British, not French. Stonehouse's
descriptions were used to identify the women at the proceedings
of the British Military Court held in 1946 at Wuppertal, Germany.
The four women were first taken to the
Political Department at Natzweiler, where Walter Schultz, a prisoner
who was an interpreter, was a witness to their arrival.
After the stop at the Political Department,
the four women were taken to the Zellenbau, the camp prison,
which was at the far end of the camp. The windows on one side
of the Zellenbau faced the infirmary where Albert Guérisse
and Dr. Georges Boogaerts, two SOE agents from Belgium, were
assigned to work. The infirmary, or the camp hospital, was about
10 meters from the prison cells.
According to the book "A Life in
Secrets," by Sarah Helm, a KAPO named Franz Berg, who worked
in the crematorium, had witnessed the arrival of the women and
"It was he who passed the word right down to the barracks
on the lower terraces that there were British women among the
group." Guérisse lived in barrack number 7, which
was 25 meters from the hospital block.
On page 114 of her book entitled "Flames
in the Field," Rita Kramer wrote the following:
At the Natzweiler trial, Berg testified
as to what had happened on the evening of 6 July 1944. His testimony
neatly complemented, like an adjacent piece of a jigsaw puzzle,
what Vera Atkins had heard from Dr. Guérisse, who had
recognized Andrée Borrel and had managed to exchange a
few words with another one of of the women before she disappeared.
She had told him that she was English. That was all there had
been time for.
Boogaerts and Guérisse told Vera
Atkins that they had gotten the word from Berg about the British
women. However, during the trial of nine Natzweiler staff members,
Franz Berg referred to the women who were executed as "Jewish."
Not being a fashion expert like Brian Stonehouse, Berg had no
way of knowing that these women were British.
Boogaerts got the attention of the women
by whistling and whispering as loudly as he could through a window
in his barrack building. Two of the women opened the window of
their prison cell and Boogaerts threw them some cigarettes through
the window. One of the women, who told Boogaerts that her name
was Denise, then gave Boogaerts a small tobacco pouch, which
Franz Berg delivered to him. Denise was the code name for Andrée
Guérisse's account of what happened
was quoted by Sarah Helm in her book:
Boogaerts came to see me after he
had first made contact with the women, saying he had managed
to get them some cigarettes and he suggested that I should come
to his block (barracks) at 7 p.m. in order to talk to them and
find out who they were, from the window of his block, which was
within speaking distance.
And I went to his block and by looking
through the window and whistling I could see the head and shoulders
of a woman appear in the window of the cell opposite in the prison
block, and I noticed that she had dark hair but it was quite
impossible to observe more.
It was only later, in another interview
with Vera Atkins, that Guérisse remembered that he had
recognized the woman with the dark hair as Andrée Borrel.
Brian Stonehouse told Vera Atkins that he had identified Borrel
as the bleach blonde with dark roots showing, who walked into
the camp carrying a fur coat.
In Nazi Germany, it was the custom to
confiscate the possessions of anyone sent to a Gestapo prison
or a concentration camp and keep them until the prisoner was
released, at which time the personal possessions would be returned.
It was July when the women were released from Karlsruhe and Andrée
Borrel had apparently been given back her tobacco pouch and the
fur coat that she had been wearing when she was captured.
Andrée Borrel was one of the first
two woman SOE agents to parachute into France. She was tall and
athletic, courageous and very beautiful. It would not have been
out of character for her to roll her own cigarettes or to smoke
a pipe, which would explain why she carried a man's tobacco pouch.
According to Rita Kramer's book, the
tobacco pouch that Andrée gave to Boogaerts contained
some money. Inside the pouch was a slip of paper with her name
on it; after the war he gave the pouch to Leone Borrel Arend,
The photo below was taken from inside
one of the regular prison cells at Natzweiler. Through the open
door, one can see a punishment cell across the hall. The punishment
cells were so small that a person could not stand, nor lie down.
The second photo shows the interior of a punishment cell.
Prison at Natzweiler
had cells on both sides of central hallway
The interior of a punishment
cell at Natzweiler
It was Franz Berg's job to deliver food
from the kitchen near the entrance of the camp to the prison
block for a condemned prisoner's last meal, but he testified
that on this occasion, he was not allowed inside the large cell
of the four woman to deliver the food.
After their meal of soup and bread, the
women were then put into individual punishment cells, according
to the testimony of Walter Schultz who said that he had been
called to the prison block to interpret for a Russian prisoner.
After seeing the women in the office of the Political Department,
he now wanted to get a second look at them. He opened the peepholes
in the doors of the punishment cells and looked at the women.
Peter Straub, the man in charge of executions, was there at that
time, according to Schultz's testimony, and Straub commented
to him: "Pretty things, aren't they?"
According to Rita Kramer's book, there
were no records made for the women at the camp because they had
been sent to Natzweiler for "special treatment," which
was a Nazi euphemism for murder. Normally, it was the function
of the Political Department to keep records of those who were
executed and report back to the main RSHA office in Berlin.
Emil Brüttel, one of the staff members
at Natzweiler who was put on trial for the murder of the four
women, told British interrogators that he was in Dr. Heinrich
Plaza's office the next morning after the execution when a man
came over from the Commandant's office and handed the doctor
an envelope marked "secret." The envelope contained
the "execution protocols" for the four women, according
to information given by Brüttel during his interrogation.
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