Execution of British SOE agents at Natzweiler

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 camp.

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 names.

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 to him.

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 English."

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 Borrel.

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, Andrée's sister.

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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British SOE agents executed at Dachau

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Nacht und Nebel prisoners

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This page was last updated on September 13, 2006