Swiss war crimes-The mistreatment of Prisoners of War

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Wauwilermoos was an internment as well as prisoner-of-war penal camp during World War II in Switzerland, situated in the municipalities of Wauwil and Egolzwil in the Canton of Luzern. Established in 1940, Wauwilermoos was a penal camp for internees, including for Allied soldiers during World War II, among them members of the United States Army Air Forces, who were sentenced for attempting to escape from other Swiss camps for interned soldiers, or other offenses. In addition to Hünenberg and Les Diablerets, Wauwilermoos was one of three Swiss penal camps for internees that were established in Switzerland during World War II. The intolerable conditions were later described by numerous former inmates, by various contemporary reports and studies.

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Once in the custody of the Swiss government, American airmen were considered “internees.” Internees are treated almost identically to POWs under the laws of war, excepting that by definition an internee is held in a neutral state. Some other US soldiers entered Switzerland by foot, for which they earned the status of “evadee.” Evadees were not kept in camps, and could come and go as they pleased. Internees, on the other hand, were usually restricted to a specific area and kept under guard.

The Swiss were determined to adhere strictly to the rules governing internees, largely because they were under constant threat of invasion by the German Army.

Captain André Béguin was the commander of the camp whose cruel regime during the war times was tolerated by the authorities.

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Serving as Captain in the Swiss Army, Béguin was also a Nazi sympathizer.As member of the National Union, he had previously lived in München, Germany. “He was known to wear the Nazi uniform and to sign his correspondence with ‘Heil Hitler'”

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Any hint of impartiality toward the Allies could have incurred dire consequences for a state that professed neutrality, particularly one surrounded completely by the Axis. USAAF personnel caught attempting escape were punished severely, sometimes well beyond the limits stipulated in the laws of war.

The Swiss government’s policy toward neutrality was clearly illustrated by the fact that some USAAF bombers attempting to land in Switzerland were attacked by Swiss fighters and anti-aircraft weapons.

After landing in Switzerland, interned crewmembers were typically interrogated and then quarantined for a short period before movement to a permanent internment camp.

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Raiding a German airfield on 18 March 1944, a German air combat fighter struck a B-17 bomber of the 511th Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy), piloted by Lt. George Mears.

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A German aircraft shot out two of the B-17’s engines and an oil fire started on a third. The pilot and copilot were able to regain control, and headed for Switzerland to land there. In September 1944 George Mears, 1st Lt. James Mahaffey and two other officers tried to escape to the French-Swiss border before they were arrested and sent to the Wauwilermoos prison camp.

2nd Lt. Paul Gambaiana was another USAAF airman sent there. Just before D-Day his aircraft went down, the crew “wanted to get back to our base so we attempted to leave Switzerland, and they got us and put us there. It was a Swiss concentration camp. About the only thing I can remember … we had cabbage soup which was hot water and two leaves of cabbage floating around…The rest I have put away and forgotten. I’m trying to forget the whole thing,” Gambaiana said in a telephone interview from his home in Iowa in 2013.

James Misuraca spoke about the compound of single-storey buildings surrounded by barbed wire, the armed Swiss guards with dogs, and the commandant, “a hater of Americans, a martinet who seemed quite pleased with our predicament”. Sleeping on lice-infested straw. Arriving on 10 October 1944, Misuraca and two other U.S. officers made an escape on 1 November. They had “timed the rounds of the guards, climbed out a window and over wire fences and walked for miles”. Then an U.S. Legation officer drove them to Genève at the border to France, and on 15 November they reached the Allied lines.

Most of the Wauwilermoos prisoners had never shared their stories until Mears’s grandson contacted them. The “survivors reported filthy living quarters, of skin rashes and boils, all reported that they were underfed. Some reported being held in solitary for trying to escape. Some went in weighing in the 180s and 190s and came out 50 pounds lighter”.

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In early December 1944 USAAF First Lieutenant Wally Northfelt was nearing his second month of imprisonment at Wauwilermoos. Nine months earlier, the navigator’s B-24 bomber crash-landed at the Dübendorf airfield. Northfelt attempted to escape from Switzerland near Geneva in September 1944, but he was apprehended by border guards and confined at Wauwilermoos. After his arrival at the punishment camp, Northfelt quickly tired of the “meager rations of coffee, bread, and thin soup” which he blamed in part for his weight loss of forty pounds over the course of his time in Switzerland. Northfelt claimed that “he was only able to get enough food to survive by purchasing it off the black market”. Northfelt was also ill; sleeping on dirty straw had caused him sores all over his body, and he had problems with his prostate gland.

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Medical care was given by a doctor, Northfelt claimed, who was “specialized in women’s cases”. Northfelt claimed Béguin was a “pro-Nazi” who “only cleaned up the camp when inspections by high ranking officers or American dignitaries were announced”.

Presumably on 3 November 1944 when the U.S. embassy was informed by three American soldiers who fled from Wauwilermoos,delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who visited Wauwilermoos “failed to notice much amiss”, and ICRC member Frédéric Hefty wrote: “If iron discipline is the norm, there is also a certain sense of justice and understanding that helps with the re-education and improvement of the difficult elements sent there”.

The reports contained statements from internees that the camp was “a relaxing place that they would happily return to”. However, “the internees provided their statements in return for favours from Béguin”. even were “Kapo-similar preferred prisoners.” The conditions in the camp had not been reported correctly: “Switzerland’s wartime general, Henri Guisan, demanded that all Red Cross reports about the internment camps be submitted to army censors first if delegates wanted access” noted historian Dwight S. Mears. The American military attaché in Bern warned Marcel Pilet-Golaz,Marcel_Pilet-Golaz Swiss foreign minister in 1944, that “the mistreatment inflicted on US aviators could lead to ‘navigation errors’ during bombing raids over Germany”.

Although the ICRC inspected the camp on a few occasions, headed by Swiss Army Colonel Auguste Rilliet, the inspection team simply noted that sanitary conditions could be improved, and prisoners were not aware of the length of their sentences or why they were in the camp in the first place. Only just prior to the removal of the commandant in September 1945, Rilliet rated the camp conditions unsatisfactory, in spite of the fact that Wauwilermoos was the subject of official protests by the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Italy, and even prevented normalization of diplomatic relations with the USSR. This may have been due to a secret agreement between the ICRC and the Swiss Army, which gave the Swiss Army permission to review and censor inspection reports prior to their release to foreign powers. Numerous Swiss citizens reported that the conditions at Wauwilermoos were in violation of the 1929 Geneva Conventions, including as below-mentioned, a Swiss Army medical officer, an officer on the Swiss Army’s General Staff, and also by the editors of two Swiss newspapers.

Already since 1942, several on-site inspections had been made by the Swiss officials. For instance Major Humbert, army doctor  and head physician in the Seeland district of the Swiss Federal Commissioner of Internment and Hospitalization (FCIH), menitioned in three reports in January and February 1942, the “enormous morbidity” in the penal camp: “The moral atmosphere in the camp is absolutely untenable”. Although Major Humbert also noted the despotic punishment catalog and psychological deficits of the commandant of the prison camp, Captain André Béguin, his complaints resulted in no reactions by the authorities, and in February 1942 Humbert was dismissed.

In the same year an investigation against Béguin was conducted because of possible espionage in favour of Nazi Germany. Although Colonel Robert Jaquillard, chief of the counterintelligence service of the army, spoke against the retention of Captain Béguin as commander of the camp, his report came to the chief of the legal department of the Swiss federal internment department, Major Florian Imer. After an inspection by Imer in the penal camp Wauwilermoos, Imer noted that “in particular the allegations of Major Humbert were exaggerated for the most part”. Another report in January 1943 noted the camp’s bad sanitary condition. At the end of 1944, Ruggero Dollfus, interim Swiss Federal commissioner for internment  complained again about the poor sanitation, and, among others, Dollfus noted that the Red Cross auxiliary packets were confiscated by Béguin, and nearly 500 letters from and to the airmen had been withheld by the commandant. Although the camp was visited by inspectors, its commanding officer, Béguin, was suspended and banned from entering the camp not earlier than on 5 September 1945. On 24 September he was taken into custody. On 20 February 1946, the military court sentenced Béguin to three and a half years in prison.

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Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go, but get out of the POW camp ASAP.

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During World War II, Allied soldiers in German prison camps used Monopoly games for more than just amusement. Thanks to an ingenious scheme by a branch of the British Ministry of Defense known as MI9, these soldiers were actually able to use Monopoly games to escape to freedom.

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Christopher William Clayton Hutton (1893–1965) known to his colleagues as ‘Clutty’ was an intelligence officer who worked for MI9,Christopher_Clutty_Hutton

Hutton was also responsible for the delivery of escape kits to POWs. The Geneva Convention allowed prisoners to receive parcels from families and relief organisations. These were dispatched through a number of fictitious charitable organisations, created to send parcels of games, warm clothing and other small comforts to the prisoners. One of the major problems of captivity was boredom, and games and entertainments were permitted, as the guards recognised that if the prisoners were allowed some diversions, they would be less troublesome.

Games manufacturer Waddingtons helped by supplying editions of its Monopoly board game, and other games,

The plan involved having fake charities deliver aid packages containing these games, which, in truth, contained various escape tools, including “playing pieces” that were actually compasses or metal files that could be used to cut through barbed wire. Even the games’ “play money” was actually real French, German, and Italian money that could be used for food, bribes, or train tickets.

Hidden within their boards, the games also had silk maps that prisoners could use to travel to safety after leaving their prison camps. The manufacturer made the maps with silk so that they would neither deteriorate in water nor rustle when POWs unfolded them, thus not alerting German guards.

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Due to the secrecy of the mission to deliver the games to POWs, it is virtually impossible for the public to know for certain how many of them used the games to escape. However, British historians estimate that the games helped thousands of soldiers.

After the war, the British government decided to keep the games a secret in case another conflict called for their use in the future. In fact, it was not until the 1980s that the British public learned the astounding story of World War II’s Monopoly escape kits.

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Stalag Luft III murders- The real aftermath of the Great Escape

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Most of us will have seen the classic WWII movie ‘the Great escape’ usually around every Christmas period or Easter time it will be shown multiple times on a great number of channels.

It is one of my favourite wartime movies although it does take quite a number of artistic liberties in relation to some of the real events.

The Stalag Luft III murders were war crimes perpetrated by members of the Gestapo following the “Great Escape” of Allied prisoners of war from the German Air Force prison camp known as Stalag Luft III on March 25, 1944. Of a total of 76 successful escapees, 73 were recaptured, mostly within days of the breakout, of whom 50 were executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler. These summary executions were conducted within a short period of recapture.

Fifty of the Allied airmen who tunnelled out of Stalag Luft III were executed in chilling scenes like this. article-2285629-18565A31000005DC-948_634x400

Outrage at the killings was felt immediately, both in the prison camp, among comrades of the escaped prisoners, and in the United Kingdom, where the Foreign Minister Anthony Eden rose in the House of Commons to announce in June 1944 that those guilty of what the British government suspected was a war crime would be “brought to exemplary justice.”Sir_Anthony-Eden_number_10_Official

After Nazi Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, the Police branch of the Royal Air Force, with whom the 50 airmen had been serving, launched a special investigation into the killings, having branded the shootings a war crime despite official German reports that the airmen had been shot while attempting to escape from captivity following recapture. An extensive investigation headed by Wing Commander Wilfred Bowes RAF and Squadron Leader Frank McKenna of the Special Investigation Branch into the events following the recapture of the 73 airmen was launched, which was unique for being the only major war crime to be investigated by a single branch of any nation’s military.

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The day after the mass escape from Stalag Luft III,Hitler’s rage was all-consuming. He summoned SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Reichsmarschall Göring and ordered that all 76 fugitives be executed upon recapture.

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Word of such an atrocity, Göring explained, might result in fierce Allied reprisals. Himmler agreed, prompting Hitler to order that ‘more than half the escapees’ be shot. Random numbers were suggested until Himmler proposed that 50 be executed. Hitler ordered his SS chief to put the plan in motion.

The Kriminalpolizei (the criminal-investigations department of the Reich police) issued a Grossfahndung, a national hue and cry, ordering the military, the Gestapo, the SS, the Home Guard and Hitler Youth to put every effort into hunting the escapees down. Nearly 100,000 men needed to defend the Reich were redirected to the manhunt.

By Wednesday, March 29, five days after the breakout, 35 escapees languished behind bars in the cramped cells of the jail at Görlitz, not far south of Sagan.

Those who remained on the run hoped to make destinations in Czechoslovakia, Spain, Denmark and Sweden. Luck, however, worked against them.

They were seized at checkpoints, betrayed by informants or simply thwarted by freezing temperatures. Before long, all but three of the fugitives were back in captivity.

 Two weeks after the escape, the whereabouts of the escapees remained a mystery to the prisoners inside the camp. Just six men had thus far been returned to Stalag Luft III and marched directly into the cooler, the solitary-confinement block.

But on April 6, Group Captain Herbert Massey, the senior British officer in the camp, was to learn the fate of so many of his men.

The camp commandant, Colonel Braune, informed him that 41 had been killed while resisting arrest or attempting to escape after being captured; not one had been merely wounded. Braune was unable to look Massey in the eye as he told him the lies.

On April 15, a list identifying the victims appeared on the camp’s noticeboard. The list now contained not 41 names, but 47. Two days later, a representative of the Swiss Protecting Power visited Stalag Luft III on a routine inspection and was given a copy of the list.

Among the dead were 25 Britons, six Canadians, three Australians, two New Zealanders, three South Africans, four Poles, two Norwegians, one Frenchman and a Greek.

The Swiss government then reported the killings to the British government, including three additional victims, bringing the total number of those murdered to 50. Churchill was incensed, and even amid the final push for victory made finding the killers a priority.

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The 3 Successful escapees

  • Per Bergsland, Norwegian pilot of No. 332 Squadron RAF
  • Jens Müller, Norwegian pilot of No. 331 Squadron RAF
  • Bram van der Stok, Dutch pilot of No. 41 Squadron RAF

    A detachment of the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Air Force Police headed by Wing Commander Wilfred Bowes was given the assignment of tracking down the killers of the 50 officers. The investigation started seventeen months after the alleged crimes had been committed, making it a cold case. Worse, according to an account of the investigation, the perpetrators “belonged to a body, the Secret State Police or Gestapo, which held and exercised every facility to provide its members with false identities and forged identification papers immediately they were ordered to go on the run at the moment of national surrender.”

    The small detachment of investigators, numbering five officers and fourteen NCOs, remained active for three years, and identified seventy-two men, guilty of either murder or conspiracy to murder, of whom 69 were accounted for. Of these, 21 were eventually tried and executed (some of these were for other than the Stalag Luft III murders); 17 were tried and imprisoned; 11 had committed suicide; 7 were untraced, though of these 4 were presumed dead; 6 had been killed during the war; 5 were arrested but charges had not been laid; 1 was arrested but not charged so he could be used as a material witness; three were charged but either acquitted or had the sentence quashed on review, and one remained in refuge in East Germany.[1]:261

    Despite attempts to cover up the murders during the war, the investigators were aided by such things as Germany’s meticulous book-keeping, such as at various crematoria, as well as willing eye-witness accounts and many confessions among the Gestapo members themselves, who cited that they were only following orders.

    SS-Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, who is believed to have selected the airmen to be shot, was later executed for his involvement in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler.Bundesarchiv_Bild_101III-Alber-096-34,_Arthur_Nebe

    American Colonel Telford Taylor was the U.S. prosecutor in the High Command case at the Nuremberg Trials. The indictment in this case called for the General Staff of the Army and the High Command of the German Armed Forces to be considered criminal organizations; the witnesses were several of the surviving German Field Marshals and their staff officers.One of the crimes charged was of the murder of the 50. Luftwaffe Colonel Bernd von Brauchitsch, who served on the staff of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, was interrogated by Captain Horace Hahn about the murders.Horace_Hahn_senior_class_photo_1933

    The first trial specifically dealing with the Stalag Luft III murders began on 1 July 1947, against 18 defendants. The trial was held before No. 1 War Crimes Court at the Curio Haus in Hamburg. The accused all pleaded Not Guilty article-2285629-1858A3D4000005DC-294_634x480

    The verdicts and sentences were handed down after a full fifty days on September 3 of that year. Max Wielen was found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were found not guilty of the first two charges, but guilty of the individual charges of murder. Breithaupt received life imprisonment, Denkmann and Struve ten years imprisonment each, and Boschert eventually received life imprisonment. The other 13 condemned prisoners were hanged  at Hamelin Jail in February 1948 by British executioner Albert Pierrepoint.Albert-Pierrepoint

     

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Charles Coward-The Count of Auschwitz

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What’s in a name? My last name would indicate that I would be someone from a small stature, however with my 1.90 m (6ft23) I could not be considered small by any stretch of the imagination. The same can be said about Charles Coward one of WW2 biggest heroes despite his name.

Charles Coward, nicknamed the “Count of Auschwitz,” was held as a British POW but, since he had escaped so many other POW camps, he was sent to Auschwitz III, a POW camp near Auschwitz II in Birkenau.

Once, during an escape, he blended in with German wounded and was accidentally awarded the Iron Cross by Nazi officers.  In the Auschwitz POW camp, he met a British doctor who would visit the camp from the Jewish side.  One day he switched clothes with the doctor and spent a day in the Auschwitz death camp witnessing the horrors only a few meters away.

Coward joined the Army in June 1937 and was captured in May 1940 near Calais while serving with the 8th Reserve Regimental Royal Artillery as Quartermaster Battery Sergeant Major. He managed to make two escape attempts before even reaching a prisoner of war camp, then made seven further escapes; on one memorable occasion managing to be awarded the Iron Cross while posing as a wounded soldier in a German Army field hospital.

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When in captivity he was equally troublesome to his captors, organizing numerous acts of sabotage while out on work details.

Finally in December 1943, he was transferred to the Auschwitz III (Monowitz) labour camp (Arbeitslager), situated only five miles from the better-known extermination camp of Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

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Monowitz was under the directionof the industrial company IG Farben, who were building a Buna (synthetic rubber) and liquid fuel plant there.IG Farben also manufactured Zyklon B

It housed over 10,000 Jewish slave labourers, as well as POWs and forced labourers from all over occupied Europe. Coward and other British POWs were housed in sub-camp E715, administered by Stalag VIII-B.

Thanks to his command of the German language, Coward was appointed Red Cross liaison officer for the 1,200-1,400 British prisoners.

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In this trusted role he was allowed to move fairly freely throughout the camp and often to surrounding towns.He witnessed the arrival of trainloads of Jews to the extermination camp. Coward and other British prisoners smuggled food and other items to the Jewish inmates. He also exchanged coded messages with the British authorities via letters to a fictitious Mr. William Orange (Code for the War Office), giving military information, notes on the conditions of POWs and the other prisoners in the camps, as well as dates and numbers of the arrival of trainloads of Jews.

On one occasion a note was smuggled to him from a Jewish-British ship’s doctor, who was being held in Monowitz. Coward determined to contact him directly; managed to swap clothes with an inmate on a work detail and spent the night in the Jewish camp, seeing at first hand the horrific conditions in which these were held. He failed to find the individual, later found to be Karel Sperber. This experience formed the basis of his subsequent testimony in post-war legal proceedings.

Determined to do something about it, Coward used Red Cross supplies, particularly chocolate, to “buy” from the SS guards corpses of dead prisoners, including Belgian and French civilian forced labourers. Coward then directed healthy Jewish prisoners to join the nightly marches of Jews considered unfit for further work from Monowitz to the Birkenau gas chambers.During the course of the march the healthy men dropped out of procession to hide in ditches; Coward scattered the corpses he had purchased on the road to give the impression that they were members of the column who had died on the march.He then gave the documents and clothes taken from the non-Jewish corpses to the Jewish escapees, who adopted these new identities and were then smuggled out of the camp altogether. Coward carried out this scheme on numerous occasions and is estimated to have saved at least 400 Jewish slave labourers, even though this wasn’t officially verified.

 

In December 1944 Coward was sent back to the main camp of Stalag VIII-B at Lamsdorf (now Łambinowice, Poland) and in January 1945, the POWs were marched under guard to Bavaria, where they were eventually liberated.

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After the war, Coward testified at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, describing the conditions inside the Monowitz camp, the treatment of Allied POWs and Jewish prisoners, and the locations of the gas chambers.

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In 1953, Coward also appeared as a witness in the “Wollheim Suit”, when former slave labourer Norbert Wollheim sued I.G. Farben for his salary and compensation for damages.

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In January 1955, he joined the Old Comrades No. 4077 of UGLE.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1960 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.

In 1954 John Castle’s book, The Password is Courage, describing Coward’s wartime activities, was published. It has been through ten editions since, and remains in print. On the back cover of the current edition he is billed as “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz”, (which is also the title of Denis Avey’s book). This was adapted into a 1962 film also titled The Password Is Courage starring Dirk Bogarde. The film was lighthearted compared to the book and made only passing reference to Coward’s time at Auschwitz; it concentrated instead on his numerous escapes and added a fictitious romantic liaison.

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In 1963 Coward was named among the Righteous among the Nations and had a tree planted in his honour in the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles in Yad Vashem. In 2003 Coward was further commemorated with the mounting of a blue plaque at his home at 133 Chichester Road, Edmonton, London, where he lived from 1945 until his death. The North Middlesex Hospital has a ward named “Charles Coward” in his honour.

In 2010, Coward was posthumously named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.

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This move was seen as a reaction to comments made by Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, who commended Mr Coward’s actions in the House of Commons on 19 November 2008.

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His own father, Yitzak Persky, was also a prisoner of war who saved Jews from the gas chambers, and met Mr Coward, reportedly describing him as a “most impressive character”

En route, a New Zealand soldier died from hypothermia and starvation. “Coward took his dogtag and documentation off him and replaced my identity with his,” Persky reported. He used this identity for the rest of the war.

After Charles Cowards’s death there have been conflicting reports in relation to how many people has helped to escape.When Coward himself was questioned by Yad Vashem researchers in 1962 he offered few details about their identities or fates saying “It is not known exactly how many of these people regained their freedom, because some people went different ways and to different countries.” He added: “And naturally no records were kept of them because once they arrived in their new country, special papers were given to them and perhaps different names, etc.” The revisionist position is that Coward may have saved a few Jews, but certainly not hundreds, but does that make him less of a Hero? In my opinion it doesn’t.