Fort de Breendonk, German Atrocities in Belgium (WW-2)

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Official File – Brig Gen R. MCCLure, Chief PWD SHAEF (Main) (For Mr. C. D. Jackson)
From : Brigadier A. C. Neville, BGS (P&W), Main HQ, 21st Army Group
Report on Atrocities committed by the Germans against the Civilian Population in Belgium

Willebroek-Fort-de-Breendonk

This report was originally published in December 1944 by Headquarters 21st Army Group under the tittle of “Report on German Atrocities”. It has now been decided to publish that part of the original report which deal with atrocities committed by the Germans against the civilian population in Belgium. Since the original report was published certain additional information regarding German atrocities against the civilian population has become available and has been included in this edition.

The following abbreviations occur in the report :

SS – Schutz Staffel (Originally mean bodyguards, now signifies Nazi Party troops)
SD – Sicherheitsdienst (German Security Service)
SP – Sicherheitspolizei (German Security Police)
GFP – Geheime Feldpolizei (German Field Police)
VNV – Vlaamish Nationaal Verbond (Belgian (Vlaamishe) pro-German movement)
MNB – Mouvement National Belge (Belgian Resistance Movement)


Introduction

1 – The object of this report is to collect evidence of atrocities committed by the Germans against the civilian population in Belgium. It should be remembered that this report cannot be regarded as exhaustive. It merely summarizes the evidence which has been collected by a small number of officers over a period of 3 weeks.

2 – Atrocities were committed against the civilians by :
(a) the German Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei) of which the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) forms part;
(b) Flemish and Walloon SS in Belgium;
(c) the Secret Field Police (Geheime Feldpolizei), which forms part of the German Army;
(d) the German Army guards at concentration camps.

3 – The first thing that strikes one when mentioning German atrocities is the skepticism of the British troops and the British civilians. The idea of torture and mutilation is so abhorrent to the British mind that it is not easy to believe that practices associated with say the Spanish Inquisition could be carried out in the twentieth century by Europeans. This report produces evidences of German atrocities. Whilst it is not easy to find people who bear signs of mutilation it must be remembered that the most mutilated people were killed or died or were taken off to Germany. Nevertheless, several people have been found who carry signs of mutilation, their mutilated bodies have been examined and their stories obtained. These stories have been cross-checked as far as possible. Despite the fact that many of the people questioned were quiet unknown to each other their stories all bear a striking similarity as to the treatment civilian prisoners received in the hands of the Germans. Many of these stories would have not been obtained if two train-loads of prisoners had been taken to German from Brussels and Antwerp at the beginning of September 1944. Owing to sabotage of the engines, the damage to the tracks and the speed of the Allies advance the Germans were compelled to leave these prisoners behind. A Flemish member of the German Security Police who is now in the hands of the Belgian Police has given details of how civilian prisoners were ill-treated, which confirms the story of the prisoners. Some accounts of atrocities cannot however be substantiated or have been found to be exaggerated. No cognizance has been taken of such stories.

4 – People who were imprisoned and ill-treated included :
(a) Jews
(b) Political prisoners especially those who had or were suspected to have socialistic or communistic tendencies
(c) People who were known or suspected having pro-ally sympathies
(d) People who were working against or suspected working against the Germans e.g. people who assisted Airmen to escape or belonged to a Belgian underground movement
(e) People who had been denounced to the Germans by their personal enemies usually by anonymous letter (in many cases these people belonged to no political or patriotic party and are unable to say why they were imprisoned
(f) Hostages

The-Bastards-Staff-Breendonk
(L to R) SS Untersturmfuhrer Lais, SS Hautpscharfuhrer Muller, SS Sturmbannfuhrer Schmitt, SS Untersturmfuhrer Wilmes Franz, SS Untersturmfuhrer Prauss Arthur.

5 – Places of imprisonment and/or torture or execution :

(a) Breendonk, Malines : Concentration Camp originally for Jews only. Prisoners were tortured and executed there.
(b) Brussels 1
Place Rouppe – Gare du Midi : political prisoners interrogated by Flemish and Walloon SS
(b) Brussels 2
Avenue Louise 453 (lated removed to N°349) : Gestapo Headquarters. Suspects interrogated and tortured
(b) Brussels 3
Prison de St Gilles, Avenue Dupectiaux : a certain amount of political prisoners carried out
(b) Brussels 4
Rue Traversière : Headquarters Secret Field Police
(b) Brussels 5
Caserne St Anne (Laeken) : political prisoners were tortured
(b) Brussels 6
Tir National : where prisoners were shot
(c) Citadelle de Namur
for political prisoners
(d) Charleroi 1
Prison : political prisoners were tortured
(d) Charleroi 2
Caserne Tresignies : political prisoners were tortured
(e) Oostracher, Ghent
Place where the Gestapo tortured and carried out executions
(f) Ecole Militaire Limbourg, Bourg Léopold
political prisoners where interrogated and tortured by Flemish and Walloon SS
(g) Forteresse de Huy, nr Liège
(h) Antwerp – 1
Prison : political prisoners were held and tortured
(h) Antwerp – 2
22 Avenue Reine Elisabeth : Gestapo Headquarters
(i) Liège – 1
The Citadelle : political prisoners and partisans were tortured and shot
(i) Liège – 2
Lycée Boulevard d’Avroy : Gestapo Headquarters
(i) Liège – 3
Hotel Britannique : Headquarters Secret Field Police

The above list is of course not exhaustive as many other places of imprisonment and torture existed. Of the above places, two will be described in this report namely Breendonk Concentration Camp and the Tir National.

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6 – Breendonk Concentration Camp
General

This was originally a fort built as part of the outers defenses of Antwerp. It is situated on the main Brussels – Antwerp road about 20 Kms from Brussels and 22 Kms from Antwerp. The fort is a squat grey building surrounded by a wide moat, over which runs a causeway which is the only entrance. Most of the buildings were originally covered with earth in order to provide additional protection for the garrison and to camouflage the fort. The Germans made the prisoners remove the earthen banks and at the time of the liberation most of the earth had been removed. The fort had been allowed to fall into disuse by the Belgians after 1914-1918 War. It was however occupied by the Belgian GHQ for a few days when the Germans invaded the country in May 1940. At first the fort was used as a Concentration Camp for Jews but after a short while every kind of prisoner was incarcerated there, although by and large they were mainly political prisoners.

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7 – Accommodation for Prisoners

This consisted of :
(a) Eleven rooms, each measuring approximately 42 feet long, 21 feet wide and 13 feet high, with a door at one end and at the other end 2 windows which were painted over with blue paint. The door had a lock and a heavy iron bar which was placed in position on the outside when the prisoners occupied the rooms. The windows were kept open all day. Part of the floors were stone and part of them wood. Each of the rooms contains a stove which was lit during the winter at 1700 hours. 48 prisoners were accommodated in each room in triple decker bunks. There were also a few small tables and stools in each room in the small space which was not occupied by the bunks. In addition, each room contained 1 bucket for use as a night latrine. A total of 528 prisoners could be held in these rooms.

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(b) 4 huts measuring approximately 36 feet long by 18 feet broad and 8 feet high were build especially for Jewish Prisoners. These are built of wood and match-boarding, being somewhat similar to the rooms described above, except that the windows are smaller. All the huts are covered with creosote, which make them very dark. They contain no stove or any form of heating. They were furnished with triple decker bunks, a few small tables and stools and 1 bucket per hut for use as a night latrine. One of these huts was used as a workshop. 48 Jews were imprisoned in each of the other 3, the maximum number being 144.

(c) 32 brick cells built by the Germans in 2 of the rooms of the fort. These cells are 1,95 Meters (6ft-5ins) by 1,37 Meters (4ft-6ins) wide. The top of each cell is enclosed by an iron grill which is about 8 ft from the ground. All the doors are of wood, some of which were reinforced by iron bars whilst other have a large iron grill. The plain wooden doors have small trap-doors so that the warders could look into the cells and through which the prisoners’ food was passed. At the foot of each of the doors which have a large iron grill is a small trap-door for passing food to the prisoners. The cells contained a wooden board which served as a bed. This board was kept upright during the day by means of an iron bar which was operated from the outside of the cell. Each cell contained also a bucket which was used as latrine. One of these cells had a pair of shackles concreted into the back wall.

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(d) There are 6 dark cells into which no daylight can penetrate. These cells have white washed walls and stone floors. They each contain a plank bed which was kept against the wall during the day or removed from the cell. In addition there was a bucket for a latrine.

(c) It will be noted that the camp had accommodation for 710 prisoners.

(f) All of the above rooms and cells were lit by electricity, but that was only used by inspection by the guards.

8 – The Germans installed an up-to-date kitchen, very good showers and also latrines for the prisoners. There was also an infirmary.

Schmidt-Lump
The Master of the Place : SS Sturmbannfuhrer Phillip Schmitt and his dog called Lump. Schmidt will be put on the wall in 1950 and executed.

The Gas Chamber

9 – There are 2 rooms which each shaped like a horse-shoe, one of which is known as the Gas Chamber. One enters each of the rooms through 2 steel doors. Neither has windows but each has ventilation shafts and a coke stove. Popular rumor is that the Germans used to gas prisoners in the Gas Chamber by means of the fumes from the coke stove. No proof of this has however been obtained. The rooms were designed as gas-proof chambers after the last war. Some prisoners states that the rooms known as Gas Chambers was used as a mortuary and sometimes contained up to 20 bodies.

The Torture Chamber

10 – This is a circular shaped room without windows and a stone floor with a shallow gutter across the width which serves as a drain. In the room is a coke stove, a bed and a table. It is lighted by electricity and in addition there is a electric point similar to that used for an electric fire. There are 3 marks in the wall and ceiling where a pulley was installed by the Germans. This pulley was dismantled by the Germans before they fled and the holles filled up with cement.

The Camp Staff

11 – The Camp was commanded by a German SS Major. Under his command were 2 or 3 SS Lieutenants, a small number of German SS guards and 6 to 8 Flemish SS. This formed the permanent staff. Their names and other particulars are shown bellow this report. There was also a detachment of the Wehrmacht attached to the group for guard duties. The number of Wehrmacht troops was approximately 50, but they were constantly changed. Most of the personnel lived in the camp; at first in the camp itself and later in wood huts which were constructed near the entrance. Most of the Officers and NCOs were billeted in houses near the fort. Madame Verdickt who lives in a small house near the entrance to the camp had some Officers and NCOs billeted on her. Bellow is a paraphrase of a statement which Madame Verdickt has made to the Belgian authorities. It should be noted that although a total of approximately 7 women prisoners were held at different times there were no wardresses.

12 – In addition a certain number of civilians who lived out of camp were employed; one was a cook, another a gardener and another in looking after the live-stock which belonged to the garrison. In addition a local blacksmith who was in the SS was employed to do general repair work at the camp. This man made some of the instruments of torture. Two other civilians were also employed at the camp from time to time. An electrician from the Village of Breendonk who locked after the electricity supply and a general contractor. The names and particulars of all civilians referred to the above are shown bellow.

Organization of the Camp

13 – Each room was in charge of a prisoner who was made responsible for the discipline and the cleanliness of the room. Prisoners made in charge of rooms were nearly always German Jews. Apart from this Jewish prisoners were generally kept quiet separate from the other prisoners.

14 – Some of the SS guards were employed indoors, whilst some were employed outside. All the guards were armed and they generally carried whips or crops which they rarely hesitated to use. The Wehrmacht troops attached for guard duties did not come into contact much with the prisoners.

15 – All orders were given in German. Prisoners had to understand or take the consequences. Prisoners were only allowed to speak to the guards if they required anything. If they tried to indulge into normal conversation they were invariably punished.

Entry into the Camp

Prisoners were arrested by the Gestapo or the Secret Police and taken first to the Police HQ. Sometimes they were interrogated and beaten up there but this was not an invariable rule. Sometimes they were charged with an offense against the Germans and sometimes they were not. Quite a number of prisoners were sent to the camp from other prisons. On entering the camp prisoners were made to stand strictly at attention inside the entrance of the fort or in the prison yard. They were usually made to stand with their faces against a wall. Sometimes they were kept standing for a short while, but more often it was for several hours. During this time they were not allowed to move or go to the lavatory. If one wanted to go to the lavatory he relieved himself were he stood and was punished by the guards for uncleanliness. The batch of prisoners which entered with Antoine Abbeloos from 627 Chaussée de Mons, Anderlecht, Brussels, on June 20 1941, was kept at attention for 48 hours. They were not allowed to move and were not given any food or water. They collapsed like flies with heat, thirst fatigue and whereupon they were revived by the guards kicking them and made to stand at attention again. After this period of standing prisoners were taken to their rooms or cells.

17 – Shortly after this they had to hand in their clothes and all their personal belongings and received dilapidated prison uniform instead. This prison uniform consisted of old Belgian Army uniforms, a pullover or a shirt a belt and a pair of sabots. Purposely the sabots were often to small whilst if was often forbidden to wear the cap – it had to be carried in the belt. Each uniform had sewn on it the prisoner’s number and the distinguishing mark showing the class the prisoner belonged to. Some of these uniforms can be still seen in the fort. In addition each prisoner was given a towel – no soap was issued. Prisoners who were locked up in the rooms were given 2 or 3 thin blanket and a paillasse. Prisoners who were locked up in the cells were not given, as a rule, any form of bed covering.

18 – The prisoners then had their heads shaved. Any prisoner who had a mustache or beard had it shaved off. Prisoners had a brief medical inspection during which they were made to stand in the prison yard no matter what the weather was like.

Allotment of Prisoners to Rooms or Cells

19 – The majority of prisoners lived in the barrack rooms, but those who were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ were kept in the cells, whilst the ‘most dangerous’ type of prisoners were locked up the dark cells. Quite often the prisoners in the cells or dark celles had handcuffs or shackles on the whole time they were there. The prisoners who was alloted to the cells which has the shackles cemented into the wall was made to eat his meals on all fours owing to the fact that the food was placed on the edge of the trap-door in the cell door and he was not allowed to lift it into the cell.

20 – Prisoners who were locked up in the cells were only allowed out under escort to empty their latrine buckets which took a matter of 4 or 5 minutes daily. They were allowed no exercise. Prisoners held in the dark cells had a black hood put over their heads before they left their cells on this daily duty. This prevented other prisoners seeing who they were and formed another punishment.

Breendonk-Prisoners

Food

21 – From the opening of the camp in 1940 until sometime in 1944, the food was very bad and quite insufficient. It was quite common for a prisoners to loose 3 or 4 stones after being in the camp for 3 months. According to the statements made by Moens, the daily ration per prisoner was originally :

– Grammes – Equivalent in ounce
Bread – 175 – 6.125
Jam – 20 – 0.7
Sugar – 30 – 1.05
Butter/Margarine – 30 – 1.05
Cheese (per 2 days) 10 – 0.175
Meat with Bone – 30 – 0.35 (without bone) 20 – 0.7

The total ration shown about 9.8 ounces per man. The prisoners however did receive in addition 1 litre (1.75 L Imperial Pint) of watery soup per day and 2 mugs of ersatz coffee. After some time the bread ration was increased to 250 grammes per day which is equivalent to 8.75 ounces making the total ration exclusive of soup 12.425 ounces per man. The Belgian Red Cross made every effort to supplement the rations, but only a fraction of the goods they supplied reached the prisoners. From 1943, a Belgian charity, the Foyer Leopold III, delivered all kinds of food and, for the first time, the prisoners rations improved although the prisoners only received a portion of what was delivered. In 1944 the food improved a great deal as the ration of bread was increased by 500 grammes per day (17.5 ounces) and 1000 grammes (2.2 ounces) of potatoes were authorized to be issued. The prisoners however rarely their full rations. They rarely received any meat except perhaps occasionally in the soup.

22 – In the early days prisoners were allowed to receive parcels of food etc, from outside, but this privilege was stopped on the grounds that communistic literature was being smuggled into the fort and that the parcel contained rationed foods which must have been bought on the Black Market.

There were 3 meals a day

23 – These meals which consisted of the following :
a) Breakfast : which took place between 0600 and 0730 depending on the time of the year. A slice of dry bread and a mug of ersatz coffee.
b) Miday Meal : took place anytime between 1100 and 1400 and consisted of a bowl of watery soup. The only thing which the prisoners say in its favor is that it was very hot.
c) Supper : which took place at 1900 consisted of a piece of bread, sometimes a small piece of butter or margarine or a the spoon of jam. Occasionally a potato or a salted sardine was also issued. A mug of ersatz coffee was also issued.

Clothing, Mail etc

24 – Parcels of clothing which were sent to the prisoners by their families or their friends were confiscated as a rule. Sometimes, however they were delivered to the prisoners. Normally, clothing were issued to the prisoners when that which they were wearing was completely unfit for further uses.

25 – As a rule, only non-political prisoners were allowed to write or receive letters and this privilege was only granted occasionally. The civilian employees and sometimes the guards did smuggle letters in and out of the fort.

26 – Smoking was not allowed. Prisoners found with tobacco were punished. Occasionally, however, the head men of the rooms were given one cigarette which they had to smoke immediately.

27 – All prisoners were made to pass trough the shower once a week. Very rarely was soap provided and the prisoners were rarely given time to dry themselves and accordingly had to put their clothes whilst still wet.

28 – There was no chaplain attached to the camp. It is not known whether or not a German chaplain was present at all executions. It is understood that one was in attendance on some of these occasions.

Medical Inspection

29 – There was no resident medical officer on the staff but only a medical orderly. The medical orderlies who it is stated belonged to the Wehrmacht changed periodically. They varied tremendously – some were good whilst some were very bad, one in particular used to beat the patients. An Austrian Jewish doctor called Singer was imprisoned in the camp from March 1941 until March 1944 when he was transfered to another prison. Shortly after he entered the camp he was put to work in the infirmary where he remained for 18 months. This doctor was under the orders of the medical orderly and was not given a free hand to practice medicine. It was the medical orderly or one of the camp staff who really decided the medical condition of a prisoner. All prisoners were medically examined by a visiting German army doctor once a month, everyone being inspected at the same time. For this inspection the Commandant ordered the prisoners to be lined up in the courtyard completely naked whatever the time of the year or weather. One of the visiting medical officer, Maj Pohl, of the Wehrmacht was very sympathetic toward the prisoners and endeavored to improve the conditions of the camp. Another Wehrmacht medical officer, Kochling, was completely indifferent to their fate. It appears that the medical inspections for all the prisoners who sometimes numbered over 600, often only took little over an hour. The camp authorities did take pains to prevent serious infectious deceases or epidemics from breaking out – hence the weekly bath. But often scanty attention was paid to cuts, wounds an scares on the prisoners, bodies brought about the ill-treatment and under-nourishment. Normally the infirmary contained about 40 to 50 sick prisoners but on one occasion at least it held over 150 patients. Prisoners there received no extra food.

A Typical Day for a Prisoner Detained in one of the Barrack Rooms

30 – At reveille, which was normally at 0600, the prisoners had to spring out of their beds. Anyone who was found in bed after reveille was lashed by the guards. Prisoners in the barrack rooms had to form up outside their rooms and stand strictly at attention. The head man of the room then reported the room to the guard. Any prisoner who was slow in getting out of bed was lashed by one of the guard and often struck by the head man of the room. As so many of the prisoners were in a very weak of health, or were old or infirm (some being as hold as 70 years of age) they often did not move with the elasticity the Germans demanded and as a result were beaten without mercy. After the prisoners had been counted they washed naked to the waist in the ablutions benches in the corridors. They were not provided with soap. They were allowed about 2 minutes for washing. After this they had to clean up their rooms and make their beds. All beds had to be made in the German army fashion with the blankets folded on top of the paillasses. Great importance was attached to the making of beds and no breakfast was issued until the guards were satisfied with them. If there were not considered satisfactory, the guards used to show their displeasure by trashing the prisoners.

31 – The prisoners were escorted to the lavatory where they were allowed to remain for 2 minutes. This was often the only time during the day when they were allowed to use the lavatory. As many of the prisoners had dysentery they wished to remain more time in the lavatory for more than 2 minutes but they were not permitted to do so. Anyone who was considered to be loitering was beaten. Incidentally no toilet paper was provided.

32 – The prisoners were then put to work. Some were employed in the carpenter’s shop although most of them worked outside the fort. The outside work consisted of building a large bank round the fort to prevent people from seeing inside; or removing earth which covered a great deal of the fort; or breaking some of the concrete emplacements into pieces. Picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were provided for this work.

33 – During the outside work, the prisoners were, for no apparent reason, made to do exercises. The were formed up in squads and made to run, lie down and run again. They even had to get down into puddles of water. They were often lashed for getting their uniform wet and dirty. In addition, the prisoners were made to goose-steps. Very often the prisoners carried out these exercises with packs on their backs containing heavy stones, although this was normally reserved as a punishment if the guards thought the prisoners were not working sufficiently fast. The aged or infirm were not excused.

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34 – If a prisoner had to go to the lavatory, he had to ask permission from one of the guards and often stand strictly to attention whilst awaiting the answer. Very often, the guard would not answer for a considerable time or refuse the permission. If a prisoner who was made to wait fouled his uniform he was punished. All prisoners state is was a regular occurrence.

35 – All work and exercises were supervised by the German and Flemish SS Guards who took every opportunity of ill-treating the prisoners. They were helped by some of the head men of the rooms. When a prisoner was spoken to by an officer he was made to stand at attention and he was not allowed to answer in any way. Some of the ordinary SS used to insist that prisoners also stood to attention when they addressed them. Anyone who answered back was flogged or accused of mutiny and committed in the cells. Work and exercises continued no matter how could it was and very often when it was wet. When the prisoners got wet through they were sometimes allowed to return to their barrack room but they had no other clothes to change into. The Jews were generally singled out for the worst treatment and they were often flogged unmerciful and were made to undergo every humility.

36 – No prisoner was allowed to report sick without the authorization of one of the guards. Even when a prisoner was flogged so that the wounds on his undernourished body were bleeding, permission had to be obtained to go to the infirmary to see the medical orderly. And the permission was not readily given. If permission was obtained to report sick the prisoner was kept waiting by the medical orderly for an indefinite time in the courtyard outside of the infirmary. Prisoners were sometimes kept waiting for hours and they were completely naked – that being the rule when reporting for medical inspection. As often as not the prisoner was told to return to his work as there was nothing wrong wih him.

37 – The only break during the hours of work was for the mid-day meal which took place any time between 1100 and 1400 or even later. If the guards considered that any prisoner had infringed any of the rule or had not worked sufficiently hard the mid-day meal was postponed for 2 or 3 hours.

38 – The prisoners did not normally work after the last meal of the day but remained looked in their rooms. Each room had a small bucket for a night latrine. This was soon filled and after this there was no alternative but to use the floor of the room. When this happened the guards invariably beat the prisoners some of whom say that the guards endeavored to make some unfortunate persons eat their own excreta.

39 – It appears that sometimes their was not work on Sundays, but this was by no means an invariable as many prisoners say that there were made to work every day.

Prisoners Confined to the Cells

40 – At reveille their beds were pinned to the wall or removed from the cell. The only time those prisoners were allowed out of their cells was once daily to empty their latrine bucket and to wash which took a matter of 3 or 4 minutes. Prisoners in the dark cells had hood placed over their heads when they were escorted out to empty their buckets. This was to prevent them being recognized by other prisoners and to act as an additional torture. When these prisoners washed no other prisoners were allowed to be present. These ‘cell’ prisoners generally did not work at all whilst many of them where kept in manacles, handcuffs and – or shackles. Prisoners in the dark cells were not allowed to loan against the whitewashed wall. If they did so the whitewash came off onto their clothes and when the guards saw it they were beaten.

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