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Remembering the ‘sailors of Sachsenhausen’ on Holocaust Memorial Day

27 January 2022
In the small town of Oranienburg, which sits on the northern end of Berlin’s suburban rail network and the edge of the lakeland which extends almost to the Baltic, lies Sachenshausen concentration camp.

It sits on the town’s northeastern outskirts, a huge triangular clearing in what was once forest and today is mostly open ground, gravel and a smattering of surviving buildings.

And here, on an icy night at the beginning of February in 1945 five Royal Navy commandos met their fate – but not before one of them had at least ensured his oppressor suffered a bitter end.

Konzentrationslager Sachsenhausen was not a death camp per se – prisoners were sent there to ‘reform’, be ‘re-educated’ and emerge as ‘better’ citizens.

Conditions were nevertheless still brutal, deaths a daily occurrence and, as the war moved into its final phase, an unprecedented killing spree began.

The Red Army’s winter offensive which liberated Auschwitz also brought Russian troops to within 60 miles of Oranienburg – prompting the Nazis to take extreme measures.

While Sachsenhausen’s ‘satellite camps’ were emptied, their inmates forced to trudge through the German winter to the main camp, or other sites of Nazi terror in the ever-shrinking Third Reich.

At the same time, SS leaders embarked on a series of mass killings to rid Sachsenhausen of sick, ill prisoners, enemies of the state and other ‘undesirables’ – partly to free up space, partly out of revenge as Hitler’s Germany went down in flames and blood.

On the last day of January 1945, the codeword ‘Scharnhorst’ flashed around concentration camps: the signal for the killings to begin.

The guards at Sachsenhausen started with prisoners labelled ‘Gefährlichen’ – ‘the dangerous ones’, suspected of perhaps starting a riot/uprising or attempting to escape.

On the night of February 1 1945, 31 Luxembourg police officials were torn from their sleep, led to the camp’s shooting pit and executed.

A special killing squad, Kommando Moll, led by a brutal former officer from Auschwitz, 29-year-old Otto Moll – believed to have overseen the deaths of more than 20,000 souls during his time at the death camp in Upper Silesia – was brought in to perform the killings.

On February 2 1945, Kommando Moll executed another 80 prisoners, among them a handful of Royal Navy sailors who’d suffered two years of maltreatment at the hands of the Nazis since capture.

They were led by acting Lieutenant John Godwin, a 25-year-old Brit born in Argentina, who had been taken prisoner with several comrades during a limpet mine attack on German ships in the Norwegian port of Haugesund in January 1943 – a near carbon copy of the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid, played out in Scandinavia in even worse weather conditions.

As with the raid on Bordeaux, the attack caused considerable damage – but the attackers were captured.

Despite wearing uniforms, the seven men seized were treated as saboteurs under Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order’ – which normally meant instant execution.
Instead they eventually ended up in Sachsenhausen (two were subsequently transferred to Bergen-Belsen where they too would die).

Godwin was known as Prisoner 71787 – to dehumanise inmates, they were stripped of their names and referred to by guards only as numbers.

He and his comrades were put to work – in contravention of the Geneva Convention – supporting the German war effort, notably by testing boots for the German Army, which included marching 30 miles a day on cobbles to see how the footwear fared.

Godwin was broken neither mentally nor physically by his inhuman treatment in the camp. Resisting to the end, he fought with the execution squad commander, wrested his pistol from him and killed the SS man… before himself being shot by the other executioners. 

The four other Royal Navy sailors still in Sachenshausen shared his bitter fate that night.

Norwegian prisoner Odd Nansen learned of their deaths the next day.

“When the truth of the events during the night gradually became known, when we learned that our friends, the Englishmen John, Jack and Tommy, and the others, had in all likelihood been shot, as well as the Russian officers and many others, then a dark mood descended upon us. And the rumours went round that things would be even worse in the coming night…” 

John Godwin and his comrades were among 3,000 ‘dangerous types’ murdered in Sachsenhausen in early 1945. 

Of 200,000 prisoners who passed through the gates promising ‘work sets you free’ during the camp’s nine-year life, an estimated 100,000 died.

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