No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess dear, This has been one of those wretched autumn days when the weather seems to exert its depressing influence upon everything and everybody. The wind has been quite boisterous and easterly:- damnably cold. In addition, the sky has been overcast with low angry looking clouds… and it has been alternately raining and snowing all day. We have nailed some blankets across our glassless windows, but these have been little use against today’s wind and cold. However… we have remained dry and that is a lot to be thankful for.
I have been to an Ensa concert this evening: not the usual Ensa variety show, but one devoted entirely to classical music. Unfortunately, it was advertised amongst the various units concerned merely as an ‘Ensa concert’… and the consequences were rather embarrassing to Dicky Hall and I.
We happened to know that it was a classical concert… and we must have been the only ones who did. The rest of the troops… some hundreds of them, naturally expected the usual fare. Before the show started, one of the artists explained that we were going to have a rather different type of entertainment… and he apologised for the fact that no official intimation to this effect had been issued. But he hoped we would enjoy it etc. etc. There was a mild groan from the audience when classical music was mentioned… and I found myself already breaking into a ‘cold sweat’. You see, I knew that the artists taking part were all serious musicians. They only arrived from England a week ago: they had volunteered to go overseas to fulfil a demand for decent music. And Ensa had sent them here for our benefit. But what a ghastly mistake to send an average bunch of soldiers to such a concert. Perhaps it is only possible for we in the army to appreciate the enormity of this faux pas.
There were seven artists… all of them really good, viz. piano, violin, cello, soprano, contralto, tenor, and a classical dancer. The tenor acted as compere. He announced the first item… a trio by Schubert. Chamber music for the troops!! Ye Gods! There were groans and guffaws. I felt ashamed: what would the artists think. Dicky and I both reacted similarly… feeling terribly embarrassed and uncomfortable. The curtain went up, revealing the three players sitting before their music… piano, violin, and cello. I think it must have been the first time some of those fellows had seen a cellist: there were many titters and a few insulting remarks, quite audible. The three girls sat there calmly waiting for silence: they seemed unperturbed, as though they expected this queer reception. I admired them… but I couldn’t help despising those fellows who hadn’t even the manners to be quiet.
Eventually, the trio commenced… but I’m afraid I hardly heard it. There was a lot of disturbance and much talking, most of it deliberately loud. At the end there was terrific cheering and whistling and guffawing… mostly in derision. It was horrible. And this was the general reaction throughout the concert… It was an excellent programme… but far too good, I’m sorry to say. The songs included “Softly Awakes my Heart”, “Allelujah” by Mozart, a trio from Die Fledermaus (soprano, contralto, tenor), a duet from La Boheme (soprano and tenor), and three or four other solos. The cellist also played three solos, and the violinist played the 2nd and 3rd movements from Mendelssohn’s violin concerto: she played beautifully. The pianist also played three solos… Liszt’s “Dance of the Gnomes”, a Mozart waltz and a piece by Schumann: she was a brilliant player. And the dancer performed some traditional Spanish dances.
Some of the interruptions caused amusement with the artists. For instance, in the duet from Boheme, the tenor sang “it is chilly outside”… and there were roars of laughter in the place. Imagine it, Jess: one of the loveliest arias in the opera and here was an audience treating it as a huge joke. But perhaps there was some excuse: it was chilly outside! When the pianist announced her first item (her name was Jeaunette… something) a voice bawled out “give us ‘In the Mood’ Jeaunette”!! Another shouted “swing it, sister”… and the dancer… well, I felt very sorry for her.
No need to say more, Jessie Mine: I have always maintained that good music is not appreciated in the army:- perhaps the odd 5% enjoyed tonight’s concert… if they were not too busy squirming with shame like Dicky and I.
I must apologise for the delay in finishing this, Jessie Mine. I intended posting it yesterday, but unfortunately a special trip was announced very suddenly, leaving me with only sufficient time to have a wash, and board the lorry. I will tell you about this trip… it was to a former Gestapo headquarters and prison: we were invited to see the place in order to see actual evidence of some of the atrocities about which we have heard so much.
Our destination was “Fort de Breendonck”… one of a number of forts built by the Belgians to protect Antwerp. It lay about 6 miles south of the city, in fairly open and very flat country. My first impression of the building was of a long, low, gloomy concrete structure… completely windowless and absolutely devoid of any attractive feature. It was approached via a short road, lined on either side with tall concrete posts liberally draped with barbed wire and steel spikes. I found later that a similar fencing encircled the entire fort. Between this fencing and the building, there was a broad moat… about forty feet wide and twenty feet deep, with a channel of water at least ten feet deep. There was a drawbridge across the moat at one point only: we crossed this, and found ourselves in a cold and gloomy ‘tunnel’ about 12 feet high. This was the main entrance. I noticed a plaque on the wall just as we entered: it bore the name ‘Fort de Breendonck’ and the dates 1914/1918.
The ‘tunnel’ I have mentioned extended for some way ahead… about fifty yards I should think, but I could see a few doors and passages leading off at right angles: the place was lit rather poorly with electric light. We hadn’t proceeded far into the interior when an N.C.O. approached and asked us to wait whilst he found a guide to take us round. A little later, a Belgian youth came along: he was our guide: he spoke English fairly well. His first announcement was a disappointment:- we would not be able to see the torture chamber down in the bowels somewhere, because the place was kept locked up, and the key was not available. Anyhow, we followed him around. And now I can only tell you what I actually saw, and what I was told by the guide: I cannot promise any irrefutable evidence of atrocities… unless you are prepared to believe what I was told by the guide.
One of the passages leading off the main corridor – the “tunnel”… led to a small alcove in which had been built half a dozen small cells, each fitted with a heavy wooden door. These cells measured about 6 ft wide x 8 ft long, and we were told that five or six prisoners slept in each cell. All newcomers to the prison spent the first four days in these cells… in total darkness. Bear in mind that the outer walls of the fort are of reinforced concrete, about 10 feet thick, and the roof probably much thicker: also that the place was entirely devoid of windows… and the entrance to the cell alcove was normally sealed off with a heavy door. There couldn’t have been much air for the prisoners… and I can’t imagine darker darkness. Luckily, there was an electric light for the benefit of visitors. From these cells we passed down several more of the long tunnel-like passages… all terribly gloomy and cold and paved with cobble-stones. The place seemed to be littered with alcoves similar to the one I have mentioned, all of them used for progressive stages of the ‘punishment’.
Incidentally, the guide informed us that all the prisoners were either Belgian political undesirables, or suspected members of the Belgian underground movement. Many Jews were also included: their race, presumably, being their crime. I saw a large communal cell, low ceilinged, dark and cold: this was the main dormitory for the Jews. It contained a number of two-tier wooden beds and nothing else. I imagine there must have been sleeping accommodation for about fifty people… in a space roughly twice the area of a normal living room, with a ceiling about seven feet high. From this gloomy and depressing underworld, it was a relief to ascend a narrow stairway built through the enormous concrete roof, and so reach the outer world of fresh air and daylight. We were now literally on top of the fort. From this angle, we could see that the entire fort had originally been underground, apart from the gun emplacements, and a few air towers. But the Germans had used the prisoners to un-earth the entire structure.
To give you an idea of the enormous amount of work involved in this process, imagine a single storeyed building covering the area of Manchester town hall: and then completely obscure all sides of this building by piling up to the roof a gently sloping mound of earth… leaving a few chimney stacks (air ducts) protruding, and a couple of squat towers above the ground to carry the fort’s guns. This is a crude picture, but it may help you to comprehend the size of the task of this un-earthing. The job had been completed except for a small part at the rear. Here, there were still a number of narrow guage rail lines carrying steel ‘tubs’ in which the excavated earth was transported to the inner side of the wire fencing. Here it was piled into a long ridge to form a bank for the moat. It became obvious that the latter was not part of the original design: it was added by the Germans as an additional deterrent to escape. The excavated area immediately beneath the rear walls of the fort was utilised as a killing ground. At one point, there were ten heavy planks standing vertically in a straight row… each about 6 feet from its neighbour, and 30 feet from the fort. These planks were used to support the bodies of prisoners condemned to be shot. Such executions were usually carried out ten at a time. We were told that 400 Belgians had been executed here. On the wall at the rear, a number of indentations in the concrete, caused by rifle bullets, were quite visible.
Yesterday, there were the faded remnants of several wreaths at the bases of these killing stakes… presumably laid there by Belgian patriots since the Allied occupation. In a nearby corner of this particular area, was a small wooden stage about four feet high. In the centre of this stage was a trap-door controlled by a lever protruding from the side of the structure. Overhead, perhaps nine or ten feet above, was a heavy horizontal beam. The whole constituted the prison gallows. We were told that three people had been hanged on this machine.
I don’t want to tire you with any more of the constructional features of this hateful building… but you may like to hear of some of the tortures alleged to have been carried out in the place. The details of these tortures were the subject of a pamphlet issued by one of our brigadiers. He had access to the entire prison, was able to interrogate many of the staff who were captured by us, and also conversed with men who had been prisoners there. Many of the worst tortures seem to have been reserved for suspected members of the Belgian “underground”. It was by this means that the Gestapo endeavoured to obtain further details of the organisation. Firstly then, try and imagine a small cell: the floor about six feet square, and little more in height. It is really a concrete box, with no windows or light, but with a door in the inner wall. The interior of this cell is heavily whitewashed… spotless… except for a patch two feet square in the centre of the floor. Prisoners were marched in and made to stand on the un-whitewashed square… and there they had to remain for 24 hours in total darkness. At the end of this period, they were carefully examined and if their clothing bore the slightest sign of whitewash, they were treated to further punishment. If the floor of the cell bore any signs of human habitation… either urine or excreta, the poor wretch responsible was forced to clean up the mess by lapping it up with his mouth.
In another part of the prison was a device used for torturing prisoners for whom violence seemed necessary. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and their bodies were then hoisted to the ceiling until they were suspended horizontally. The hoist was then released, the body falling to the concrete floor beneath. It was the victims’ faces which were usually smashed up after this ordeal.
Another device was used for detaching finger nails: this was regarded as one of the more genteel forms of torture.
A fairly modern bathroom was used for certain prisoners. It contained a bath and a shower, and controls for hot and cold water. The victim was placed in the bath and treated to alternate doses of hot and cold water… the former almost boiling. Presumably the ‘treatment’ was continued until the prisoner confessed or became unconscious.
One of the implements which the Gestapo left behind in the ‘torture chamber’ is shaped like a poker with a slender hook at the tip. It was first heated, and then forced inside the victim’s anus. When withdrawn, the hook usually brought with it portions of the intestines.
And that, I think, is enough upon such a beastly subject…
I mentioned the prison staff earlier on… some of them being captured by our troops. Unfortunately, all members of the Gestapo seem to have escaped, but they left behind a number of negroes who seem to have done much of the whipping and beating… under Gestapo supervision. I was told that these negroes were ‘Belgians’ so can only assume that they came from the Congo. They subsequently became prisoners in the fort, together with a motley crew of collaborateurs, and prostitutes who were known to have co-habited with Germans. I did not learn their fate… but they are no longer in the fort.
Our guide told us that the entire prison, with its gruesome relics, was thoroughly photographed and filmed by the British authorities immediately after its capture, so I have no doubt that what I have tried to describe will be published in due course, if not already. And I shouldn’t be surprised if there are many Germans who are already regretting their association with “Fort de Breendonck”. Many of them will be known, and recorded on the allied list of war criminals.
No doubt you will find the foregoing hard… even impossible… to believe. For my part, I am becoming less and less sceptical about German atrocities. After all, it was natural incredulity which enabled the Nazis to proceed with their systematic efforts to destroy the Jews in the early days of their regime. We heard gruesome stories by the score of the awful hardships and torture being inflicted upon German Jews. But we didn’t really believe: the world of decent civilised people scoffed at the stories. the German people were too decent, too civilised, too much like ourselves to be guilty of such barbarism. And the Nazis themselves seized upon these arguments from abroad and made capital out of them… They succeeded admirably in helping us all to deceive ourselves. And so we were hoodwinked for years… apart from the warnings of a few “voices in the wilderness”. As we refused to believe in the early atrocity stories, so we refused to believe the stories of German re-armament. We preferred to believe Hitler who blamed ‘International Jewry’ for spreading alarmist rumours: they were war mongers… He was a man of peace…
And now we have this terrible succession of captured torture chambers. Is it possible that a highly cultured and educated people like the Germans can possibly be guilty of such barbarism? Why not? Must we always remain incredulous and disbelieving? What have the Nazis done to our minds that we must always deny their villainy? Why do we so persistently refuse to face facts when they are detrimental to the “good and kindly German folk”? Will we ever realise the extent to which the so-called Herrenvolk have been brutalised by the fiends whom they chose to govern them? Well was it said recently by the Belgian Prime Minister that it was the Germans who made Hitler… not Hitler who made the Germans. They have been made drunk with the lust for power and conquest. They gloried in their Fuehrer’s defiance of the world. And when he ridiculed and condemned the most elementary of human virtues, they applauded him and made virtue out of vice. I am speaking of the German nation: they allowed these things to happen. And now that the extent of their utter degradation has been revealed, must we still refuse to face the facts? Have we any right to act as their apologists? Surely it is better, if more difficult, to accept the inexorable logic of facts? How else can we administer justice and attempt to alleviate at least a minute part of the suffering and misery caused by the German nation.
I do hope, Jess, that people at home will have made up their minds upon this issue by the time we finish this war. It will be terribly hard for we soldiers… and other servicemen… to find that those we left at home don’t really know why we have been fighting.
I must leave you now, dear… but will be writing again tomorrow.