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Prisoners of warSecond World War
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Ghosts of the Rhine

by Wade , Duncan

He was talking about one of the most shocking – and best kept – secrets of the Second World War. No one disputes that between January and October 1945 many German prisoners of war died in American internment camps along the Rhine. What is in dispute is why. In British and French camps, the death rate was far lower because the treatment of prisoners was altogether more humane and action was taken to improve conditions. In American camps, the Geneva Convention was metaphorically torn up. Ex-soldiers as well as women, children and the old, were left to fend for themselves. Water and food were meagre in the extreme and medical help virtually non-existent. There was no shelter from the freezing winter, the rain-sodden spring or the burning summer sun. The Division guarding them was the US 106th which had been broken and decimated during the Battle of the Bulge. Six months after this disaster their losses had been made up of green recruits, the discarded and unwanted men of other US Divisions, and those who had been released from military prisons. In overall command of this dangerous combination of men was a Major-General who'd been recalled to duty after a serious mental breakdown. There was little idea or direction given to him on what to do with over three million prisoners, and no action taken to avert the epidemics of dysentery, diarrhoea and looming typhus that swept through the prison camps. However what happened in the camps was a reflection of a larger picture of Allied administrative chaos, negligence and incompetence across Germany. The war was over but no one knew what to do with the post war peace. Roosevelt had made it very clear in 1944 that only after the war had been won would the Allies be given instructions on how a completely defeated Germany would be governed. Senior US officials and the British had desperately attempted to change Roosevelt's stance and plan ahead for the occupation of Germany. There were major issues that required forward planning and resourcing they insisted. Their reports and telegrams urging him to take action were according to Roosevelt 'only advisory,' and could be ignored. The result was that once the Allies crossed the Rhine they had no guidelines, no resources and no adequately trained personnel to take on the task of occupying Germany. As a result inevitably chaos ensued. Germany descended into an anarchy across all the zones of occupation with widespread rape, pillage, severe starvation, disease, prostitution, inflation and murder. It became a lawless time the Germans named 'zero hour.' Former President Herbert Hoover who visited Germany (on a fact finding mission for President Truman) was appalled at how the US authorities were largely indifferent the human catastrophe they were presiding over. The US also became increasingly alienated from their British and French Allies and the three western occupation zones became the setting for bitter confrontations. The British made discreet mentions of their disapproval and nothing- more while the French and US in contrast became involved in a diplomatic storm of accusations and counter accusations over who was responsible for the mass deaths of German prisoners. The Red Cross became involved and reported that hundreds of thousands of German prisoners would be dead within twelve months. The US Ambassador in Paris was to later admit that the French were justified in accusing the US of negligence. Ghosts of the Rhine, meticulously researched from eye-witness accounts of survivors, official documentation from American, British, French and Soviet archives, newspaper articles, diaries and personal interviews opens up what one historian has described as a 'murky,' part of the war kept hidden. The eminent historian Frederick Taylor describes the camps as a 'black mark,' on the record of the US Army. Professor Holger Nehring Chair in Contemporary European History at the University of Stirling, has spoken at length with the author and reviewed Ghosts of the Rhine. In his opinion it 'offers a very rich narrative of the experiences of German POWs in the Western zone of occupation,' and a 'corrective to heroic accounts of the immediate post-war period in Western Europe.' He has also stated that Ghosts of the Rhine is 'almost certainly the first book in English...that makes consistent use of oral history evidence for POWs on the Western front.' This is the untold story of why the Allies were so unprepared for the victory over Germany and the consequences for the surrendered German army. It is told largely through their own words and those who guarded their camps. It is a story that for decades has been unspoken of and conveniently been forgotten.

He was talking about one of the most shocking – and best kept – secrets of the Second World War. No one disputes that between January and October 1945 many German prisoners of war died in American internment camps along the Rhine. What is in dispute is why. In British and French camps, the death rate was far lower because the treatment of prisoners was altogether more humane and action was taken to improve conditions.

In American camps, the Geneva Convention was metaphorically torn up. Ex-soldiers as well as women, children and the old, were left to fend for themselves. Water and food were meagre in the extreme and medical help virtually non-existent. There was no shelter from the freezing winter, the rain-sodden spring or the burning summer sun.

The Division guarding them was the US 106thwhich had been broken and decimated during the Battle of the Bulge. Six months after this disaster their losses had been made up of green recruits, the discarded and unwanted men of other US Divisions, and those who had been released from military prisons. In overall command of this dangerous combination of men was a Major-General who'd been recalled to duty after a serious mental breakdown. There was little idea or direction given to him on what to do with over three million prisoners, and no action taken to avert the epidemics of dysentery, diarrhoea and looming typhus that swept through the prison camps.

However what happened in the camps was a reflection of a larger picture of Allied administrative chaos, negligence and incompetence across Germany.

The war was over but no one knew what to do with the post war peace. Roosevelt had made it very clear in 1944 that only after the war had been won would the Allies be given instructions on how a completely defeated Germany would be governed. Senior US officials and the British had desperately attempted to change Roosevelt's stance and plan ahead for the occupation of Germany. There were major issues that required forward planning and resourcing they insisted. Their reports and telegrams urging him to take action were according to Roosevelt 'only advisory,' and could be ignored. The result was that once the Allies crossed the Rhine they had no guidelines, no resources and no adequately trained personnel to take on the task of occupying Germany.

As a result inevitably chaos ensued. Germany descended into an anarchy across all the zones of occupation with widespread rape, pillage, severe starvation, disease, prostitution, inflation and murder. It became a lawless time the Germans named 'zero hour.' Former President Herbert Hoover who visited Germany (on a fact finding mission for President Truman) was appalled at how the US authorities were largely indifferent the human catastrophe they were presiding over.

The US also became increasingly alienated from their British and French Allies and the three western occupation zones became the setting for bitter confrontations. The British made discreet mentions of their disapproval and nothing- more while the French and US in contrast became involved in a diplomatic storm of accusations and counter accusations over who was responsible for the mass deaths of German prisoners. The Red Cross became involved and reported that hundreds of thousands of German prisoners would be dead within twelve months. The US Ambassador in Paris was to later admit that the French were justified in accusing the US of negligence. 

Ghosts of the Rhine, meticulously researched from eye-witness accounts of survivors, official documentation from American, British, French and Soviet archives, newspaper articles, diaries and personal interviews opens up what one historian has described as a 'murky,' part of the war kept hidden. The eminent historian Frederick Taylor describes the camps as a 'black mark,' on the record of the US Army.

Professor Holger Nehring Chair in Contemporary European History at the University of Stirling, has spoken at length with the author and reviewed Ghosts of the Rhine. In his opinion it 'offers a very rich narrative of the experiences of German POWs in the Western zone of occupation,' and a 'corrective to heroic accounts of the immediate post-war period in Western Europe.' He has also stated that Ghosts of the Rhineis 'almost certainly the first book in English...that makes consistent use of oral history evidence for POWs on the Western front.'

This is the untold story of why the Allies were so unprepared for the victory over Germany and the consequences for the surrendered German army. It is told largely through their own words and those who guarded their camps. It is a story that for decades has been unspoken of and conveniently been forgotten.

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