Transport of concentration camp inmates to Tyrol
In the final weeks of the Second World War in Europe, 139 high-profile prisoners (Prominenten) of the Nazi regime and two Italian orderlies were sent from various concentration camps to the Dachau Concentration Camp in Bavaria.
This movement was personally ordered by Adolf Hitler and actioned by Gestapo chief SS Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller. This group of Prominenten comprised men, women and children from seventeen nations. Almost a third were relatives of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and other leaders of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944. They had been imprisoned under the Sippenhaft (or collective guilt) law which punished relatives of those accused of crimes against the state. The remainder included renegade Soviet generals, former collaborators from a number of Axis countries, a couple of Mussolini's Police Chiefs, some senior Nazi politicians and German Army (Wehrmacht) officers who had simply fallen out with Hitler. In addition, there were a number of saboteurs, spies, traitors, resistance fighters, church leaders and four survivors of the Great Escape. It also included many wives and children of key prisoners.
It was intended that these prisoners should be held as hostages on the basis that their lives might be traded for some concession in the terms of the inevitable surrender of Nazi Germany. The prisoners were gathered together and escorted by a detachment of SS-TV (SS-Totenkopfverbände - Death's Head Unit) and SD (Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS - Security Service) troopers.
Evacuation from Dachau to the South Tyrol
On 17, 24 and 26 April 1945 small convoys of buses and trucks transported the Prominenten to SS-Sonderlager Innsbruck. On 27 April the prisoners began their final journey. Making its way over the Brenner Pass the convoy entered the Italian Tyrol through the Puster Valley and eventually stopped the following morning, just outside the small village of Niederdorf (German) - Villabassa (Italian) 70 km north-east of Bolzano.
The convoy's ultimate destination was a large lake-side hotel at Pragser Wildsee just 12.5 km south west of Niederdorf. However, the hotel was still occupied by three German Luftwaffe generals and their staffs.
Standoff in Niederdorf
The commander of the SS-TV detachment was Obersturmführer Edgar Stiller who was responsible for the transport, accommodation and general custody of the hostages. The commander of the SD detachment, Obersturmführer Friedrich Bader, was also a Gestapo officer. His responsibility was to carry out whatever final orders were received from Berlin in connection with the hostages or to execute them in the event of any resistance or rescue attempts.
As a result of the chaotic conditions in Berlin nearly all communication systems were down. Without specific orders Stiller was uncertain what to do and the situation became increasingly tense.
Nonetheless the prisoners took matters into their own hands by leaving the transports and walking into the village. A local official (also an Italian Resistance leader) arranged temporary accommodation for the hostages in local hotels and the Town Hall.
During the morning of 28 April, one of the hostages found a document in an SD man's wallet. The man had collapsed from drunkenness. The document called for the execution of 28 members of the Prominenten including all the British officers and other military prisoners. Many of the SD and SS guards had been drinking and were becoming steadily more aggressive.
On Sunday 29 April, Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, who had been imprisoned for disobeying Hitler by authorising Army Group A to retreat from Warsaw in January 1945, approached the local Wehrmacht liaison office in Niederdorf and asked them to contact his old friend, Colonel General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the commander of Army Group C with headquarters in Bolzano, on the phone. He wasn't available but von Bonin was able to speak to another friend, General Hans Röttiger, Vietinghoff's Chief of Staff, and explain the highly dangerous situation and the need for assistance. Vietinghoff rang back two hours later to say he would send a Wehrmacht officer and a company of infantry to provide safe custody for the hostages. In the meantime, contingency plans were being made by the prisoners to attack the SS and SD troopers who were becoming increasingly threatening. Tasked with the rescue of the Prominenten, Wehrmacht Captain Wichard von Alvensleben made a reconnaissance trip to Niederdorf later that evening. Almost immediately he bumped into Obersturmführer Stiller. Von Alvensleben, realising that this officer must have a connection with the hostages, engaged him in conversation without revealing his mission. Stiller explained that he had relinquished his authority over the prisoners to one of the British officers but expressed great concern over what might happen when his second in command, an unpredictable SD Obersturmführer, learned of his decision.
Von Alvensleben returned to his quarters at Sexten, some 17 km east of Niederdorf to reflect on his next course of action. He had not received permission to act against the SS which could only be sanctioned at the highest level.
At dawn on Monday 30 April, von Alvensleben returned to Niederdorf with two of his men. The party soon encountered a second SS Obersturmführer. Von Alvensleben immediately engaged him, again without revealing his mission. It quickly became clear that this was the SD officer that Stiller feared. Initially reluctant to discuss the hostages Bader eventually stated that his orders would only be fulfilled when all the Prominenten were dead.
The Wehrmacht versus the SS and the SD
At this point von Alvensleben explained that he was an emissary of the Commander-in-Chief of Army Group C and that Bader should consider his orders fulfilled and his mission over. In fact the Wehrmacht captain had no authority to negotiate or give orders to the SS. In any event Bader refused to accept his instructions. With only two men at his disposal, von Alvensleben was in an invidious position. He withdrew and quickly radioed his battalion headquarters at Sexten with a request for a battle group to be despatched to Niederdorf immediately. Forty-five minutes later fifteen Wehrmacht NCOs, armed with machine pistols arrived and positioned themselves in front of the Town Hall where the SS detachments were headquartered. Realising he needed reinforcements, von Alvensleben summoned a larger force who were based just 4 km away at Dobbiaco. Two hours later, 150 men from an infantry training battalion arrived and positioned two heavy machine guns in the square opposite the SS headquarters. Von Alvensleben ordered Stiller and Bader to remain in the Town Hall with their men. However, the young Wehrmacht captain realised he needed authorization from his superiors at their Bolzano headquarters. By a stroke of luck SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy was standing next to General Röttiger when von Alvensleben's call came through. Taking the phone from Röttiger, Wolff authorised the SS and SD detachments to stand down.
However, Stiller and Bader, along with their men, were becoming dangerously belligerent. With the SS and SD corralled in the village square by the Wehrmacht force, it remained an extremely tense situation and a firefight was still a real possibility. When one of the British contingent drew the SD troopers’ attention to the weaponry they were facing, they finally conceded and began laying down their weapons.
Eventually most of the SS and SD men were allowed to leave the village in a bus and a truck, and were last seen heading towards the Brenner Pass.
Contemporary rumours suggested that the SS and SD men were ambushed by partisans and subsequently captured and strung up from roadside telegraph poles. It has now been established that this was not true.
The Wehrmacht versus a US Army Battle Group
The Prominenten were now technically free but they were still in great danger from German deserters, fanatical Nazis carrying on the fight, and marauding bands of Italian partisans with scores to settle.
The Wehrmacht escorted the Prominenten to their original destination. The Luftwaffe generals and their staffs had left, and now the Pragser Wildsee Hotel was available. Some of the hostages had disappeared but the majority elected to stay at the hotel under the protection of the Wehrmacht.
Great Escaper Wing Commander Harry Day and the Italian resistance leader who had arranged the hostage accommodation at Niederdorf, left the hotel on 1 May to make their way to the US front line in order to persuade US forces to mount a second and final rescue mission.
Day and his companion finally crossed the US Fifth Army’s lines on 3 May. In the meantime, all German forces in Italy had surrendered with effect from 2 May. However, spasmodic and occasionally fierce fighting continued to take place. Day’s first contact was with elements of the US 88th Division but they were in no position to mount a rescue bid as they were at least 125 miles from the Pragser Wildsee. On the other hand the 85th Division’s 339th Infantry Regiment had reached their latest objective at San Candido half an hour after midnight on 4 May. Just 21 km from Pragser Wildsee they received immediate orders to send a "strong combat patrol" to rescue the hostages.
G Company of the 339th were nominated for the task and arrived during the early hours of 4 May in a convoy of trucks, jeeps, and armoured carriers.
There was a tense silence as the Wehrmacht machine gunners and the American infantrymen saw each other in the gloom of the dawn, but when the Wehrmacht sentries realised that the soldiers were American, they laid down their weapons and surrendered. The Prominenten were now officially liberated.
List of prisoners
- Sayer, Ian; Dronfield, Jeremy (2019). Hitler’s Last Plot – The 139 VIP hostages Selected for Death in the Final Days of World War II. Da Capo Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-0306921551.
- Peter Churchill, The Spirit in the Cage. Hodder and Stoughton, 1954
- James, B A 'Jimmy' (2001). Moonless Night. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books. pp. 184–185. ISBN 978-0850529005.
- Statement of Wichard von Alvensleben, Göttingen, 19 December 1951 made in connection with the judicial investigation of Edgar Stiller for complicity in the murder of Georg Elser at Dachau in April 1945, Landgericht Munchen II : Jg106/50 State Archives Munich.
- Day, Harry Melville Arbuthnot; Unpublished Notes No. 23, pp. 32-33; RAF Museum, London.
- Headquarters 339th Infantry Regiment, US Fifth Army, Report of Operations to Commanding General 85th Infantry Division, May 1945.
- Peter Koblank: Die Befreiung der Sonder- und Sippenhäftlinge in Südtirol, Online-Edition Mythos Elser 2006 (in German)
- 'Endgame 1945 The Missing Final Chapter of World War II'
- Austrian Requiem
- Niels-Birger Danielsen. "Modstand Frihedskampens Rødder 1933–1942" (in Danish). Politikens Forlag. ISBN 9788740015447. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
- Thorkild Nielsen, Egon Jensen (2013). "Optrevlingen af Aarsgruppen februar 1944" (PDF) (in Danish). Vesthimmerlands Museum. p. 5. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
- Svenson, Åke; Vandberg, Bent (1945). De hvite bussene (in Norwegian). Oslo: Gyldendal. pp. 74–76.
- Shores, Christopher F., et al. Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete, 1940-41. Grub Street, 1999.
- Sayer Ian & Dronfield Jeremy. Hitler's Last Plot – The 139 VIP hostages Selected for Death in the Final Days of World War II. ISBN 978-03-0692-155-1 New York: Da Capo Press, 2019
- Hans-Günter Richardi, SS-Geiseln in der Alpenfestung ISBN 978-88-7283-229-5 (in German)
- Pragser Wildsee.com (in German)
- Peter Koblank: Die Befreiung der Sonder- und Sippenhäftlinge in Südtirol, Online-Edition Mythos Elser 2006 (in German)
- ECHO Tirol 10 November 2005 (in German)
- Fey von Hassell, Hostage of the Third Reich: The Story of My Imprisonment and Rescue from the SS, ISBN 978-0-684-19080-8
- Endgame 1945 The Missing Final Chapter of World War II ISBN 978-0-316-10980-2
- Klaus-Dietmar Henke, Die amerikanische Besetzung Deutschlands, ISBN 3-486-56175-8 (in German)
- Kurt von Schuschnigg: Austrian Requiem, Victor Gollancz 1946, London.