Death camp Britons

Gavin Mortimer tells the story of three men who found themselves in the Second World War's equivalent of hell on Earth – a Nazi concentration camp...

Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Austria

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Bombardier Alf Jones was one of the ‘old sweats’ of the 23rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. He’d enlisted in 1931, aged 17, and served three years in India before joining the reserve list in 1938. Returning to his native Port Talbot, Jones worked in the tin mines but he re-enlisted on the outbreak of war. A few weeks later, at the end of September 1939, Jones and his regiment sailed for France and were ordered to dig-in close to the Maginot Line.

When the Nazi war machine rolled through the Low Countries into France in May 1940, Jones was one of scores of artillerymen captured. But not for long. The enterprising Welshman made his escape in Belgium while being transported to Germany. It was the start of a flight that would eventually end more than four years later with his execution in Mauthausen concentration camp.

History has, for the most part, overlooked those unfortunate few Britons who were sent to the Nazi death camps. Most were members of Special Operations Executive (SOE), captured on missions to occupied Europe. But there was also a handful of soldiers and civilians transported to places whose names have become bywords for wickedness, for no other reason than the Germans found them too hard to handle in ordinary camps.

German wrath

Anthony Faramus didn’t look like a trouble-maker. Charming, good-looking and a popular figure in Jersey, the 21-year-old was working in the island’s Miramar Hotel when the Germans invaded in July 1940. He didn’t take well to the occupation, incurring the wrath of the Germans to such an extent that in late 1941 he was deported to Fort de Romainville on the French mainland as ‘an undesirable’.

Faramus spent the next two years incarcerated in Romainville prison. But by the winter of 1943/44 the Germans needed all the manpower they could muster to help in their war effort, so Faramus was sent to Buchenwald in central Germany. Gone was the relative comfort of Romainville. Instead, recalled Faramus, “we slept sardine-like, overwhelmed by the smell of human excreta and diseased bodies… throughout the long nights, voices cried out in hunger, in fear, in pain”.

The days were a living hell. Inmates were set to work in the camp’s stone quarry or sent to the subsidiary camps to help in the manufacture of munitions. Many dropped dead from exhaustion; others killed themselves on the electrified fence, and those too weak to work further were garroted in the camp’s ‘strangling room’.

In December 1944 Faramus was sent from Buchenwald to Mauthausen, situated in Upper Austria. By now he had learned that British inmates were often singled out by the guards, so on arriving, he passed himself as a Frenchman. It was a prudent move.

Three months earlier Alf Jones had arrived at Mauthausen. No longer the fit and feisty Welshman, he had been in German hands since his capture in Brussels in 1941. Interned first in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Jones was classified as a ‘political prisoner’, the authorities believing him to be a British agent and not, as he presumably told them, an intrepid soldier who had passed himself off as a Belgian for more than a year. He was used as a human guinea pig, forced to march up to 15 miles a day testing the durability of prototype army boots.

After a spell in Allach, one of Dachau’s sub-camps, Jones was transported to Mauthausen in September 1944. By now suffering the effects of malnutrition, the Welshman was not fit for slave labour, so on 9 November Jones was taken to the camp’s execution room and shot in the back of the neck.

“Le bandit Hopper”

At some point on his grisly journey through Nazi depravity, Jones might well have encountered Ian ‘Johnny’ Hopper, a 30-year-old Englishman who for two years had waged a guerrilla campaign against the Germans. Hopper’s family had moved to Normandy when he was a child, and he later married and went into business as a wireless repairman. When war came Hopper, assisted by his French wife, began attacking German targets, setting fire to oil depots or blowing up railway lines. In time he became bolder, assassinating enemy soldiers and French policemen. In its edition of 17 September 1941, the newspaper Le Journal de Normandie told its readers there was a reward of 10,000 francs leading to the capture of “le bandit Hopper”. He was caught in Paris the following year during a shoot-out with soldiers in which his wife, Paulette, lost her life. (Hopper fired the bullet that killed the already seriously wounded Paulette to prevent her capture and torture at the hands of the Gestapo).

Sent to Neue Bremm torture camp, Hopper was beaten by the guards after every RAF bombing raid on Germany. Eventually he was taken to Mauthausen to work in the granite quarry. “It had 186 steps up which we used to carry those big rocks on our shoulders,” he recalled. “The rule was that anyone who fell down on the steps would be beaten till he got up or he died. If he died, they threw him back down into the quarry, and they had a horse and a cart that came every afternoon and… collected the bodies.”

Hopper was lucky. Unlike Jones his health never broke and he survived Mauthausen, as did Faramus, who died in 1990, the same year as he published his memoirs. “Strangely, however, I was not embittered by my years in captivity,” Faramus concluded. “The isolation, the prejudice, the intimidation and the defiance at camps Buchenwald and Mauthausen proved to be an important education for me.”

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Gavin Mortimer is an author whose books include The Men Who Made the SAS: The History of the Long Range Desert Group (Constable, 2015).