Ohrdruf, Central Germany · April 4, 1945

Over the first three weeks of April 1945, during the brutal ter­mi­nal phase of the Third Reich, Allied armies dis­covered more than one hun­dred con­cen­tra­tion camps, including Buchen­wald, Nord­hausen, Flossen­buerg, and Bergen-Belsen. On this date in 1945 soldiers of Gen. George S. Patton’s Fourth Armored Division un­ex­pectedly came upon the ghastly scene of the mostly deserted Ohr­druf forced labor camp, Stalag Nord Ohrdruf, a Buchenwald subcamp.

The original mission of Patton’s men had been to search south of Gotha in Thu­rin­gia (Thue­ringen), South-Central Germany, for a secret, last-ditch under­ground bunker that reputedly was to house a new Fuehrer head­quarters for Hitler and his staff. A report from one of the camp libera­tors reached Gen­erals Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Omar Bradley, and Patton as they visited a near­by salt mine where the Nazis had stored $250 million in gold bars, currency, and art treasures.

After lunch on April 12 the gen­erals visited the Ohr­druf camp, the first Nazi pri­son camp U.S. service­men had dis­covered on Ger­man soil and the first they liber­ated while it still had inmates living inside its barracks. Dressed in rags, the survi­vors were prac­tically skin and bones, ema­ci­ated from the effects of star­va­tion and dis­ease. Week-old corpses of pri­soners in the roll-call square and else­where in the camp caused battle-hardened Patton to lose his lunch out of the sight of news cameras. It also caused him to order towns­people from Ohr­druf, which lay a mile away, to tour the “horror camp” and see for them­selves the crimes com­mitted by their com­pa­triots. Patton’s order was repeated at Buchen­wald, Dachau, and other camps lib­er­ated by Amer­i­can sol­diers and by at least one Soviet com­manding offi­cer who directed Ger­man in­hab­i­tants of vil­lages surrounding the noto­ri­ous women’s con­cen­tra­tion camp at Ravensbrueck north of Berlin to tour that facility.

A few weeks later Eisen­hower estab­lished a POW camp in near­by Gotha, where he had made his head­quarters, to house SS officers, camp guards and doctors, and prisoner-func­tion­aries who had served at Nazi labor and death camps. Many were sen­tenced by Allied mili­tary tri­bu­nals to long pri­son terms or death based on the evidence collected during Allied walkthroughs.

Liberated Nazi Forced Labor Camp at Ohrdruf, Central Germany, Visited by U.S. Generals and Nearby Townspeople

Corpses at Ohrdruf camp gateEisenhower, Patton, Bradley viewing Ohrdruf dead

Left: Corpses at Ohrdruf camp gate. Survivors testified that the POWs had been shot by the SS on April 2 because they had run out of trucks for evacu­ating sick pri­soners. Many of the dead had been so emaci­ated and mal­nourished that the bullet wounds in their skulls had not even bled.

Right: Twenty-one generals and their staffs toured Ohrdruf on April 12, 1945. Some members of the entourage were unable to go through with the ordeal. On April 19, 1945, Eisenhower cabled Washington to quickly dispatch journalists and members of Congress to Ohrdruf to dispel any allegations that the stories of Nazi brutality were merely propaganda. American newsreels of Ohrdruf called the camp a “murder mill.” (See YouTube video below.)

Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley viewing Ohrdruf deadOhrdruf corpses limed

Left: Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and Manton Eddy, among others, view the charred remains of prisoners who were burned upon a section of railroad track during the evacuation of Ohrdruf by retreating camp officers, guards, and staff. Patton wrote that the scene reminded him of “some giant cannibalistic barbecue.” Remembering their walk through the camp, Bradley remarked how “the smell of death over­whelmed us.” When a camp guard showed Eisen­hower how some starved pri­soners had torn out the entrails of the dead for food, the general’s face, Bradley wrote, “whitened into a mask.” Bradley was struck dumb, “too revolted to speak.”

Right: Bodies of forty starved prisoners in a shed at Ohrdruf were layered with lime to miti­gate the smell. Patton described the shed as “the most appalling sight imag­i­nable.” When the shed was packed full (about 200 bodies), its contents would be taken to a pit a mile from the camp and buried.

Germans view Ohrdruf dead 1Germans view Ohrdruf dead 2

Left: Soon after visiting Ohrdruf, Gen. Eisenhower ordered every nearby unit not on the front lines to tour Ohrdruf. Gen. Walton Walker ordered Ohrdruf’s mayor and his wife brought to the camp to see the display of corpses. After seeing the horror, the couple went home and killed themselves.

Right: American soldiers forcibly brought Ohrdruf townspeople to the camp to exhume the bodies in the mass grave and bury them again in individual graves.

“Nazi Murder Mills,” First American Newsreel of Liberated Asylums and Concen­tra­tion Camps, Including Ohrdruf Visit by Eisen­hower, Bradley, Patton, and German Citizens (Age-restricted video)