Ohrdruf, Central Germany April 4, 1945

Over the first three weeks of April 1945, during the brutal ter­mi­nal phase of Adolf Hitler’s 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, U.S. Third Army, unex­pectedly came upon the ghastly scene of the mostly deserted Ohr­druf forced labor camp, Stalag Nord Ohrdruf, a Buchen­wald sub­camp. Later in the day more of Patton’s soldiers, men from the 89th Division, arrived on the scene.

The original mission of Patton’s men had been to search south of Gotha in Thu­rin­gia (German, 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 and their entourage 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, huts, tents, and horse stables. At the top of the month between 11,700 and 13,000 POWs were held in the camp, but as U.S. troops rapidly advanced toward Ohrdruf 9,000 or so pri­soners were force-marched 32 miles to Buchen­wald, a journey during which an esti­mated 1,000 pri­soners were killed or died from exhaus­tion. Dressed in rags, Ohrdruf’s 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, Germany, Visited by U.S. Generals and Nearby Townspeople

Corpses at Ohrdruf forced labor camp gate Ohrdruf forced labor camp: Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Omar Bradley viewing Ohrdruf dead

Left: Corpses at Ohrdruf forced labor 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 as the Ameri­cans closed in on the camp. 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.)

Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Omar Bradley viewing Ohrdruf forced labor camp dead Ohrdruf forced labor camp: Ohrdruf corpses limed

Left: Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and 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. Sur­viving pri­soners told Patton that 3,000 of their number had died in the camp since January 1, 1945.

Ohrdruf forced labor camp: Germans view Ohrdruf dead 1 Ohrdruf forced labor camp: Germans view Ohrdruf dead 2

Left: Soon after visiting Ohrdruf, Gen. Eisenhower ordered every nearby unit not on the front lines to tour Ohrdruf. Maj. Gen. Walton Walker, who was a mem­ber of the April 12th generals’ visit, 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. Camp lib­er­ators recoiled in dis­belief when they heard the common refrain of visiting towns­people, who gaped in horror at the piles of decaying bodies and breathed in their putrid stench: “Wir wussten nicht.” (We didn’t know.) “Niemand sagte uns.” (No one told us.)

Right: American soldiers forcibly trucked 100 or so Ohrdruf towns­people each day to the camp to exhume the bodies in the mass grave and bury them again in indi­vid­ual graves in a public place. A policy Eisen­hower man­dated required that a stone monu­ment be erected near­by to com­mem­o­rate the “atroc­ity victims.”

First American Newsreel of Liberated Asylums and Concen­tration Camps, Including Ohrdruf Visit by Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton, as Well as by German Citizens (WARNING: Scenes are disturbing)