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 small Buchen­wald sub­camp estab­lished the pre­vious Octo­ber. Later in the day more of Patton’s soldiers, men from the 89th and the 355th Infantry Divisions, 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 nearly 10,000 pri­soners were force-marched 32 miles to the Buchen­wald main camp, a night­marish, three-day journey during which an esti­mated 1,000 pri­soners were shot or beaten to death 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—an estimated 3,200 corpses—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 walk-throughs and eyewitness testimonies.

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

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

Left: Corpses at Ohrdruf forced labor camp gate still lay un­buried, lice crawling over their yellow skin. The smell of death, urine, and feces hung every­where in the air. 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 wired both Washing­ton and London to quickly dispatch jour­nalists, mem­bers of Con­gress, and British parlia­men­tarians 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 deadOhrdruf forced labor camp: Ohrdruf corpses limed

Left: Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and Manton Eddy, among others, view the charred remains of pri­soners who had been doused with pitch and burned on “a mam­moth griddle” (Patton’s words) fashioned from criss­crossed rail­road track laid over coal and pine­wood logs. Long poles with steel hooks on them were used for turning the bodies over. The bodies were still there, some only charred, some half burnt. Below the bodies was a pit in which lay a pile of bones, skulls, and charred torsos. The oper­a­tion had been done during the evac­u­a­tion of Ohr­druf by retreating camp officers, guards, and staff. The scene before Patton 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.” The camp guard also showed the generals a gallows where men were hanged for attempting to escape. “The hanging was done by a bit of piano wire,” Patton dictated in a memo, “and the man being hanged was not dropped far enough to break his neck but simply strangled.”

Right: Bodies of 40 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 1Ohrdruf 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 so that the average GI would under­stand not just what he was fighting for but “he will know who he is fighting against.” To drive the point home, photo­graphs from con­cen­tra­tion camps like Ohr­druf were dis­trib­uted to sol­diers. On the orders of Eisen­hower him­self, the mayor of the German town of Gotha, located next to the Ohr­druf com­plex, toured the camp to see the dis­play of corpses. After seeing the horror, the mayor, profes­sing no know­ledge of the affairs of the camp, went home and he and his wife slashed their wrists before hanging them­selves. (With­out knowing the couple’s moti­va­tion, Eisen­hower inter­preted their sui­cides as remorse or repug­nance for Germany’s past crimi­nal acts and a posi­tive omen for moving Germany forward.) As a rule camp lib­er­ators recoiled in dis­belief when they heard the per­pet­ual lament 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.) The object of what Germans didn’t know or weren’t told (the missing “it” in sen­tences like these) was belied most often by the one-way traffic of tens of thou­sands of locked cattle cars leaving from or passing through German cities, towns, and villages to desti­na­tions in the East and the sooty smoke rising from cre­ma­toria chim­neys everywhere in the Reich. Some of the towns­people and others like them in this pic­ture who solemnly swore they didn’t know or were never told con­ceiv­ably were the same people who years or months or weeks earl­ier had jeered, hurled insults, and spat on camp arrivals who trag­ically ended up dead on crematoria floors like this one.

Right: American soldiers forcibly trucked 100 or so Ohrdruf towns­people each day to the “pest­hole,” as Patton called 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.” At another reinter­ment site at Orh­druf’s main camp, Buchen­wald, an Amer­i­can officer took no pity on 200 Germans com­plaining of the stench of decom­posed corpses and the day’s heat. “Dig, you sons of bitches,” was all he could say. At some loca­tions German civili­ans were ordered to feed, clothe, and house liberated prisoners at their own expense.

“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)