Destination Buchenwald by Colin Burgess

Article | Issue: Jul 2022

COLIN BURGESS has written or co-authored nearly forty books, covering the Australian prisoner-of-war experience, aviation, and human space exploration. His book, Destination Buchenwald provides insight into the harrowing story of the Allied airmen who experienced the true horrors of Nazism firsthand.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

The harrowing story of the Allied airmen who experienced the true horrors of Nazism firsthand.

It was the summer of 1944 as liberating Allied forces surged towards Paris following the D-Day landings. For a large group of downed airmen being held in that city’s infamous Fresnes Prison, they were about to face evacuation into the blackest, bloody heart of Germany and experience the most acute evil of the war. Amid great secrecy, those 168 airmen – including several from Australia and New Zealand – were transported on a filthy, overcrowded nightmare train journey which ended at the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp, accompanied by orders for their execution. At Buchenwald they witnessed extreme depravity that would haunt them to the end of their days. Yet, on returning home, they were confronted by decades of denials from their own governments that they had ever been held in one of Hitler’s most vile concentration camps.

In conducting his original deep research for this book – now completely expanded and updated – Colin Burgess personally interviewed or corresponded with dozens of the surviving airmen from a number of nations, including their valorous leader, New Zealand Squadron Leader Phil Lamason. Destination Buchenwald tells a compelling story of extraordinary bravery, comradeship and endurance, when a group of otherwise ordinary servicemen were thrust into an unimaginable Nazi hell

EXTRACT

INTO THE NIGHT

‘Dear God in heaven, what is this place?’ exclaimed the weary Canadian airman. Moments earlier, the solid wooden door of the railway cattle truck had been rolled open from the outside and a sudden burst of daylight had flooded the crowded, stinking interior. As he stared out into the vista that lay beyond the door, the young man’s face seemed to sag. He shuddered and repeated himself, this time in an awed whisper. ‘Dear God in heaven!’

Squatted uncomfortably beside him on a small patch of damp, filthy straw, Flight Sergeant Ray Perry, from the small wheatbelt town of Belka in Western Australia, took in the growing expres- sion of horror on his companion’s dirt-streaked face. He wondered if he presented a similar sight in the crushed motley of humanity. The man’s rumpled shirt and trousers, ill-fitting on his trim, athletic frame, bore evidence of the nightmare five-day journey they had endured on a forced evacuation from the besieged city of Paris. Like everyone, he was soaked in sweat, covered in filth and scraps of straw, and stank of urine and faeces. As Perry’s eyes swept around the other grimy, bearded faces, he finally decided that he and the Canadian would be quite indistinguishable from the others, all of whom were now blinking owlishly in the unaccustomed sunlight.

As they stared out at their destination, the expressions on the faces of the other men were rapidly changing from a glazed resignation to one of horrified incredulity. They did not want to believe what they were seeing.

Immediately beyond the siding platform was a high wire fence surrounding a cluster of squat buildings, but it was the sight of the men toiling within this fence that shocked the new arrivals. Emaciated men and boys with close-cropped hair shuffled around in ragged, striped pyjama-like tunics, wearily going about their appointed tasks. Stoically indifferent to anything but the frenzied shouts and unrestrained blows of the German guards, their expressions spoke of the inhumanities they had endured as they shuffled along.

A few metres from the hissing locomotive, a barely adequate army of these barefooted living corpses endeavoured to haul a rough wooden cart overloaded with newly quarried rocks along a dusty incline. As they strained and dragged and pushed the cumber- some vehicle, they were dispassionately flogged by two uniformed SS guards. Ferocious dogs snapped and tore at their legs, and they worked with a desperation that only fear of pain or death can induce. Shrill cries and the guards’ strident orders silenced the frightened hubbub of conversation in Ray Perry’s cattle truck, and moments later three thick-set guards appeared at the open doorway, screaming and waving at the occupants to get out. Their faces red with exertion and anger, their tirade continued as they grasped those nearest the door and hauled them out head-first onto the concrete platform.

Eventually, the train had disgorged its human cargo, and the guards had whipped their charges into a long column, five abreast. Ray Perry was nursing a painful shoulder where the end of a club had connected. Tears stung his cheeks, but he suffered the pain with mute determination.

For the mass of captured airmen and French prisoners, this display of cruelty was a stark prelude to the living nightmare they were about the enter and endure – a place far more deserving of Tennyson’s line, ‘Into the jaws of death, / Into the mouth of Hell’, than that to which the words had originally applied.

A sign mounted at the station had read Buchenwald – that is, Forest of Beeches. It was once a peaceful wooded area, where philosophers such as Goethe and Schiller had sat and mused, their thoughts nurtured amid the lush tranquillity and raw-scented beauty. But Buchenwald was now a corruption, a blasphemy encircled by centuries-old trees.

Eventually the column of prisoners was forced to move out of the railway siding at the double and onto a stony concrete road they would come to know as the Caracho Way, or the ‘Street of Blood’.

It was 20 August 1944 – a day Ray Perry would never forget – and as he was shuffled along towards the gates of a large enclosure, he thought about the irony of the date. This day of pain and realisation, of terror and uncertainty, was also his twenty-first birthday.

Author: Colin Burgess

Category: Humanities

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

ISBN: 9781761106712

RRP: $34.99

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