Kematen Forced Labour Camp (Messerschmitt Tunnels)

Country Austria
GPS 47° 14' 36.942" N, 11° 15' 50.2776" E
Address Messerschmittweg, 6175 Kematen, Austria
Dates Active 1940 – 1945

Channel Islanders Imprisoned in Kematen Forced Labour Camp:

William Stanley Canute Cordrey, William George Quin


By Roderick Miller

Only two Channel Islanders are known to have been imprisoned in the forced labour camps (Messerschmittwerke Kematen) in the Tyrolean town of Kematen in Austria. Prior to the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, Kematen was a small agricultural town, but by the end of the war it had become industrialized with nearly triple its pre-war population. The city was chosen in 1940 as a new site for the construction of Messerschmitt military aircraft because its location deep in a mountain valley made it a more difficult target for potential allied bombers.

After heavy allied bombing damage to Messerschmitt factories in Innsbruck in December 1943, it was decided to move production into underground factories in region. By May 1944 plans had been made to build a 100,000 square foot underground factory southeast of the Messerschmitt factory in Kematen. Quarrying the tunnels began one month later under the code name Seelachs (‘Pollack’) and from November 1944 until April 1945 employed up to 400 workers, of whom at least 250 were conscripted forced labourer prisoners like William Cordrey. It is estimated that altogether at least 2000 forced labourers and prisoners of war from throughout Europe and the Soviet Union were at various times in Kematen forced labour camps.

There were several distinct barracks camps for forced labourers in Kematen. William Cordrey arrived sometime after September 1944 at the camp that was responsible for quarrying stone to build tunnels for an envisioned underground production factory for Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jets. According to Nazi prison records, by the time Cordrey left Kematen in late 1944 or early 1945 for Suben Workhouse Prison, he was fit only for ‘light indoor work’. This would indicate that Cordrey’s health suffered under the conditions of the heavy quarry work.

William Quin was in such poor shape after the war that he required Frank Falla to help him piece his prison history together. Although he could not remember the name of the town, the fact that his arc of imprisonment paralleled William Cordrey’s and his description of the place as ‘near Innsbruck’ points to Kematen with near-certainty:

While working on the tunnelling into the mountain-side they worked from 6 in the morning until darkness and the tunnels were being hewn out of the rock so that the Nazis could use them either for stores for arms and ammunitions or as a hide-out from the Allies.

On three occasions he escaped from the working party and walked through a forest to the un-named village … and begged and cadged morsels of bread and risked being shot for doing so. They wrote to him after the war sending him first a Christmas card and then a letter. He thanked them for what they tried to do for him but, in the present light, he foolishly destroyed the card and letters when clearing out a bureau drawer. So, bang went his evidence which would have established where he was in camp other than the very vague ‘near Innsbruck’.

In the working party he was picked out and victimised by the Wachtmeister because he was an Englishman, but towards the end this eased. Before this when the Germans thought he was not working hard enough they used to lay into him with shovels they were all using – and this with little mercy shown. The blows were aimed mainly at the back, seat and legs.

A Polish prisoner of war in Kematen later left a testimonial about his experience there, discussing too how the prisoners had no winter clothes, the barracks were unheated in winter, and that there were no air raid shelters available to prisoners during allied bombing raids.

In the area of the camp, which was surrounded by a steel fence, there were wooden barracks. There were bunk-beds with straw mattresses — wooden beds with straw sacks. The only bed linen was blankets, which you got upon arrival in the camp … We had meals consisting of 300 grammes of bread per day with a little bit of margarine and a so-called lunch, which was a portion of potato soup with vegetables like turnips. With these provisions we were constantly suffering from hunger. In our camp we never received any food packages from the Red Cross.

[Regarding a camp guard]: He was a civilian and a position as a foreman for road workers in Kematen. He was a handsome young man … One frosty winter day he commanded us to perform road construction and gave me instructions in German. Since I didn’t understand his instructions (I couldn’t speak German) and didn’t properly follow his orders, he tore me away and dragged me over to another spot. We were naively convinced that our status as prisoners of war protected us from being having to be subordinate to a civilian. For this reason, I defended myself and even raised my hand against him. This led to him striking me in the face with his fist … he dragged me by the arm to the camp commander (this was an officer) and demanded that I be punished. 

This was undoubtedly the most difficult phase of my life. I only survived the terrible circumstances because I was a young man and had been hardened by my previous experiences in the war. — Zbigniew Martyski, Interview from 2009. [1]

Kematen was liberated by US Army troops on 4 May 1945 and later occupied by the French military. The various labour camps were used by the United Nations for a number of years after the war as displaced persons (DP) camps. The underground tunnels for the Messerschmitt factory were left unfinished by war’s end and their entrances were dynamited in 1947 in the interests of public safety.

The managing director (Geschäftsführer) of the Nazi industrial division in Innsbruck, Walter Waizer, was made the head of the Messerschmitt Works in Kematen in 1940. Waizer was ultimately responsible for the prisoners who were forced to work in the manufacture of weapons, a typical Nazi violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. Waizer was arrested by US troops on 7 May 1945 and taken to a camp for suspected Nazi war criminals. He was convicted of high treason in an Austrian court on 3 October 1947, but was released on time served due to ‘mitigating circumstances’ that have since been proven to have been fabricated [2]. Waizer is alleged to have received (and never returned) several million Reichsmark at the end of the war with instructions from Messerschmitt to hide the money. Whether Waizer returned the ‘lost’ millions, invested it in other Austrian industries, or kept the money for personal gain remains unknown.

In 1954 Waizer was named director of Tyrolit, a manufacturer of industrial abrasive materials located in Schwaz, Austria, about 25 miles away from Kematen. Waizer was this position by his former Nazi boss, the Nazi industrialist Alfred Swarovski, whose corporation owned and still owns Tyrolit. In 1969 Waizer was awarded the key to the city of Schwaz, an honour reserved for exemplary citizens. After he died in 1998, a foundation called the Walter Waizer Stiftung was established with 5.5 million euros of his money, dedicated to providing social assistance for the handicapped and elderly. Walter Waizer, a former Nazi party member, stormtrooper (SA-Sturmführer), and head of a forced labour camp for weapons production, convicted of high treason in 1947, remains at date (2017) an honoured citizen in Schwaz Austria, with a bust in the city centre, a monument in his honour atop a hill near the city, and a street named after him with an accompanying plaque.

At least four foreign forced labour prisoners are known to have died under Waizer’s directorship, but in the absence of records, it will likely never be known how many forced labourers actually died under during his tenure in Kematen. A Kematen resident recalled seeing the bodies of Soviet prisoners loaded on wagons for burial in Kematen and that they were later exhumed and moved to the soldiers’ cemetery in Innsbruck.

A street that was built in 1940 in Kematen, called Messerschmittweg, was named for the Nazi forced labour factory, yet the street name remains unchanged. Kematen has a memorial to the Nazi soldiers who died in the Second World War, but nothing for the victims of the Nazis who suffered and died there. Channel Islanders William Cordrey and William Quin survived the war, but like most survivors suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives.


[1] From Birgit Mair, part III (see Sources below), translated from German to English by Roderick Miller.

[2] Waizer committed perjury with the false statement in his 1947 trial for high treason that he was expelled from the Nazi Party and SA in 1944 because he had ‘treated forced labourers and POWs too kindly’, when in fact the reason for his membership expulsion was that the Nazis had discovered that Waizer’s mother was of Jewish descent. Even after the 1944 loss of his Nazi party and SA membership, Waizer continued unabated in his position as the head of Messerschmitt in Kematen.

Further Reading

Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.

Sources

Landesarchiv Tirol (Tyrolean State Archive), LG Innsbruck, Vr 2262b/47 (Waizer), via Vormbaum, Thomas (editor): Institut für Juristische Zeitgeschichte Hagen, Jahrbuch, volume 8 (2006/2007), p. 42.

Mair, Birgit: I. ‘Seelachs – Das Messerschmitt-Zwangsarbeiterlager Kematen in Tirol’ in Oberndorfer Dorfblatt, March 2014; II. ‘Die Rolle der Firma Messerschmitt in der Kriegswirtschaft des Dritten Reiches’ in Tirol in Oberndorfer Dorfblatt, March 2014; III: Rüstungsfabrik Messerschmitt Kematen in Tirol: Die Zwangsarbeiterinnen und Zwangsarbeiter, 2017, unpublished (all in German).

The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO)
TNA FO 950/2292 (Cordrey)

Reichsgau Tirol-Vorarlberg (publishers): Die NSDAP-Gauleitung Tirol Vorarlberg, circa 1938 (in German). Link

Pitscheider, Sabine: Kematen in Tirol in der NS-Zeit. Vom Bauerndorf zur Industriegemeinde, StudienVerlag, Innsbruck, 2016 (in German).

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