Channel Islander Imprisoned in Wille Forced Labour Camp:
William Howard Marsh
By Roderick Miller
Just one Channel Islander, William Marsh, is known to have been imprisoned in Wille Concentration Camp (KZ-Außenlager Wille), a sub-camp of Buchenwald Concentration Camp that was located in the towns of Tröglitz, Rehmsdorf and Gleina, each located in a triangle less two miles apart from each other in the German community of Elsteraue in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.
A factory for synthetic fuels made from coal for the German armaments industry was in operation and run by the Brabag company in Rehmsdorf from 1939 until mid-1944, at which point it was bombed out of production by allied air attacks. In order to get production going again, the SS-WHVA Main Economic and Administrative Office brought in foreign (i.e. non-German) forced labour from outlying concentration camps and prisons and built camps for 5,000 prisoners: a tent camp in Tröglitz and a brick barracks in Rehmsdorf. The camp’s code name, ‘Wille’, came from the name of the head of Brabag in the nearby city of Zeitz, a chemist named Dr. Wille.
Channel Islander William Marsh was transported from Naumburg Prison to Wille Concentration Camp at an unknown date between July 1944 and March 1945. The living conditions of the prisoners in the camp were catastrophic, with insufficient food and shelter combined with 12-hour workdays and typical random violence from SS personnel. Forced labourers in the camp lasted about four weeks before they were too exhausted to continue and were usually returned to Buchenwald, where chances of survival were at least as bad, with many transported again to Auschwitz to be gassed. Those who died in the camp itself were often ‘disposed of’ in the surrounding rubble left over from allied bombing.
Contemporary witness Lothar Czoßek recalled how civilians were occasionally able to share their own meagre rations with camp prisoners, a practice officially forbidden but tolerated by SS guards, who knew the prisoners would have more energy to work when they had better food.
Around 5,800 of the estimated total of 8,600 prisoners died in Wille Concentration Camp between June 1944 and April 1945. Many of them perished too in allied air raids, as foreign forced labourers were forbidden access to air raid shelters by German law. Most of the camp’s victims were Hungarian Jews, who had been sent to Wille from Buchenwald. Other prisoners came from other Nazi-occupied countries in Europe, such as France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Lithuania.
William Marsh died on 9 March 1945 in Gleina. Until late December 1944, Gleina had been a camp ‘hospital’, but since there were no medical supplies available, it was essentially just a place for severely ill prisoners to die. By early 1945, the Gleina camp became a barracks for British prisoners of war called Arbeitskommando G123. It could be that Marsh was in Gleina as part of a forced labour detail, simply because he was British, or because he had become severely ill. His death certificate from 14 March 1945, issued in Rehmsdorf, listed the cause of death as ‘cardiac and circulatory insufficiency and acute intestinal mucosal inflammation’, though he may well have been suffering from a number of typical concentration camp illnesses such as dysentery and tuberculosis, as well as the side effects of the toxic chemicals to which prisoners were daily exposed. He was buried in unmarked grave in Alt-Tröglitz cemetery in a section reserved for foreign forced labourers and separate from the German graves.
Wille Concentration Camp was evacuated by the SS on 13-14 April 1944 and the prisoners transported by rail in the direction of Leitzmeritz and Theresienstadt in open coal wagons. One of the evacuation trains was stopped by an allied air attack in Reitzenhain, now part of the city Marienberg in Saxony, where the SS and local inhabitants hunted down and shot 380 prisoners in the nearby woods who were attempting to escape. Around 900 prisoners survived the transport. Seventy-five percent of the prisoners in Wille Concentration Camp did not survive to see the end of the war.
Rehmsdorf and the surrounding towns were occupied by forces of the 76th US Infantry Division on 12 April 1945.
None of the SS personnel, such as SS-Obersturmführer Rudolf Kenn, who was in charge of the SS at Wille, ever faced justice for their crimes. The camp elder, Hans Wolf – himself a ‘criminal’ prisoner, working as a capo for the guards – was sentenced to death in 1947 in the Dachau Concentration Camp trials and hanged at Landsberg Prison a year later. A member of the Brabag board of directors, Heinrich Bütefisch, denied all knowledge of prisoner maltreatment and denied all post-war restitution claims, yet despite his conviction at the IG Farben war crimes trials was awarded the Federal German Service Cross in 1964. After numerous protests, the award was recalled by German president Heinrich Lübke.
The community of Elsteraue received funding in 2016 to establish a memorial in Rehmsdorf led by historian Lothar Czoßek, who has published a number of books on the topic in the last three decades. Two of the original 18 brick barracks are still standing and may be visited at the memorial site.
Seaman, Mark: Bravest of the Brave: The True Story of Wing Commander ‘Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas, SOE Secret Agent, Codename ‘The White Rabbit’. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd., London 1997. Pages 188-196 contain a detailed account of Yeo-Thomas’s experience in Wille Concentration Camp.
Czoßek, Lothar: Vernichtung, Auftrag und Vollendung: Außenkommando ‘Wille’ – ein Außenlager des KZ Buchenwald, Dokumentation über die Geschichte des Außenkommandos ‘Wille’ in Gleina, Tröglitz und Rehmsdorf, 1997.
Czoßek, Lothar: Telephone conversation with the author on 10 March 2019. Herr Czoßek was born in 1928 and was, as a German civilian and lifelong resident of Rehmsdorf, a contemporary witness to the events there 1944-1945.
International Tracing Service Arolsen: Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, Bad Arolsen, 1949-1951, pp. 232, 565.
Megargee, Geoffrey P. (editor): Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol. 1 , Part A. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009, pp. 429-431.
Rehmsdorf Registry Office Death Register: death certificate of William Marsh.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO 950/2362 (Marsh)