Murderous intentions

2008-11-25 00:00

“Death for all the chief Nazi war criminals”, declared the front page headline of The Natal Witness on Wednesday, October 2, 1946, above a report on the outcome of the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War 2. Photographs of the condemned men filled the page. Twelve were sentenced to death, while others were given prison sentences and in some cases acquitted.

“The dramatic climax of the longest trial in history” dominated the newspaper again the next day, but Friday saw The Witness lead with a war crimes trial much closer to home.

On the previous day, standing in the dock of Pietermaritzburg’s Supreme Court, still wearing their faded Afrika Corps uniforms, Walter Werner and Paul Wallatt were sentenced to five years’ hard labour for murdering a fellow prisoner, Helmuth Haensel, at the Durban Road POW Camp in June 1942. Mitigating circumstances saw them narrowly avoid the death penalty.

The two men and their victim were among the 6 800 German prisoners of war (POWs) who passed through South Africa during World War 2, held in transit camps prior to being sent on to Canada.

Unlike the 100 000 Italian POWs who were held in South Africa, the Germans presented a major challenge. The Italians were largely uncommitted to fascism and posed no threat to South Africa’s security. The Germans were a different story. “The fact of their being frontline soldiers made them a prime security risk,” writes Bob Moore, professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield in his essay Unwanted Guests in Troubled Times: German Prisoners of War in the Union of South Africa, 1942 — 1943, “and, therefore, potentially the most dangerous elements among the prisoners. Moreover, at the time of their capture, the fate of the war in Europe still hung in the balance. Many of them firmly believed that they could continue the war behind barbed wire by making it as difficult as possible for their captors, even thousands of miles from the front.”

In South Africa there was the added risk that they would be actively assisted in such endeavours. The country had come into the war only on the strength of a seven-vote parliamentary majority and there was substantial opposition to the war inside the country plus considerable pro-German sentiment among certain Afrikaner elements — not least, as Moore points out, among “such radical Afrikaner groups as the Ossewabrandwag and its paramilitary wing Stormjaers who might be expected to exploit the situation”. There was also a tight-knit German-speaking community close to Pietermaritzburg.

Despite such concerns, in 1940 South Africa had offered to take German prisoners. On March 5, 1942, the South African authorities were asked “to take 2 000 men immediately and then further batches up to a total of 300 officers and 10 000 other ranks”. The numbers involved made accommodation in the existing transit camp in Clairwood, Durban, impractical. A new site was established on the Durban Road in Pietermaritzburg where prisoners would be housed in tents.

The first batch of German prisoners arrived in Durban on March 18 aboard the HMT Pasteur and by April 10, 1942, there were 2 002 German prisoners in Pietermaritzburg. Security concerns dictated the German officers be moved as quickly as possible and nearly all of these prisoners — 200 officers and 1 795 men — were embarked on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam at Durban on April 29 bound for Simonstown, where they were transhipped onto the SS Queen Elizabeth for the voyage to Canada.

However, two officers did not go. Major Eberhard von Luepke and Lieutenant Joachim von Grawert hid themselves under the camp’s music pavilion with the intention of escaping after all the others had left. However, their plans were foiled when the camp was repopulated almost immediately with a further 2 000 ordinary German soldiers. In accordance with the Geneva Convention these prisoners were allowed to appoint a camp representative. According to Moore this “paved the way for a prominent or forceful individual to take control of affairs, in this case Gefreiter Walther Werner”.

As far as the authorities were concerned Werner seemed an ideal choice. He spoke perfect English and had submitted a favourable report to the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Reverend H. P. Junod who had inspected the camp in June.

But the good relationship between guards and inmates was about to turn sour. “From the beginning, the Germans had been keen to cause trouble,” says Moore. “During April, two prisoners escaped by hiding on the night soil truck that entered and left their compound. Three others also managed to break through the wire and escape although both groups were apparently recaptured.”

There were stone-throwing incidents, arc lamps were broken and all privileges were stopped until the culprits were produced. Stones were also thrown at the Indian and Malay Corps guarding the camp. The Germans resented being guarded by non-white troops and a letter of complaint from Werner was, according to the camp commander, “full of contempt and scorn for our native soldiers”.

Werner had become a liability. “It is my opinion that this POW is definitely an agitator and in the interests of the smooth running of the camp, I consider it advisable, if possible, to have him transferred.” This was written in July 1942. Unknown to the camp commander, Werner had, in June, been involved in the death of a German soldier, the

29-year-old Helmuth Haensel.

• Unwanted Guests in Troubled Times: German Prisoners of War in the Union of South Africa, 1942 — 1943 by Bob Moore is published in the Journal for Military History of the American Society for Military History, Volume 70, Number 1, January 2006. Website:

www.smh-hq.org

Click here to read part two: how the murder of Helmuth Haensel was made to look like a suicide.

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