Killing a fellow prisoner

2008-11-26 00:00

The murder of prisoner Helmuth Haensel by his fellows was carried out on the orders of two officers intent on escaping from the German prisoner of war camp in Durban Road. In the second of two articles STEPHEN COAN recounts how this grim event played out in 1942 and its aftermath in 1946.

German prisoner of war (POW) Helmuth Haensel arrived in Durban on March 25, 1942, and, along with 1 000 other men, was sent to the camp in Pietermaritzburg. “In early May, he was sent back to Durban for onward shipment to Canada via HMT Queen Elizabeth, then berthed in Simonstown,” 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. “Somehow, he managed to hide in the transport ship HMT Nieuw Amsterdam and was discovered only on May 7, after the Queen Elizabeth had departed. Taken back to Pietermaritzburg suffering from pneumonia, he was held in the camp hospital until being discharged on June 6.”

The POWs suspected Haensel was a British spy and it was thought he might betray the presence of the two officers, Major Eberhard von Luepke and Lieutenant Joachim von Grawert, who had hidden themselves under the camp’s music pavilion with the intention of escaping after the first batch of prisoners, which included Haensel, had left the camp in May. A new influx of POWs had prevented their escape and Von Luepke and Von Grawert had been discovered by Walter Werner (who had been elected camp representative in the absence of any commissioned officer) when he was busy getting the camp organised. He had agreed to help them escape in exchange for being promoted to a Sonderführer.

Prior to the war, Werner had been an accountant. He later joined the German Police Force and also claimed to have been a Gestapo agent. Werner’s regime in the camp reflected the methods of the German security services. In a camp short of food, Werner used hunger as a means of coercion and reward, says Moore. “Stealing food was then punished by public or private beatings, the former seen by hundreds of witnesses. Potential rivals for leadership positions were marginalised and discredited by Werner and his circle of associates. At the same time, he enjoyed a ‘party-boss’ lifestyle. He lived in a special room, ate only the best food available, smoked constantly, and even succeeded in providing himself with alcohol.

“Under Werner’s regime of terror, the two officers began to assert an increasing role. Two men were constantly posted to their hiding place, so Von Luepke and Von Grawert could move freely without upsetting the numerical total in the camp. The officers began to make plans, not only for their own escape, but also for mass break-outs and subsequent attacks on the Durban-Pietermaritzburg railway line and the occupation of Pietermaritzburg itself.”

Haensel was seen as a threat to these plans. For reasons unknown Haensel was generally disliked. After his release from the camp hospital the guards noticed that Haensel was “not popular with the crowd” and transferred him to the detention pen. The camp commander refused to countenance such a step and ordered his release.

According to Moore, Haensel had enjoyed a strange military career. “The son of a Czech father and German mother, he had spent most of his life in France and Italy. When his passport ran out in 1941, he was instructed by the German consulate to report to Berlin for military service as an interpreter. Arriving in Tripoli, he was considered suspect by his unit, the 15th Panzer Division, for not being a party member and expressing ‘friendly views’ about the English. For this, he had served 42 days in detention, but he was also suspected of sabotage when, on the day of his unit’s capture, he had failed to blow up a truck as ordered.”

Giving judgment at the trial in 1946, Mr Justice Carlisle said “opinion among the prisoners appeared to have been that Haensel was looked upon as a spy, as a traitor, and as a British agent”. Carlisle was unable to verify if this was the truth.

Werner had been ordered to make sure the presence of the two officers be kept secret, said Carlisle. “On the morning of June 6 [Werner] was sent for and found both officers in his tent. He was told that the prisoner Haensel was a source of danger and that if Haensel had been sent as a spy it might lead to the discovery of the two officers. Von Luepke said he intended to ascertain the truth of these rumours by calling before him such men in the camp in a position to depose what they knew about Haensel.

“These men were brought in and were told by Von Luepke that they were to give evidence on oath as they did in Germany; that they were not to report hearsay statements, but to confine their statements to what they personally knew. Werner said that Von Luepke told the men that they would have to repeat their evidence in Germany when they went back there. The conclusion of the matter was that Von Luepke gave his decision. It was that, on his responsibility, and by his order, Haensel should be executed that night. He ordered Werner to carry out the sentence that evening and to get men to assist him.

“That evening Haensel was brought into the music pavilion in accordance with Von Luepke’s instructions. Von Luepke was not there. Those present were Lieutenant von Kravert, the two accused [Werner and Paul Wallatt] and some others. Haensel was overpowered, gagged and throttled. His body was hanged by his neck to a tent pole. All the arrangements for this atrocious deed were made by Werner.”

The intention was to make Haensel’s murder look like a suicide and a note was attached to the body in which he claimed he had been accused by a fellow prisoner of being an English spy at a camp in Cairo.

Haensel’s body was soon found by the authorities who, it seems, did not suspect foul play. The murder only came to light after the end of the war in 1945 when a German prisoner in Canada, Hans Karrell, implicated Werner and others, claiming to have been an eyewitness to a kangaroo court and to the “execution” that followed.

Karrell turned informant after discovering that Werner, now camp leader of a lumber camp in Canada, had been featured in the press as an avowed anti-Nazi and democrat. Karrell resented Werner ingratiating himself with the authorities and thus smoothing his reintegration into the new Germany under Allied control.

Werner and one of his accomplices, Wallat, were brought back from Canada to stand trial in Pietermaritzburg. Both men were convicted of murder and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. The extenuating circumstances that averted the death penalty revolved around the defence that the two were acting under orders in wartime, although there were questions about the legitimacy of those orders.

In 1947, an appeal “on a question of law” regarding the case was heard. Judge C. J. Watermeyer agreed that the mitigating circumstances justified a sentence of imprisonment but found the orders issued by the officers were manifestly illegal.

The two officers, Von Luepke and Von Grawert, who issued those orders succeeded in escaping from the Durban Road camp sometime in August 1942. How exactly is not known. They were recaptured at Ndumo on August 23, returned to the camp and subsequently sent to the United States.

Werner and Wallatt served one year of their sentence in South Africa before being returned to Germany where, as was standard practice with repatriated prisoners, the remainders of their sentences were remitted.

Today Haensel’s grave can be found in Block E of the Mountain Rise Cemetery. The cause of death recorded in the cemetery’s burial register states: “Asphyxia [due] to hanging.”

• 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:

• Let us know if you have any further information on this incident or any other stories concerning German POWs held in Pietermaritzburg. You can phone Stephen Coan at 033 355 1111 or e-mail

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