To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau on April 29th, Alex Kershaw has sent us an extract from his book The Liberator
DACHAU – 29 APRIL 1945
COLONEL FELIX SPARKS, a 26-year-old task force commander with the 45th Infantry Division, was deep inside the Dachau complex. He had been in almost continuous combat since July 1943 and was a veteran of four amphibious invasions in Europe. But what he was now about to experience inside Hitler’s first concentration camp would be more intense, and more harrowing, than anything in over five hundred days of war. It would, in his words, “rob the mind of reason”.
Sparks saw manicured lawns and rosebushes in full bloom, clearly well tended. To his left there was the sound of firing. He and his men carried on, as they had in so many other urban environments, keeping close to doorways in case of snipers, not bunching.[i] He reached a central building with a large lobby. At one end were glass cases containing antique firearms. He again heard firing. He left the building but could not see where the shots were coming from. Poplar trees in spring bud and buildings obscured his view.[ii] Then he saw a lieutenant from the 157th Infantry Regiment called Bill Walsh emerge from between a couple of buildings. He was chasing a German.[iii]
“You sons of bitches,” Walsh was screaming. “You sons of bitches, you sons of bitches.”[iv]
Walsh began to beat the German over the head with the barrel of his carbine.[v]
. “Bastards. Bastards. Bastards.”[vi]
Sparks ordered Walsh to stop. But Walsh ignored him. So Sparks pulled out his .45 and[vii]clubbed Walsh on the head with its butt, stunning him and knocking him to the ground.[viii]
Walsh lay there, crying hysterically.[ix]
“I’m taking over command of the company,” yelled Sparks.[x]
One of Walsh’s men, Sidney C. Horn, recalled that seven men were needed to take a hysterical Walsh into a room and “get him quieted down. He really lost it there.”[xi] Walsh later confessed: “I’ll be honest with you. I broke down. I started crying. The whole thing was getting to me. This was the culmination of something that I had never been trained for.”[xii]
Inspection by the Nazi party and Himmler at Dachau on 8 May 1936.
Sparks and his party moved on toward the Jourhaus, a building at the actual concentration camp’s entrance, whose famous wrought iron gate had a sign above it – Arbeit Macht Frei [Work Sets You Free]. Sparks spotted a guard tower. There were still some SS troops manning it. The easiest way to deal with them was to pick them off with rifles, using the cover of nearby buildings.[xiii] Sparks ordered his men to do so and the guards were quickly dispatched.[xiv]
Sparks reached the gate to KZ Dachau. Some prisoners were huddled close by but the large enclosure behind them was empty. Where were the 32,000-odd people thought to be inside KZ Dachau? The inmates near the gate were a pitiful sight. Thunderbirds started to throw anything they had through the wire fence and over it. Wrigley’s chewing gum. K-rations. Field jackets. Candy. Lucky Strikes. Anything they could find to give to living skeletons stripped of everything except life.[xv]