The Heroic World War Two Volunteer – Charles Joseph Coward

Calais after the German siege; By Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Calais after the German siege; By Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0 de

He fought against the Nazis and was sent to a concentration camp. There he spied on his captors and risked his life to save those he could. All that under the name of Coward.

Charles Joseph Coward was born in Britain on January 30, 1905. He joined the British Army in 1937 and served with the 8th Reserve Regimental Royal Artillery. By the time WWII started in 1939, he was a Quartermaster Battery Sergeant Major.

The Germans assaulted the port of Calais on May 21, 1940 – marking the start of the Siege of Calais. The Allies were driven back, and the British Expeditionary Force fled from France through the port of Dunkirk. Fortunately, most made it out in time to fight the Germans another day.

Unfortunately for Coward, he was not one of them, and he became a POW. He did have an advantage; he spoke German. He, therefore, used his language skills to make seven escape attempts by passing himself off as a German soldier.

One of the escape attempts worked, but he was injured. Sent to a German Army field hospital, he kept up his pretense. After the German doctors had treated his wounds, he was given an Iron Cross for his bravery and suffering.

It did not take them long to realize their mistake, of course. He was sent back to the POW camp where he earned a reputation for sabotage while on work details. Finally, he was sent to Poland; Auschwitz, to be precise.

Coward arrived at Auschwitz III (Monowitz) a working camp in December 1943. It was located approximately five miles from Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the death camp. It belonged to IG Farben – a chemical plant that only closed its doors in 2012 (but survives today as AGFA, BASF, Bayer, and Sanofi).

IG Farben had acquired the patent to Zyklon B – originally used as an insecticide and by US immigration officials to delouse Mexican laborers. When the Final Solution (the extermination of Jews and other undesirables) came into effect in 1942, the Nazi regime found another use for it in nearby Auschwitz II.

Auschwitz III (Monowitz); By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Auschwitz III (Monowitz); By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Coward and between 1,200 and 1,400 other British POWs were kept at sub-camp E715. Their job was to run the liquid fuel plant which produced synthetic rubber. Coward, however, due to his German language skills worked as a Red Cross liaison officer as Germany still kept up the pretense of honoring the Geneva Convention articles.

As such, he was allowed some measure of free movement within the camp. Sometimes, he was permitted to go to the nearby towns. There, he witnessed the arrival of trainloads of Jews to the extermination camp.

Auschwitz III housed 10,000 Jews who were allowed to work. Due to exhaustion, sickness, brutality, and deliberate starvation they did not last long. Unable to stand by and do nothing, Coward got to work.

As the British POWs had access to Red Cross items, Coward and the other prisoners set aside food and medicine. Those items were then smuggled to the Jewish section of their camp to help as many as possible.

A slave laborer at the IG Farben plant in Auschwitz III; By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
A slave laborer at the IG Farben plant in Auschwitz III; By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Allowed to send letters out, Coward began writing to his friend – Mr. William Orange. There was no such person. It was the code for the British War Office. In those letters, he explained what was happening in the camps, as well as the treatment and mass slaughter of Jews.

One day, a letter was smuggled to him, asking for help. It came from Karel Sperber, a British ship’s doctor, but there was a problem – Sperber was being held in the Jewish section of Monowitz. So Coward exchanged clothes with an inmate and smuggled himself into the Jewish sector to try to find the doctor. Sadly, he failed.

He did see how Jews in the work camp were being treated. After the war, he was among those who testified at the IG Farben Trial in Nuremberg. He helped to have some of the company’s directors imprisoned, although only for a few years.

He wanted to help the Jews. To pull it off, he needed two things – chocolate and corpses. It was a daring plan, but it worked.

Coward gave the chocolate to the guards in exchange for the bodies of non-Jewish dead prisoners. Then, once their clothes and papers had been removed they were cremated.

The United States of America vs. Carl Krauch, et al., also called the IG Farben Trial;
The United States of America vs. Carl Krauch, et al., also called the IG Farben Trial;

Jewish escapees put on the clothes and assumed the new, non-Jewish identities. With help from members of the Polish resistance, they were then smuggled out of the camp. As the number of those missing tallied with the number of those who were reported dead, neither Coward nor the bribed guards fell under any suspicion.

It is estimated around 400 Jews were saved using that method.

In January 1945 Soviet forces advanced deeper into Poland. As they made their way toward Auschwitz, Coward and the other POWs were forced to march to Bavaria in Germany. The prisoners were liberated by Allied forces en route, finally putting an end to the brutal nightmare.

In 1963 Yad Vashem recognized Coward as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. He became known as the “Count of Auschwitz.” and a film was made of his exploits called “The Password is Courage.”

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE