Key point: Many American units found atrocities, but it was a special horror for those who found concentration camps. These American men in uniform documented what they saw.
After leading his U.S. 3rd Armored “Spearhead” Division on the longest, one-day, enemy-opposed mechanized advance in American history, Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose was killed in action on March 30, 1945, one of 30 flag officers who fell in World War II, and the only armored division commander ever lost in combat.
However, the march of the 3rd Armored Division did not end with the death of its commander or before its men confronted the full meaning of Nazism. Like other fighting divisions, the various units within 3rd Armored prepared after-action reports for April 1945 that document military operations, including liberations, but the official records, archival sources, personal memoirs, photos, etc., vary considerably concerning discovery of the atrocities and the actual places where the horror was perpetrated.
As one example, the 82nd Airborne Division final after-action report (AAR) contains a single paragraph in the Military Government section about “the discovery of a concentration camp at WOBBELIN” and the medical and humanitarian efforts undertaken, including a forced reburial of victims by the local population, a virtual constant in American AARs. In the case of the 3rd Armored Division, the recollections of individual soldiers, unit AARs, and the semi-official history, Spearhead in the West, offer a more detailed description of the liberation of a notorious concentration camp as part of military operations in the last days of the war in Germany—less than two weeks after Maurice Rose, the highest ranking Jewish American officer in the U.S. Army, was cut down in combat in the act of surrendering.
KZ (Konzentrationslager, i.e., Concentration Camp) Dora-Mittelbau was built in central Germany near the town of Nordhausen, by which name the entire camp complex is now commonly, but erroneously, known. The blandly named Mittelbau (translation, “central construction”) camp was initially established as a sub-camp of KZ Buchenwald, when the SS sent a detail of 120 slaves to expand a large underground Wehrmacht fuel depot to produce V-2 ballistic missiles after the existing production sites became the target of Allied bombers. When the main V-2 effort shifted from Peenemunde to Mittelbau, the site became an independent concentration camp in late October 1944, eventually encompassing more than 40 subcamps of its own, spread out over the immediate area. The first inmates, who built the facilities, were initially kept underground in the dark, unventilated tunnels, referred to as “Dora” in official documents of “Mittelbau GmbH,” the business unit set up by Armaments Minister Albert Speer’s vast empire, which oversaw the production site. The main factory area inside the tunnels was often referred to as Mittelwerk (“middle works.”) The SS ran all the camps, provided the slave labor at very reasonable negotiated rates, and the supply was constantly “replenished.”
Brutalized in miserable conditions, with minimal food, sanitation, heating, or light, the condemned slaves slept on wood racks, four levels high. The daily ration consisted of four ounces of black bread and a liter of potato soup—the former more sawdust than flour, and the latter diluted foul water without nourishment—which only stoked the constant hunger and dysentery. Industrial-level noise from moving and operating heavy manufacturing equipment and blasting though rock never ceased, and the air was befouled by noxious and deadly gases from explosives, fuel, and toxic metal dust. Vermin of all kinds and diseases long thought eradicated, such as tuberculosis, typhus, and pneumonia, flourished. The daily death rate during early construction and the last few months of the war soared, and the used-up slaves were “selected,” temporarily warehoused near the rail tracks, and shipped to KZ Mauthausen and other places for extermination.
Once full V-2 production began in the autumn of 1944, the Mittelbau complex held about 20,000 slaves, most working on outdoor construction, and about 6,000 in the tunnels. Dora-Mittelwerk produced 600-700 missiles per month on average, short of the monthly goal of 900 but nevertheless a significant achievement, especially after the Luftwaffe commandeered 40 percent of tunnel capacity for Junkers aircraft engine assembly. The enterprise was a model of efficiency, earning official commendations for the top managers, engineers, and SS staff, several of whom, including the last commandant, were prominent Auschwitz veterans.
The first V-2 rockets struck London on September 8, 1944, with the final launches on March 27, 1945. In the nearly seven months of attacks more than 3,000 warheads hit Allied cities, including Antwerp, Liege, and Paris. The ballistic missiles targeting London, most of which were produced in the Dora tunnels, killed about 2,500 civilians, injuring more than 6,000. During its existence as an underground, state-of-the-art, slave-based multi-facility manufacturing site—the final evolution of the SS master-slave economic system—more than 20,000 people from all over Europe were murdered or died from starvation, disease, or random executions at KZ Dora-Mittelbau, a labor cost of seven to eight slaves per V-2 rocket, which would kill or wound three to five civilians.
In early April 1945, as the Allies approached, consistent with Reich policy to leave no evidence of the mass murder behind, the SS began evacuations of the Dora-Mittelbau inmates north to KZ Bergen-Belsen, a mass collection point for the surviving prisoners of the crumbling Nazi empire. Thousands were murdered before and during the death marches, and by the time American forces arrived at Nordhausen few living prisoners remained. The 3rd Armored Division first entered the camp complex at an accidentally bombed and ruined barracks overflowing with corpses, called the Boelcke Kaserne.
Brigadier General Truman E. Boudinot, one-time champion Army free balloon racer and veteran tank commander of Combat Command B (CCB), one of two brigade-sized striking forces of the 3rd Armored “Spearhead” Division, had been driving his men hard for weeks. Starting with the breakout from the Remagen Bridge in early March 1945, the division spearheaded VII Corps, First Army, the southern pincer of 12th Army Group’s tightening grip on the industrial Ruhr region where the remnants of several German armies were trapped. When 3rd Armored met the tanks of the northern pincer, the U.S. Ninth Army led by the 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division, on April 1, 1945, the escape route slammed shut on the greatest encirclement battle in American history, with more than 350,000 prisoners bagged and German Army Group B destroyed. Field Marshal Walter Model, known as “Hitler’s Fireman” and the longtime battlefield opponent of Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, killed himself rather than surrender. Although the bloodletting would continue without pause until 3rd Armored reached the town of Dessau on the Elbe, the original mission of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s SHAEF was essentially complete. The industrial heart and war-making capability of the Third Reich, and its armed forces in the West, had been destroyed.
A week and a half after closing the Ruhr Pocket, General Boudinot was attacking into the Harz Mountains, where the high command believed strong German forces were gathering. Early on April 11, 1945, he received orders to take the town of Nordhausen. The rest of 3rd Armored, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Doyle O. Hickey, would continue the attack toward the mountains. The two task forces of CCB were built around Colonel John C. Welborn’s 33rd Armored Regiment and Lt. Col. William B. Lovelady’s 3rd Battalion and were moving abreast on two easterly routes. Lovelady entered the town near the railroad tracks and marked it on his map as a Luftwaffe base. He reported a large prison-type compound and requested more infantry support from Maj. Gen. “Terrible” Terry Allen’s 104th “Timberwolf” Infantry Division, which was attached to VII Corps and moving to the north.
The main Mittelbau camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence and watchtowers. A large roll call area, where prisoners were assembled and counted several times a day, was located just west of the main entrance. The SS guard quarters lay farther east, outside the wire, where resistance was scattered, disorganized, and brief. No elements from the German Eleventh Army were encountered. Northeast of the main camp, from which the slaves were marched to work at 0400 and 1600 hours for 12-hour shifts of hard labor every day, camouflaged entrances led to the underground factory manufacturing Hitler’s “weapons of retaliation” (Vergeltungswaffen), the 40-foot-high V-2 ballistic missile packing 1,600 pounds of high explosive and the V-1 early-generation cruise missile (known as the flying bomb or “doodlebug”). The capture of Dora and the V-2 assembly plant at Kleinbodungen were major strategic prizes for Allied air technical intelligence officers looking for missile and aircraft materials and personnel. Even as the war in Europe ended, each of the Western Allies and the Soviets were competing for technological advantages in the next, and colder, struggle to come.
At the deepest level of the underground complex ran two enormous shafts, dug 600 feet into a limestone ridge, each more than a mile long, more than 50 feet high, and housing a full assembly line, one for V-1s, the other for V-2s. Dozens of 500-foot-long cross-tunnels linking the main shafts were filled with machine tools and bomb-making material at various stages of production. German engineers had already begun experiments on a secret V-3 antiaircraft missile system. That program and the V-2 assembly plant and storage facilities claimed the most able-bodied of the slaves, mostly Reich political prisoners under the Nebel und Nacht edict, Polish and Soviet prisoners of war, a small number of specially selected Jews, and forced laborers from the conquered countries who dug the tunnels and were then worked to death on the production lines.