29 Oct 2013
Ravensbrück was a women’s concentration camp during World War II, located in northern Germany, 90 km (56 mi) north of Berlin at a site near the village of Ravensbrück (part of Fürstenberg/Havel).
Construction of the camp began in November 1938 by SS leader Heinrich Himmler and was unusual in that it was a camp primarily for women and children. The camp opened in May 1939.
In the spring of 1941, the SS authorities established a small men’s camp adjacent to the main camp. Between 1939 and 1945, over 130,000 female prisoners passed through the Ravensbrück camp system; around 40,000 were Polish and 26,000 were Jewish. Between 15,000 and 32,000 of the total survived. Although the inmates came from every country in German-occupied Europe, the largest single national group incarcerated in the camp consisted of Polish women.
Siemens & Halske employed many of the slave labor prisoners.
The first prisoners at Ravensbrück were approximately 900 women. The SS had transferred these prisoners from the Lichtenburg women’s concentration camp in Saxony in May 1939. By the end of 1942, the inmate population of Ravensbrück had grown to about 10,000.
There were children in the camp as well. At first, they arrived with mothers who were Gypsies or Jews incarcerated in the camp or were born to imprisoned women. There were few of them at the time.
There were a few Czech children from Lidice in July 1942. Later the children in the camp represented almost all nations of Europe occupied by Germany.
Between April and October 1944 their number increased considerably, consisting of two groups. One group was composed of Roma children with their mothers or sisters brought into the camp after the Roma camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was closed.
The other group included mostly children who were brought with Polish mothers sent to Ravensbrück after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. With a few exceptions all these children died of starvation.
Ravensbrück had 70 sub-camps used for slave labour that were spread across an area from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria.
Among the thousands executed by the Germans at Ravensbrück were four female members of the British World War II organization Special Operations Executive: Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo.
Other victims included the Roman Catholic nun Élise Rivet, Elisabeth de Rothschild (the only member of the Rothschild family to die in the Holocaust), Russian Orthodox nun St. Maria Skobtsova, the 25-year-old French Princess Anne de Bauffremont-Courtenay and Olga Benário, wife of the Brazilian Communist leader Luís Carlos Prestes.
The largest group of executed women at the Ravensbrück camp was composed of 200 young Polish patriots who were members of the Home Army.
Real heroes remembered – much too late
Thursday 5th December 2013
Prince Charles and the British Establishment have taken more than 70 years to mark some incredible heroism in the fight to defeat the nazis, says PETER FROST.
On Tuesday this week in Bedfordshire, Prince Charles finally unveiled a memorial to honour and remember the brave women who flew out of RAF Tempsford to aid resistance movements in occupied Europe during the second world war.
The unveiling marks the end of an almost year-long campaign to set up the Tempsford memorial. This means that at last there is a fitting tribute to some of the wonderful women agents who flew on those secret missions from this Bedfordshire field.
Some 80-odd women agents left the small airfield. They worked as radio operators, couriers, and in many other roles. All of them were also trained in military skills and in spycraft.
They worked with the Free French forces as well as the many French communists who played such an important part in the French Resistance.
Between them they won nearly 100 high commendations including Four George Crosses – the highest British civilian honour – one George medal, one CBE, 16 MBEs and four OBEs.
There were French awards too, including 27 Croix de Guerre and 10 Legion d’Honneur.
The first to go were two young women, Andree Borrel, codename Denise, and Lise De Baissac, codename Odile, who flew out on the night of September 24 1942.
Yolande Beekman, codename Marriette, had married just a month before she was flown out from RAF Tempsford on September 18 1943.
She worked as a wireless operator for Gustave Bieler, the head of the Musician Network in the St Quentin district …
After many close escapes she and Bieler were finally captured by the Germans on January 12 1944.
Bieler was shot soon after capture by the SS at Flossenburg. Beekman, however, was brutally tortured during Gestapo interrogation.
Like so many of her comrades she said nothing. Beekman was executed at Dachau concentration camp on September 12 1944 aged 32.
Australian Nancy Wake married a French businessman in 1939 and fled France when the Germans invaded in 1940.
Back in England she joined the SOE. There was no moon on April 28 1944 so her flight into occupied France from Tempsford had to be postponed until the next night.
The next night she parachuted into the Auvergne district of France to help the French rise up on D-Day.
Another airfield with a similar story is just off the A14 at junction three in Northamptonshire. It stands behind a scruffy lay-by in front of a huge field.
In the lay-by is a memorial to the “801/492 USAAF squadron.”
This memorial also carries a more romantic message. “Harrington airfield,” it tells you, “was home to the Carpetbaggers.”
So who were these strangely named bands of heroes? Fortunately a tiny but packed museum just down the lane tells the full and fascinating story.
The Carpetbaggers were the US flyers that secretly supplied the French Resistance with all they needed for their heroic war work of spying and sabotage.
Every moonlit night a couple of dozen black painted and unmarked B24 bombers would take off for France.
The bays would be full of parachute canisters, boxes and baskets of weapons and ammunition, civilian clothes, counterfeit nazi uniforms, radio sets, even bicycles – the one-hundred-and-one things the French Resistance needed to carry on their essential but dangerous work behind nazi lines.
The BBC would broadcast to France coded messages identifying the drop zones. The Carpetbaggers would fly low over occupied France avoiding anti-aircraft fire to drop their parachutes.
And as if this wasn’t heroic enough some nights the cargo was even more precious, even more secret.
It was from Harrington too that the brave men and women agents were flown into France under the noses of the enemy. Their average life expectancy was just three months.
Perhaps the best known was Violette Szabo. So secret were the exploits of the agents that we still don’t know which routes she used to enter France.
Szabo started the war on the perfume counter of the Bon Marche store in Brixton. Her mother was French, her father a London cabbie. She joined the undercover SOE and carried out three dangerous operations to occupied France.
After training by the SOE she was dropped into occupied France three times. The best evidence suggests she flew out of both Tempsford and later from Harrington.
Just four days after her last landing in France on June 10 1944 she was ambushed near Limoges by the nazis.
Cornered, wounded and alone, she fought off the crack Geman SS troops with her machine gun until her ammunition was exhausted.
Despite brutal torture and interrogation she gave nothing away.
Sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was eventually shot on January 25 1945. She was just 23 years old.
You may have seen the film Carve Her Name With Pride. It tells the story of one of these brave female French agents like Szabo far better than I could.
Many of these heroes were sadly, like her, never to return.
But we owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude for the contribution they made to the defeat of fascism. And now, after 70 years, it seems our government is belatedly paying tribute too.
Now at last Szabo and her comrades have the memorial they have long deserved.
Visit www.harringtonmuseum.org.uk and www.tempsford.20m.com for more details.