The 102nd Infantry Division, nicknamed “Special Designation” soldiers, under command of 2* Major General Frank Augustus Keating , had arrived in Gardelegen on the evening of April 14th and had accepted the surrender of the Luftwaffe air base. The German troops were most anxious to surrender to the Americans, rather than to the Russians who were only a few miles away on the other side of the Elbe river. General Keating died age 78 on 28-04-1973 in Cohasset Massachusettes.
The Gardelegen massacre was the cold-blooded murder of inmates that had been evacuated from the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp and some of its sub-camps on April 3rd, 4th and 5th. Around 4,000 prisoners had been bound for the Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen or Neuengamme concentration camps, but when the railroad tracks were bombed by American planes, they had been re-routed to Gardelegen, which was the site of a Cavalry Training School and a Parachutist Training School. The trains were forced to stop before reaching the town of Gardelegen and some of the escaped prisoners had terrorized the nearby villages, raping, looting and killing civilians.
The man who is considered to be the main instigator of the Gardelegen massacre is 34-year-old Gerhard Thiele , who was the Nazi party district leader of Gardelegen. On April 6, 1945, Thiele called a meeting of his staff and other officials at which he issued an order, which had been given to him a few days before by Gauleiter Rudolf Jordan , that any prisoners who were caught looting or who tried to escape should be shot on the spot. Rudolf Jordan died old age 86 on 27-10-1986 in Munich.
On Friday, April 13th, approximately 1050 to 1100 of the concentration camp prisoners were herded inside a grain barn,
, piled knee-high with straw, which had been previously doused with gasoline. The barn was then deliberately set on fire by German SS and Luftwaffe soldiers and boys from the Hitler Jugend, according to the survivors. Prisoners who tried to escape from the fire were machine-gunned to death by the Germans guarding the barn, including teen-aged boys in the Hitler Jugend. A total of 1016 prisoners were burned to death or shot as they tried to escape from the unlocked barn
. Around 100 of the prisoners survived, including several Russian Prisoners of War who greeted the American soldiers and led them to the scene of one of the most ignominious war crimes of the war.
The German prisoners among the concentration camp inmates were promised freedom if they helped the SS in guarding their fellow prisoners. According to the pamphlet prepared by the 102nd Division, “At the last moment, after machine guns had been emplaced, the 300 guards were also forced into the building.”
The day after the massacre, on Saturday April 14th, the Germans attempted to destroy the evidence by burying the bodies in mass graves, which they dug right in front of the barn. Gerhard Thiele, escaped on April 14th by disguising himself in the uniform of a German soldier and traveling with false papers. He lived in the Western zone of occupation and later in West Germany under a fake identity. His wife continued to live in East Germany and never revealed his whereabouts. Thiele died in 1994 at the age of 85.
The photo below shows the bodies after they were exhumed.
On the orders of General Frank A. Keating, around 250 to 300 male citizens of the town of Gardelegen assembled in the town square on April 18, 1945, dressed in their Sunday best. They were then marched five kilometers to the barn, escorted by American soldiers and Sherman tanks. At the barn, soldiers of the 327th Engineer Combat Battalion stood guard with fixed bayonets while the Gardelegen men were forced to dig up the bodies from the trenches near the barn and to carry out the dead prisoners still inside the barn.