Sachsenhausen: Boot testing track.
An unexplored dimension of the concentration camp system is the intersection between Allied propaganda and the small number of Allied personnel who ended up imprisoned in them. The supposed boot testing track of Sachsenhausen is an interesting case in point:
Wikipedia describes the image above as: “Part of shoe testing track in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Prisoners who belonged in “Schuhläuferkommando”, shoe testing unit had to walk on this days and days.” British POWs captured in raids on Norway were supposedly transferred to Sachsenhausen and were forced to work in this commando, as described by MI9 historian Michael Foot:
Having sunk one minor German warship, they had tackled another which was too big for them, and had been captured. They were held to fall within the scope of the commando order. After a spell in close confinement at Grini prison near Oslo they were sent via another concentration camp to Sachsenhausen. John Godwin was an officer, though a very junior one, in the oldest continuing organised fighting service in the world, and knew what was expected of him: leadership and courage. He gave both in plenty. He and his party – less one called Mayer, who was presumed Jewish and disposed of separately – spent fifteen months in Sachsenhausen, officer and men together, living on turnip gruel and a little bread, marching thirty miles a day, seven days a week round a closed cobbled track to test boots for the German army. Their spirits remained unquenchably high. They cracked jokes with each other, despised their gloomy guards, knew their own side was going to win the war, and did not brood about their own fate.
This came late on 2 February 1945, after the day’s march. They were summoned, with others, to execution. As they passed through one of the camp’s many gateways, there was a scuffle. Godwin drew the firing party commander’s pistol from his belt and shot him dead, before being mown down himself. As no one senior to him was present at his death, the best the decorations system could do for Godwin was a posthumous mention in dispatches. As Boethius remarked, splendid men often go unnoticed because there is no one to tell their tale.
Whether or not John Godwin did end up in Sachsenhausen, and there is a translation of a German document that may confirm he did, the story of seizing the gun from the leader of the firing squad and killing him sounds straight out of Rah-Rah wartime propaganda. Since none of his commando team survived it can only have been derived from hear-say accounts.
One can’t help thinking this is a rather convenient document, going out of its way to confirm that the participants wore uniforms, did not violate international law and were sent to Sachsenhausen. However, be that as it may, it is certain they did not survive the war, so they might have well as been executed in Sachsenhausen as anywhere else. Overpowering firing squads and shoe testing squads are on shakier ground.
Here is one description of the Shoe Testing Track:
Here the prisoners were forced to spend their entire day, walking along the shoe-testing tracks, testing shoes for local shoe manufactures. The tracks were built by a research institute with nine types of surfaces.
Each day guards forced prisoners to wear new shoes and march about 40 kilometres over a track of cement, cinders, broken stones, gravel and sand. In 1944 the SS devised a special torture – they made prisoners walk in shoes one or two sizes too small while carrying sacks filled with 20 kilograms of sand.
To look at a modern day aerial photo we can certainly discern a semi circle around the Appelplatz with tracks of different surfaces:
However, since the surfaces (if they are different) are laid out sequentially, they would have little scientific testing benefit. Tracks with different surfaces laid out in parallel might generate useful data, but otherwise since all shoes would experience identical conditions, you could not draw useful comparisons regarding one shoe being more suited to certain conditions than another.
We also have an excellent aerial photo from 1945:
The patches are quite visible, however they seem to align up with the edges of the barracks, so that there is one patch for every two barracks with a stretch of grass in between. It is also observable that the stretch of grass in between the patches is not worn by marching (exposed earth appears white in aerial photos). This suggests that the function of the “boot testing track” was nothing more than decorative, in the same way small ornamental gardens can be seen on aerial photos of Birkenau.
This impression is reinforced from stills of a panoramic sweep from the guardhouse in 1945 for the Soviet propaganda film:
Again, while the decorative patches are visible, there is no visible marking on the grassy segments in between consistent with 100+ prisoners marching continuous circuits day after day. What appears to have happened is that the victorious powers, having observed a feature of the camp, namely a piece of landscaping, racked their brains in order to come up with a suitably horrific function to explain its existence. Eye-witness testimony then obediently falls into line. And perhaps the odd typewritten document appeared, in addition:
Of course, this does not prove that there was no shoe-testing track or shoe testing commando, simply that the feature which it is generally associated with did not have that function.
In what can only be described as a triumph of academic political correctness over reality, a German historian has managed to write an entire book devoted to the shoe testing commando of Sachsenhausen. German historians seldom lets themselves be troubled by an actual physical examination of what they write about and Dr Anna Sudrow of the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam is no exception . It is rather entertaining to see how she explains the lack of records for her to pursue her desired academic progress – it is all the fault of hidden Nazis littered through modern German industry:
Bei meinen Recherchen ergab sich dann, dass keineswegs nur Soldatenstiefel im KZ getestet wurden, sondern vor allem ganz gewöhnliche Straßenschuhe, sogar Damenschuhe. Zivile Konsumgüterunternehmen waren die wichtigstenAuftraggeber der Versuche.
Nur wenige dieser Firmen machen überhaupt in einem Archiv Firmenunterlagen der Forschung zugänglich. Bei einer Anfrage im Freudenberg-Archiv hieß es von vorneherein, es gebe keine Quellen mehr aus der NS-Zeit. Später erfuhr ich von einem Kollegen, dass gerade zur Einrichtung der ,Schuhprüfstrecke” doch Dokumente vorhanden sind. Auch im Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin erlebte ich eine herbe Enttäuschung. Dort liegt das Unternehmensarchiv der Firma Fagus, eines Schuhleistenherstellers. Als dem zuständigen Sachbearbeiter klar wurde, dass ich über die KZ-Forschungen der Firma arbeitete, erklärte er mir plötzlich mitten in der Benutzung der Archivalien, er sei krank geworden und könne nun keine weiteren Akten mehr aus dem Magazin holen. Die Benutzung wurde von Seiten der Archivleitung einfach abgebrochen, ohne weitere Begründung.
I am the last person to criticise a German for writing nonsense in their current political situation in order to safeguard their career prospects, but is it really necessary hold ordinary citizens, who are just trying to run a business, up to ignominy; simply in order to obscure the lack of a documentary basis for their phantasmagorical histories?
MI9: The British secret service that fostered escape and evasion 1939-1945 and its American counterpart by MRD Foot and JM Langley, pp154-155
Sachsenhausen concentration camp
At Sachsenhausen, he found himself with 3 other survivors of the ‘Great Escape’ (Harry Day, Johnnie Dodge and Bertram James) and was placed in Sonderlager A (Special Camp A) within the main camp. Here were housed a handful of other ‘political’ prisoners, including SOE agent Peter Churchill, two Russian generals, various other Russians, Poles, Italians and four British soldiers of Irish origin. Later they were joined by British Commando Jack Churchill.
Dowse and James almost immediately began another tunnel, which was kept secret from all non-British personnel. This was completed and used on the night of 23 September 1944, when Dowse, James, Day, Dodge and Jack Churchill escaped.
He paired up with Day, and they travelled by train into Berlin, however they were recaptured the next night when hiding in a bombed out house.
Placed in the death cells back at Sachsenhausen, he, as with all the escapers which had been recaught, were only spared execution mainly thanks to Day’s efforts under interrogation.