Sylt SS camp
- Country: Alderney, The Channel Islands
- GPS: 49° 42' 17.5788 N, -2° 13' 4.1988 W,
- Address: To the south of Alderney Airport , immediately north of Vallee des Gaudulons and Val L ’Emauve
- Operational: 01/03/1943 - 01/06/1944
- Labourers Imprisoned at Sylt SS camp: Sylwester Kukula, Konstantin Zhurbin,
By Caroline Sturdy Colls and Kevin Colls
Between January and February 1943, Sylt labour camp was ‘cleared of inmates’, leaving behind a reduced contingent of its original OT labour force.1 According to OT Haupttruppführer Johann Hoffmann, between 100-120 men were split equally between two other camps – Helgoland and Norderney.2 These departures marked the start of a new phase in Sylt’s development – as an SS concentration camp.
On the 3rd and 5th of March 1943, SS Baubrigade 1 (SS BB1) – a building brigade comprising of prisoners sent via the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Neuengamme in Germany – arrived on Alderney on a boat called Robert Müller 8.3 It was the aspiration of the Nazi administration that this unit would increase the number of construction outputs, as well as their quality. However, SS BB1 also simultaneously functioned as a penal unit and being a member of it was a form of punishment. These prisoners were housed at Sylt SS Camp.
The arrival of SS BB1 on Alderney – identifiable by their ‘striped pyjamas’ – was noted by many inmates from the OT camps who gave their testimonies after liberation.4 Like concentration camp prisoners elsewhere in Europe, inmates were forced to wear triangles on their uniforms indicating their prisoner classification, something which provided further detail about their supposed misdemeanours; red for political prisoners, green for serious criminal offences, black for ‘workshy’ individuals and purple for conscientious objectors (commonly this included Jehovah’s Witnesses).5
At local level, the Baubrigade – and ultimately SS Sylt where they were held on Alderney – were overseen by the SS Death’s Head Unit (SS-Totenkopfverbände), a group known for their brutal treatment of concentration camp inmates and their strict discipline.6 The first Camp Commandant of Sylt and head of BB1 was SS Untersturmführer Maximillian List. Along with his deputy, SS Untersturmführer Kurt Klebeck, List was a long-serving SS officer. Both men had led SS BB1 in Düsseldorf and Duisburg before their arrival on Alderney.7 List was an architect by training and a decorated soldier for his services in Russia in 1941.8 He had been an SS member since 1930 and spent time working in Neuengamme concentration camp.
Although the initial purpose of Sylt was to house SS BB1 prisoners, the camp also became a workers’ education camp (Arbeitserziehungslager) for OT forced labourers arrested on Alderney. Witnesses reported that the SS used to go into the OT labour camps and roundup prisoners who would be taken to Sylt.9 Because of the lack of a ‘normal German penal establishment’ on Alderney, Sylt took on the role of a prison.10
The prisoner population in Sylt and SS BB1 was far from static. Several transports to and from Alderney, coupled with the deaths that occurred, meant that the total number of inmates fluctuated between early March 1943 and the final evacuation of the camp in June 1944.
When the administration of Sylt was transferred from the OT to the SS at the beginning of March 1943 and the number of prisoners increased, the camp consequently evolved architecturally and operationally. These changes have been fully investigated through a programme of non-invasive archaeological investigations at the site and archival research, which included topographic survey (using LiDAR, drone photogrammetry, DGPS and Total Station) as well as Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and resistance survey.
Thirteen buildings already existed at the site based on developments that had occurred at the end of 1942 under the OT camp administration, but new structures were immediately required. The transition to a fully operational and architecturally complete concentration camp took some months and the SS BB1 prisoners were transported to Sylt long before this work was complete.
By the time the concentration camp was complete, the architecture of the site had changed dramatically, increasing the number of buildings fivefold from its original size. In making this transition from a labour to a concentration camp, Sylt joined a group of camps across Europe whose operations and architecture were modified to account for their revised function in 1943 and 1944.11
At Sylt, the architectural changes to the camp were designed to allow the SS to control, punish and torture individuals en masse. Many of these changes had the hallmarks of other SS concentration camps in Europe. Others were tailored to (or made use of) the local geography of Alderney as additional means to exert further influence over the prisoners and provide a more practical solution for the camp’s operations. What is evident is that several locales within the built and natural environment became sites of violence and oppression.
Starting with the overall layout of the camp: when the SS arrived, high barbed-wire fences were erected to enclose Sylt and divide it into different zones. Witnesses report that the SS prisoners had to cover the internal camp wall with stones, and this was confirmed during archaeological investigations at the site. Strategically positioned sentry posts and guard positions for SS men provided the means to monitor movement in and out of the entire compound. An outer electrified fence prevented unwanted entry or exit.12
When Sylt was expanded, two zones were created, segregating the prisoners from the SS living space. Between the two zones – presumably to obscure the view – the fence was higher due to the presence of a stone-wall base. The buildings that formed part of the original Sylt labour camp – which included a kitchen, stables, storerooms, ablution blocks, a construction office and prisoners’ barracks – were incorporated into the heavily guarded prisoner compound when the SS arrived. The SS area of the camp was also a place where socialising took place and both the German military and OT personnel stationed elsewhere on the island were regular visitors.13
Additional buildings were constructed to house the increased prisoner population. All but one of the aforementioned sentry posts were built around the edge of the prisoner compound. Additional fences separated different parts of the SS area, acting as further security against contact with prisoners as they passed to leave the camp via the main gate. Entering and exiting the prisoner area was achieved through a second gateway between the inner and outer compound. These gateposts survive today, demonstrating that this entrance comprised of a smaller pedestrian access gate and a larger gate through which wider columns of prisoners, vehicles and horses (housed in the adjacent stables) could pass.
Post-liberation photographs show that the prisoner barracks were wooden huts with corrugated roofs, consistent with the huts in the other camps on the island and many other camps in mainland Europe. Camouflage patterns were painted onto their wooden exteriors.14 Airborne LiDAR survey has demonstrated that the foundations of at least six of these buildings survive beneath the vegetation that now exists at the site. This data has shown that the barracks measured 28m by 8m so each inmate would therefore have had ‘a maximum of only 1.49m² of space per person; maximum because of the large, private room that existed for the Kapo who resided in each building’.15
Daily life in the prisoner compound
During the SS period, a total of ten prisoner barracks existed in the camp alongside a sickbay, toilets and bathhouse. If the reports of some guards who visited Sylt are to be believed, then ‘the concentration camp prisoners’ barracks were noticeably clean and comfortable’.16 In fact, Karl Hoffman, the former Island Commander, reported that Sylt was ‘in sanitary respects as well as from a technical point of view the best of all the working camps I have seen during the war; clean, good blankets, sheets, flowers and military order’.17 It should be noted, however, that these guards made these observations during organised visits to the camp when the SS may have been trying to profess the superiority of their camp compared to others on the island.
The architecture of the camp, and the recollections of the prisoners that lived in it, differ considerably from this idealistic impression. Sofsky has argued, ‘in the concentration camp, the principle that holds sway is that of the condensed and segmented mass’ and this was certainly true at Sylt.18 As Wernegau describes ‘in my barrack there were around one hundred and fifty men, or perhaps a few more. There were approximately this many in every hut. We prisoners slept on two tiers, one above the other. We had straw blankets and throughout the time on Alderney we suffered terribly from lice. In the end we became so phlegmatic about it that we didn’t even care.’19 It is perhaps not surprising therefore that an outbreak of typhus occurred in Sylt during the SS period.20
Two separate toilet blocks existed within the prisoner compound, and the foundations of one of these was cleared of vegetation during the archaeological survey of the site. In this building, which is situated on the east side of the camp, toilets and the bathhouse were in the same building. The toilets consisted of a concrete tank over which ‘wooden seats with holes’ were built, providing places for sixteen persons. Similar examples survive at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Overall, these facilities would have been inadequate for the number of inmates housed in the camp (1,000+) and were highly unsanitary due to the common problem of waste overflowing from the concrete tank.21 As in the other camps, inmates were therefore confronted with excrement daily.22
When camp inmates fell ill or suffered an injury at Sylt, they could theoretically be sent to a sickbay. This building existed at the northern end of the prisoner compound. However, it was another simple wooden barrack (rather than a well-insulated building), prisoner-ran and poorly stocked, meaning that the standard of care received was minimal.23 On average fifty to sixty inmates were in the sickbay each day, suffering from everything from infectious diseases, and injuries sustained at work, to the effects of poisonous plants and exhaustion.24 Former inmate Helmut Knöller described how this building became so full that many sick people had to stay outside until they could be seen or, more commonly, until they died.25 One of the doctors, Gommert Krijger, recalled how he was not allowed to admit inmates who had been beaten by the guards; doing so was tantamount to a death sentence for him and his colleagues.26
Leo Ackermann reported that ‘several attempts to escape by concentration camp prisoners’ were made during his time on the island, resulting in them being shot by the SS.27 Guards received ‘honourable recognition’ for killing prisoners who tried to escape.28 Ironically, as well as being a no-go zone, the fence became somewhere that prisoners were often encouraged to venture by the guards so that they could (justifiably in the eyes of the SS) be shot or beaten for trying to escape.29 Sometimes bread or other foodstuffs were thrown over a ‘forbidden line’ by the guards and those who went to get it were shot or had dogs set upon them.30
This approach was commonly used by SS guards at other concentration camps in Europe.31 Death records held in Neuengamme confirm that ‘shot trying to escape’ was listed as a cause of death for thirteen inmates of Sylt and further deaths of this nature were likely not recorded.32 The fence around the concentration camp was also used as a place of punishment. Otto Tauber, a German soldier who was arrested and sent to Sylt, recalls how he witnessed four men being tied to the barbed wire fence and whipped as punishment for stealing a lamb and eating it.33 Like the fences, camp gates had more than just a practical function in terms of controlling movement in and out of the camp. Francisco Font recalls that ‘while doing jobs in Alderney…we were near Sylt one day where we saw a Russian strung up on the main gate. On his chest he had a sign on which was written: “for stealing bread”. His body was left hanging like this for four days.’34
A British intelligence report provides further examples of how the gates were used as places of punishment, torture and death: ‘any Russian defaulter was liable to transfer to this camp. One such was crucified on the camp gate, naked and in midwinter. The German guards threw buckets of cold water over him all night until he was dead. Another was caught by bloodhounds when attempting to stow away to the mainland. He was hanged and crucified on the same gate. His body was left hanging on the gate for 5 days as a warning.’35
These are not the only examples. According to Russian forced labourer Georgi Kondakov, a man called Abdullah – who was presumably one of the North African workers who must have been sent to Sylt as a form of punishment – was also crucified on the camp gate after he tried to escape.36 This strategy, of displaying both the living and the dead as a ‘spectacular form of communication, to express the Germans’ ability to discipline those who resisted’, was commonly used in camps throughout the Third Reich.37 Wernegau also witnessed the shooting of three ‘extremely sick Russians’ who, after being ‘left to lie in the camp for several days’ without food, were killed by the main gate.38
Other buildings in the camp offered some hope of salvation for prisoners. For example, according to witness accounts, the laundry offered the possibility of a safer working environment for some prisoners, and they could also receive rewards for satisfactorily preparing the SS men’s’ clothing.39
For the prisoners in Sylt, food was ever-present psychologically but physically scarce. The kitchen within the prisoner compound was where their meagre rations were prepared. Traces of the kitchen still survive today, although the above-ground structure was partially demolished by the Germans and then removed completely after liberation.40 A cellar used for food storage survives, complete with fixtures for hanging meat and other foodstuffs. The kitchen measured approximately 19.5m by 6m and reportedly housed a clothing store. Thus, it was much smaller than the kitchen for the SS (which measured at least 22.48m x 12.19m), despite the fact that food for c.1,000 people was being prepared here (compared to a maximum of eighty in the SS area).41 The cellar was equally minimal. The small size of these buildings echoes the equally inadequate rations that the prisoners were given.
Otto Spehr reported that breakfast was not always given to everyone, and lunch consisted of ‘watery soup with a bit of cabbage, pieces of turnips or similar, a bit of speck [ham] and some potatoes’.42 Dinner was one slice of bread, 10g of margarine and a slice of sausage or cheese and they received ‘a beverage, which they [the SS] called coffee’. Hence, the minimal amount of food that prisoners received was compounded by its blandness and this diet was certainly not sufficient for men who were forced to work an average of twelve hours a day on heavy construction projects.43
As in many SS sub-camps elsewhere in Europe, malnutrition was a common cause of death and illness at Sylt.44 Evidence contained within British investigative files demonstrate that punishments for inmates trying to acquire extra food were particularly harsh. If a prisoner was found to be hiding food, the guards were reportedly allowed to shoot them in the hands.45
Closure of the camp
The Allied landing in Normandy and the fall of Cherbourg in early June 1944 led to the decision to evacuate the SS prisoners from Sylt and close the camp.46 The German leadership both on and off the island had already expressed that no prisoners should fall into enemy hands or escape; both of which appeared more likely after these military actions.47 The inmates were told in no uncertain terms by the Camp Commandant that ‘before we die, you have to die’.48
Prior to the evacuation, some of the buildings were damaged – mostly in the prisoner area – although a good number remained when the island was liberated. Photographs taken by the British investigators reveal that some of the structures were intact whilst others (like the kitchen in the prisoners’ area) were almost destroyed.49 After the British residents of Alderney returned to the island in December 1945, the camp buildings were sold off or used for firewood. One surviving hut remained until 1970 when a fire destroyed it.50 The site was then incorporated into Alderney’s airport in the 1980s and a direction-finding tower was built. When the airport boundaries were later redefined, the former site of Sylt was sold to multiple private landowners and became overgrown. Only a plaque erected by former camp inmate Kukuła in 2008 and the few concrete traces that are visible through the vegetation provide an indication of the crimes perpetrated there.51 Many of these surviving buildings were uncovered by vegetation clearance works undertaken as part of archaeological surveys at the site in 2013 and 2015. As already discussed, the non-invasive survey has shown that many traces also remain beneath vegetation and beneath the ground, contrary to the belief that the site was destroyed post-war.
1 TNA, WO311/13, ‘Statement of Johann Burbach’, 28 May 1945; Ivan Kolchanov and Alexei Pjanov stated that they remained in the camp along with other labourers in a separate section to the SS inmates. They were cited in B. Bonnard, The Island of Dread in the Channel: Story of Georgi Ivanovitch Kondakov (Stroud: Amberley Publishing Limited, 1991),
2 TNA, WO311/13, ‘Statement by OT Frontführer Johann Hoffmann’, 1 August 1945.
3 IA-G, AQ875/03, ‘Testimony of the K. Hinrichsen, Captain of the Ship “Robert Muller 8”, 15 June 1945.
4 For example, see Bonnard. The Island of Dread in the Channel, p.73-74; Francisco Font in S. Steckoll, The Alderney Death Camp (London, Granada,1982), pp.76.
5 TNA, KV4/78, ‘Copy of report to IO I9B) HQ Force from Sjt Bennet, Alderney’, 23 May 1945.
6 K. Orth, ‘The Concentration Camp Personnel’ in J. Caplan and N. Wachsmann (eds), Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories. (London, Routledge, 2004), pp.46.
8 TNA, WO199/3303, ‘Document relating to wanted persons in connection with Alderney’, 8 June 1945; P. Sanders, The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation (Jersey, Jersey Heritage Trust, 2005), pp.196.
9 Georgi Kondakov in Bonnard, The Island of Dread, p.83.
10 Pantcheff, Alderney: Fortress Island, p.32.
11 For other examples, see D. Pohl, ‘Krakau-Plaszow Main Camp’ in Megargee (ed.), The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos p.862-867 and Radom Szkolna Street in E. Zegenhagen, ‘Radom (AKA Radom Szkolna Street)’ in Megargee (ed.), The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos p.892-893.
12 Georgi Kondakov in Bonnard, The Island of Dread : Story of Georgi Ivanovitch Kondakov (Stroud: Amberley Publishing Limited, 1991).
13 Fings, ‘Alderney (Kanalinsel) (SS -BB1)’, p.1361.
14 StA-HH, IV AR 404-4 57/67, ‘Testimony of Jan Wojtas’, 1 May 1945.
15 AGK, 19396, ‘Sylt camp’, undated.
16 C. Sturdy Colls, J. Kerti and K. Colls. ‘Tormented Alderney’, p.527.
17 TNA, WO311/106, Statement of Bauleiter Leo Ackermann, 8 June 1945.
18 TNA, WO311/13, ‘Statement by Karl Hoffman’, 2 September 1945.
19 Sofsky, The Order of Terror, p.61.
20 Wilhelm Wernegau in Steckoll, The Alderney Death Camp, p.75.
21 TNA, WO311/106, ‘Alderney concentration camp’, 24 March 1947.
22 TNA, CRES35/1768, ‘Committee of Enquiry on Alderney’ July 1945.
23 T. Des Pres. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), (pp. 55–80).
24 TNA, WO311/11, ‘Statement of PW B167457 St, Arzt Hans J. Hodeige’, 7 August 1945; Pantcheff, Alderney Fortress Island, p.33.
25 G. Krijger cited in Vanaker, The Striped at Alderney, p.15.
26 AG-NG, 1274, ‘Helmut Knöller’, 27 October 1944.
27 G. Krijger cited in Vanaker, The Striped at Alderney, p.15.
28 TNA, WO311/106, ‘Statement of Bauleiter Leo Ackermann’, 8 June 1945.
29 AG-NG, 13_7_5_5_1_SS_Baubrigade 1, ‘Geständnis des SS-H.Scharf, Högelow, Lagerführer einer Baubrigarde eines Koz. Lager’, May 1945; ITS, 126.96.36.199/82150564, ‘Liste der SS-Angörigen, die im Konzentrationslager Sachsenhausen als Blockführer und Werkmeister in den Jahren 1940-45 Dienst getan haben’, undated.
30 TNA, WO311/13, ‘Report No. PWIS(H)/KP/704 on Alderney Atrocities No. 2’, 18 July 1945; TNA, WO311/12, ‘Statement of Werner Trautvetter’, 1945.
32 Examples of prisoners being shot trying to escape in other Nazi slave labour camps are included in Buggeln, Slave Labor in Nazi Concentration Camps, p.208-209.
33 AG-NG, ‘Totenbuch’, Misc. Dates.
34 IA, AQ875/03, ‘Statement of Otto Tauber’, 7 June 1945.
35 JA, L/D/25/L/65, ‘Francisco Font’, undated.
36 TNA, WO106/5248B, ‘M.I.19 (R.P.S.) 2253, Report, Channel Islands, Alderney’, 5 July 1944.
37 Georgi Kondakov in Bonnard, The Island of Dread, p.81.
38 M. McConnell, “Lands of Unkultur: Mass Violence, Corpses, and the Nazi Imagination of the East” in É Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus (eds.), Destruction and Human Remains: Disposal and Concealment in Genocide and Mass Violence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), pp.77; Sofsky, The Order of Terror, p.220-222; For an example at Treblinka labour camp, see C. Sturdy Colls (forthcoming),Finding Treblinka.
39 Wilhelm Wernegau in Steckoll, The Alderney Death Camp, p.78.
40 AZ, Interview za199, Kukuła, Sylwester, 7 November 2005, https://archiv.zwangsarbeit-archiv.de
41 RAF Museum, PC98/173/6057/6.
42 C. Sturdy Colls, J. Kerti and K. Colls. ‘Tormented Alderney’, p.527.
43 IWM, MISC 2826 189/1, Tape 4496, ‘Testimony of Otto Spehr’, undated.
44 IA, AQ875/03, Regular Report about the Crimes on the Island of Alderney’, 27 July 1945.
45 Buggeln, Slave Labor in Nazi Concentration Camps, p.86.
46 TNA, WO311/12, ‘Statement of Josef Mersteiner’, 20 May 1945.
47 IWM, MISC 2826 189/1, Tape 4496, ‘Testimony of Otto Spehr’, undated.
48 Private Collection of Ian Sayer; ‘RFSS, Tgb. Nr 1722/43, 19 August 1943’ cited in Pantcheff, ‘Britain’s Only SS- Concentration Camp’, p.35; TNA, WO311/12, ‘Besondere Anordnungen Nr. 4’, 10 May 1944.
49 AG-NG, 13_7_5_5_1_SS_Baubrigade 1, ‘Geständnis des SS-H.Scharf, Högelow, Lagerführer einer Baubrigarde eines Koz. Lager’, May 1945.
50 RAF, PC98/173/6057/6 and PC98/173/320/02, ‘The remains of Lager Sylt, Alderney’, May 1945.
51 Bonnard, Alderney at War, p.72.
52 L. Vanaker (ed), The Striped at Alderney (Unpublished manuscript, 2008).
- Cemetery / Mass Grave
- Concentration Camp
- Forced Labour Camp
- Worksite / Fortification