We all know the story. Adolf Hitler issued an order that captured Special Forces men, Commandos, even when in uniform, must be executed. It became a major issue for the defeated Germans at the Nuremberg trials. But why did Hitler make the order? What happened in the background?
The Commando Order actually started with the October 1942 British Operation called Basalt when the British Small-Scale Raiding Force and No. 12 Commando raided the occupied English Channel Isle of Sark. The Small-Scale Raiding Force consisted of 55 men and was under SOE (Special Operations Executive) command. It would be disbanded in 1943, the members dispersed into other elite units.
They were at Sark Island to take prisoners and conduct armed reconnaissance or so their orders stated. To be honest, it is hard to imagine a more worthless effort that had so many negative consequences on others having nothing to do with the raid. It achieved nothing of value and yet caused so much controversy.
The British raiders captured five German soldiers as prisoners, all in uniform, as were they. They tied the prisoners of war hands behind their backs which is entirely understandable. One POW who happened to be naked, as the Germans were captured sleeping, began shouting to alert those still not captured and was shot dead on the spot. That too is understandable. The remaining four were quieted by stuffing grass into their mouths according to one witness. Then as the raiding forces withdrew to the boats they had come with, three of the POWs tried to escape and two were shot dead with another one stabbed to death. The fourth made it back to England to tell what he knew (which was irrelevant, he was Obergefreiter Hermann Weinreich, a low-ranking fellow).
As the sun came up the Germans found the POW bodies with their hands still tied behind their backs. As far as they were concerned a war crime had taken place. It was not an insult that Adolf Hitler would easily let go of. He made the second Commando Order a few days later: “For a long time now, our opponents have been employing in their conduct of war, methods which contravene the International Convention of Geneva. The members of the so-called Commandos behave in a particularly brutal and underhanded manner; and it has been established that those units recruit criminals not only from their own country but even former convicts set free in enemy territories. From captured orders it emerges that they are instructed not only to tie up prisoners, but also to kill out-of-hand unarmed captives who they think might prove an encumbrance to them or hinder them in successfully carrying out their aims. Orders have indeed been found in which the killing of prisoners has positively been demanded of them.
In this connection it has already been notified in an Appendix to Army Orders of 7.10.194, that in future, Germany will adopt the same methods against these Sabotage units of the British and their Allies; i.e. that, whenever they appear, they shall be ruthlessly destroyed by the German troops.
I order, therefore: — From now on all men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs, with or without arms; and whether fighting or seeking to escape; and it is equally immaterial whether they come into action from Ships and Aircraft, or whether they land by parachute. Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given. On this matter a report is to be made on each case to Headquarters for the information of Higher Command.
Should individual members of these Commandos, such as agents, saboteurs etc., fall into the hands of the Armed Forces through any means – as, for example, through the Police in one of the Occupied Territories – they are to be instantly handed over to the SD.
To hold them in military custody – for example in POW Camps, etc., – even if only as a temporary measure, is strictly forbidden.
This order does not apply to the treatment of those enemy soldiers who are taken prisoner or give themselves up in open battle, in the course of normal operations, large-scale attacks; or in major assault landings or airborne operations. Neither does it apply to those who fall into our hands after a sea fight, nor to those enemy soldiers who, after air battle, seek to save their lives by parachute.
I will hold all Commanders and Officers responsible under Military Law for any omission to carry out this order, whether by failure in their duty to instruct their units accordingly, or if they themselves act contrary to it.”
The question here is, were the captured Germans at Sark Island murdered as claimed? It depends on who you believe. Certainly, the commandos had to go down a cliff with them to the waiting boats. It would have been easier to kill the prisoners than to do that. However, one was taken down alive and not killed. As it is, we just don’t know. The Brits never admitted to any wrongdoing ever taking place.
During the 1942 Dieppe Raid, a massive failure conducted mostly by crack Canadian troops with a very small US Ranger group attached, German prisoners of war were also tied. In retaliation, the Germans shackled 1,376 Canadian prisoners of war whereupon the Canadians did the same with German soldiers being held in Canadian camps. This was heading for further calamity until the neutral Swiss intervened, negotiating a truce, so to speak. Both sides stopped their silliness.
Much later in the war, Hitler threatened to abuse and murder captured Allied aircrew as “air pirates” for bombing civilians. The German Luftwaffe senior officers refused; they knew that their own captured aircrew would then be murdered by the Allies in retaliation.
This is exactly what would happen during the coming Vietnam War. The captured US pilots were treated as air pirates/criminals and not prisoners of war by the North Vietnamese. However, no formal declaration of war existed between the two belligerents as did between Nazi Germany and the USA, a crucial difference in law.
The Sark Island raid caused the second death order issued by the Germans. The first was issued by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt on July 21, 1942, stating that all captured parachutists must be handed over to the Gestapo. That came down to a murder directive. We know what the Gestapo did to their prisoners. The soldiers would be treated not as prisoners of war but as spies and criminals.
These death orders went on trial at Nuremberg and correctly found to be war crimes. Those guilty were punished harshly. They could not claim that the other side did so too or that they were following orders. That excuse/defense was removed from the war crime trials. You would have noted that failure to follow Hitler’s death order was a crime in itself according to the wording, “I will hold all Commanders and Officers responsible under Military Law for any omission to carry out this order, whether by failure in their duty to instruct their units accordingly, or if they themselves act contrary to it.”
Yet, where the initial order is illegal then that what follows from it will be illegal too. How many Allied soldiers died because of these illegal death orders is not known but is reckoned to be in the upper hundreds. There is no excuse for such things. Decency alone demanded respect for the law.