The Commando Order (German: Kommandobefehl) was issued by Adolf Hitler on 18 October 1942 stating that all Allied commandos encountered by German forces in Europe and Africa should be killed immediately without trial, even in proper uniforms or if they attempted to surrender. Any commando or small group of commandos or a similar unit, agents, and saboteurs not in proper uniforms, who fell into the hands of the German military forces by some means other than direct combat (through the police in occupied territories, for instance) were to be handed over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, Security Service). The order, which was issued in secret, made it clear that failure to carry out these orders by any commander or officer would be considered to be an act of negligence punishable under German military law. This was in fact the second "Commando Order", the first being issued by Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt on 21 July 1942, stipulating that parachutists should be handed over to the Gestapo. Shortly after World War II, at the Nuremberg Trials, the Commando Order was found to be a direct breach of the laws of war, and German officers who carried out illegal executions under the Commando Order were found guilty of war crimes.
The Commando Order mentioned violations of the Geneva Conventions by Allied commando troops and cites these violations as justification for the order. It is widely believed that occurrences at Dieppe and on a small raid on the Channel Island of Sark by the Small Scale Raiding Force (with some men of No. 12 Commando) brought Hitler's rage to a head.
On 19 August 1942, during this raid, a Canadian brigadier took a copy of the operational order ashore against explicit orders. The order was subsequently discovered on the beach by the Germans and found its way to Hitler. Among the dozens of pages of orders was an instruction to 'bind prisoners'. The orders were for the Canadian forces participating in the raid, and not the commandos. Bodies of shot German prisoners with their hands tied were allegedly found by German forces after the battle.
On the night of 3–4 October 1942, ten men of the British Small Scale Raiding Force and No. 12 Commando (attached) made an offensive raid on the isle of Sark, called Operation Basalt, to reconnoitre, and take some prisoners.:26
During the raid, five prisoners were taken. To minimize the task of the guard left with the captives, the commandos tied the prisoners' hands. According to the British personnel, one prisoner allegedly started shouting to alert those in a hotel, and was shot dead.:28 The remaining four prisoners were silenced by stuffing their mouths, according to Anders Lassen, with grass. En route to the beach, three prisoners made a break. Whether or not some had freed their hands during the firefight has never been established, nor is it known whether all three broke at the same time. Two are believed to have been shot and one stabbed. The fourth was conveyed safely back to England. Officially-sanctioned German military accounts of the time assert unequivocally that the dead German soldiers were found with their hands bound, and later German military publications make many references to captured Commando instructions ordering the tying of captives' hands behind them, and the use of a particularly painful method of knotting around the thumbs to enable efficient, coercive, single-handed control of the captive.
German response and escalation
A few days after the Sark raid, the Germans issued a propaganda communiqué implying that at least one prisoner had escaped and two were shot while resisting having their hands tied. They also claimed this 'hand-tying' practice was used at Dieppe. Subsequently, on October 9, Berlin announced that 1376 Allied prisoners (mainly Canadians from Dieppe) would henceforth be shackled. The Canadians responded with a like shackling of German prisoners in Canada.
This tit-for-tat shackling continued until the Swiss achieved agreement with the Canadians to desist on December 12, and with the Germans some time later after they received further assurances from the British. However, before the Canadians ended the policy, an uprising of German POWs occurred at Bowmanville POW camp. At any rate, by this time many German camps had abandoned the pointless practice or reduced it to merely leaving a pile of shackles in a prison billet as a token.
On October 7, Hitler personally penned a note in the Wehrmacht daily communiqué:
In future, all terror and sabotage troops of the British and their accomplices, who do not act like soldiers but rather like bandits, will be treated as such by the German troops and will be ruthlessly eliminated in battle, wherever they appear.
On October 18 after much deliberation by High Command lawyers, officers and staff, Hitler issued his Commando Order or Kommandobefehl in secret, with only 12 copies. The following day Army Chief of Staff Alfred Jodl distributed copies with an appendix stating that the order was "intended for commanders only and must not under any circumstances fall into enemy hands." The order itself stated that:
- 1. For a long time now our opponents have been employing in their conduct of the 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.
- 2. In this connection it has already been notified in an Appendix to Army Orders of 7.10.1942. 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.
- 3. 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.
- 4. 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 P.O.W. Camps, etc., – even if only as a temporary measure, is strictly forbidden.
- 5. 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.
The Commando Order was invoked to order the death of an unknown number of Allied special operations forces and behind-the-lines operators of the OSS, SOE, and other special forces elements. "Commandos" of these types captured were turned over to German security and police forces and transported to concentration camps for execution. The Gazette citation reporting the awarding of the G.C. to Yeo-Thomas describes this process in detail.
- The first victims were seven officers of Operation Musketoon, who were shot in Sachsenhausen on the morning of 23 October 1942.
- In November 1942, British survivors of Operation Freshman were executed.
- In December 1942, Royal Marine commandos captured during Operation Frankton were executed under this order. After the captured Royal Marines were executed by a naval firing squad in Bordeaux, the Commander of the Navy Admiral Erich Raeder wrote in the Seekriegsleitung war diary that the executions of the Royal Marines were something "new in international law since the soldiers were wearing uniforms". The American historian Charles Thomas wrote that Raeder's remarks about the executions in the Seekriegsleitung war diary seemed to be some sort of ironic comment, which might have reflected a bad conscience on the part of Raeder.
- On 30 July 1943, the captured seven-man crew of the Royal Norwegian Navy motor torpedo boat MTB 345 were executed by the Germans in Bergen, Norway on the basis of the Commando Order.
- January 1944 British Lt William A. Millar escaped from Colditz Castle and vanished; it is speculated he was captured and killed in a KZ Camp
- In March 1944, fifteen soldiers of the U.S. Army, including two officers, landed on the Italian coast as part of an OSS operation codenamed Ginny II. They were captured and executed.
- After the Normandy landings, 34 SAS soldiers and a USAAF pilot were captured during Operation Bulbasket and executed. Most were shot, but three were killed by lethal injection while recovering from wounds in hospital.
- In September 1944 7 British Commandos (along with 40 Dutch members of Englandspiel) were executed over 2 days at KZ Mauthausen Austria
- On 21 November 1944 US airman/POW Lt. Americo S. Gallo was executed at Enschede, Holland by SS Unterscharführer Herbert Germoth by order of SS General Karl Eberhard Schöngarth
- On December 9, 1944 Five US Airmen of the 20th Bombardment Squadron are captured and executed near Kaplitz, Czechoslovakia. Franz Strasser is tried and executed January 2, 1946 for participantion in the killings.
- On December 27, 1944 US Airman/POW Lt Lester J. Epstein is captured near Bastogne, Belgium; in January 1945 his shallow grave is found-his head had been smashed in by rifle butts
- Between October 1944 and March 1945, nine men of the United States Army Air Corps were summarily executed after being shot down and captured in Jurgen Stroop's district. Their known names were Sergeant Willard P. Perry, Sergeant Robert W. Garrison, Private Ray R. Herman, Second Lieutenant William A. Duke, Second Lieutenant Archibald B. Monroe, Private Jimmie R. Heathman, Lieutenant William H. Forman, and Private Robert T. McDonald. When Moczarski reminded him that the killing of POWs was defined as criminal under the Hague and Geneva Conventions, Stroop responded, "It was common knowledge that American flyers were terrorists and murderers who used methods contrary to civilized norms... We were given a statement to that effect from the highest authorities. It was accompanied by an order from Heinrich Himmler." As a result, he explained, all nine POWs had been taken to the forest and given "a ration of lead for their American necks."
- On 24 January 1945, nine OSS men, including Lt. Holt Green of the Dawes mission, and others of the Houseboat mission, and four British SOE agents, and AP war correspondent Joseph Morton were shot at Mauthausen by SS Hauptsturmführer Georg Bachmayer on orders of Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Joseph Morton was the only Allied correspondent to be executed by the Axis during World War II.
- In 1945, Jack Taylor and the Dupont mission were captured by the men of Gestapo agent Johann Sanitzer. Sanitzer asked the RSHA for instructions on a possible deal that Taylor proposed, but Kaltenbrunner's staff reminded him "of Hitler's edict that all captured officers attached to foreign missions were to be executed". Taylor was convicted of espionage, though he claimed to be an ordinary soldier. He was sent to Mauthausen. He survived, barely, but gathered evidence, and was eventually a witness at the war crimes trials.
- On February 13, 1945 8 survivors of a B-17 crash in Austria were captured; 4 survived the war and 4 were executed.
The laws of war as they stood in 1942 were unequivocal on this point: "... it is especially forbidden ... to declare that no quarter will be given". This was established under Article 23 (d) of the 1907 Hague Convention IV - The Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Geneva Convention of 1929, which Germany had ratified, defined who should be considered a prisoner of war on capture — that included enemy soldiers in proper uniforms — and how they should be treated. While at the time under both the Hague and Geneva Conventions, it was legal to execute "spies and saboteurs" disguised in civilian clothes or uniforms of the enemy, insofar as the Commando Order applied to soldiers in proper uniforms, it was in direct and deliberate violation of both the customary laws of war and Germany's treaty obligations. The execution of Allied commandos without trial was also a violation of Article 30 of the 1907 Hague Convention IV - The Laws and Customs of War on Land, provided that: "A spy taken in the act shall not be punished without previous trial." This provision only includes soldiers caught behind enemy lines in disguises, and not those wearing proper uniforms. Soldiers in proper uniforms cannot be punished for being lawful combatants and must be treated as prisoners of war upon capture, except those disguised in civilian clothes or uniforms of the enemy for military operations behind enemy lines.
The fact that Hitler's staff took special measures to keep the Order secret, including the limitation of its printing to only twelve copies, strongly suggests that they knew it to be illegal. He also knew the order would be unpopular with the professional military, in particular the part of the order that stated that the order would stand even if captured commandos were in proper uniforms (in contrast to the usual provision of international law that only commandos disguised in civilian clothes or uniforms of the enemy could be treated as insurgents or spies, as stated in the Ex parte Quirin, the Hostages Trial, and the Trial of Otto Skorzeny and others). The order included measures designed to force military staff to obey despite their lack of enthusiasm.
Some commanders like Rommel had refused to relay this order to their troops, considering it to be contrary to honourable conduct.
After the war, German officers who carried out executions under the Commando Order were found guilty at war crimes trials, including the Nuremberg Trials.
- General Anton Dostler, who ordered the execution of 15 American soldiers of the Ginny II operation in Italy, was sentenced to death and executed on December 1, 1945. His defence that he had only relayed superior orders was rejected at trial.
- The Commando Order was one of the specifications in the charge against Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, who was convicted and hanged.
- Another officer charged with enforcing the Commando Order at Nuremberg was the Commander of the Navy Erich Raeder. Under cross-examination, Raeder admitted to passing on the Commando Order to the Kriegsmarine and to enforcing the Commando Order by ordering the summary execution of captured British Royal Marines after the Operation Frankton raid at Bordeaux in December 1942. Raeder testified in his defense that he believed that the Commando Order was a "justified" order, and that the execution of the two Royal Marines was no war crime in his own opinion. The International Military Tribunal did not share Raeder's view of the Commando Order, convicted him of war crimes for ordering the execution of the Royal Marines, and sentenced him to life imprisonment; he was released in 1955 and died in 1960.
- Another war crimes trial was held in Brunswick (Braunschweig), Germany, against Colonel-General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, Supreme Commander of German forces in Norway 1940–44. The latter was held responsible, among other things, for invoking the Commando Order against survivors of the unsuccessful British commando raid against the Vemork heavy water plant at Rjukan, Norway in 1942 (Operation Freshman). He was sentenced to death in 1946; the sentence was later commuted to 20 years' imprisonment, and he was released in 1953 for reasons of health. He died in 1968.
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- Taylor was forced to work on a crew that built a crematorium. His weight fell to 112 pounds and he developed dysentery. Taylor tried to memorize atrocities told to him by other prisoners, in the mutual hope that he could eventually bring justice to the perpetrators. He survived the camp only because a friendly Czech 'trustee' of the Nazi guards, Milos Stransky, had seen his execution order and burned it. After liberation, he returned to the camp to document and gather evidence, including the 'death books' that recorded made-up and true versions of each prisoner's death. The evidence was later used at war crimes trials. He was also a witness at those trials. The rest of the mission, Graf, Ebbing, and Huppmann, were not technically 'foreign soldiers' so the Commando order probably didn't technically apply to them, although they were sentenced to death for being traitors. They escaped and survived.
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