The rescue action begins
The Swedish rescue action was to be carried out by the Swedish Red Cross, so much was ready. Some problems remained though. The Red Cross had neither resources nor personnel for an operation of this type. It required an organisation that could work in a belligerent country. This required special knowledge. The problem was solved when the army supplied personnel and material.
After the government decision the head of the army, lieutenant general Douglas, was assigned to organise a detachment. This body was made up of professionals and conscripts who volunteered. As it wasn’t possible for military personnel to act in a belligerent country, they would be free from duty under the duration of the rescue action. They would officially be Red Cross volunteers in the detachment.
Gathering in Hässleholm on March 8 the detachment consisted of three ambulance platoons with 12 buses each, one transport platoon with 12 lorries, a supply service platoon and baggage with cook, workshop and medical supplies. There were a total of 75 vehicles, of which 36 buses, with a manpower of 250 men, which was the number permitted by the Germans. The detachments total transport capacity was approximately 1000 people per trip. In shorter trips the lorries could be used too, which allowed for the transportation of around 1200 people.
Colonel Gottfrid Björck was appointed head of the operation and a Red Cross delegation of around twenty doctors and nurses accompanied the detachment under the supervision of Red Cross doctor G A Rundberg.
The journey from Hässleholm went in to stages, as there wasn’t space for all the vehicles on the ferry to Copenhagen. The first group went on March 9 and the second on the 10th. Before this the Foreign Ministry ordered the buses painted white. It took all night to paint them. One of the units was all ready loaded on to the Copenhagen ferry so all of Malmö’s painters were called in to get the vehicles painted. The work was finally completed during the voyage over to Denmark.
The Swedish rescue expedition arrived to Friedrichsruh near Hamburg on the 12th-13th of March 1945. Neuegamme camp, where all Scandinavians were to be gathered, was only a few miles away from the Danish border. Plans for how the transportation of the prisoners would be done were drawn up. The platoon lead by Major Sven Frykman was assigned to collect all the Danes and Norwegians from the
Sachsenhausen camp, north of Berlin. The rest of the detachment had a few days to prepare before making the long journey to southern Germany and Austria.
The first trip to Sachsenhausen was made on the 15th of March. The extraction did not go without complications. There were demands that the buses should be driven by German drivers with in the camp, or the prisoners would be forced to walk two kilometers to the outside of the
camp. After long negotiations the Swedish drivers were permitted to drive the buses one at a time each with a German guard.
The buses were escorted by the Gestapo who made sure that the detachment followed all their conditions for the extractions. During the following days ten trips were made to Sachsenhausen. They left Friedrichsruh at 5 p.m. and arrived in the camp at 1 a.m. This was the
safest time to avoid the air raids against Berlin. Between the 16th and 30th of March 2161 prisoners were extracted from Sacsenhausen.
On the 19th of March two columns left for the south of Germany with a total of 24 buses and 134 men. The goal was the camps at Dachau, Mauthausen and Natzweiler. The columns were divided into three. The largest one went to Dachau, whilst the other two went to Mauthausen
and Schömberg. Five days later the buses returned to Neuegamme with 313 Danes and 143 Norwegians from Dachau, 2 Danes and 68 Norwegians from Mauthausen and 33 Norwegians from Natzweiler. They were forced to leave behind 67 prisoners suffering from contagious
3000 Scandinavians were now gathered at the Neuegamme camp, which could no longer receive more prisoners. It was therefore considered necessary to move a few thousand prisoners to other camps. The Germans were not able to arrange this, and demanded that the detachment relocate the prisoners. Colonel Björck was extremely unwilling to agree to this, but considering how the Germans usually transported their prisoners, it was felt that they would be more comfortable on the detachment buses. On the 27th and 28th of March the prisoners were
brought to Walderstädte in Hannover. In return the buses brought back 72 Danes from Hannover-Stöcken. The transports were a shock for the Swedes.
Since the German race policy regarded Danes and Norwegians as “pure Arian” they’d had a more favoured situation than prisoners of other nationalities. The food packets they received through the Red Cross had kept the Scandinavians in quite good condition. The prisoners
transported from Neuegamme were French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish and Russian. They were extremely emaciated and many of them suffered from dysentery. The Gestapo men that accompanied the transports were very brutal to the prisoners and the Swedes found it difficult to
hide their contempt and disgust for the Germans. The prisoners were brought to Braunschweig, Waldenstädte and Warnstedt. What happened to them later has never been established.
More columns left on the 30th of March to collect Danish policemen interned in different camps in the southern Germany. They also managed to bring home many other prisoners, amongst them a number of Norwegians. When all the columns had returned to Neuegamme they had brought back 1251 prisoners.
By the end of March their still remained a number of Danish policemen, the Scandinavian Jews and a number of other prisoners. Around 1700 prisoners were at Neuegamme when the rescue action began and another 600 had been transported there by Germans. By the total evacuation of the Neuegamme camp the Swedish detachment had transported approximately 5000 prisoners (including prisoners accounted for later in this report, such as convicts, Scandinavian women from Ravensbrück and others)
Source: The White Buses. The Swedish Red Cross rescue action in Germany during the Second World War – The Swedish Red Cross, Stockholm, January 2000 /Research: Agneta Greayer and Sonja Sjöstrand/Editing: Martin Wikberg Translation: Annika and Peter Hodgson