Arthur Dodd: A British Soldier in Auschwitz

Arthur Dodd: A British Soldier in Auschwitz

Arthur Dodd

Few today will not have heard of Auschwitz. A mere mention of its name conjures up horrific images of evil, suffering and death. It is estimated that 1.1 million people were murdered in the camp, around 90% of who were Jews. Others included Poles, Romani and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and others who the Nazis wanted to dispose of. Most were gassed using the notorious Zyklon B pesticide, while others died of starvation, being worked to death or becoming victims of arbitrary executions. All this, of course, is well-known. What is not so well-known, despite several TV documentaries and a book on the subject, is the fact that British soldiers were held as prisoners of war in a camp attached to Auschwitz III. One of these men was Arthur Dodd.

A native of Northwich in Cheshire, Dodd’s father had served in the British Army in both the Boer War and World War One. Initially, Dodd did not follow in his father’s military footsteps, instead he left school in 1934 to take up an apprenticeship as a mechanic. Several years later, while working for the Weaver Navigation Company, he was involved in an accident that injured his foot. When Dodd finally made the decision to enlist in the army, his foot injury prevented him joining the infantry. Nevertheless, due to the fact he had an HGV licence and his training as a mechanic he was permitted to enter the Royal Army Service Corps.

Following the outbreak of World War Two, Dodd would take part in the retreat to Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation of the BEF from France in 1940. Later, he was posted to North Africa, seeing action at Tobruk. During the battle Dodd was wounded and taken prisoner at Badir, after which he was held as a POW in several overcrowded camps under Italian control. While in one of these camps an audacious breakout was made, but Dodd had not been chosen as one of the men making the escape. To make matters worse, he was ordered to go with a party of prisoners to work in some nearby quarries, much to his disgust. He later recalled: ‘The Geneva Convention strictly forbids forcing PoWs to help the enemy’s war efforts!’, and so he refused to go, for which he received a beating as punishment. Then, in 1943, Dodd suddenly found himself on a transport to Poland, where he became an inmate of a prison camp attached to Auschwitz III.

Auschwitz III, also known as Monowitz, was a slave labour camp servicing the needs of the industrial giant IG Farben. Here the company produced a synthetic rubber known as Buna and liquid fuel, and thus was particularly important to the German war effort. Some 10,000 prisoners at Monowitz were forcibly engaged in this work, most of them Jewish. By 1943, around 1,400 British POWs were imprisoned in the camp.

The horrors associated with Auschwitz were soon witnessed by Dodd almost immediately after his arrival, when he saw an SS man savagely beating a young Jewish girl with a whip. Outraged by what he saw, Dodd attempted to intervene, shouting out to his fellow prisoners ‘Come on lads, I’ve had enough of this bastard!’ In response, the SS man drew his pistol and threatened to shoot Dodd. Faced with death, he stepped away and the SS man continued his abuse of the girl. No one ever saw her again.

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz, including Monowitz

Auschwitz II, more commonly known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, infamously housed the main gas chambers and crematoriums. It was a mere five miles from Monowitz, thus the stench of death and burning bodies could be clearly smelt by Dodd and his fellow POWs. Cyril Quartermaine, another British prisoner, recalled after the war: ‘It was unbelievable. You could see the smoke from the chimneys. Then as you got off the cattle trucks, there was this terrible smell that got on your clothes, into your nose. I’ll never forget it. I still can’t eat most meat to this day.’

Dodd, of course, was a prisoner of war and so was treated differently to the other prisoners at Monowitz. The British POWs were slightly better housed, fed and were given the more skilled jobs. Quartermaine remembered: ‘The Jews had it far worse, of course. We used to give them our Red Cross parcels, sometimes.’ Nevertheless, both Dodd and Quartermaine were witness to numerous acts of brutality committed by the SS against Jews and other prisoners, including many horrific beatings and hangings.

Interestingly, Dodd remembers seeing Oskar Schindler on a visit to Monowitz. He was looking for more Jews to join his workforce at his factory. Nevertheless, Dodd recalled him as just another Nazi war profiteer.

The British POWs were forced to work for IG Farben, and they saw it as an opportunity to attempt sabotage. Having been assigned to work on some pipes, the POWs tried to block them by wedging rocks inside. However, the Germans became suspicious and so they planned to carry out a pressure test on the pipes. A horrified Dodd and his fellow prisoners knew it would give the game away. Fearing savage retribution from the guards, the POWs were relieved when the camp’s air raid siren was sounded.

Dodd recalled: ‘We knew that they had found out what we had done. They had us lined up against a wall to shoot us as soon as the pipes failed the test. I had just said a prayer, when the air-raid siren went and everyone, guards and prisoners, dived into the air raid shelters. We heard a bomb fall and when the raid was over we saw that the only bomb to hit the factory had blown out the wall where the pipes were. God was looking after us that day.’

The IG Farbenwerke at Monowitz

Although the air raid had likely saved Dodd’s life, he almost lost it in another bombing on 20 August 1944. While seeking the safety of an air raid shelter, a bomb exploded near Dodd, killing a number of POWs and injuring him. Some 38 British prisoners died in the raid.

The British POWs, it is claimed, managed to exact revenge on one of the German guards. The SS man had been seen pushing a Jewish prisoner into a cement pit, and so one of the British soldiers decided it was time to see justice done. Dressing up in a striped uniform, the soldier got close to the SS guard and pushed him into a cement pit, where, unnoticed at the time by his colleagues, he met a grizzly end.

Dodd, like many POWs, had constant thoughts of escape on his mind, and incredibly he one day managed to breakout from the camp into the surrounding countryside. For over two weeks he evaded capture with the help of Polish partisans, but eventually the Germans caught him and sent him back to Monowitz. However, during his time outside the wire he had assisted the partisans in blowing up a German factory.

As the war entered its final year, the Red Army drew increasingly close to Auschwitz and so the decision was made to abandon the camp. Unlike the Jews and other prisoners who would be sent to other camps to the west, Dodd and the POWs were told they could either go eastwards towards the Soviet frontline or attempt to go westwards to the Americans. They chose to go west, and in the weeks that followed during their long journey Dodd would again be witness to Nazi war crimes, encountering the frozen bodies of hundreds of Jews who had been shot by the SS during the infamous ‘death marches’. He even heard stories of Russian POWs, who were being deliberately starved by the Germans, resorting to eating the flesh of their dead comrades in a desperate bid to stay alive. Finally, upon reaching the German town of Regensburg, Dodd and his fellow British prisoners were officially liberated.

Returning to Britain after the war, Dodd married and took up a job with British Waterways in his home town of Northwich. His experiences, of course, had changed him forever, and settling back into civilian life was not easy for the former British prisoners of Monowitz. Quartermaine wrote years later: ‘My wife could never read these stories, I still have nightmares to this day. It took me eight years before I even told her where I’d been.’

Prisoners at work in Monowitz

In 1998, Colin Rushton published his book Spectator in Hell, which recounted Dodd’s wartime story and incarceration at Monowitz. Dodd also assisted the BBC in the making of their documentary Auschwitz: The Forgotten Witness by returning to the camp. He tried to claim 14 months back wages from IG Farben, the amount of time he was held in the camp, but they unsurprisingly declined.

After suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some time, Dodd died while in a care home in Cheshire on 17 January 2011, aged 91. He truly had been a ‘spectator in hell’.