Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke
Wilhelm Mohnke was an officer in the Waffen SS during the Second World War, who commanded a regiment of the Hitler Youth division during the Battle of Normandy. Despite personal responsibility for atrocities committed on British prisoners of war in 1940, Canadian prisoners in 1944, and US prisoners that same year, he was not brought to justice after the war. He is described by Howard Margolian in his book Conduct Unbecoming as "a brave soldier but a man beset by unspeakable inner demons, which seem to have been exacerbated by his addiction to morphine."1
Wilhelm Mohnke, the son of a cabinet maker, was born in Lübeck, Germany on 15 Mar 1911. His father, whom shared his name with his son, was a cabinet maker. Mohnke worked for glass and porcelain manufacturer after the death of his father, and joined the Nazi Party on 1 Sep 1931, and the SS two months later. He served in several security units and ceremonial guards, and joined the Waffen SS prior to the campaign in Poland, where he served as an infantry company commander. He earned both the Iron Cross Second Class, and the First Class, for his service there.
He still commanded a company of the LSSAH during the invasion of France in 1940, and acting as battalion commander when his CO was wounded. The pressures of his new duties were made evident by his actions on 28 May 1940. A group of about 100 British prisoners were collected at his headquarters near Wormhoudt; Margolian describes Mohnke as "Raving like a madman", and tells us "...he ordered the escorts to turn the prisoners around, herd them into an adjacent field, and shoot them en masse." Eighty British prisoners were killed - an unusual occurence even for the Waffen SS, given that the incident occurred so early in the war, and against western opponents.2
He survived the Battle of France, and served in Yugoslavia in 1941, where as an SS-Sturmbannführer, he sustained serious wounds in an air attack on the first day of fighting and had to have his right foot amputated. He received the German Cross in Gold in Dec 1941. His personal drive and dedication got him through months of painful rehabilitation and he returned to duty with the LSSAH, helping organize the first tank unit, followed by transfer to the Replacement Battalion, where he served from Mar 1942 until transferring to the 12. SS Panzer Division "Hitlerjugend" in Sep 1943 as a regimental commander.
Mohnke was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross in Jul 1944 for his leadership of SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26, which saw heavy combat from 10 Jun in the wake of the Normandy Landing, and again in Jul during the Allied offensives to take Caen. He led a battlegroup formed from remnants of the division during the breakout and escape from the Falaise pocket, and transferred to the LSSAH again, as divisional commander, on 31 Aug 1944, with effective command backdated to 20 Aug. While under his command, a battle group of the LSSAH perpetrated the infamous "Malmedy Massacre" in which 72 US soldiers were gunned down after having surrendered. The US Department of Justice maintains that there is evidence to suggest Mohnke had some responsibility for the crime though he was not present when it occurred. He served with the LSSAH during until early 1945, promoted to SS-Brigadeführer, and then injured in an air raid and suffering ear damage. His last combat posting was as commander of Kampfgruppe Mohnke in Berlin, devoted to defence of the Reich Chancellery, the seat of German government including Hitler's underground bunker.
The Murders in Normandy
Margolians book provides an excellent account of the actions leading up to and including the murders, and uniquely examines the military situation down to the platoon and section level, from the perspective of both the Germans and the Canadians. Mohnke's participation in, and responsiblity for, three separate instances of murder of Canadian soldiers in Normandy is well-chronicled in this account.
Mass Killing on the Caen-Fontenary Road
On 8 June, Mohnke's Regiment had concluded a successfuly counter-attack against troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division - inflicting 256 casualties on the Royal Winnipeg Rifles alone and effectively destroying three of their four rifle companies. But the action had been costly and frustrating. As prisoners were being collected, the town of Putot would actually be retaken by the Canadians. Mohnke, who had received a large number of prisoners (about 100) now heard from one of his battalion commanders that 40 more had been collected. Mohnke expressed some annoyance to the officer and told him not to send back such large numbers of prisoners, which the officer took to mean not to take prisoners at all. The officer refused to act, however, and insisted on sending prisoners back to regimental headquarters. The group was marched (two of them were carried on stretchers) to the rear. An SS officer met the group (difficult to see in the gathering darkness), yelled at the soldier in charge of the escort (and according to one eyewitness may even have threatened him) and left. Soon after this exchange, a group of Germans approached the 40 Canadians, sitting in rows in a field, and turned their machine pistols on them. Thirty-five men were killed, five managed the escape - briefly - and were recaptured by other Germans, and went into captivity as prisoners. They were able to tell the story of the 40 men after their liberation at war's end.
Among those who were killed were:
Margolian presents reasoning in his book that the officer who had spoken to the escort was Mohnke personally and suggests that he had given an order for the prisoners to be murdered. Unfortunately, eye witnesses by the end of the war were difficult to find and insufficient direct evidence for charges could be found. Mohnke's conduct was reminiscent of that he displayed at Wormhoudt, and his actions subsequent to the killings on 8 June further reinforce Margolian's theory.
First Aid Post Murders
Mohnke later visited the command post of the battalion commander who had refused to execute the prisoners, and as he made his displeasure known, an officer of the Panzer Lehr Division arrived, injured, to tell of his mistreatment while briefly in the custody of British soldiers. Mohnke was outraged and ordered his battalion commander to deny quarter in future and execute all prisoners taken by his men in future.
Later on, Mohnke again returned to the battalion command post, just as that battalion's medical officer reported three wounded Canadians had been collected. Mohnke ordered these three prisoners executed and the battalion commander refused. The battalion commander testified after the war that Mohnke was enraged, ordered a supernumerary officer on the battalion commander's staff to carry out the executions, but that officer also refused. Mohnke left in a rage. The battalion commander then took the unusual step of circumventing the chain of command, contacting divisional headquarters for a clarification - had the division been ordered not to take prisoners? The division's chief of staff ensured the officer that no such order had been given, and in fact, encouraged officers in the field to take prisoners as they were often the only source of information on enemy dispositions. Allied mastery of the air over Normandy, for example, prevented aerial reconnaissance. Prisoner interrogations were considered a reliable means of intelligence gathering.
Concerned by the battalion commander's report, the divisional chief of staff contacted regimental headquarters, talking to Mohnke's adjutant and reinforcing the importance of live enemy prisoners and insisting on humane treatment under the terms of the Geneva Convention. In the meantime, Mohnke again telephoned the 2nd Battalion, to find out if his orders had been carried out. The battalion commander was not available to talk on the phone, but Mohnke was informed that his orders had not been carried out. He hung up angrily, Margolian concluding that the orders for the executions now becoming a "matter of honour" in his mind. Mohnke again made a visit to the battalion command post, displaying what Margolian described as "a terrifying display of obsessive behaviour", lectured staff there about insubordination and disloyalty, but again left frustrated when the battalion commander wasn't available to talk to him.
The next morning, the three Canadians had been interrogated and fed, and Mohnke appeared personally at the medical station to again order the same supernumerary officer from the night before to shoot the prisoners. The officer complied, and Private Harold Angel of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, and Riflemen Frederick Holness and Ernest Baskerville were led outside and shot by four Germans with machine pistols, the supernumerary applying a coup de grace to each with his pistol.
Command Post Murders
Mohnke was involved in one last incident on 11 Jun 1944, when Sapper John Ionel and Sapper George Benner of the 6th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers and Private Allan Owens of "B" Company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were marched to Mohnke's regimental headquarters. As the prisoners were searched and personal papers inspected, Mohnke was reportedly angry, and during a 15 minute interrogation Mohnke began to yell and gesture dramatically. The interrogations concluded when the military policemen who had escorted the prisoners to the headquarters moved them thirty yards away, removed the identification tags from the Canadians, and in full view of Mohnke marched the men three hundred yards into a field where they were shot down with machine pistols.
Wilhelm Mohnke had, in Margolian's words, "personally ordered, instigated, or abetted more atrocities" than any other officer in the division.
Mohnke was one of many in Hitler's inner circle who attempted a breakout from Berlin after the death of Hitler and the surrender of the city. He was captured by the Soviets, placed in solitary confinement unitl 1949, then moved to a prison camp for General Officers at Voikovo, 200 miles east of Moscow, until 10 Oct 1955. The Soviet refusal to turn him over to the western Allies was but one tiny act in the political battles of the Cold War. Mohnke, wanted for separate war crimes by the British (France, 1940), Canadians (Normandy, 1944) and Americans (Malmedy, Belgium, 1944), would have faced a much different future had he been tried.
But when he returned to West Germany in 1955, he returned to civil life where he sold small trucks and trailers near Hamburg.
Questions about his war record did not appear until the early 1970s, when the chaplain of the Dunkirk Veterans' Association talked to survivors of the Wormhoudt massacre. Reverend Leslie R. Aitken was so compelled he wrote a book about the subject, and his research brought up Mohnke's name as well as the connection to Normandy war crimes. In 1975, the German agency known as the Central Office of the Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes informed Aitken of Mohnke's whereabouts. Aitken informed the agency that Canada had an arrest warrant for him, still outstanding from 1945, but prosecutors in Lübeck wrote back to report that evidence to try him was insufficient. The case was put on hold, and Aitken was informed that if he could suggest additional evidence, it would be reopened. Aitken then wrote to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who passed the letter to the Judge Advocate General's office in the Department of National Defence. The Directorate of History set to work verifying Aitken's claims, and re-examined the files on Canada's post-war investigation into Mohnke. DND passed their information on to the prosecutors in Germany, but the Judge Advocate General's office bureaucratically opined that there "may exist" reasons why the prosecution had not been pursued after the war - and without stating what those reasons were, declined to follow up. Canada had decided not to act further.
In 1988, a German prosecutor did reopen the Wormhoudt case, but concluded there was insufficient evidence against him.
Wilhelm Mohnke lived to the ripe old age of 90, dying on 6 Aug 2001, never having been prosecuted for the atrocities he is alleged to be responsible for. Controversially, he received a pension from the German government for his injuries, a special "victim pension" awarded under the "Social Compensation And Assistance To War Victims" law (Bundesversorgungsgesetz or BVG).
André Hennicke depicted Wilhelm Mohnke in the German film Der Untergang, about the last days of the Third Reich in Berlin. In the film, Mohnke is shown as a professional and compassionate officer with no hint about his former conduct at Dunkirk or in Normandy. It is true that the film focuses on the events of Apr 1945 and that his earlier conduct is wholly irrelevant to the subject of the film. Nonetheless, Mohnke's sympathetic portrayal seems at odds with the historical figure. While Margolian paints Mohnke (admittedly, perhaps, not without some bias) as a raving madman and drug addict, the character in the film is a square-jawed heroic figure, who not only concentrates his efforts on acquiring medical care for the wounded under his command, but actually, physically carries a wounded man to safety. He expresses concern for the wounded and civilian population on more than one occasion in the film, and points out to Dr. Goebbels that the untrained soldiers being thrown into battle in Berlin are being sacrificed needlessly. His attitude towards the enemies he is fighting are never revealed. Viewers of the film with an understanding of his history have cause to be disappointed with this sympathetic treatment though technically, the character of Mohnke is not inaccurately portrayed. The film makers have chosen to concentrate - wittingly or unwittingly - on aspects of his character other than his temper and attitudes towards illegal killings. Certainly the portrayal of Mohnke as a dedicated professional officer is accurate as there could be little argument about the strength of will he possessed.
David Cesarani (research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London) and Professor Peter Longerich (director of the centre for research on the Holocaust and 20th-century history also at Royal Holloway) wrote the following in the 7 Apr 2005 edition of "The Guardian" newspaper, in an article entitled "The Massaging of History":