In A Nutshell
On April 13, 1945, as they retreated because of the Allies’ advancements, German SS and Luftwaffe troops massacred 1,016 slave laborers by forcing them into a barn and lighting it on fire. It might have gone undiscovered had the US Army not arrived before the Germans could bury all the bodies.
The Whole Bushel
On April 13, 1945, near the northern German town of Gardelegen, German SS and Luftwaffe troops were retreating from the oncoming advance by Allied troops, specifically the US Army. The Germans brought with them 4,000 slave laborers from the SS camp Mittelbau-Dora, a subsidiary of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Their destination was one of the three northern German concentration camps. They were traveling by train until they reached Gardelegen, where they were forced to disembark because of Allied air raid damage done to the rail lines.
Greatly outnumbered, the Germans recruited many of the men in Gardelegen and the surrounding area to help them keep watch over the slave laborers. As they readied to leave, the Germans realized over 1,000 of the prisoners were too sick or too weak to march on foot, and they needed a solution. Gerhard Thiele, the Nazi party district leader of Gardelegen, suggested they kill those who could not continue. (His reasoning: If they were freed by the advancing US Army, the prisoners would seek retribution on the civilians of Gardelegen.) So the Germans took them to a large barn on nearby estate. They proceeded to barricade the doors and pile gasoline-soaked straw around the barn. Then it was lit it on fire.
Every prisoner brought to the barn was killed. Most of them burned to death, and the ones who tried to successfully burrow underneath the walls were shot by the Germans, who encircled the barn while it burned to ensure no one escaped. (Despite these measures, a few prisoners managed to survive both the fire and the shootings.) Once they were content that all of the prisoners were deceased, the Germans and their auxiliary troops went back to Gardelegen to sleep. They returned the next day to try and cover up the massacre.
They would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for the swift advancement of the 102nd Infantry Division of the US Army. The Germans surrendered to them on April 14, having managed to only bury 586 of the bodies. The following day, the extent of the Gardelegen Massacre was discovered by the Americans and, on April 25, a ceremony was held in the deceased prisoners’ honor. In addition, Colonel George Lynch addressed the German population of Gardelegen, many of whom probably assisted the Germans: “Some will say that the Nazis were responsible for this crime. Others will point to the Gestapo. The responsibility rests with neither—it is the responsibility of the German people.” The only man who was charged concerning the events of the Gardelegen Massacre was SS-Untersturmführer Erhard Brauny, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1947, although he died shortly after in 1950.