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File:Svedish Red Cross buses in Germany WW2, possibly near Friedrichsruh.jpg
Swedish Red Cross buses, possibly near their field headquarters in Friedrichsruh

"White Buses" refers to a program undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government in the spring of 1945 to rescue concentration camp inmates in areas under Nazi control and transport them to Sweden, a neutral country. Although the program was initially targeted at saving citizens of Scandinavian countries, it rapidly expanded to also include citizens of other countries.

All told, the program removed 15,345 prisoners from mortal peril in camps; of these 7,795 were Scandinavian and 7,550 were non-Scandinavian (Polish, French etc.).[1]

The term "white buses" originates from the buses having been painted white with red crosses to avoid confusion with military vehicles.

Inspired by this program, the Norwegian White Buses Foundation organises excursions to Sachsenhausen and to the sites of other concentration camps, for school classes, accompanied by first-hand witnesses and survivors.

Scandinavian prisoners in GermanyEdit

Denmark and Norway were invaded by Germany on April 9, 1940. A number of Norwegians were arrested immediately, and two months later the occupying force established the first prisoners' camp at Ulven outside Bergen.

The tension intensified between the Nazi authorities and the resistance. Consequently, more Norwegians were arrested and detained initially in Norwegian prisons and camps, and increasingly deported to camps in Germany. The first Norwegians arrived at Sachsenhausen on August 29, 1940, but these were released and sent home in December 1940. In the spring of 1941, regular deportations from Norway started.[2]

Arrests in Denmark started with the resignation of the coalition government on August 29, 1943.

The Scandinavian prisoners in Germany were divided into various categories, from the so-called civil interned who lived privately and had a certain freedom, to the Nacht und Nebel prisoners who were destined to work to death. As the number of Scandinavian prisoners increased various groups organised relief work for them. The Norwegian seamen's priests in Hamburg, Arne Berge and Conrad Vogt-Svendsen, visited prisoners, brought them food, and brought letters to their families in Norway and Denmark. Vogt-Svendsen also made contact with the civil interned at "Gross Kreutz", the Norwegian families Hjort and Seip. Together with other Scandinavians the group at Gross Kreutz compiled extensive lists of prisoners and their location. The lists were then sent to the Norwegian government in exile in London through the Swedish embassy in Berlin. In Stockholm the Norwegian diplomat Niels Christian Ditleff engaged himself heavily with the fate of the Scandinavian prisoners. By the end of 1944 there were around 8,000 Norwegian prisoners in Germany, in addition to some 1,125 Norwegian prisoners of war.

On the Danish side Admiral Carl Hammerich had long worked with secret plans for an expedition code-named the "Jyllandskorps" to save Danish and Norwegian prisoners from the German camps. Hammerich had good connections with both the Norwegian seaman's priests, the Gross Kreutz group and with Niels Christian Ditleff in Stockholm. By the beginning of 1945 there were around 6,000 Danish prisoners in Germany. During 1944 the Danes made extensive planning efforts, including registration of prisoners and plans for transporting resources and making available food, shelter and quarantine for the prisoners, if they succeeded in reaching Denmark. Hammerich visited Stockholm in February, April and July 1944 and discussed the plans with Ditleff.

Evacuation or "stay put"?Edit

As the Allied forces by the end of 1944 approached Germany, SHAEF decided what should be done regarding Allied prisoners. Within the Norwegian exile government Major Johan Koren Christie wrote a memorandum September 23; the Norwegian prisoners should "stay put", and wait until they were liberated by the advancing Allied forces. The Gross Kreutz group got to know about this policy a month later and reacted swiftly, with Johan Bernhard Hjort writing a report advising against the proposal. His arguments were that the prisoners risked being murdered and that they had to be rescued from Germany before the country was occupied, and wrote:

'"It is therefore strongly suggested that the Norwegian government considers the possibility that the Swedish government could be induced to intervene to help at least the Norwegian and Danish civil prisoners in Germany, including those in prisons, with the aim of transporting them to Sweden, where they if feasible may stay until the war has ended."</blockquote>

The October 1944 report from Hjort is the first time a Swedish operation for the Scandinavian prisoners is mentioned; the proposal was however initially unfavourably received. Rescuing the prisoners was seen as a Norwegian responsibility and the Norwegian exile government was reluctant to give the Swedes any chance to distinguish themselves at the end of the war.

The energetic diplomat Niels Christian Ditleff in Stockholm refused to accept the guidelines from the Norwegian exile government in London and kept on influencing both single influential Swedes and the Swedish foreign office to have Sweden rescuing Scandinavian prisoners. In September 1944 Ditleff raised the question with Count Folke Bernadotte who was immediately positive about the plan. On November 30 Ditleff handed over his memorandum "Reasons for a Swedish operation for rescuing prisoners" to the Swedish foreign office, but still on his own initiative. On December 29 the Norwegian exile government changed its position and instructed its embassy in Stockholm to discuss the possibility for a Swedish operation targeting the Scandinavian prisoners.

While Ditleff tried to influence the exiled Norwegian government the Danes obtained a German permit to retrieve prisoners. The first ones transported back to Denmark were Danish policemen from Buchenwald and the first transport started on December 5. Until the end of February 1945 the Danes transported home 341 prisoners, most of them ill. These transports gave the Danes valuable experience that would later benefit the "White Buses".

Swedish help to the prisonersEdit

Sweden was the only Nordic country that remained neutral during the Second World War, but its neutrality fluctuated with the war. Until the German defeat at Battle of Stalingrad Sweden was accommodating towards Germany, though after Stalingrad Sweden altered its policy gradually to become closer to the allied forces.

The Baltic German Felix Kersten was Heinrich Himmler's personal masseur, lived in Stockholm and acted as an intermediary between the Swedish foreign department and Himmler. Himmler and his trusted subordinate Walter Schellenberg had long held the view that Germany would lose the war and were examining the possibility of a separate peace treaty with the Western powers; in this Sweden could be a useful intermediary. With the assistance of Kersten the Swedish foreign department was able to free 50 Norwegian students, 50 Danish policemen and 3 Swedes in December 1944. An absolute condition for the release of the prisoners was that it should be hidden from the press; if Hitler got to know about it further repatriations would be impossible.

Ditleff sent a new memorandum February 5, 1945, this time as an official Norwegian request. Sweden was solicited for sending a Red Cross delegation to Berlin to negotiate regarding the Scandinavian prisoners, and if successful to send a Swedish relief expedition. The Swedish foreign minister Christian Günther was in favour, and the Swedish government gave permission for Count Folke Bernadotte, second in command of the Swedish Red Cross,

"to attempt to obtain permission in Germany for the transport to Sweden or Denmark of the interned Norwegian and Danish prisoners."

Folke Bernadotte flew to Berlin on February 16 and had meetings with several Nazi leaders; the foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Sicherheitsdienst, Walter Schellenberg and Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS. Himmler, as Hitler's next in command and the second most powerful person in Nazi Germany, was initially negative to the transportation of prisoners to neutral Sweden. The prisoners could be trained as police troops, as Sweden already did with other Norwegians and Danes. Bernadotte had to fall back to his secondary proposal, that the prisoners should be assembled in one camp so the Swedish Red Cross could support them. Bernadotte told Himmler he estimated the number of Scandinavian prisoners to be around 13,000, while Himmler held it could not be more than two or three thousand.

During a second meeting with Schellenberg on February 21, Bernadotte got word from Himmler that he had accepted the proposal to assemble the Scandinavian prisoners in one camp. During the visit in Berlin Bernadotte also had several meetings with the Gross Kreutz group, Didrik Arup Seip, Conrad Vogt-Svendsen, Wanda Hjort and Bjørn Heger. Bernadotte's secondary proposal to Himmler, that he accepted, was prepared by Heger.

Establishing the expeditionEdit

The foundation for the White Buses expedition were several years of planning and information collection by Danes and Norwegians. This was used by the Swedes without much change. The Swedish Red Cross contacted the Swedish Army that supplied the needed transport capacity. In reality this was

"the Swedish state's expedition –- the personnel was almost entirely volunteers from the armed forces, the equipment was supplied from the armed forces stockpiles and the expenses were covered by the state's coffers."

Composition of the expedition forceEdit

  • 308 personnel, among them about 20 medics (doctors, nurses), the rest were volunteers from the supply regiments T1, T3 and T4; the commander was Colonel Gottfrid Björck as he was the inspector general for the Swedish supply forces.
  • 36 ambulance buses
  • 19 trucks
  • 7 passenger cars
  • 7 motorbikes
  • rescue trucks, workshop trucks and field kitchen
  • all needed equipment (food, fuel, spare parts), as nothing could be had once in Germany
  • The vessel Lillie Matthiessen sailing to Lübeck with 350 tons fuel and 6,000 food parcels for the prisoners, later on also Magdalena, both from the Salèn shipping line

The force was divided into three bus platoons (each with 12 buses), one truck platoon (with 12 trucks) and one supply platoon. The total transport capacity for the force was 1,000 persons for longer distances, 1,200 persons for shorter distances where the trucks also could be used.

The buses were using Motyl (a mixture of 50% gasoline and 50% alcohol) and had eight stretchers or seats for 30 passengers. The buses used 0.5 litres of fuel per kilometer (5.6 mpg); with tanks filled they could cover 100 kilometers (60 miles). Each bus carried two drivers.

To avoid publicity in the newspapers the Swedish state information bureau distributed so-called "grey notices" where the editors were instructed to avoid stories about the expedition.

The Danish ambassador in Stockholm had offered a larger force (40 buses, 30 trucks, 18 ambulances, and other vehicles). Even though Folke Bernadotte earlier had thought about a mixed Swedish-Danish expedition, this offer was turned down on 23 February, due to the German requirement that the expedition force had to be Swedish, or they would launch a full-scale attack on Denmark and Norway.

DepartureEdit

The first section of the expedition departed Hässleholm on March 8 and boarded the ferry from Malmö to Copenhagen. Due to security, the Danish resistance movement was informed, but no problems were experienced - on the contrary, the Swedish Red Cross expedition was very well received. On March 12, the first part of the expedition had reached its headquarters, Friedrichsruh castle, situated 30 km southeast of Hamburg. The castle was close to the Danish border and near the Neuengamme concentration camp, where the Scandinavian prisoners were to be assembled. The Friedrichsruh castle was owned by Otto von Bismarck, a friend of Folke Bernadotte and married to a Swedish woman. The expedition staff were lodged in the castle and in a nearby pub, while the men established a tent camp in the park surrounding the castle.

File:Gestapomen following the white buses.jpg
Gestapo officers escorting the "white buses"

The expedition had German liaison officers; the most prominent of them was Himmler's communications officer, SS Obersturmbannführer Karl Rennau while Franz Göring was liaison officer with the Gestapo. The expedition had around 40 German communication officers, SS officers and Gestapo officers; the Germans demanded that every second vehicle should have a German officer onboard. The "White Buses" expedition was totally dependent on cooperation with the Germans as Germany under Nazi rule was a police state; only with liaison personnel from Gestapo and SS could the expedition move without restrictions.

Bernadotte had promised Schellenberg to have the expedition in Warnemünde on March 3, but it was delayed by more than a week. The main reason for this was the difficulties in obtaining guarantees from the Allied forces to ensure that the expedition would not be attacked. At this time of the war, the Allied planes had total control of the airspace and regularly attacked transports on German roads. The "White Buses" expedition would mainly move within areas controlled by the Royal Air Force. On March 8, the British government informed the Swedish foreign department that it was informed about the expedition but that it could not give any guarantees against attacks; the Swedish expedition was on its own within Germany. Some of the transports were hit by Allied aircraft that were strafing the roads, killing one Swedish driver and 25 concentration camp prisoners.

RenegotiationEdit

On March 6, 1945, Folke Bernadotte arrived in Berlin by plane from Stockholm and continued his negotiations with the German authorities. Heinrich Himmler's masseur Felix Kersten had already arrived and the Swedish foreign department instructed the Swedish ambassador Arvid Richert to support Kersten so he could influence Himmler. Parallel with this, the Danish authorities - especially the Danish ambassador in Berlin, Otto Carl Mohr - tried to secure the release of more Danish prisoners. The Swedish and Danish aims were somewhat different. The Swedes negotiated with Himmler/Schellenberg and concentrated on gathering the prisoners in Neuengamme. The Danes negotiated with Kaltenbrunner and tried to secure permission to have the prisoners released, or possibly interned in Denmark.

On March 12 the Danes got permission for three transports and until March 21 a total of 262 Danish prisoners of various categories were transported back to Denmark with Danish vehicles. From March 21 there were a break in Danish transports and the Swedes took over.

Transports startEdit

File:Konzentrazionslager.png
Map of German concentration camps

The expedition in Friedrichsruh were divided into two groups, the first being were assigned the responsibility of transporting prisoners from Sachsenhausen, (North of Berlin), to Neuengamme. The transports started out on March 15 and the distance was around 540 kilometers. During seven transports, some 2200 Danes and Norwegians were transferred to Neuengamme. Sven Frykmann, who commanded one of the transports, wrote about the prisoners and the drive:

"In general they were in relative good shape compared to other prisoners I have seen and one could not complain regarding their personal hygiene. They related that the food packs they had received from Norway and Denmark had kept their spirits up and recently the treatment had been noticeably better. They were all touching [sic] thankful and happy. I believe that all of us that have had the option of helping these poor people in Germany have experienced such an overwhelming gratitude that it is enough for the rest of our lives"

As the prisoners were being picked up in Sachsenhausen, the names were checked with the group from "Gross Kreutz," to make sure no one was left behind.

The other group was responsible for collecting prisoners from the South of Germany. That included Dachau to the north of Munich, Schönberg (some 80 kilometers south of Stuttgart) and Mauthausen (12 kilometers/7.5 miles east of Linz). The distances for this mission were longer, as Munich alone was 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. Adding to the difficulties was the delay that the transports faced due to lack of fuel. The first column started out on March 19, including 35 vehicles under Colonel Björck, which returned back to Neuengamme on March 24. The journey back was difficult as most of the prisoners were in poor physical condition, as Swedish nurse Margaretha Björcke documented:

"I have never in my twelve years practice as a nurse seen so much misery as I here witnessed. Legs, backs and necks full of wounds of a type that an average Swede would be on sick leave for just one of them. I counted twenty on one prisoner, and he did not complain."

This first transport collected 550 prisoners while 67 very ill prisoners were left behind. A huge problem during the transports was the prisoners' chronic diarrhea. After a while this situation was remedied by the Danes supplying portable toilets of a type that they had used during their transports.

Due to the Swedish transports Neuengamme received ever more prisoners and the concentration of Scandinavian prisoners that Himmler had promised did not materialize. Swedish health personnel were not allowed to enter the camp. During the first transports the buses were not allowed to enter the camp and the prisoners had to march the final distance to them as the Germans would not let the Swedes in charge of the buses see the camp.

Swedes to SwedenEdit

Early in February a small Swedish Red Cross detachment under Captain Hultgren arrived in Berlin; six men, two buses, and a private car. The mission was to transport to Sweden women born in Sweden who were married to German men, but due to the imminent breakdown of Germany needed to escape. The transports started March 26, and until April 20 1,400 women and children of Swedish descent arrived in Malmö via Lübeck and Denmark.

Assisting the SSEdit

The Neuengamme concentration camp was overcrowded, and to have space for the Scandinavian prisoners, the SS demanded that prisoners of other nationalities be moved to other camps. The SS camp commander had no transport capacity of his own and required that the white buses accepted the transports so the newly arrived Scandinavians could have the building "Schonungsblock".

Around 2,000 French, Belgian, Dutch, Russian, and Polish prisoners were transported to other camps. These prisoners were very ill, as the "Schonungsblock" was a barracks for prisoners not fit for work, sickly, and dying prisoners. During the transports some 50 to 100 prisoners died and many more died in the worse conditions in the new camps they arrived in, or in new transports, to avoid advancing Allied armies.

Most of the transports of prisoners for the SS took place between March 27 and 29, from Neuengamme to subcamps in Hannover and Salzgitter and to Bergen-Belsen. The Swedish sub-lieutenant Åke Svenson wrote:

"We could now see how the Germans treated their prisoners in general, French, Belgians, Dutch, Poles, and Russians. It was terrible. This time the Germans had to allow us into the camp as most of the passengers could not walk the minor distance from the barracks to the road. From these barracks a group of creatures were forced, that hardly anymore seemed to be human beings.

The last transport for the SS was undertaken as late as April 13, with around 450 so-called prominent French prisoners (senators, leading businessmen, etc.) who the Germans stated would be repatriated through Switzerland. The prisoners would according to plan be delivered to the concentration camp Flossenburg, and from there should be transported to Switzerland by the Swiss Red Cross. The promise of the transport to Switzerland was a lie and the camp was full, so the prisoners were taken to Theresienstadt where the "white buses" were heading to pick up 400 Danish Jews.

Gathering in NeuengammeEdit

Convoys on March 30 and April 2 from the camps Torgau, Mühlberg and Oschatz from the area around Leipzig collected Danish police and some Norwegians, 1,200 in total. The Danish policemen were taken to Denmark in two Danish columns on April 3 to 5; on April 23 some 1000 of these were sent to Sweden.

On March 29 the Swedish Red Cross personnel were finally given access to Neuengamme and medicine, blankets, personal hygiene articles, and food. A Scandinavian block was established and the conditions there became so good that prisoners from other nations got a negative attitude to the privileged Scandinavian prisoners.

Folke Bernadotte arrived in Berlin from Stockholm on March 28 for renewed negotiations with Himmler. He was to push forward to gain permission to transfer the Scandinavian prisoners from Neuengamme to Sweden, have access to the whole of the camp and if possible, also take Jewish prisoners to Sweden. On March 30 Folke Bernadotte had his first chance to visit the Neuengamme camp and a Danish prisoner, J. B. Holmgård wrote:

"For the first time in the history of Neuengamme the Nazi butchers Pauly and Thuman were not two bragging, arrogant representatives of the master race, with swinging whips. They came pussyfoot behind Bernadotte, suddenly accommodating, helpful and amenable nearing servile wheedling, the typical wheedling so distinctive for the butchers of the master race, when it emerged for them that their days were counted. Now we were secure of, that we would be able to return home."

In the beginning of April most of the Scandinavian prisoners in Germany were gathered in Neuengamme. The mission dragged out; Colonel Björck returned to Sweden and new commander for the column was Major Sven Frykman. Some of the personnel also left, but after a promise of double daily pay around 130 men, half of the force, stayed.

On April 2 a new Swedish column set off for the south of Germany to collect the remaining prisoners from Mauthausen and Dachau. One bus with the Norwegian doctor Bjørn Heger was assigned to search for 30 prisoners the "Gross Kreutz" group presumed were in the area around Schömberg. The conditions were difficult and the Swede Molin wrote:

"...on our way to Schömberg the activity in the air was very high and we were overflown many times by Allied fighter planes, that did not attack us. Along the autobahn there were a lot of damaged cars and severely injured people. On some places where chaos reigned we simply could not just drive past with our white bus with Red Cross markings, but had to stop and give first aid. In some cases the damage were enormous."

In the subcamp Vaihingen 16 of the 30 prisoners were found alive; the rest were dead. Among the survivors (all were severely weak) were Trygve Bratteli and Kristian Ottosen. This column saved a total of 75 prisoners: 16 from Vaihingen, 16 female NN prisoners from Mauthausen, and 43 seriously ill men from Dachau.

The Danes joinEdit

On April 5 close to half of the Swedes returned to Sweden and they were replaced by Danes. This was accepted by the Germans and the Swedish foreign department. The Danes mustered 33 buses, 14 ambulances, 7 lorries, and 4 private cars and were led by Frants Hvass from the Danish foreign department. The Danish contingent were coordinated with the Swedish and from April 8 the "white buses" were a mixed Swedish-Danish expedition, where the Swedes were in command. The Danish vehicles were also painted white, but had the Danish flag Dannebrog instead of the Red Cross.

Prisoners kept in ordinary jails were a separate category and the "white buses" were only allowed to collect these prisoners in April. On April 9 a mixed Swedish-Danish column under Captain Folke travelled to Berlin to transport 200 prisoners from various jails; knowledge of their location was the result of the work of the Rev. Vogt-Svendsen. A total of 211 prisoners were collected from 20 various prisons, among them Waldheim (east of Dresden) and Dresden, Cottbus, Luckay, Zeithin, and Groitsch. On the return trip to Neuengamme on April 11 the column witnessed for the first time a German car painted white with Red Cross markings, similarly to the "white buses". On April 15 a transport collected 524 prisoners from jails in Mecklenburg.

TheresienstadtEdit

The Danish Jews that had not been able to escape the arrests in 1943 had been deported to Theresienstadt, near the city Terezín in today's Czech Republic. It took time before the Germans gave permission and time was short; the Allied forces were approaching. In the end the German liaison officer Rennau managed to get permission from the Gestapo and on April 12 a column started under command of Captain Folke with 23 Swedish buses, 12 private cars, motorbikes, and a number of Danish ambulances with Danish doctors and nurses.

The situation in Germany was now critical and the Swedish drivers were informed that the trip would be very dangerous. At the last minute the Swedish foreign department tried to stop the departure as they had been informed that Soviet forces had blocked the road, but the column departed. On April 15 the column had collected 423 Scandinavian Jews from Theresienstadt and could start on the dangerous road back to Denmark. On the way back the column passed Dresden, which had just been bombed, and had an overnight stop by Potsdam, bombed the same night. The transport reached Padborg without casualties on April 17. The day after, the rescued Jews were transported by ferry to Malmö in Sweden.

The first attack against the "white buses" happened on April 18; the Danish camp at Friedrichsruh was attacked by Allied fighter planes, four drivers and a nurse were slightly wounded while ten vehicles were destroyed. In the coming days several such attacks from the air occurred, with several killed and wounded.

"We're going to Sweden"Edit

Through new negotiations Folke Bernadotte got clearance for evacuating severely ill prisoners and the first transport started from Neuengamme on April 9; 12 Swedish buses and 8 Danish ambulances. 153 prisoners, most of them confined to bed were taken to the Danish border and left at Padborg where the Danes had a quarantine station. The prisoners got further rest and treatment before they were transported through Denmark on Danish buses and trains and sent by ferry to Malmö in Sweden. By April 18 a total of 1216 ill Danish and Norwegian prisoners had been transported to Sweden. Two days later, on April 20, all Scandinavian prisoners in Neuengamme were evacuated.

In the evening of April 19 evacuation of Scandinavian prisoners from Neuengamme was discussed in a meeting at the Friedrichsruh manor. Bernadotte, Frykmann, and Richert from the Swedish side were present, with Rennau from the German side while Hvass and Holm represented the Danish side. The situation was critical and the existing Swedish and Danish vehicles in Friedrichsruh did not have enough capacity to evacuate the prisoners fast enough. The Danes offered additional vehicles from "Jyllandskorpset" and that was accepted.

A total of 4255 Danish and Norwegian prisoners were evacuated, by 100 Danish and 20 Swedish buses. After a few days in Denmark the prisoners were sent on by ferry to Malmö in Sweden.

Evacuation from RavensbrückEdit

Ravensbrück was a concentration camp about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Berlin, established in 1938 for female prisoners. On April 8 some 100 Scandinavian female prisoners (including two French women) were collected from the camp and transported directly to Padborg in Denmark. At this stage Folke Bernadotte had got permission to collect all ill prisoners. On April 22 a column with 15 Danish ambulances under command of Captain Arnoldson departed from Friedrichsruh to collect ill women from Ravensbrück.

File:Female prisoners in Ravensbrück chalk marks show selection for transport.jpg
Female prisoners in Ravensbrück, the white chalk sign shows they have been selected for transport

When the column arrived at the camp it was chaotic as it was to be evacuated due to advancing Soviet forces, and Arnoldson was told he could collect all French, Belgian, Dutch, and Polish women, in total about 15,000. Arnoldson accepted, even though this was three times as much as the "white buses" had saved at that time. The ambulances collected 112 ill women and arriving in Lübeck, Arnoldson managed to inform Folke Bernadotte that further transport capacity was needed and was promised that all available resources would be mobilized.

Two new columns arrived in Ravensbrück; one departed on April 23 with 786 women, mostly French, who were transported directly to Padborg. The second column collected 360 French women. The last columns arrived in Ravensbrück on April 25. The situation within Germany was rapidly deteriorating, with frequent shootings on the transports as the Allied forces continued advancing. In the camp a total of 706 French, Belgian, Dutch, and Polish women were loaded onto a column with Danish ambulances and lorries from the International Red Cross. On the way to Padborg this transport was attacked by Allied fighter planes, and at least 11 were killed and 26 severely injured; the final number of fatalities was estimated at 25.

The last column led by Sublieutenant Svenson had 934 women in 20 buses; mostly Polish but also French, American, and English. The transport rested during the night, was attacked by fighter planes without casualties and arrived in Padborg on April 26, 1945. This was the last Swedish transport before Germany capitulated. The Swedes were fortunately able to use a train set; 50 goods wagons and 80 female prisoners in each wagon. The train departed Ravensbrück on April 25 and arrived Lübeck on April 29. After the passengers had been fed, the train continued to Denmark. A total of 3989 female prisoners were saved with this train transport. Within a few days around 7000 female prisoners were evacuated from Ravensbrück to Denmark and then on to neutral Sweden.

The last evacueesEdit

On April 28 Captain Ankarcrona led a column from the International Red Cross to the camp Neu-Brandenburg. The transport passed advancing Soviet forces, collected 200 female prisoners that were forced out marching and returned with them to Lübeck. The German Gestapo officer Franz Göring organized a train transport from Hamburg with 2000 women (960 Jews, 790 Poles, and 250 French); this train arrived in Padborg on May 2. This train transport is not counted in the Swedish Red Cross overview of saved prisoners, but it seems appropriate to mention this transport in connection with the "white buses".

On April 30 the two Swedish ships "Magdalena" and "Lillie Matthiessen" sailed from Lübeck, the first with 223 female prisoners and the latter with 225. The transport had been organised by the Swedish doctor Hans Arnoldsson with assistance from Bjørn Heger. They had to leave behind thousands of prisoners on several other ships that were bombed on May 3 by British planes, the Cap Arcona disaster. The last group of female prisoners travelled from Copenhagen to Malmö by ferry on May 4.

Reception and accountingEdit

The main reception station in Denmark was in the city of Padborg, on the border with Germany; the prisoners received food and medical treatment before they were transported through Denmark to Copenhagen. The transport to Sweden was by ferry to Malmö where the prisoners were received by Länsstyrelsen (the county administration) and Civilförsvaret (civil defence). Everyone that arrived was placed in quarantine, due to the risk of spreading infections. In all there were 23 billeting areas, most of them in Malmöhus län with about 11,000 beds. Ambulanting health centres, mostly manned by Norwegian and Danish doctors and nurses (themselves being refugees) took care of the prisoners. For some of the prisoners it was too late; 110 died after arriving in Sweden, most of them Polish.

According to the Swedish Red Cross a total of 15,345 prisoners were saved [3], of these 7795 were Scandinavian and 7,550 from other countries. Around 1500 German-Swedes were transported to Sweden. A total of 2000 prisoners were transported from Neuengamme to other camps to give space to Scandinavian prisoners. Four hundred French prisoners were transported from Neuengamme and left in Theresienstadt as they could not be delivered to the camp in Flossenburg.

The "white buses" expedition was a Swedish triumph that earned the country much goodwill, and the return transports through Denmark were met by ecstatic crowds. On May 17 Count Folke Bernadotte af Wisborg was on the balcony of the Royal castle in Oslo with the Norwegian crown prince. The British diplomat Peter Tennant, who was stationed in Stockholm during the war, wrote:

"The Swedish humanitarian efforts under and after the war did much to remove the dishonor the country had got during its acrobatic exercises in neutrality policy."

White Buses TimelineEdit

Year Month/Date Event
1940 August The first Norwegian political prisoners are deported to Germany.
1942 October The family of Johan Bernhard Hjort, civilly interned in Germany, start work to support the prisoners.
1943 September The Danish coalition government resigns; deportations of Danish prisoners to Germany.
1944 January Niels Christian Ditleff establishes contact with the group at "Gross Kreutz".
February Carl Hammerich visits Sweden and has the first of several meetings with Ditleff, discussing the Scandinavian prisoners.
September 22 Ditleff meets Folke Bernadotte and suggests a Swedish expedition to save Scandinavian prisoners.
September 23 Major Johan Koren Christie writes a PM which states that the prisoners shall "Stay Put".
October A report from the "Gross Kreutz" group written by Johan Bernhard Hjort argues that the Scandinavian prisoners must be moved out of Germany before the war ends.
December Felix Kersten, masseur to SS head Himmler, manages to free 103 Scandinavian prisoners.
December 29 The Norwegian government-in-exile in London changes view and requests that the embassy in Stockholm research a possible Swedish expedition to rescue prisoners in Germany.
1945 February 5 Ditleff sends an official Norwegian PM to the Swedish foreign department, requesting a Swedish expedition to rescue the Scandinavian prisoners.
February 16 Count Folke Bernadotte of Wisborg travels to Berlin by plane, meets Himmler, and discusses release of political prisoners.
March 12 The "white buses" arrive at Friedrichsruh, the base for the expedition in Germany.
March 15 The first transport, from Sachsenhausen to Neuengamme; 2200 Norwegian and Danes collected.
March 19 The first transport collecting prisoners in the south of Germany; 559 prisoners transported to Neuengamme. The five surviving Norwegian Jews in Buchenwald are left behind.
March 26 The first transport of Swedish women married to Germans back to Sweden.
March 27 Transport of French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish, and Russian prisoners from Neuengamme to make space for additional Scandinavian prisoners.
March 29 The Swedish Red Cross get access to the Neuengamme concentration camp.
March 30 Transport from the area around Leipzig; some 1200 prisoners collected, 1000 of them were Danish police that were transported on to Denmark.
April 2 A new Swedish column to the south of Germany, the camps Mauthausen, Dachau, and Vaihingen; 75 prisoners collected at Neuengamme.
April 5 About half of the Swedish contingent return to Sweden; they are replaced by Danes.
April 8 The first transport from Ravensbrück; 100 female prisoners transported directly to Padborg in Denmark.
April 9 Swedish/Danish column to Berlin to collect political prisoners from jails; 211 prisoners transported to Neuengamme. The evacuation of ill prisoners to Denmark starts.
April 15 A total of 524 political prisoners from jails in Mecklenburg collected; 423 Jews transported from Theresienstadt to Denmark and Sweden.
April 8 The first air attack against the "white buses", four Danish drivers and one nurse slightly wounded at the Danish camp at Friedrichsruh.
April 20 Start of evacuation of all Scandinavian prisoners from Neuengamme to Sweden through Denmark.
April  Transport of ill prisoners from Ravensbrück; 786 and 360 female prisoners in two columns to Padborg.
April 2 One column with 934 female and one train with 3989 female prisoners; the last "white buses" transport from Ravensbrück.
April 30 The vessels "Magdalena" with 223 prisoners and "Lillie Matthiessen" with 225 female prisoners depart from Lübeck.
May 2 2000 female prisoners (960 Jews, 790 Poles, and 250 French) arrive in Padborg by train.
May 3 Cap Arcona, a German passenger vessel filled with prisoners from Neuengamme is attacked by RAF; almost all the 7500 aboard the vessel die.
May 4 The last transport with rescued political prisoners transported by ferry from occupied Copenhagen in Denmark to Malmö in neutral Sweden.

Later debateEdit

After the end of the Second World War the expedition of the "white buses" was widely approved, as a result of the number of prisoners saved. But during the years since questions have been raised regarding the priority given to Scandinavian prisoners, among them in the book Blind Fläck (Blind Spot) by the historian Ingrid Lomfors. The debate has been in both Swedish and Norwegian newspapers. In a letter in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on October 14, 2005 several previous political prisoners wrote very critically of Lomfors and ended with:

"On behalf of the Swedish government Folke Bernadotte and the crew on the 'white buses' performed the largest Swedish humanitarian action during the Second World War. The Swedish government should as soon as possible erect a monument in tribute to the expedition. Ingrid Lomfors should ask forgiveness from the Swedish Red Cross and the crew of the 'white buses' who risked their lives in the operation.[4]

Bernt H. Lund, former political prisoner in Sachsenhausen, was positive about the exposure of the moral dilemma that the prisoners experienced. In an article in the newspaper Aftenposten (August 20, 2005) he wrote extensively about the privileged status of many Scandinavian prisoners, about the shame of being treated better, and ends the article with:

But it feels right to have this out in broad daylight. A huge thank you to Ingrid Lomfors who in a proper way has removed a blind spot not only for our Swedish liberators, but also for us who assisted them in a difficult situation! [5]

Regarding the transports for the SS, the prisoners being collected by the Swedish Red Cross believed they were being rescued, and were shocked and felt betrayed when "dumped" in similar or worse conditions. The Swedish drivers were strongly influenced by the task; Sub Lieutenant Gösta Hallquist wrote in his diary:

"The ill and hungry prisoners (Poles, Frenchmen, Belgians) seemed totally apathetic and were so emaciated that there were fifty of them in buses that normally carried ten persons."
"My next in command Per returned from the camp in Torgau very depressed. Crying. I comforted him. Three prisoners had died during the transport and one was beaten to death with a rifle butt."

Whether more prisoners would have survived if they had stayed in Neuengamme is impossible to determine, since many of the Neuengamme prisoners were loaded onto ships that were bombed and sunk by British planes. That the Red Cross golden rule of equal treatment of all prisoners was broken by this horsetrading with the SS, there is however no doubt.

Some of these former prisoners and many of their descendants are still living in the south of Sweden; greater numbers are present in the city of Malmö where many of them first landed on arriving in Sweden.

NotesEdit

ReferencesEdit

  • Heger, Wanda Hjort (1984), "Hver fredag foran porten", Gyldendal, ISBN 82-05-14937-2 ("Every Friday at the gate", in Norwegian), German edition (1989) "Jeden Freitag vor dem Tor" Schneekluth, ISBN 3-7951-1132-3
  • Persson, Sune (2002), «Vi åker till Sverige», De vita bussarna 1945. Bokförlaget Fischer & co. ISBN 91-85183-18-0 ("We go to Sweden. The white buses in 1945", in Swedish)
  • Persson Sune (2000), Folke Bernadotte and the White Buses, J. Holocaust Education, Vol 9, Iss 2-3, 2000, 237-268. Also published in David Cesarani and Paul A. Levine (eds.), Bystanders to the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation Routledge, 2002.
  • Lomfors, Ingrid (2005), Blind fläck: minne och glömska kring svenska Röda korsets hjälpinsats i Nazityskland 1945. Bokförlaget Atlantis. ISBN 91-7353-051-4 ("Blind spot: remembrance and forgetfulness of the Swedish Red Cross humanitarian aid in 1945 Nazi-Germany", in Swedish)
  • Regev, Ofer (2006), Prince of Jerusalem (Porat pub.) Template:He icon

External linksEdit

de:Rettungsaktion der Weißen Busse et:Valged bussid fr:Bus blancs ja:白バス no:De hvite bussene nn:Dei kvite bussane ru:Белые автобусы sv:De vita bussarna

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