A more civilized era, depicted in The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez  

From Advance to Barbarism

The Trial of General Bernard Ramcke

Civilized warfare: The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez

A brief outline of the trial of the famous leader of paratroops, General Bernard Ramcke, is included here because it illustrates so vividly the hardships and injustice inflicted on prisoners of war by the Moscow Declaration of the 30th October, 1943, by which, it will be remembered, the victorious Powers conferred on themselves the right, in defiance of the Geneva Convention, to swop prisoners of war with each other.

Secondly, it demonstrates, if this really requires any demonstration, that a prisoner of war on trial before a war-crimes tribunal had a negligible chance of being acquitted, however threadbare the case for the prosecution. In this war-crimes trial the absurdity of the charges against General Ramcke was obvious to everyone in court long before the case ended. Nevertheless the Tribunal decided to convict in accordance with the principle that a war-crimes trial ought to end with a conviction, although this particular tribunal upheld the credit of French justice by imposing a nominal penalty which resulted in the release of the prisoner after the elapse of only a few months.

This trial also confirms the view that war-crimes tribunals often adopted one of the principles on which trials before the Inquisition were conducted. A person charged with heresy before a court of the Holy Once who conclusively proved his complete innocence was indeed acquitted of heresy but was convicted of having incurred the suspicion of heresy for which a relatively mild punishment was imposed. War-crimes tribunals like the courts of the Holy Office could not believe that a prisoner brought before them could be completely guiltless of any offences.

This case cannot be regarded as a typical Routine War-crimes Trial, since the belated decision to put General Ramcke on trial was reached in order to serve a political purpose. By, for him, a fortunate chance, his name had been put at the end of the long list of prisoners of war in French custody awaiting trial for war-crimes. Had his name been put at the beginning of this list his case would have been dealt with as a simple Routine War-crimes Trial and his life would no doubt have come to a violent end without any particular attention being attracted. But although the French tribunals and firing squads worked with untiring zeal, the year 1951 arrived and General Ramcke was still awaiting trial. By then wartime passions had considerably abated: many prisoners were being released without being put on trial. Probably this would have been his fate also but for a stroke of ill-fortune. The Stalin Myth had been exposed as a propaganda fiction; no longer was it possible even for the most stupid to believe the Communist dictator was a loyal ally after his subjugation of Czechoslovakia and his blockade of West Berlin. To defend Western Europe from the threatened invasion by the Red Army it had become necessary to win the goodwill of the German people and to start re-creating the German Army.

Naturally the prospect of having to deal with a re-armed Germany aroused widespread alarm. Nowhere was this alarm more strongly felt than in France. The French Communists were filled with indignation that the advance of the Red Army to the Atlantic Coast should be obstructed by German troops, and their loud protests were supported by all those in France who regarded Germany as the national enemy. It was decided to compel the rest of the world to understand the gravity of the peril by staging a trial of one of the surviving German prisoners of war in French captivity, so that at this trial the full story of all the cruelties committed during the German occupation of France could be retold and then broadcast to the world.

It happened that the only surviving German prisoner of war in French captivity whose name was at all widely known to the general public was General Ramcke. Not much in fact was known about him except that he had stoutly defended Brest from the Americans and no one knew what offences he was supposed to have committed. The Communist Press, quickly followed by the Left-wing Press, took up the question of his misdeeds with enthusiasm. Very soon all France was ringing with the crimes of “The Butcher of Brest.” The French Government acceded reluctantly to the popular demand. The papers relating to General Ramcke were hastily brought from some official pigeon hole where they had been collecting dust for years, charges were framed, and “The Butcher” was brought to a trial without a moment’s unavoidable delay in the court room of the Prison Cherche-Midi in Paris on the 19th March, 1951.

An outline of General Ramcke’s distinguished career must here be given briefly. Having served in the campaign in France, in 1941 he took a leading part in the conquest of Crete, the most spectacular and, from the losses incurred, the most ruinous exploit by paratroops of the Second World War. He next served as a leader of front-line troops in North Africa, Russia and Italy. He then returned to Germany to supervise the reorganisation of the 2nd Paratroop Division which had been decimated in the recent fighting in Russia. On the 12th June, 1944, he was ordered to take command of this Division which had been sent on ahead of him to France to reinforce the German forces there awaiting the long-expected Anglo-American invasion. He entered France on that date and proceeded to Brittany. On the 20th September he surrendered to the Americans at Brest. The dates are important because all General Ramcke’s offences were alleged to have been committed during this short period of three months, during the first part of which until the 31st July he was fully occupied organising the defence of the coast of Brittany and during the second part of which he was engaged in attempting to hold up the American forces after their break-through at Avranches.

Cut off in the Breton Peninsula from the main German forces retreating eastward towards the Rhine, General Ramcke maintained resistance in Brest for thirty-nine days. When at last he was forced to surrender he was treated with every courtesy and honour by the American commander, General Troy H. Middleton. He was first sent to a prisoner-of-war camp near Cherbourg; then transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in England, and finally flown across the Atlantic to Washington, whence he was taken by train to the great prisoner-of-war camp at Fort Clinton, near Jackson, Mississippi.

Conditions in this camp seem to have been excellent until Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, when a campaign was immediately started in the American Press in protest against the “coddling” of prisoners, all of whom were undeniably guilty of what Lord Justice Lawrence was later to describe as the supreme international crime, namely of being on the losing side. In order to draw attention to the spiteful deprivations and restrictions imposed on the prisoners in response to this Press campaign, General Ramcke crawled beneath the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp, and posted a letter to army headquarters in Washington. He then returned to the camp. When, however, the camp authorities were ordered by headquarters to investigate General Ramcke’s complaints, his escape, of course, came to light and he was put under arrest for a breach of prison discipline.

This incident is important in the light of subsequent events. No doubt the knuckles of a number of prison officials were deservedly rapped and General Ramcke in this way made a number of vindictive enemies. In accordance with the Moscow Declaration to which the United States was a party, a prisoner of war held by one victorious Power had to be handed over to any other victorious Power which alleged he had committed a war-crime. Down to this time it had occurred to no one that General Ramcke was a war-criminal. It would obviously have been easy for a personal enemy to have conveyed a hint to one of the Allied commissions in Washington that a demand for the surrender of General Ramcke as a war-criminal would be favourably received. At all events, shortly after the above incident he was told that he was being sent back to Europe. Naturally he assumed that he was about to be released in accordance with the requirements of international law. To his surprise the ship stopped at Antwerp in order to put him and one of his comrades ashore. What followed is best described in his own words:

“Hardly had the ship made fast at Antwerp when we were informed by an American officer that we were to be handed over to the British. A British officer of police, a sergeant and six men, took us in charge. Their manners were brutal. With rough cuffs and pushes they fastened Kochy and I together with handcuffs and chains and thrust us with kicks (“mit Fusstritten”) into a waiting lorry. We were then driven through Antwerp, under the Scheldt by the celebrated Scheldt Tunnel, via Bruges, to P.O.W. Camp No. 2226 near Ostend.”18

This deplorable incident took place in March 1946. After spending some time in appalling sanitary conditions in the prison camp near Ostend, General Ramcke was taken for interrogation to the notorious “London District Cage” in Kensington Gardens, London. The British then decided that they had no complaints against him. They did not set him free, however, but sent him over to Paris where, on the 4th December, 1946, he was handed over to the French by whom he was taken in handcuffs and chains, first to the Prison Cherche-Midi, and then to the prison at Rennes in Brittany.

It is only possible to speculate as to the reason for this extraordinary procedure. General Ramcke was unquestionably what prison governors would classify as “a difficult prisoner.” He was not only a very brave man – it demands courage to drop with a parachute over enemy territory – but he was remarkably lacking in tact, as several anecdotes which he tells in his autobiography show. He was well aware of the rights given him as a prisoner of war by international law and never hesitated to inform his captors when these rights were being infringed. They on their part took the view that the only proper relationship between a prisoner of war guilty of the supreme international crime of being on the losing side was humility and deference on his part and generous magnanimity on theirs. General Ramcke was totally unable to fill the role which his captors, whether American, British or French, expected of him. It seems likely, therefore, that he offended his British captors in the London District Cage in exactly the same way as he had offended his captors in Fort Clinton, Mississippi. Probably personal ill-will towards him accounts for his being handed over by the British to the French in December 1946.

For the next four years General Ramcke was kept in close confinement in the prison at Rennet. The sanitary arrangements of the prison were appalling and discipline was maintained by such penalties as solitary confinement in chains. It was not until 1951 that any charge was brought against him, by which time, as mentioned above, the political situation had been transformed by the outbreak of the “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The French Communists and their leftist allies then decided to re-awaken anti-German feeling by staging a trial of some well-known German prisoner of war. The “Hero of Brest” was the only prisoner still in French hands who fulfilled the necessary requirements. Labelled “The Butcher of Brest” in the French Press, General Ramcke was served with a hastily prepared indictment and for the first time learned what offences he was supposed to have committed. On the 19th March, 1951, over six and a half years after his surrender at Brest on the 20th September, 1944, he was brought before a French military tribunal in the court house of the Prison Cherche-Midi in Paris.

The trial of General Ramcke is only of interest if regarded as an example of the fate to which German prisoners of war were subjected when tried for war-crimes before French military tribunals. It is the only one of these trials which was fully reported at the time in the French Press – it even received some mention in the British Press – and in addition it has been described in detail by General Ramcke himself in his autobiography. The lawyers entrusted with framing the indictment had a difficult task to perform since it was only possible to charge General Ramcke with offences committed between the 12th June, 1944, the date he entered France, and the following 20th September when he surrendered in Brest. Naturally a makeshift document was the result since no one knew why the British had handed him over to French custody. He had only remained in French custody because, long hidden behind the walls of the prison at Rennet, he had become gradually forgotten.

As a makeweight to the main complaint against him, his obstinate resistance in Brest, his accusers brought against him the stock charge brought in most war-crimes trials that before the siege commenced men under his command dealt severely with partisan activity. Hurried investigation disclosed that after General Ramcke had taken command of his division in June 1944 three Breton peasants, all of them members of La Resistance, had been arrested by a patrol of men of a unit of his division for being in possession of weapons, and of being concerned in the murder of three German ambulance-men, whose bodies, horribly mutilated, had been found nearby. They were subsequently executed by the Security Police. General Ramcke declared that no such incident had ever been reported to him, but if the facts were as stated by the prosecution he would heartily have approved of the execution of the murderers. The charge against him in fact amounted to the charge on which General Yamashita had been convicted at Manila, of failing to control the troops under his command. The prosecution did not press the charge, but went on to deal with General Ramcke’s alleged offences during the thirty-nine days during which the siege of Brest lasted.

In a nutshell General Ramcke was charged with causing the death of French citizens and damage to civilian property during the siege.

Unfortunately for the prosecution but most fortunately for the inhabitants of Brest, before the American attack began General Ramcke proposed a truce so that the population of the fortress could be evacuated. The humane and chivalrous General Troy H. Middleton commanding the besieging army readily agreed, and the entire population was allowed to leave Brest with the exception of certain units of Partisans who remained behind in order to harass the Germans from the rear.

The prosecution called as a witness a Partisan leader named Le Roy who testified that he himself had prudently left Brest before the siege began, but he had left behind four of his men in a secret “hide-out.” After the siege no trace of this “hide-out” or of the men he had left in it could be found. It was open therefore to the court to adopt the assumption that it had been discovered and burnt by the Germans who had shot the Partisans found lurking therein.

This indeed might have happened: probably the men were dead and certainly the “hide-out” had ceased to exist. But no evidence of any kind was produced that General Ramcke’s troops had been in any way concerned. The siege of Brest was the first example of what may be termed a siege by obliteration. The Americans not only bombarded the besieged city with numerous guns of every calibre but they continuously bombed it from the air. Between August 7th and September 20th there were no fewer than thirty-nine major air attacks by heavy bombers on Brest: in the raid on September 12th no fewer than six hundred bombers took part. Brest was systematically destroyed, district by district; as in the battle for the Monte Cassino in the spring of that year, the defenders found excellent cover in the ruins and long resisted successfully the American infantry attacking behind a screen of phosphorus bombs and liquid fire. At the end of the siege Brest did not consist of a collection of heavily damaged buildings; it consisted of masses of brickwork and masonry which had been repeatedly churned over by shells and bombs. It was not only impossible to distinguish one building from another but even to guess where the main streets had been. In his memoirs General Ramcke records, “Brest looked like a crater on the moon.”

Forming part of this wilderness of debris was no doubt the Partisan “hide-out”; it might indeed have been discovered and destroyed by the garrison, but it was obviously far more likely to have been obliterated by the hurricane of shells and bombs which for the thirty-nine days rained down on Brest.

The prosecution added two supplementary charges. First, that the troops under General Ramcke’s command had themselves set fire to Brest during the siege; secondly, they had indulged in plundering the city while the assault was in progress.

Why troops should set fire to a city in which they themselves were, the prosecution did not explain. Even more absurd was the charge of plundering, since every member of the garrison knew that surrender was inevitable in either a few days or a few weeks when the survivors would become prisoners of war and of course any loot found on them would be taken from them. In these circumstances a regiment composed of professional burglars might safely be depended on to behave themselves if surrounded in Hatton Garden!

The prosecution finally collapsed when the defence read two affidavits, the one sworn by General Troy H. Middleton himself and the other by his second in command, General Robinson.

General Middleton began by disposing of the charge of plundering by testifying that no articles of plunder had been reported to him as having been found on the captured members of the garrison when they were searched after the surrender.

General Middleton was then asked: “What impression did you form of the methods of conducting war of the German soldiers in Brest and particularly of the 2nd Paratroop Division?” General Middleton replied: “During my entire professional service in two world wars I have never come across better fighting soldiers than the German troops in Brest. This applies particularly to the men of the 2nd Paratroop Division. They impressed me as well disciplined, well trained and remarkably obedient to orders.”

In reply to the question: “Have you any knowledge of brutal acts or criminal behaviour on the part of the garrison of Brest?” General Middleton replied: “No acts of brutality or of unlawful methods of warfare were reported to me by my troops. Those of our men who became prisoners of the German troops in Brest were as well treated as one can expect in war. I consider that the measures taken by General Ramcke for the prisoners in his hands were better than I have ever before observed in warfare.”

Finally General Middleton was asked: “Have you any observations to make concerning General Ramcke?” To this question he replied: “Of the many German commanders I have met in war and of the round dozen German generals who fell into the hands of my troops, I rank General Ramcke as the most outstanding soldier. I consider that he conducted the defence of Brest in accordance with the best soldierly traditions.”

The evidence of General Walter M. Robinson, also taken on commission, was then read to the Court. It confirmed General Middleton’s evidence. In particular General Robinson testified that when the American troops entered Brest, there were numerous fires blazing caused by the phosphorus shells used in the bombardment which, in his opinion, were quite beyond the power of the garrison to master. The Court heard this unwelcome evidence in resentful silence.

This unexpected evidence put the military tribunal trying General Ramcke in an extremely difficult position. Almost the entire French Press had worked itself up into a state of hysteria over the crimes of the “Butcher of Brest.” To acquit the accused was therefore impossible. But for the evidence of General Middleton the usual course adopted by war-crimes tribunals might have been adopted, that is to say, the accused might have been convicted and sentenced to death, with no other result than that tension would have been caused between France and Germany, an outcome much desired by Communist and Leftist opinion in France as it could have been used as an argument against the proposed re-arming of Germany.

To hang General Ramcke however in the face of the evidence in his favour given by General Middleton would be resented as an affront in American military circles. Great pride also was felt by the general public in the United States in the story of the capture of Brest, not only as an example of American prowess but of American chivalry; Americans could hardly be expected to welcome the addition of a footnote to that story recording that the gallant defender of Brest was done to death by his French enemies seven years after his surrender to the Americans. But, most important of all, the judicial murder of General Ramcke would have been regarded with the strongest disapproval by the American Government, then striving desperately to enlist German public opinion to the side of the Western Powers. Ever since the end of the War, France had depended on American financial and economic support. If an “agonizing re-appraisal” took place in Washington and the flow of dollars ceased, where could France turn for benevolent support? Would not the loss of the American pension be a high price to pay for the death of one more German general?

There is no reason to think that the French military tribunal trying General Ramcke was any more perceptive of the grave political issues at stake than the average war-crimes tribunal. Fortunately, the tribunal had the guidance of a civil judge, Monsieur Ménéquaux, upon whom, on this occasion at least, the wisdom of Solomon clearly descended. He succeeded in persuading his military colleagues to disregard entirely the evidence given at the trial and to bring in a general verdict of guilty, thus satisfying French public opinion, and then to sentence General Ramcke to five years’ imprisonment. As the General had already spent only three months short of five years in rigorous confinement awaiting trial, this sentence entitled the accused to release at the expiration of three months.

Except for the French Communists and their Leftist allies whose stunt had miscarried, and General Ramcke himself, who strongly resented being labelled a criminal for crimes which the court carefully refrained from specifying, this celebrated war-crimes trial ended to the satisfaction of everyone concerned. On the 23rd June, 1951, General Ramcke was released from the Cherche-Midi Prison and was immediately driven by car to the German frontier. His long ordeal which had begun on the quay at Antwerp in March 1946 was over. (pp. 319-328)

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-548-0725-28, Nordafrika, Bernhard-Hermann Ramcke


18. Fallschirmjäger by General H. B. Ramcke, Lorch-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1951, page 101.

F. J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare From Serajevo to Hiroshima. Mitre Press (London) 1968.

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