Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012


It was Friday the thirteenth and there were thirteen prisoners, all of them awaiting execution.
Albert Pierrepoint: a very British hangman
They had been dubbed the ‘Beasts of Belsen’: 10 men and three women who had sent tens of thousands of concentration camp victims to their deaths. Now, it was their turn to die.
There was never any doubt as to who would undertake the executions: Albert Pierrepoint was Britain’s most experienced hangman. He had got the job of executioner in 1932, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle. He'd proved so reliable and efficient that within nine years he was promoted to Chief Executioner. He even perfected the art of double executions, hanging two men at the same time.
Guilty: the beasts of Belsen
Pierrepoint's most celebrated executions came in the wake of the Nazi war crime trial of the 'beasts of Belsen. The convicted prisoners included Irma Grese, a vivacious young blond girl who'd joined the SS at an early age and worked enthusiastically at Belsen, lashing her Jewish prisoners to death with her riding whip before they reached the gas chambers.
Also convicted was Juana Bormann, who had treated her prisoners with horrific violence, setting her vicious Alsatian on the weak and sickly. Many of them were gnawed to death.
‘First she egged the dog on and it pulled at the woman [victim’s] clothes,’ said one of the witnesses at her trial. ‘Then she was not satisfied with that and made the dog go for her throat.’
Irma Grese: mass murderer who smiled
She, like Irma Grese was found guilty and convicted to hang.
Albert Pierrepoint had executed scores of people over the previous decade but he had never hanged 13 in one day and nor had he despatched anyone quite so evil as this bunch. He was particularly keen to meet Irma Grese, whom he regarded as the worst of the lot.
‘She walked out of her cell and came towards us laughing,’ he wrote. ‘She seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.’
When asked her age, she paused and smiled. Pierrepoint also found himself smiling, ‘as if we realised the conventional embarrassment of a woman revealing her age.’
These ‘Belsen’ executions were to be rather different from Pierrepoint’s previous ones. He was put in total charge from beginning to end - a job that required meticulous planning. ‘I had to supervise the weighings and measuring of the condemned thirteen in order to work out my drops.’
He had never done this before: in Britain it was done by prison officers.
When Pierrepoint had first arrived at Buckeburg prison, where the criminals were held, he was appalled to see 13 graves being dug for the condemned prisoners.
He felt that this was unseemly. ‘I complained about it to a prison official but was told that nothing could be done to stop it.’
Timothy Spall is Pierrepoint the in movie
He then went inside the prison to meet the condemned men and women. ‘I walked down the corridor and the thirteen Belsen faces were pressed close to the bars.’
Pierrepoint was taken aback. ‘Never in my experience have I seen a more pitiable crowd of condemned prisoners.’
The first to be weighed and measured was Josef Kramer, who had killed thousands of victims. He was sullen and gave monosyllabic answers to Pierrepoint’s questions.
Kramer: no regrets
The next prisoner, Dr Fritz Klein, had been convicted of killing up to 300 victims at a time in the gas chambers. Pierrepoint found him full of energy and not a bit contrite. ‘[He] came walking briskly down the corridor and efficiently complied with the formalities.’
Once all the prisoners had been weighed, Pierrepoint had to work out the length of rope. If the drop was too long, it would tear their heads off. Too short and it might not kill them.
Pierrepoint was woken at 6am on Friday 13 December, 1945. He decided to execute the women first, beginning with Irma Grese. She proved a model of calmness, walking slowly to the trap and standing on the white chalk mark. 
‘As I placed the white cap over her head, she said in her languid voice: ‘Schnell.’’ The trapdoor crashed from under her feet and her body twisted as the rope broke her neck. Pierrepoint’s first prisoner was dead.
He hanged the two other women before pausing for a refreshing cup of tea. Then, he set to work on the men, adjusting the scaffold for the double executions.
Always keep a note of your executions
First to go were Josef Kramer and Fritz Klein. They were roped together and also roped by their necks. ‘I adjusted the ropes and flew to the lever,’ recalled Pierrepoint. Twenty five seconds later, both were dead.
The executions took many hours and it was dark by the time all the prisoners had been despatched. Pierrepoint was exhausted but he nevertheless went to a mess party that night. He was proud to have hanged the ‘Beasts of Belsen’.
He would subsequently be appointed to execute a further 190 Nazi war criminals, including Bruno Tesch, inventor of the gas Zyklon B. Pierrepoint was by now so efficient at his job that he could despatch his clients - cell to gallows - in under 60 seconds.
Pierrepoint was eventually retired at the age of 72, due to failing eyesight. Home Office officials cancelled his contract when they learned that he almost noosed his assistant and sent him through the trapdoor by mistake. 

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA. Available at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  

With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman


  1. wish I could have hung those monsters who killed my entire extended family.

    1. Personally, I think they got off way too easily. Only hanged?!! They sent tons of people to gas chambers and tortured hundreds if not thousands of innocent people!! And they're only hanged!! They should have got a massive dose of their bitter, twisted, cruel, inhumane medicine!!!!

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Wow - it sounds like you have a dark and terrible family story.

  3. Do not jump to conclusion,first read "victim of Lies" by J would be helpful to you to assess Irma grese case fairly.


  4. I'll look into it - thanks... Giles

  5. Bullshit. Utter nonsense. Pierrepoint was not "retired at 72." He resigned, in his early 50s, in a dispute over fees. And that chestnut about almost hanging the assistant/chaplain/warden/guard by accident is as old as the outhouse and twice as smelly.

  6. Giles you claim Grese whipped the Jews on their way to the gas chambers at Belsen. I have enjoyed many of your books but you seemed to have overreached yourself here. There were no gas chambers on German soil least of all at Belsen. I'm suprised you didn't bring up the shrunken heads and lampshades or maybe not. That is a proven hoax that even holocaust promoters no longer claim were genuine. I believe Ilse Koch was convicted at Nuremberg with this ludicrous fantastical joke one of the key pieces of evidence used against her. May I suggest you research Albert Rosenberg; head of the Psychological warfare division of Allied forces. He concocted the shrunken heads story as a hoax. By the way weren't the Germans convicted during the Nuremberg trials of committing the Katyn wood massacres of the Polish intelligentsia. The Germans had already proven during the war that that was the soviet NKVD (largely Jewish) and they were validated afterwards. How can you take anything from the Nuremberg trials as genuine. Perhaps you've seen the George Stevens (Film director) propaganda movies from Dachau. If not please enjoy this eye opening clip where he films alleged gas chambers; clearly delousing chambers as there are coats galore lined up outside.

    According to the Nuremberg trials the Treblinka camps had steam and electrocution death chambers. Another camp had peddle driven head bashing machinery. Not a shred of evidence was ever provided of course. Nuremberg; the joke that keeps on giving.

  7. Antony the human soap rumor is the one that was unsubstantiated. The human lampshades were associated with Ilse Koch wife of the commandant of Buchenwald Karl Koch. Both were arrested by the SS and charged with murder and corruption.Ilse was acquitted for lack of evidence but Karl was condemned to death and executed by the SS on the charges in question before the end of the war. There are pictures of the lampshades in question. As to the shrunken heads those were of Polish officers and at least one of those heads was photographed,which photo has been reprinted many times. As to the Katyn allegations the IMT determined not to convict or acquit the German defendants because they knew that the real perpetrators the Soviet NKVD could not be brought to justice given the presence of Soviet judges on the bench and the limitation of the IMT's jurisdiction to Axis war criminality

  8. I should add that Karl Koch was convicted by the SS on charges of murdering concentration camp prisoners in order to cover up his corrupt dealings. SS judge Konrad Morgen furnished the details of this case as he was the chief investigator at the IMT proceeding. Incidentally even a finding that the SS as a whole did not engage in manufacturing human lampshades would not preclude a finding that deviant individuals within its ranks did so. Finally the trial of SS medical personnel furnished an example of one defendant Wolfram Sievers who did engage one professor August Hirt for the purpose of creating a Jewish skeleton collection,an enterprise as gruesome as any lampshade or shrunken head procurement.