Four Royal Engineers

Just before Christmas 1945, a military court was held in Oslo. This court was convened by order of Major-General D.A.H. Graham, CB, CBE, DSO, MC, commanding British Land Forces Norway (BLFN) on 7 December 1945. This court was established to try five people in connection with the murder of four soldiers who where part of Operation Freshman.

Operation Freshman was launched to destroy the heavy water plant at Vermok, Norway. Two gliders towed by Halifax bombers took off from an airfield near Wick, Scotland on the evening of 19 November 1942. Due to the weather and the failure of their direction-finding apparatus, both gliders and one of the bombers crashed. Both pilots in each of the gliders, the bomber crew and 14 of the 34 soldiers were killed in the crash. The surviving 20 soldiers (11 from one glider and 9 from the other) were killed by the Germans following the issuing of the Commando Order by Hitler in October 1942. All the soldiers were members of British 1st Airborne, Royal Engineers.

Of these 20 survivors, 11 were taken to a German army camp at Slettbo and shot, 5 were taken to a German concentration camp at Grini, near Oslo. These five were kept at the concentration camp until their execution by firing squad on 18 January 1943. The other 4 were taken to Stavanger, and were brutally killed by the Germans. It was the death of these four solders which was the subject of this military court.

The military court was held in the Law Courts, Oslo. The trial lasted four days: 10, 11, 12 and 13 December 1945.

Before the court stood the three accused: Stabsarzt Werner Fritz Seeling, Hauptscarfueher Erich Hoffman and Unterscharfuehrer Fritz Feuerlein.

They were all charged with committing a war crime in that they at Stavanger, on day unknown in or about November 1942, in violation of the laws and usage’s of war, were concerned in the killing of four unidentified British prisoners-of-war.

Two other people were charged with these three: Sachse and Kuhn. Although these two people were not in custody, it was decided to proceed with he trial of the three accused present before the court.

President: Major-General C.H. Miller, CB, CBE, DSO

Members: Lieutenant-Colonel J.M. Ripley, MC, RA, Lieutenant-Colonel H.J. Wright, RASC, Major Hon. R.J. Palmer, MC and Major H.J. Jennings, RA.

Advocate: Major E. Steel (Barrister at Law).

Waiting: Major E.D. Wiltshire, RAOC.

Prosecutor: Major A. Burnett, RA.

Defence (Seeling): Captain L. Irving, RA (Law Student).

Defence (Hoffman & Feuerlein): Captain F.R. Miller, RA (Solicitor).

Shorthand: Staff-Sergeant C.R. Stanton, Sergeant E.W. Gallagher and Lance-Corporal C.R. Martin.

The court also had the services of four interpreters.

All three accused pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Whilst the three accused had been held in prison awaiting their trial, they had all provided statements to the authorities.

Werner Fritz Seeling (a Luftwaffe doctor) provided a statement at Trandum Camp, Norway, dated 6 November 1945. He admitted that he injected the four prisoners with morphia to help relieve the pain caused by their injuries sustain in the crash. He stated that the measures were not lethal, and that he had better poisons available should he have wished to kill the prisoners. He also stated that he saw Hoffman repeatedly stamp on the throat of one of the prisoners, totally destroying the Adam’s Apple. Seeling and Hoffman then collected the prisoner who had recovered from the morphia, and was not greatly injured. They then drove him to Gestapo Headquarters. The prisoner was then told to walk down the stairs towards the cellar. He was followed by Hoffman. Seeling then said that he heard a shot. He entered the corridor, and saw the prisoner had been shot in the head, just behind his right ear. He stated that the other two soldiers had been strangled with a rope and a leather strap. One was killed by Hoffman, the other, Seeling thought, had been killed by Sachse. Each of the four prisoners had received three equal doses of morphia. Seeling also stated that he was told by Kuhn that all four corpses were to be dumped in the sea. Seeling ended his statement by saying that he regretted most deeply being unable to save the four wounded men.

Feuerlein, in his statement dated 28 September 1945 at Akershus Prison, stated that he saw Seeling and Sachse strangle one of the prisoners by hanging him from a radiator in the office. They then lifted the upper part of the prisoner’s body off the floor. Petersen then asked Seeling to kill the other wounded prisoner, which he did by injecting air into a blood vessel. Feuerlein also stated that three of the party of four were carried into the office and killed, the fourth being one which was taken away and later shot by Hoffman.

Hoffman made a statement on 12 September 1945, which he amended on 23 October 1945. In this statement, he stated that he drove Seeling to the Gestapo Headquarters, that Seeling gave all four men injections of morphia. He went on to state that it was Seeling, not himself, that had stood on the neck of one of the prisoners. Hoffman admitted helping to load the corpses on to a lorry, ready for their “… dumping at sea.”. Hoffman went on to state that he neither “… saw or heard that one of the victims had been throttled with a rope or leather strap.”.

The prosecutor started the trial by outlining the law regarding the definition of a war crime. He then explained what had happened on Operation Freshman. On 19 November 1942, a glider was towed over the south west coast of Norway. This glider contained a British Officer and 16 British other ranks. On approaching the coast the target finding apparatus became faulty. On the 2nd attempt to find the target, the two rope broke and the glider crashed at Fylgjesdalen, near Lysefjord on the south west coast. Of the glider’s occupants, 8 were killed in the crash leaving 9 survivors. Some of the 9 survivors were severely wounded.

On 21 November 1942, five of the survivors were taken, at Gestapo request, to Stavanger, the other 4 were looked after by the Gestapo in a Norwegian farmhouse until 23 November 1942, when they were also taken to Stavanger. All 9 were then taken to Prison “A” at Stavanger. 5 of these prisoners were then taken from Prison “A” to Grini concentration camp. The other 4 remained in Prison “A”. It is the fate of these 4 men which concerned the court.

A day or two after the arrival of the men at Prison “A”, Stavanger, Wilkens told a party of his men that the prisoners would be shot under Hitler’s Commando Order. One of this party, Scheulen, testified at the trial that he and his friends objected to carrying out this order, as the prisoners were wounded, and that they suffered no reprisals for refusing to carry out Wilkens’ order.

After this rebuff, Wilkens went to see Dr. Seeling. Seeling was then taken by Wilkens to Prison “A”. When he arrived that the prison, Seeling recommend that all 4 prisoners should go to hospital for treatment of their injuries. Seeling then returned home.

The next day, Wilkens sent for Seeling again, and told him that the wounded men would have to be shot. Seeling objected to this, but that evening Seeling was driven by Hoffman (one of the accused), who was NCO in charge of the Gestapo’s Motor Transport, to Prison “A”, where they were admitted by Feuerlein let them in.

The three prisoners who had been injected, and then strangled, were then stripped of all their clothes, and placed in a lorry. Hoffman then drove this lorry to the quay so they could be loaded aboard a ship ready for their dumping at sea. As the sea was so rough, the ship was unable to leave the harbour. So Hoffman drove the lorry back to the prison. On the following day, Seeling and Hoffman collected the fourth, less injured man, who had been shot by Hoffman. Hoffman then drove the lorry containing the four dead prisoners to the quay. They were then loaded on to a ship, and were later dumped at sea.

On the trial’s 2nd day, Seeling took the stand in his defence. His testimony followed his statement. When asked by his counsel, Seeling replied that he did not do anything to bring about the deaths of the men “… because the morphia was too small a quantity and I did not strangle anybody.”. Seeling denied the accounts provided by Feuerlein that he had given the prisoners any injections of air.

On the 3rd day, Hoffman took the stand in his defence. He reiterated his statement that it was Seeling, not himself, who had stood on the prisoner’s neck. Hoffman went on to state that he had not strangled any of the prisoners, and that he only helped to load the 3 corpses on to the lorry. He stated that Petersen had told him to shoot the fourth prisoner, but as he was so excited his shot missed. Petersen then went forward and shot the prisoner in the head.

On the afternoon of the 3rd day, Feuerlein gave evidence on his behalf. He admitted that he was a jailer at Prison “A”. He stated that he remained in the prison office. He saw Seeling take syringes and bottles upstairs to where the prisoners were lying. He stated that he entered the office, where the prisoners were killed, at infrequent intervals as part of his prison rounds. He did admit to placing his foot on the chest of one of the prisoners, when he was ordered by Petersen. He stated that this was instinctive, and he withdrew his foot immediately. When he made one of his visits to the office, he stated that he saw Seeling and Sachse lift one of the prisoners and hang him with some cord around his neck and one of the office radiators. Feuerlein also demonstrate to the court, using one of the court interpreters, how he had seen Seeling inject air into the a vein on the inner aspect of the elbow. He went on to state that Sachse was the head jailer at Prison “A”. He stated that he found the whole business revolting, but he could not leave the jail as he was on duty at the prison to open the gate.

The court then heard the closing speeches from the prosecutor and the two defending officers. The president then adjourned the court until 09.45am tomorrow (13 December 1945).

The 4th day opened with the Judge Advocate summing up the evidence presented by both the prosecution and defence. He outlined the legal aspects of the case concerning the Freshman mission, the dress worn when they were captured and mission instructions regarding the clothes to be worn once the mission had been completed. He also explained the relevant legal points of the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1929, regarding the treatment of prisoners-of-war.

The court then closed at 11.28am to consider their verdict. At 12.35pm the president then announced that all three accused had been found guilty.

Seeling then stated, in mitigation, that he did what he thought was best for the prisoners. He then again repeated that he neither gave lethal injections to, nor strangle any of the prisoners.

Hoffman and Feuerlein left their pleas for mitigation to their defending officer. Captain Miller stated that these two defendants were junior soldiers who formed part of a wider plan. They should receive relatively minor sentences, considering the well-known reputation of the Gestapo organisation.

The court closed for consideration of sentences at 1pm. Ten minutes later, the president announced that Seeling was sentenced to death by shooting, Hoffman was sentenced to death by hanging and Feuerlein was sentenced to life imprisonment.

All three prisoners appealed against their sentences, with Feuerlein additionally appealing against the court’s finding.

All the verdicts and sentences were confirmed on 26 December 1945. This decision was promulgated to the prisoners on 31 December 1945.

Werner Fritz Seeling was executed by firing squad at 9.05am on 10 January 1946 at Akershus Prison, Oslo.

Hoffman had also been sentenced to death for his part in the illegal execution of seven Norwegian patriots. He also appealed for clemency in this case, but this was rejected. Hoffman was taken to Germany, where, at 3.30pm on 15 May 1946 at Hamelin Jailhouse he was hanged.

Feuerlein, facing a sentence of life imprisonment, was handed over to Russians to answer charges about atrocities perpetrated on Russian prisoners-of-war. His ultimate fate is not known.

The four British soldiers whose murder this court investigated are Corporal James Dobson Cairncross, age 22, from Hawick, Lance-Corporal Trevor Louis Masters, age 25, from Cork, Driver Peter Paul Farrell, age 26, from London and Sapper Eric John Smith, age 24, from London.

After their murder, the bodies of the 4 Royal Engineers were disposed in the sea in the area between Usken/Kvits Island. As their remains have never been located, they are commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial.

James Dobson Cairncross on the Brookwood Memorial
James Dobson Cairncross on the Brookwood Memorial.

Trevor Louis Masters on the Brookwood Memorial
Trevor Louis Masters on the Brookwood Memorial.
Peter Paul Farrell on the Brookwood Memorial.

Eric John Smith on the Brookwood Memorial.