At November’s meeting of the History group U3A member Inga Sorensen shared her thoughts and experiences of the German occupation of Denmark during the Second World War, writes Pat Smith.
Inga was only six by the end of the war and she says that all her early memories were tied up with war and soldiers.
She described an illuminating incident which showed the dangers that ordinary people faced. The Germans came to search her family’s farm. They scoured the buildings and woods with metal detectors. What were they looking for? Weapons, ammunition and explosives. They’d been dropped by the RAF and hidden in the wood by her grandfather. Luckily the Germans couldn’t check every inch of the wood, although they dug a hole just a few metres from the hiding place.
The resistance group had to find a better place, somewhere that metal detectors couldn’t reach. Someone came up with a brilliant idea: the kitchen was huge, with a large metal cooking range, so the family dug a tunnel under the kitchen floor and a hole under the range. They brought the weapons through a long, low cupboard which ran from wall to wall, then through the tunnel to the hole, where they were stored.
The Germans came several times after that to search, but luckily they ignored the metal detector readings because of the metal range. ‘If they had found out, there is little doubt that my grandfather, perhaps the whole family, would have been shot,’ she said.
Many people will know that the Germans invaded Denmark on 9 April 1940 in defiance of a non-aggression pact. Some might feel that the Danes quietly agreed, but the reality is far more complex. Inga told us of the invasion itself, of how carefully it was planned and how overwhelming were the numbers involved, with 33,400 attacking from the south, including hundreds of cycling troops. The airfield was taken and planeloads of soldiers then arrived; more came on passenger ships. Resistance was useless and the Danish government agreed to a relatively peaceful occupation. They remained nominally in charge and their police continued their work. They could do little else.
Or could they?
- Their king, Christian X, rode his horse daily through Copenhagen, ignoring the German troops.
- Danish sailors took 245 merchant ships and joined the British Merchant Marine.
- The Danes started a campaign of passive resistance, fuelled by thousands of illegally printed leaflets which were passed from hand to hand. Throughout the occupation over 26 million were printed. The first was printed the day after the invasion by an 18-year-old student, who wrote ‘Ten commandments for Danes’ and put them into people’s letter boxes. One example was: ‘You must ruin important machines and tools.’
- An engineer threw a grenade against a German train, also the day after the invasion. Although it exploded and caused damage the Germans thought it was an accident.
- A Danish soldier threw a folded newspaper through the window of a British diplomatic train. Inside was hidden as much information about the invasion as the military could glean.
Inga told us a wonderful story about the ‘Churchill Group’. Ten young people, most of them schoolboys, started a campaign of sabotage. Their 16-year-old leader said later: ‘We had to do it when the adults don’t.’ They were caught, tried and imprisoned. That was when they started to seriously annoy the Germans. They managed to file through a bar in their cell and they climbed out night after night to sabotage German installations. They’d return before dawn and disguise the break with putty and black ink. They were only caught again when they were found outside the prison without identity papers during an air raid. In the USA they became comic book heroes. Although they ended up in prisons for the rest of the war – the younger ones in Denmark, the older ones in a German prison – they had inspired a nation.
As resistance became more organised over the years, the damage they did increased and the Germans became more punitive, insisting on heavy sentences in German prisons, rather than in Denmark. Danes protested and the enemy imposed curfews. The Danes retaliated by going on strike and the Germans had to back down.
Riots and civil disobedience followed. It erupted at the funeral of a young resistance worker in August 1942. He was Erik Vangsted, from Aalborg, who had been killed by the Germans at an RAF airdrop. Worried by the mood in Denmark, the Germans had ordered that no more than 50 participants could be at Vangsted’s funeral. The Danish authorities were worried that they would be unable to keep a lid on things and forced Vangsted’s family to have the funeral early in the morning. By noon that day 10,000 had turned up, many with wreaths. A huge one came from the Rordahls Arbejdere og Funktioner (a non-existant workers’ organisation whose initials were ‘RAF’). When told the funeral had already happened, the crowd rioted, tanks were sent in, two people were killed and many wounded. Aalborg remained on strike for 12 days.
How did the Germans react? Curfews increased, only five people were allowed to meet, striking was made illegal and censorship imposed along with the death penalty for any acts of sabotage. They also disarmed the Danish armed forces and despite resistance took over all their military equipment, right down to the towels, though the navy managed to sink 27 of its own ships. The military were interned and the Danish government resigned in protest.
So, leaderless and with an increasingly repressive occupying force, Denmark faced a bleak future. Resistance workers were sent to concentration camps or shot.
But what about the Danish Jews? There were 7,000, mostly Danish nationals, and the government had always supported them, stating: ‘There is NO Jewish question in Denmark.’
An internal struggle for power between German leaders in Denmark resulted in a telegram being sent to Berlin mentioning the possibility of an action against the Danish Jews, and on 18 September the secret order came from Berlin to set this action in motion. It would be during the night between 1 and 2 October.
Their saviour was an unlikely hero. He was Georg Duckwitz, a German shipping attaché. He leaked details to his Danish connections, and a massive underground operation swung into action. Jews were hidden or smuggled out of the country and Duckwitz even persuaded the German harbour commandant to keep his boats in on that one night, which allowed some to escape to Sweden.
That night only 200 were arrested. It took many weeks to get all the Jews who were in hiding across to Sweden, and some of them were caught. There are several stories of ordinary German soldiers who would go through the motions of looking for Jews but looked the other way if they stumbled across a rescue mission.
However, Hitler was satisfied. A telegram had been sent to him to say that the mission had been successful, and he never discovered the truth. A total of 475 Danish Jews were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, and 423 of those survived the war.
As the war progressed, strikes, resistance to curfews and acts of sabotage intensified. The Germans retaliated by arresting the Danish police, even attacking the guard at the royal palace in the process. Those arrested were sent to a concentration camp – but, again, many were given a tip-off not to go to work on that day. Inga’s uncle was such a man, and he spent the rest of the war in hiding, cutting peat on her grandfather’s farm and no doubt helping at weapons drops by hiding them under the kitchen range.
The resistance increased its attacks on the railways. Inga told us there were over 8,500 explosions of rails, bridges and water towers and 119 derailments of trains carrying German soldiers and equipment. As the war slowly turned against Germany, Denmark became home to 250,000 German evacuees and over 50,000 wounded German soldiers.
With the war close to an end repatriation of Scandinavians in concentration camps became a major priority, and the White Buses revved into action to take them home. This was a fleet of 200 buses manned by volunteers. It was difficult and dangerous work, but Inga highlighted one incident when Jews were finally liberated from their concentration camp after some difficulty. A Gestapo officer stopped the convoy only half-a-mile away. He informed them that each bus had to carry a soldier escort, then turned to the Jews and said: ‘You can take the Jewish stars off now.’
Their first stop in Denmark was the city of Haderslev. One Jewish man said: ‘The city was festooned with flags. Everyone stood along the sidewalk and waved to us and shouted. They threw bouquets into the buses, along with chocolate, cigarettes and cigars. It was too much for us: the tears streamed down our cheeks. We could not imagine that they dared do this – the Germans were still in the country.’
The number of people transported over the border to freedom in Denmark and Sweden at the very end of the war was around 17,500. As well as the Danes and the Norwegians, there were many French and Polish women and a few other nationals.
Although only six at the time, Inga remembers the end of the war vividly. ‘We lived in a small village, and early one morning my mother woke me and my brother and told us the war was over. No one went to work or school that day; everyone was out in the street, and the Danish flag was flying everywhere. My parent’s friend Alfred returned from concentration camp later on that month. The entire village turned out to greet him. Two men carried him along his garden path and all the little children were throwing flowers.’
A short while after the war some RAF officers came to visit the farm. They gave all the children RAF pins and their autographs and gave Inga’s grandfather a huge parachute that they hung in the barn. No one had had new clothes for a long time, so for a while they were all dressed in shiny white silk blouses and shirts.
‘And one day when the whole family was at the farm we planted a tree in the hole the Germans had dug when looking for weapons. We called it the Tree of Peace.’
Thank you, Inga, for sharing your memories and knowledge with us.