Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss

Judgment at Hamburg


The Ravensbruck trial was held in Hamburg, Germany. The prosecution team asked Vera "to act as a sort of marshal." SOE agents under Vera's authority had perished at Ravensbruck which was one reason the British were trying the case.

It was a chilly November 21, 1946 when Vera arrived in Hamburg.

Fritz Suhren <em>(Public Domain Image)</em>
Fritz Suhren (Public Domain Image)
Ravensbruck commandant Fritz Suhren would not be at this trial as he had escaped from custody, although he would later be captured, tried and hanged. The unsavory characters in the dock included SS camp overseer Dorothea Binz who was known for her cruelty, "nurse" Vera Salvequart who prepared "patients" for the gas chambers, and Carmen Mory, who had been in charge of the camp's "punishment block."

Imprisoned at the only Nazi concentration camp specifically for women were many who worked for national resistance movements, spies, Gypsies, Jews and political dissidents. Some were there because male relatives were active in Resistance movements.

The star witness for the prosecution was one of Vera's surviving agents, Odette Sansom. Only six months previously she had become the first woman to be awarded a George Cross, Britain's highest award for courageous service.

Ravensbruck prisoners had been crowded into tiny huts and forced to subsist on thin soup and potatoes. They labored in quarries, factories and fields for long hours without a break. Those who weakened were often beaten. Many died of starvation or ill health brought on by the brutal conditions. Others were deliberately murdered by being shot, hanged or gassed.

Occasionally testimony turned to SOE agents Cicely Lefort, Violette Szabo, Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe who had been murdered at the camp.

Sylvia Salveson, held at Ravensbruck for her major role with the Norwegian resistance, testified to knowing Cicely Lefort. Cicely had taken ill and was unable to stand for roll calls so she volunteered for a part of the camp in which she assumed conditions were better. In fact, conditions were worse with prisoners forced to stand for seven hours at a time for roll call. Cicely got sicker and was killed.

Another ex-prisoner testified that Violette, Lilian and Denise were "emaciated, dirty, and weak" before being taken away to be shot. Lilian was so weak she was carried to the execution place.

Ravensbruck camp overseer Johann Schwarhuber had given Vera a statement about Violette, Lilian and Denise several months prior to the trial. He again told about their fates at the Ravensbruck trial. Although he had presided over a multitude of murders, the killings of the three SOE agents stuck out in his mind.

"I accompanied the three women to the crematorium yard," he testified. "All three were very brave, and I was deeply moved." He continued that the three were shot and then their corpses incinerated.

The trial ended with eleven of the Ravensbruck camp staff sentenced to death. One who received the death sentence, Carmen Mory, cheated the executioner by killing herself with a razor blade she had hidden in her shoe.

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