This was a Swedish operation undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government in the spring of 1945 to rescue concentration camp inmates in areas under Nazi control and transport them to Sweden, a neutral country, and though initially targeted at saving citizens of Scandinavian countries, was rapidly expanded to include citizens of other countries (spring 1945).
A staff of about 300 managed to extract 15,345 prisoners from concentration camps: of these, 7,795 were Scandinavian and 7,550 were of other origins. In particular, 423 Danish Jews were saved from the Theresienstadt concentration camp inside German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
The operation was so named from the fact that the buses used in the undertaking were painted white, and were marked with red crosses, to avoid confusion with military vehicles.
Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway in ‘Weserübung’ on 9 April 1940, in the latter immediately seizing a number of Norwegians, and two months later established the first prisoner camp at Ulven outside Bergen. As tensions intensified between the German occupiers and the resistance, larger numbers of Norwegians were arrested and detained in Norwegian prisons and camps, and were later deported to camps in Germany. The first groups of Norwegian prisoners arrived in Sachsenhausen camp early in 1940.
Arrests in Denmark began with the resignation of the Danish coalition government in the summer of 1943.
The Scandinavian prisoners in Germany were divided into various categories, from the so-called civil interned who lived privately and had certain freedoms, to the ‘night and fog’ prisoners who were destined to be worked to death. As the number of Scandinavian prisoners increased, various groups were formed in an attempt to organise relief work for them. The Norwegian seaman’s priests in Hamburg, Arne Berge and Conrad Vogt-Svendsen, visited prisoners, brought them food and brought letters to their families in Norway and Denmark. Vogt-Svendsen also made contact with two civilian families interned at Gross Kreutz. Together with other Scandinavians, the group at Gross Kreutz compiled extensive lists of prisoners and their location, and these lists were then sent to the Norwegian government in exile in London via the Swedish embassy in Berlin. In Stockholm the Norwegian diplomat Niels Christian Ditleff engaged himself heavily with the fate of the Scandinavian prisoners. By the end of 1944, there were around 8,000 Norwegian prisoners in Germany, in addition to around 1,125 Norwegian prisoners of war.
On the Danish side Admiral Carl Hammerich had long been involved in the secret planning of an expedition by the so-called Jyllandskorps to save Danish and Norwegian prisoners from the German camps. Hammerich had good connections with the Norwegian seaman’s priests, the Gross Kreutz group and Ditleff in Stockholm. By the beginning of 1945 there were around 6,000 Danish prisoners in Germany. During 1944 the Danes laid extensive plans, including the registration of prisoners and plans for transporting resources and making available food, shelter and quarantine for the prisoners, for implementation should they manage to reach Denmark. Hammerich visited Stockholm in February, April and July 1944 to discuss the plans with Ditleff.
As the Allied forces approached Germany from the west and the Soviets from the east in the later stages of 1944, the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force came to a decision about what should be done regarding Allied prisoners. Within the Norwegian government, Major Johan Koren Christie wrote a memorandum on 23 September suggesting that the Norwegian prisoners should remain where they were and await their liberation by the advancing Allied forces. Learning of this plan one month later, the Gross Kreutz group reacted swiftly: Johan Bernhard Hjort penned a report advising against the proposal on the grounds that the prisoners risked being murdered and that therefore they had to be rescued before Germany was occupied. In Hjort’s report of October 1944 was the first mention of a Swedish operation for the Scandinavian prisoners, but the proposal was initially received unfavourably. The rescue of prisoners was seen as a Norwegian responsibility and the Norwegian government was reluctant to give the Swedes any responsibility in the matter.
In Stockholm, Ditleff refused to accept the Norwegian government’s thinking and continued to press both the Swedish population and the Swedish foreign office to plan a Swedish rescue of Scandinavian prisoners. In September 1944, Ditleff raised the question with Count Folke Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross organisation, who was immediately positive about the plan. On 30 November, and on his own initiative, Ditleff delivered his memorandum Reasons for a Swedish Operation for Rescuing Prisoners to the Swedish foreign office. On 29 December, the Norwegian government revised its position and instructed its embassy in Stockholm to discuss the possibility of a Swedish operation targeting Scandinavian prisoners.
While Ditleff tried to influence the exiled Norwegian government, the Danes obtained a German permit to retrieve prisoners. The first prisoners transported back to Denmark were Danish policemen held in Buchenwald, starting on 5 December. By the end of February 1945, the Danes had transported 341 prisoners, most of them in poor health, back to Denmark. These journeys gave the Danes considerable experience which would later benefit ‘Vita Bussarna’.
Sweden was the only Nordic country to remain neutral in World War II, but the precise nature of its neutrality fluctuated: until the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in January/February 1943, Sweden was generally disposed toward Germany, but thereafter gradually altered its policy toward the Allied powers.
A Baltic German, Felix Kersten was the personal masseur of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Kersten lived in Stockholm, and was this well positioned to act as an intermediary between the Swedish foreign office and Himmler. SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei Walter Schellenberg, a trusted subordinate of Himmler, had long held the view that Germany would lose the war and encouraged Himmler to explore the possibility of a separate peace with the Allied powers, and believed that Sweden could be a useful go-between in any such attempt. With Kersten’s assistance, the Swedish foreign office was able to bring about the liberation of 50 Norwegian students, 50 Danish policemen and three Swedes in December 1944. An absolute condition for the release of the prisoners was that it should be hidden from the press for, should Adolf Hitler learn of it, continued repatriations would become impossible.
Ditleff sent a new memorandum on 5 February 1945, this time as an official Norwegian request. Sweden was asked to despatch a Red Cross delegation to Berlin to negotiate the position of the Scandinavian prisoners and, should this prove successful, to send a Swedish relief expedition. The Swedish foreign minister, Christian Günther, was in favour and the Swedish government authorised Bernadotte, the second highest official of the Swedish Red Cross ‘to attempt to obtain permission in Germany for the transport to Sweden or Denmark of the interned Norwegian and Danish prisoners’.
Bernadotte flew to Berlin on 16 February and met several Nazi leaders including foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei und Waffen-SS Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the RSHA (Reich Main Security Office), Himmler and Schellenberg. Himmler was initially against the movement of prisoners to neutral Sweden on the grounds that they could there receive training as police troops, as Sweden already did with other Norwegians and Danes. Bernadotte had to fall back on his second proposal, which was that the prisoners should be assembled in one camp so the Swedish Red Cross could support them. Bernadotte told Himmler he estimated the number of Scandinavian prisoners to be around 13,000, while Himmler said that it could not be more than 3,000.
During a second meeting with Schellenberg on 21 February, Bernadotte was informed that Himmler had now accepted the concept of grouping the Scandinavian prisoners in a single camp. During his visit to Berlin, Bernadotte also had meetings with the Gross Kreutz group (Didrik Arup Seip, Conrad Vogt-Svendsen, Wanda Hjort and Bjørn Heger), and it was Heger’s proposal which Himmler accepted.
The establishment of the ‘Vita Bussarna’ operation thus emerged from several years of planning and information collected by Danes and Norwegians, and these were used by the Swedes without significant change. For the required matériel, the Swedish Red Cross approached the Swedish army, which supplied the needed transport. The Swedish operation comprised personnel who were almost exclusively volunteers from the armed forces, equipment supplied from armed forces’ stockpiles and financial support by the Swedish state. The 308 personnel, including about 20 doctors and nurses, were volunteers from the T1, T3 and T4 supply regiments under the command of Colonel Gottfrid Björck, the inspector general of the Swedish supply forces. The transport comprised 36 ambulance buses, 19 trucks, seven passenger cars, seven motorcycles, recovery and workshop trucks, and one field kitchen, and in these was carried all necessary equipment, including food, fuel and spare parts, as nothing could be obtained in Germany. The ship Lillie Matthiessen departed for Lübeck with 350 tons of fuel and 6,000 food parcels for the prisoners, and was later supplemented by Magdalena, another vessel of the Salèn shipping line.
The force was divided into three bus platoons each with 12 buses, one truck platoon with 12 vehicles, and one supply platoon. The transport capacity totalled 1,000 people for longer journeys or 1,200 people for shorter journeys in which trucks would also be used. Allocated two drivers, each bus had provision for eight litters or seats for 30 passengers.
The Danish ambassador in Stockholm had offered a larger number of vehicles in the form of 40 buses, 30 trucks, 18 ambulances and other vehicles. Bernadotte did consider a mixed Swedish/Danish expedition, but the Danish offer was rejected on 23 February as the Germans had demanded that the undertaking be entirely Swedish.
The first part of the undertaking began from Hässleholm on 8 March and boarded the ferry from Malmö to Copenhagen. For security reasons, the Danish resistance movement was informed, but no problems were experienced. On 12 March, the first part had reached its headquarters, Friedrichsruh castle some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south-east of Hamburg, which was both close to the Danish border and the Neuengamme concentration camp where the Scandinavian prisoners were to be assembled. The Swedish team was allocated German liaison officers: the most prominent of these were Himmler’s communications officer, SS-Obersturmbannführer Karl Rennau, and for the Gestapo SS-Obersturmführer Franz Göring. The Swedish undertaking also had some 40 German communications, SS and Gestapo officers, and the Germans insisted that every other vehicle must carry one German officer.
Bernadotte had told Schellenberg that the Swedish party would reach Warnemünde on 3 March, but it was delayed by more than a week, primarily as a result of difficulties in obtaining Allied guarantees that the party would not be attacked: by this time the Allies had total air superiority and regularly attacked transport on German roads. The ‘Vita Bussarna’ operation would move mainly within areas over which British warplanes roamed. On 8 March, the British government told the Swedish foreign office that it had been informed about the operation but could provide guarantees against air attacks, so the Swedish party was on its own within Germany. Some of the vehicles were hit by Allied aircraft, strafing the roads, killing one Swedish driver and 25 concentration camp prisoners.
On 6 March, Bernadotte reached Berlin by air from Stockholm and continued his negotiations with the German authorities. Kersten had already arrived and the Swedish foreign office instructed its ambassador, Arvid Richert, to support Kersten in the latter’s efforts to exert influence on Himmler. Parallel with this, the Danish authorities, and especially the ambassador in Berlin, Otto Carl Mohr, sought to arrange the release of more Danish prisoners. It is worth noting that the Swedish and Danish aims were somewhat different: the Swedes negotiated with Himmler and Schellenberg and concentrated on gathering prisoners at Neuengamme, and the Danes negotiated with Kaltenbrunner and tried to secure permission to have the prisoners released, or possibly interned in Denmark.
On 12 March the Danes obtained permission for three movements, and by 21 March some 262 Danish prisoners of various categories had been relocated to Denmark in Danish vehicles. From 21 March the Danish effort came to an end and the Swedes took over.
The undertaking at Friedrichsruh was divided into two groups, the first being allocated responsibility of transporting prisoners from Sachsenhausen, in the area to the north of Berlin, to Neuengamme. The evacuation started on 15 March over a distance of about 355 miles (540 km), and in the course of seven missions, some 2,200 Danes and Norwegians were transferred to Neuengamme. As the prisoners were collected at Sachsenhausen, their names were checked with the group from Gross Kreutz to ensure that all were present.
The other group was responsible for the collection of prisoners from southern Germany. This included Dachau to the north of Munich, Schönberg some 50 miles (80 km) to the south of Stuttgart, and Mauthausen some 7.5 miles (12 km) to the east of Linz. The distances to be covered by this second group were greater than those of the first, Munich being 500 miles (800 km) distant. Adding to the difficulties was the delay that the transports faced for lack of fuel. The first column started out on 19 March, including 35 vehicles under Björck, and returned to Neuengamme on 24 March. The journey back was difficult as most of the prisoners were in very poor physical condition.
This first transport collected 550 prisoners, but 67 very sick prisoners had to be left behind. A huge problem during the transports was the prisoners’ chronic diarrhoea, a situation later alleviated by the Dames’ provision of portable lavatories of a type that had been used during their transports.
The Swedish transports delivered increasing numbers to Neuengamme, but the concentration of Scandinavian prisoners which Himmler had promised did not materialise. Swedish health personnel and the buses were not allowed to enter the camp as the Germans would not let the Swedes see the camp, so the prisoners had to march to the buses.
Early in February a small Swedish Red Cross detachment (six men, two buses and one car under Captain Hultgren) arrived in Berlin with the task of transporting Swedish-born women who were married to German men and needed to escape before the collapse of Germany. The evacuation started on 26 March, and 1,400 women and children of Swedish descent had arrived in Malmö by 20 April via Lübeck and Denmark.
The Neuengamme concentration camp was already overcrowded, and to create the space for the Scandinavian prisoners, the SS insisted that prisoners of other nationalities be moved to other camps. The SS commander had no transport of his own and required that the ‘Vita Bussarna’ vehicles undertake the task and thereby pave the way for the newly arrived Scandinavians to become the sole occupants of the Schonungsblock, a barrack building for prisoners unfit for labour. Some 2,000 Belgian, Dutch, French, Polish and Soviet prisoners were thus transported to other camps, mostly between 27 and 29 March to sub-camps in Hannover and Salzgitter and to Bergen-Belsen. During these evacuations some 50 to 100 prisoners died, and many more died in the worse conditions in the new camps to which they were transported, having been moved to avoid the advancing Allied armies.
The last transport for the SS was undertaken on 13 April, when about 450 so-called prominent French prisoners (senators, leading businessmen and the like) were moved on the German assurance that they were to be repatriated through Switzerland: the plan was based on the delivery of the prisoners to the concentration camp at Flossenburg, whence they would be delivered to Switzerland by the Swiss Red Cross. The promise of the transport to Switzerland was a lie, and that camp was full, so the prisoners were taken to Theresienstadt where the Swedish vehicles were heading to pick up 400 Danish Jews.
Vehicle convoys on 30 March and 2 April collected Danish policemen and some Norwegians, 1,200 in all, from the camps at Torgau, Mühlberg and Oschatz near Leipzig. The Danish policemen were taken to Denmark in two columns between 3 and 5 April; on 23 April around 1,000 of these were sent to Sweden.
On 29 March the Swedish Red Cross personnel were finally given access to Neuengamme, and the delivery of medicines, blankets, personal hygiene articles and food was also authorised. A Scandinavian block was established and the conditions there became so good that prisoners from other nations became unhappy about the privileged Scandinavian prisoners.
Bernadotte arrived in Berlin from Stockholm on 28 March for renewed negotiations with Himmler. He was to gain permission to transfer the Scandinavian prisoners from Neuengamme to Sweden, have access to the whole of the camp and if possible, also take Jewish prisoners to Sweden. On 30 March Bernadotte had his first chance to visit the Neuengamme camp where, by the beginning of April, most of the Scandinavian prisoners had been gathered. Even so, the undertaking dragged on. Colonel Björck returned to Sweden and was succeeded by Major Sven Frykman. Some of the personnel also left, but after a promise of double pay, around 130 men agreed to remain.
On 2 April a new Swedish column departed for southern Germany to collect the remaining prisoners from Mauthausen and Dachau. One bus, with the Norwegian doctor Bjørn Heger, was assigned to search for 30 prisoners which the Gross Kreutz group presumed were in the area around Schömberg. In the sub-camp at Vaihingen, only 16 of the 30 prisoners were found alive. The column saved 75 prisoners: 16 from Vaihingen, 16 female prisoners from Mauthausen and 43 seriously ill men from Dachau.
On 5 April almost half of the Swedes returned home and were replaced by Danes, a change accepted by the Germans and the Swedish foreign office. The Danes deployed 33 buses, 14 ambulances, seven lorries and four private cars, and were led by Frants Hvass of the Danish foreign office. The Danish contingent was co-ordinated with the Swedish undertaking, and from 8 April the ‘white buses’ constituted a mixed Swedish/Danish undertaking with the Swedes in command. The Danish vehicles were also painted white, but displayed the Danish flag rather than the Red Cross.
Prisoners kept in ordinary jails were a separate category, and the ‘white buses’ were allowed to collect these prisoners only in April. On 9 April a mixed Swedish/Danish column under Captain Folke travelled to Berlin to transport 200 prisoners from various jails: in all, 211 prisoners were collected from some 20 establishments, among them Dresden, Cottbus, Luckau, Zeithain, Groitzsch and Waldheim to the east of Dresden. On April 15 a column collected 524 prisoners from jails in Mecklenburg.
The Danish Jews who had been unable to escape the arrests of 1943 had been deported to Theresienstadt. The Swedes and Danes had to be patient before the Germans gave their permission for the undertaking to start, and time was short as the Allies were approaching. In the end a German liaison officer managed to get authorisation from the Gestapo, and on 12 April a column set out under the command of Captain Folke with 23 Swedish buses, 12 private cars, some motorcycles and a number of Danish ambulances with Danish doctors and nurses.
The situation in Germany was now critical, and the Swedish drivers were informed that the trip would be very dangerous. At the last minute, the Swedish foreign office tried to stop the departure as it had been informed that Soviet forces had blocked the road, but the column nonetheless departed. By 15 April the column had collected 423 Scandinavian Jews from Theresienstadt and embarked on its return journey and reached Padborg on 17 April, without casualties. On the following day, the rescued Jews were transported by ferry to Malmö.
The first air attack on the ‘white buses’ occurred on 18 April, when the Danish camp at Friedrichsruh was strafed by Allied fighter planes. Four drivers and a nurse were slightly wounded, and 10 vehicles were destroyed. In the coming days there were several more such attacks, in which several personnel were killed and wounded.
As a result of new negotiations, Bernadotte received authorisation to start the evacuation of severely ill prisoners. The first transport started from Neuengamme on 9 April, and involved 12 Swedish buses and eight Danish ambulances, which moved 153 prisoners, most of them confined to bed, to the Danish border and left at Padborg, where the Danes had a quarantine station. There the prisoners rested and received treatment before being moved through Denmark on Danish buses and trains for final movement by ferry to Malmö. By 18 April a total of 1,216 sick Danish and Norwegian prisoners had been transported to Sweden. Two days later, all Scandinavian prisoners in Neuengamme had been evacuated.
During the evening of 19 April, the evacuation of Scandinavian prisoners from Neuengamme was discussed in a meeting at Friedrichsruh castle. Bernadotte, Frykman, and Richert as the Swedish representatives, Rennau for the Germans, and Hvass and Holm for the Danes. The situation was critical, for the Swedish and Danish vehicles currently at Friedrichsruh lacked the capacity to evacuate the prisoners with the speed which was now required. The Danes offered additional vehicles from Jyllandskorpset, and the offer was accepted. Some 4,255 Danish and Norwegian prisoners were evacuated in 100 Danish and 20 Swedish buses. After a few days in Denmark, the prisoners were forwarded by ferry to Malmö.
Ravensbrück was a concentration camp for women, and located about 55 miles (90 km) to the north of Berlin. On 8 April about 100 Scandinavian female prisoners, but including two French women, were collected from the camp and transported directly to Padborg in Denmark. At this stage Bernadotte had received permission to collect all sick prisoners. On April 22 a column with 15 Danish ambulances under the command of Captain Arnoldson departed from Friedrichsruh to collect the women from Ravensbrück. When the column arrived at the camp, all was in chaos as the camp was to be evacuated in the face of the Soviet advance toward it. Arnoldson was told he could collect all Belgian, Dutch, French and Polish women, a total of about 15,000. Arnoldson accepted, even though this was more than three times as many as the ‘white buses’ could accommodate. The ambulances collected 112 sick women, and on arriving in Lübeck, Arnoldson managed to inform Bernadotte that further transport was needed. He promised that all available resources would be mobilised.
Two new columns arrived in Ravensbrück. One departed on April 23 with 786 women, mostly French, who were transported directly to Padborg, and the other collected 360 French women. The last columns arrived in Ravensbrück on 25 April. The situation within Germany was worsening rapidly, and there were frequent attacks on the transports as the Allied and Soviet forces continued their advances. In the camp 706 Belgian, Dutch, French and Polish women were loaded onto a column with Danish ambulances and lorries from the International Red Cross. On the way to Padborg this transport was attacked by Allied fighters, at least 11 persons were killed and 26 severely injured; the final number of fatalities was estimated at 25.
The last column, led by Sub-Lieutenant Svenson, transported 934 women, mostly Polish but also British, French and US, in 20 buses. The column rested during the night, was unsuccessfully attacked by fighters, and reached Padborg on 26 April 1945. This was the last Swedish transport before Germany capitulated. The Swedes were fortunately able to use a train with 50 goods wagons each carrying 80 female prisoners. The train departed Ravensbrück on 25 April and arrived in Lübeck on 29 April. After the passengers had been fed, the train moved on to Denmark. A total of 3,989 female prisoners were rescued by this method. Within a few days around 7,000 female prisoners were evacuated from Ravensbrück to Denmark and thence to Sweden.
On 28 April Captain Ankarcrona led an International Red Cross column to the camp at Neu-Brandenburg. This column passed advancing Soviet forces, collected 200 female prisoners and returned to Lübeck. Göring, the Gestapo liaison officer, organised a train from Hamburg to carry about 2,000 women (960 Jews, 790 Poles and 250 French), and this arrived in Padborg on 2 May.
On 30 April, Magdalena and Lillie Matthiessen departed Lübeck, the former with 223 female prisoners, the latter with 225. The transport had been organised by the Swedish doctor Arnoldsson with the assistance of Heger. The last group of female prisoners travelled from Copenhagen to Malmö by ferry on 4 May.
On 26 April, the Neuengamme concentration camp itself was emptied as British and Canadian forces closed on it, some 10,000 remaining inmates being transferred to a flotilla of decommissioned cruise ships anchored in Lübeck bay, where they were imprisoned below decks. These prison ships were unmarked with the Red Cross, and were bombed on 3 May by British warplanes in the Cap Arcona disaster in which most of the prisoners were drowned, strafed from the air, or machine gunned in the water by the SS guards.
The main reception station in Denmark was in the city of Padborg, on the border with Germany, and here the prisoners received food and medical treatment before before being transported through Denmark to Copenhagen. Transport to Sweden was then by ferry to Malmö, where the prisoners were received by the Länsstyrelsen county administration and Civilförsvaret civil defence organisation. Every arrival was placed in quarantine, and in all there were 23 billeting areas, most of them in Malmö area, with about 11,000 beds. Ambulatory health centres, mostly manned by Norwegian and Danish doctors and nurses, they themselves refugees, took care of the prisoners. For some of the prisoners it was too late: 110 persons, most of them Poles, died after arriving in Sweden.
According to the Swedish Red Cross 15,345 prisoners were saved, this total comprising 7,795 Scandinavians and 7,550 persons from other countries. Around 1,500 German-Swedes were transported to Sweden.