The Order was marked ‘Secret’ and was limited in its distribution to just twelve copies. ‘For a long time now,’ it began, ‘our opponents have been employing in their conduct of the war, methods which contravene the International Convention of Geneva … The members of the so-called Commandos behave in a particularly brutal and underhand manner.’
‘From captured orders,’ it continued, ‘it emerges that they are instructed not only to tie up prisoners, but also to kill out-of-hand unarmed captives who they think might prove an encumbrance to them, or hinder them in successfully carrying out their aims. Orders have indeed been found in which the killing of prisoners has positively been demanded of them.’
‘In future, Germany will adopt the same methods against these Sabotage units of the British and their Allies; i.e. that, whenever they appear, they shall be ruthlessly destroyed by the German troops.’
On the one hand, Hitler was denouncing the breach of the Geneva Conventions by British soldiers. But on the other hand, he was issuing orders to ‘ruthlessly destroy’ them. Hitler was not calling for the commandos to be shackled if captured. He was demanding their execution.
‘From now on,’ he ordered, ‘all men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man.’
Auf den letzten Mann – it could not be clearer. The next sentences unveil the full horror of the order: ‘This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs, with or without arms; and whether fighting or seeking to escape; and it is equally immaterial whether they come into action from ships and aircraft, or whether they land by parachute. Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given.’
The execution of British and other allied soldiers in uniform, following their surrender, was a war crime. But it was a war crime with which the German military was long familiar. Particularly on the eastern front, surrendering to the Wehrmacht had never been a guarantee of safety. It has been estimated that about 60% of Soviet soldiers who surrendered to the Germans died in captivity – a loss of up to 3.5 million lives. The rules of war on the eastern front were now to be applied to the west, at least in the case of British and other Allied special forces.
There were apparently additional instructions that the murders would be kept secret, the bodies buried in unmarked graves, and the fate of the captured commandos would not be revealed to the Red Cross or anyone else.
The Commando Order was illegal, and recognised as such by the Nuremburg tribunal. German officers were convicted of war crimes for carrying it out. While some German officers, most notably Rommel, ignored the Order, others carried it out with great enthusiasm.
Among those who died because of the Commando Order were two of the officers who served on Operation Basalt – Lt. Dudgeon and Captain Pinckney, both killed by the Germans following their capture in Italy in 1943.
By Eric Lee