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Justice by Firing Squad

By Fred L. Borch
2/5/2018 • Military History Magazine

Tried for ordering the execution of American prisoners of war, a German general ultimately faced his own judgement day.

“Ready. Aim. FIRE!” At that last command, a dozen American soldiers fired their rifles at a German Wehrmacht officer tied to a wooden post. On Dec. 1, 1945, General Anton Dostler, his head shrouded in a black hood as required by military regulations, died instantly. His execution by firing squad in Italy was the final page in the story of a horrific war crime ordered by Dostler some 21 months earlier—the murder of 15 American soldiers who had been captured behind enemy lines.

The case of United States v. Anton Dostler is unique. It is the only instance in history in which a German general officer was tried and executed for war crimes on the sole authority of the United States. It also is an illuminating example of the U.S. Army’s use of a military commission to prosecute war crimes in the aftermath of World War II.

On the night of March 22, 1944, 15 American soldiers—two officers and 13 enlisted men—climbed into rubber dinghies from U.S. Navy PT boats that had brought them from Corsica, paddled to the beach and waded ashore on the Italian mainland some 60 miles north of La Spezia and about 250 miles behind German lines. The men were members of Company D, 2677th Special Reconnaissance Battalion, a covert operations group of the Office of Strategic Services. Their mission, code-named Operation Ginny, was to destroy a tunnel on the vital rail line between La Spezia and Genoa, a line the Germans were using to supply forces fighting on the Cassino and Anzio beachhead fronts.

Allied bombers had tried—but failed—to destroy the rail line. Now the plan was to have the 15 saboteurs cut the line by blowing one of its tunnels. But while stealth was essential to mission success, and the Americans were all of Italian ancestry and had been chosen because most spoke Italian, they did not attempt to disguise their identities; all wore regulation Army field uniforms (including insignia), and none carried civilian clothes.

On the morning of March 24 a patrol of Italian Fascist militiamen and German soldiers surprised the outnumbered Americans, who surrendered after a brief firefight. They were taken to La Spezia and confined near the headquarters of the Wehrmacht’s 135th Fortress Brigade. The unit, commanded by Colonel Kurt Almers, was subordinate to General Anton Dostler’s 75th Army Corps.

Soon after arriving in La Spezia, the captured Americans were interrogated in English by Korvettenkapitän Friedrich Klaps, commander of the small Abwehr (German military intelligence) station in La Spezia, and his assistant, Oberleutant zur See Georg Sessler. The Germans tricked Ginny commander 1st Lt. Vincent Russo into revealing the details of the American operation by telling him his fellow officer had already revealed all. In fact, no one on the team had talked. Russo realized too late he had been duped.

In the meantime, Almers had reported the Americans’ capture to higher headquarters. The next day, March 25, the brigade received a telegram stating, THE CAPTURED AMERICANS WILL BE SHOT IMMEDIATELY. Dostler had signed the order.

Almers, Klaps and Sessler were shocked by the order to kill POWs. They asked Dostler to reconsider his order or at least stay the execution. The 75th Army Corps commander replied later that day: The Americans were to be shot before 7 the next morning, March 26. Officers of the 135th Fortress Brigade tried twice more to reach Dostler by telephone and plead with him to rescind his execution order. They were unsuccessful.

The next morning, less than 48 hours after the capture, a Wehrmacht firing squad shot the Americans. The Germans dumped the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. The execution could not have been more summary: The U.S. soldiers had neither been tried nor even given a hearing.

Unlike the 15 Ginny team members, Dostler survived the war. Born in 1891, the professional soldier had spent most of his life in uniform. By October 1945 he was in Rome, a POW in American custody. He faced a possible death sentence at a military commission appointed by General Joseph T. McNarney, the Army’s commanding general in the Mediterranean Theater.

The two U.S. Army prosecutors, Major F.W. Roche and 1st Lt. W.T. Andress, saw the case against Dostler as simple and clear-cut: The dead Americans had been soldiers, were properly dressed as such and were on a legitimate military operation when captured. They were therefore entitled to be treated as prisoners of war, and their execution without trial violated a rule of international law at least 500 years old.

The prosecutors called several witnesses, including an OSS captain who explained the nature of the Ginny team’s sabotage mission. Klaps and Sessler, the two Abwehr officers who had interrogated the Americans, also took the witness stand. They confirmed the 15 men had been dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and carried military equipment. Three German soldiers also testified about attempts made by Almers and others at the 135th Fortress Brigade to have Dostler rescind his execution order and about the execution itself. Finally, the prosecution submitted two written statements made by Dostler and the notes of an interview with him.

The defense countered by saying the stealthy nature of the sabotage mission meant the OSS members were really spies rather than legitimate combatants. They added that the Ginny saboteurs were not wearing distinctive military insignia recognizable at a distance and were, therefore, improperly uniformed and thus not entitled to POW status. But the earlier testimony of the Abwehr officers directly contradicted this position. And, as the prosecution quickly pointed out, since the law of war required that even spies be given a lawful trial prior to execution, this line of defense was of little value to Dostler.

As the essential facts of the case —Dostler had ordered the executions, and the Americans were dead—were not in dispute, the accused’s lawyers resorted to the “defense of superior orders.” They claimed that Dostler’s oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler required him to obey the October 1942 Führerbefehl (“Leader Order”), which proclaimed Allied commando units to be in violation of the Geneva Convention and ordered German units encountering such groups to “exterminate them without mercy wherever they find them.” Hitler’s order insisted that even if commandos “appear to be soldiers in uniform,” they must be killed and not be allowed to surrender. Finally, the order stated that if Allied commandos fell into German military hands “through different channels (for example, through the police in occupied territories),” they could not be kept, even temporarily. Instead, military personnel were to immediately deliver the commandos to the Sicherheitsdienst, the “security service” of the SS.

Under oath, Dostler testified he had no choice but to order the execution of the members of the Ginny mission: They had been caught while carrying out a commando raid, and Dostler’s oath to Hitler required him to obey the Führerbefehl, even if that order violated international law.

The defense of superior orders was not without merit. The 1940 version of the U.S. Army field manual governing the rules of land warfare stated that an individual would not be punished for a war crime if that crime was committed under the orders of his government or higher commander. The Army had amended the manual in 1944, and at the time of Dostler’s trial it stated that an individual who violated “the accepted laws and customs of war may be punished.” However, it continued, “The fact that the acts complained of were done pursuant to order of a superior or government sanction may be taken into consideration in determining culpability, either by way of defense or in mitigation of punishment.”

The prosecution countered that the execution of POWs without trial was an egregious violation of the law of war, inexcusable by the “defense of superior orders.” Roche and Andress added that Dostler’s reliance on the Fuhrerbefehl as a defense was misplaced: Since the Germans had not killed the Ginny saboteurs or immediately turned them over to the Sicherheitsdienst at the time of their capture, Dostler was, in fact, disobeying Hitler’s order. Whether the general and his defense counsel were correctly interpreting the law was irrelevant.

On Oct. 12, 1945, after a four-day trial, the military commission found Anton Dostler guilty. His sentence, in the archaic terminology of Army courts-martial, was “to be shot to death by musketry.”

Fifty days later, the Army carried out Anton Dostler’s execution at a prisoner stockade in the town of Aversa, Italy. McNarney had approved the commission’s sentence and denied requests from Dostler’s lawyers that their client’s life be spared.

The execution closely adhered to War Department regulations, which provided clear and detailed instructions for carrying out the sentence. Those participating in the execution appreciated its historic significance; Army Signal Corps photographers and a film crew arrived to record it.

The officer in charge and the 12 marksmen who had volunteered to serve on the firing squad followed a specific procedure. As required, the officer watched the firing party load its rifles, several of which received blank ammunition. Others then placed the rifles at random in a holding rack, from which each member of the detail chose a weapon. These steps ensured the riflemen would never be certain who had actually fired the fatal bullets (although an experienced shooter might know whether he had fired a blank round).

Shortly after sunrise, the prisoner guard delivered Dostler to the execution party. The officer in charge then read aloud the charge, the finding and the sentence and granted the condemned a brief moment with a Roman Catholic chaplain. Things moved quickly after that: Three soldiers tied Dostler to a post with his arms behind his back, one slipped a black hood over his head and a medical officer attached a 4-inch white target over Dostler’s heart.

Then, with the firing party lined up some 50 feet from the post to which Dostler was secured, the officer in charge gave the command to fire. The shots rang out in unison, and Dostler slumped forward. The riflemen, still following regulation, immediately turned their backs on the German general as the medical officer went forward and officially pronounced Dostler dead.

Anton Dostler’s case remains unique in history. His fate alarmed German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Dostler’s superior commander, who almost certainly knew of the decision to execute the American prisoners and likely approved the killings. Kesselring lied about his involvement in the affair at his own trial in Venice in 1947. But his perjury underscored the deterrent effect of the Dostler military commission, as it was now clear that the execution of prisoners of war would not be tolerated, regardless of circumstances.

 

For further reading, Fred L. Borch recommends: Anatomy of Perjury, by Richard Raiber, and the United Nations War Crimes Commission’s Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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