20th Century

The Case of Feldwebel (Sergeant-Major) Wolfgang Rosterg

Among the graves at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire in England are the bodies of two particular German soldiers. They had much in common. Both were prisoners of war and both had been disaffected by Nazism. One was an officer, Major Willi Thornan, and the other a warrant-officer, Sergeant-Major Wolfgang Rosterg. Furthermore they were both murdered by their own countrymen in Cultybraggan Camp in Comrie. As it can be pieced together this is their story.

German Cemetery, Cannock Chase, Staffordshire

There were several major camps in Great Britain with several being designated to handle dedicated hard-core Nazi-types. The main one was Camp 23 (Le Marchant Barracks) at Devizes in Wiltshire. Here most of the POW’s were screened for their political sympathies after their capture. Those identified as hard-core were distributed to other camps or overseas with some 4000 of them ending up at Camp 21 – Cultybraggan, Comrie.

Cultybraggan Camp was built between 1939 and 1940 as a prisoner-of-war camp. Its official number was POW Camp 21. Essentially it comprised two camps or compounds, both situated on the site of Agricola’s great marching camp of two thousand years before. The camp was designated to hold hard-core Nazis. Some had been taken prisoner prior to 1944 however the number increased to about 4000 men after the Normandy campaign

Several of the prisoners selected for transfer from Devizes however, were not Nazis, but just ordinary German soldiers who had been conscripted for war service and who had been sent to Cultybraggan because they had been wrongly classified in their initial processing after capture or surrender. The populations of both were considerable and new arrivals were a daily occurrence. One such arrival was Feldwebel (Sergeant Major) Wolfgang Rosterg.

Little is known about the personal history of Rosterg other than he was relatively old for a soldier being in his early thirties, wore thick black spectacles, and was said to be the son of a wealthy German industrialist. He had been a prisoner at Devizes and his POW number was A7888778 and he arrived by bus, along with 30 other POW’s, at Cultybraggan on December, 17th, 1944. Five days later on December 22 he was found dead, but the cause of his death was far from natural. The story, as it is known, can be unravelled but in an incomplete fashion as the official papers regarding the case are filed away under lock and key. At the time of his arrival at the camp in Dalginross, Comrie, it was guarded by Polish soldiers and naturally enough their hatred of the Germans was based on the total destruction of their country in 1939. They were not to be trifled with by any German...and the Germans knew it!

The Devizes Camp located in Wiltshire housed thousands of these bitter and fanatical Nazis. Even in captivity they nurtured the notion that they were only stopped temporarily from their philosophy of world conquest and carried with them the beliefs that they were the Master Race. Hitler was their God and Leader and their part in the creation of the Thousand-Year Reich had temporarily been put on hold by the inconvenience of being captured.

Le Marchant Barracks, Devizes

As with all POW stories there was a lot of plotting and scheming about how to get out of the camp, and then back to their native country...only with this lot it was not a game! They intended to coordinate their activities with POW’s who were planning to escape at the same time from other camps, organise themselves as a mini-army, steal weapons and vehicles, including tanks, and march on London as Boudicca had done a long time prior. The link up with other escaped prisoners-of-war would, they supposed, create havoc in Britain. In addition they were going to be supported by paratroopers flown in straight from the Fatherland.

The planning in all likeliehood probably had been going on for a long time but picked up momentum when new intake prisoners probably told them that Hitler had a grand plan which was going to be put into effect just prior to Christmas 1944. The escape was to be coordinated with the planned offensive in the Ardennes Forest. D-day, for them, was set for December 16. The British and American troops who acted as guards at Devizes knew a fair amount about the “great” escape. They had received whiffs of information from several sources. These included intercepts culled by Bletchley Park, careless talk (of which there was a lot), and some informers (stool pigeons). Like many PoW camps there would have been, no doubt, hidden microphones placed in a number of cells and barracks in and around the Devizes site. The Britivch and the Americans therefore knew from all of these resources that a mass breakout was in the offing. However, although the information was passed to the the Americans the information provided by the British was given no credence. The Americans by this point in the war were flexing their muscles and even chose to ignore repeated warnings from their own Intelligence units in Belgium about major troop and tank movements in the area of the Ardennes Forest. They also ignored information provided by local Belgian people who had occasion to pass between the lines to American soldiers in the area. This eventually proved to be Hitler’s last major hurrah ...and the consequences were tragic and although the drive to Brussels and Antwerp was stopped the casualties amongst young American soldiers in particular were horrific.

In the meantime the British may have thought it would be a good idea if they could have someone acting on their behalf on the inside and thereby thwart the plot. One can speculate that they may or may not have recruited Rosterg as a spy. It is possible therefore that Rosterg, if that was his real name, who had been captured shortly prior to this campaign and had seen too much of war, may have become disaffected by the German cause. Realizing that the war could not be won by Germany he may have been open to suggestions presented by British Intelligence. By an odd coincidence one of the plotters who was also instrumetnal in having Rosterg murdered, gave the whole game away because he did not know of the listening devices. The situation at Devizes became so explosive around this time that the Parachute Regiment appeared in full battle gear and prepared for any eventuality. They had instructions to discourage any attempts to escape either individually or en masse. Their actions stopped the German planners immediately and shortly thereafter Rosterg, and others, were transferred from Devizes to Camp 21 arriving at Cultybraggan on December 17, 1944.

The snow was falling lightly around the camp when Sergeant-Major Rosterg and his companions alighted from the bus that afternoon. Before them was a busy scene. Polish guards ushered them from one building to another chattering and ordering away in Polish and German. The new arrivals had to provide POW identification and numbers checked and double-checked against other documents. A quick physical examination was undertaken and they were allocated to a barracks. Rosterg was put into Hut 4, Compound B, where he joined its existing prisoner population of about 80 die-hard fanatical Nazis. They were young, tough and fanatical. They swaggered about. Some even in uniform, and generally were of the loud boastful types…but no doubt they swaggered less when their Polish guards were close by. Two days after Rosterg’s arrival Major Willi Thornon was found hanged in the camp and the investigation suggested that it was not a suicide. Perhaps he may have been an informer for British Intelligence or perhaps he was just worn out and disillusioned with his cause. Regardless the rope had done the job!

Newspapers and magazines were provided to the inmates of Hut 4, Block “B” and Rosterg who had reasonable translation ability translated articles from the “Scotsman” and “The Glasgow Herald.” These newspapers suggested that the German attack through the Ardennes was doomed to failure. This was not the sort of news Rosterg’s colleagues wished to hear. They thought that they were continuously being fed with propaganda. Rosterg, who may have been indiscreet, also made it known that he was not like them. He considered the Nazis as scum. And it showed!

Being die-hard Nazis they came to the conclusion that possibly the Sergeant-Major was a defeatist at best, and a spy at worst. A typical drumhead-court martial was convened (an Ehrenrat) and Rosterg questioned. It was an unusual question and answer procedure which was extreme and brutal. If the Sergeant-Major did not satisfy the questioner(s) he was beaten on the head with iron bars which had been heated in the stove. They kicked him all over his body and he was jumped and sat upon, and he even had his head battered off the kerb stones in front of the barracks! These people were not nice! Eventually he was dragged across the ground to the latrines, and then hauled up and hanged backwards over a water pipe. He died of strangulation and hiss body discovered by his Polish guards at 9 a.m. on December 23, 1944. No noise had been heard as he had been gagged when all this was going on.

When the incident was investigated it met with a wall of silence with only one crack provided. One of the prisoners mentioned that Rosterg had arrived at the wrong time and had been with the wrong people at the wrong time. He was, “thrown into the lion’s den when the lions were angry.”

A young officer named John Wheatley, later Lord Wheatley and Lord Justice Clerk, was brought in and acted as the investigator. He wrote in his journal shortly after his arrival at the camp, “The atmosphere in the camp was extremely violent and threatening. Only the fact that the guards were Poles and were absolutely ready to crack down on these men who had destroyed their homeland held the line.”

Wheatley was assisted in his investigation by a German Jewish interpreter, Herbert Sulzbach. Herbert had fled from Germany in the 1930’s and sought asylum in Britain. When war was declared he, along with thousands of other Germans and Italians, was placed in custody on the Isle of Man. The only way that he could free himself was to join the Pioneer Corps. This he did, and because of his language skills, was soon hard at work in various interrogation centres throughout the UK. He was seconded to work with Wheatley at Cultybraggan.

Captain John Wheatley, later Lord Wheatley

As the enquiry unfolded it transpired that after Rosterg had read out some of the articles he had translated. They had been met with utter disbelief by his comrades. They attributed it to propaganda and Rosterg as the bearer of bad news. He perhaps should have left it at that but he persisted. Eventually he apparently told them, no doubt somewhat heatedly that “he was not a filthy Nazi like them.” This remark led to his death.

Eventually eight of the prisoners were charged with the murder with the eldest being twenty-one. They were taken to London where on July 10, 1945, three months after VE day, they were put on trial. One of them turned King’s evidence (unusual, and he got off), six were found guilty, and two acquitted. One of the six escaped the death penalty, although he spent eight years in prison before being released. The remaining five were sentenced to death and they were all hanged at Pentonville Prison in London on October 6, 1945. A now lost photograph of the murderers was taken of them walking though a gate at Pentonville. Their names were - Senior Cadet Erich Pallme-Koenig of the Parachute Corps - he was a leader of the escape committee at Devizes, SS Sergeant Joachim Goltz age 20, SS Corporal Heinz Bruling age 21, SS Grenadier Kurt Zuellsdorff age 20, Joseph Mertens, age 21, a naval rating.

Ironically there was an almost identical case in Papago camp in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, in 1945. Werner Drechsler, age 21, was beaten to death there by seven Nazi thugs. The perpetrators were all hanged in Leavenworth Prison in August, 1945. Werner had been a leading seaman, an obergefreiter, on U-118, a mine laying submarine, which had been sunk by aircraft from the USS Bogue on June 12, 1943. The U-118 was a sister submarine to the U569.

U-118 being sunk by aircraft from the USS Bogue on June 12, 1943

By coincidence Lieutenant (jg) Chamberlain was one of the pilots on the attacking run and dropped a total of four depth charges on the submarine.

By another odd coincidence one of the perpetrators of the murder was called Stenger, but was no relation to Helmut. Werner, who certainly was giving information to the US army under the name of Petty Officer Leimi, was buried in Fort Bill, El Paso, Texas.

By a further coincidence Helmut Stenger lived out his life in Phoenix, Arizona, not far from Papago Park.

Captain Herbert Sulzbach in 1946 – He was a Sergeant at the time of the Rosterg Murder in Cultybraggan in 1944

Medals of Captain Herbert Sulzbach O.B.E. (German and British)

After a very distinguished career in the legal profession Wheatley became a Life Peer, Baron Wheatley of Shettleston, in Glasgow. He died in 1988.

Captain Sulzbach died in July, 1985, age 93. He is buried beside his wife at Hampstead Cemetery.

Since the Germans departed the camp it has been used by cadets from throughout the United Kingdom who come mainly in the summer for training purposes. In recent years a nuclear shelter was constructed inside its perimeter. The reason appears that in the event of a nuclear attack the people of Comrie will have a place to go and, as they have done over the millennia, survive! A further development has been made and the whole site has been purchased by the village. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do with it.