- By Helen Burchell
- BBC News, Northamptonshire
“Dad never told us kids about the war, so it wasn’t until after he died that we realized how important his work was.”
William Cross was not yet born when his father, Captain Victor Cross, was among the senior British soldiers who captured Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp who fled at the end of World War II.
Höss was a key figure responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews.
But how did a Northampton leather merchant find him and what role did he play?
Victor Cross worked in the family business – the British Chrome Tanning Company – in Northampton, before the war.
He traveled widely, buying leather for the high-quality women’s shoes the company produced.
His father sent him to Germany to learn more about the trade, and Victor became fluent in the language while there.
When World War II broke out in 1939, he joined the British Army Intelligence Corps, which was keen to recruit German speakers.
At the end of the war, Captain Cross was sent to Germany to command the 92nd and 95th Field Security Sections and, along with others, was tasked with capturing escaping Nazis.
Among the thousands of names given to them was Rudolf Höss – sometimes called Hoess.
Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss joined the Nazi Party in the early 1920s and later became an SS officer, working at the concentration camp at Dachau, before moving to Auschwitz, which he ran until 1943.
He continued to inspect other camps and evaluate their methods.
About six million Jews died in the Holocaust – the Nazi campaign to exterminate Europe’s Jews – and Auschwitz was at the center of that genocide.
But Höss escaped on his own when the war ended.
In an official Army report dated March 15, 1946, Captain Cross detailed how his group and others had completely destroyed Höss.
He wrote: “After 5 months of continuous investigation, interrogation and extensive search, this unit succeeded in arresting SS Obersturmbannführer Hoess, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand, the commander of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp built built under his supervision.
He told how Höss’s wife, Hedwig, and their children were found at a sugar mill where she was working in St Michaelisdonn.
She said she last saw her husband in April 1945 and that he had passed away.
Believing she was lying, Capt Cross’s team interrogated her several times.
After six days, “she finally broke down” and gave the address where her husband was staying, the captain wrote.
Working with another unit, Captain Cross’s team surrounded the farm near Flensburg in northern Germany – close to the Danish border – late on 11 March 1946 and “Suddenly Höss in his pajamas” .
The former commander lived and worked at the farm under the alias Franz Lang, “but admitted his true identity within 10 minutes of his capture,” Capt. Cross wrote.
Mr Höss made a statement “in a matter-of-fact manner and seemed quite willing to provide information”.
Concluding his report, Captain Cross wrote that Höss “must be considered one of the major war criminals… who was entrusted by Himmler with the mission of exterminating the Jews of Europe”.
“The most astonishing thing was his cold estimate that two and a half million people were gassed in Auschwitz alone,” he said.
Captain Cross went on to say that several people helped Höss hide, including his wife and 16-year-old son, Klaus.
He wrote: “According to Höss himself, these two people were fully aware of what was happening in the Auschwitz camp where they lived, as in Hoss’s words ‘the smell of corpses could not make anyone suspicious’.”
Höss was assigned to Hanns Alexander, a British Army officer in charge of the war crimes investigation team.
From his prison cell, on 16 March 1946, Höss wrote: “I personally arranged by order received from Himmler in May 1941 the extermination of two million people from June/July 1941 to late 1943 while I was commandant of Auschwitz.”
While awaiting trial, he wrote a memoir in which he recounted how he witnessed women and children being taken to early improvised gas chambers in houses small at camp.
He said: “A woman came up to me as she passed and pointed to her four children, who were manfully helping the youngest on rough ground, and whispered: ‘How can you kill such beautiful and adorable children by yourself? Do you know? You have no heart?'”
He wrote that he would ride horses to clear his head after such incidents.
On April 15, 1946, Höss testified at the Nuremberg trial.
When sworn in, he said: “During the summer of 1941, I was ordered to Berlin to receive orders personally from Reichsfuhrer SS Himmler.
“He said something like this – the Fuhrer had ordered the final settlement of the Jewish question. We, the SS, were tasked with carrying out this order. He chose Auschwitz for logistical reasons .”
He went on to say that the camp’s proximity to the railroad and isolated location were among the reasons the camp was chosen.
Höss’s witness statement at Nuremberg was significant because while other senior officers denied criminal conduct and defended the actions of the Third Reich, he made statements on the record about German actions Nazism and the mass extermination of Jews.
Höss was then extradited to Poland, where his trial in Warsaw began on 11 March 1947.
He was sentenced to death on April 2, 1947.
Höss was hanged on April 16, 1947 at the site of the former Auschwitz camp – the gallows is located in the remains of the camp’s Gestapo building, next to the first crematorium in Auschwitz, and a block from the villa where he lived. live with family 100 m.
Capt Cross returned to civilian life and continued working in his family’s leather goods firm until his retirement.
He died of cancer at the age of 75 on June 15, 1988.
His son William, now 71 and a farmer in Oakham, Rutland, recalls his father had lots of memorabilia, including the Swastika flag, “but we never asked him about it”, he said. speak.
“Even when we were playing with a pistol – he didn’t come out and tell us where it came from – or say ‘I got this from so-and-so.’
“Not until I was older [half] brother went through father’s things so a lot of things became clear about what he did.”
William’s half-brother, from Capt Cross’s first marriage, now lives at Lymington in Hampshire.
Although Peter Cross was born before his father went overseas with the Intelligence Corps, Captain Cross did not share his war experiences.
“He never mentioned it to me, but after he passed away, I went through his things,” the 82-year-old recalls.
Until then, neither brother realized their father’s role in capturing one of the Jews’ most notorious murderers.