Ed Carter-Edwards recalls Buchenwald: 'So cruel, so savage, so brutal'
Strangers moved captured RCAF member from bed to bed in camp infirmary to keep him safe
For over 40 years, Ed Carter-Edwards didn't say a word about it — about being shot down over Paris, turned over to the German SS and surviving in the Buchenwald concentration camp when so many others perished.
As a young man, Carter-Edwards watched as the German war machine rolled across Europe, with Britain clearly in its sights.
"I felt it was my duty to try and help England somehow; the only way I could help was to retaliate, bombing, join the air force."
So, 73 years ago, at the age of 19, he signed on, training as a wireless operator and eventually being assigned to a Halifax bomber in the 427 RCAF squadron in England.
The Smithville, Ont., native had already completed 21 bombing runs, many of them to bomb Berlin, when in June 1944 his aircraft was hit, not quite 50 kilometres west of Paris.
"I plugged in the intercom and I heard the pilot say, "Bail out! Bail out! We're on fire. I looked out my window, the whole left wing was a mass of flames."
He survived the bailout and managed to connect with the French Underground, but while trying to work his way back to Britain, an informant handed him over to the brutality of the SS.
The SS refused to believe he was a Canadian airman, and he and 167 other captured Allied fighters were thrown into the Buchenwald concentration camp.
This was a training ground for the SS. Besides being a work camp, various medical experiments were conducted on prisoners, including children.
As many as 80,000 occupied Buchenwald. Many were worked or starved to death, some were murdered outright — shot or hung by their necks from hooks in the basement of the body disposal plant, then burned, at a rate of nearly 400 a day by the end.
Carter-Edwards arrived at Buchenwald on Aug. 20, 1944.
"When the train stopped and the doors opened — screaming, yelling, dogs, whips, it was an unbelievable scene," he said. "It was something one could never have ever imagined … we thought we were going to a prisoner of war camp."
They saw a chimney with smoke pouring out of it, he said, and smelled the terrible stench of what they heard was a crematorium.
"It was so depressing. It just made me feel as if it was the end of the world. It was the end of our world. How could people be so cruel, so savage, so brutal."
Saved by strangers
Within a month of arriving, Carter-Edwards developed pneumonia and wound up in what passed for a camp infirmary.
A German doctor came through about every fourth or fifth day, he said.
"If he thought you are not going to make it, he had somebody following him and they would inject a chemical into your heart right there while you were lying on this cot and kill you," he said. "Because if you couldn't work in Buchenwald, you died. You either worked or you died, there was no in between."
There was one kindness — strangers who hid him.
"They kept moving me around in this hut, from bed to bed, so that when the German doctor came in, he wouldn't notice that I was in the same bed for any length of time. So that's how I survived."
Eventually the German Luftwaffe had them moved to a military prison, perhaps afraid of what the Allies would do to captured German air force prisoners, if they found out. But not before two airmen died, with Carter-Edwards coming close to being the third.
"Thoughts of this place are never ones of forgiving and forgetting, although I try. And I try very hard," he said. "But I think I have mellowed to the point where I'm prepared to forgive. Forget … no you'll never forget. I'll never forget."