A German soldier who worked at a North-East prisoner of war camp during the war hid a horrifying secret from the soldiers and his fellow prisoners. Jim McTaggart reports.
TO the men he worked alongside and the soldiers who watched over him, Josef Dagner was a humble German footsoldier who had been captured by Allied troops in Calais and shipped to a low-security prisoner of war (PoW) camp in the North-East.
But Dagner harboured a dark secret. Far from being a reluctant conscript, he was a member of the infamous Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS, and part of the paramilitary elite given the job of acting as the Fuhrer’s Praetorian Guard.
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Dagner’s reluctance to be in a photograph was not because, as his friends supposed, that the quiet German was camera shy. He was terrified that someone would recognise his face from a Nazi death squad and he would be sent back to Germany where he would be tried as a war criminal.
His sinister secret has finally been revealed after Dagner was pictured in The Northern Echo this month – prompting his stepson to break a lifetime’s silence about his father’s past.
When he was taken captive by Canadian troops in 1944, Dagner told them he was a corporal gunner who manned the huge guns that hurled shells over the Channel and into southern England. No one bothered to validate his story – there were simply too many prisoners and not enough Allied troops to carry out anything more than a cursory check.
When he arrived in England, the doctors who checked him made no mention of the terrible scar beneath his armpit.
Instead, Dagner was transported to a small PoW camp near Barnard Castle, where he was put to work on the land.
According to Dagner’s stepson, Peter Harwig, the scar held the secret to his past.
Mr Harwig said: “All members of the SS had their blood group tattooed under their left arm. They were the only German troops to have this mark, so it distinguished them.
“Dagner had a scar there, where his tattoo had been cut out with a razor blade. When he was working on farms he kept his shirt on, even on the hottest days, because he knew the scar would be recognised.
“But I saw it at home.
“I believe he was working under cover for the SS when he was sent to Calais as a gunner.
It would be his job to keep an eye on other soldiers and shoot any who were not faithful to Hitler.
“After the war, he stayed in Britain and never applied for a passport. That would have led to him being identified as an SS man, so he could never go abroad. He could have been in serious trouble if found out.”
Dagner’s time at Stainton Camp was discovered by Eileen O’Hara, who is compiling a history of the camp. For a while he was incarcerated in the camp’s prison annexe because he sent mail from there bearing the unit’s code number.
Dagner’s stepdaughter Renata Gardner, who lives near Brighton, said yesterday: “We had a strange life because we moved to homes on different farms every few months as if he didn’t want to be found.
“We were never allowed to have a camera, probably because he didn’t want to risk having his picture taken and shown around.
“I am sure he was involved in something sinister during the war. I discovered that his army unit had a death squad and I think he must have been part of it.
“The family he left in Germany thought he had died in the war. They eventually traced me through the Red Cross, but by that time he really was dead. They were astonished to hear he had been living here for years unknown to them.”
Mr Harwig, a 65-year-old retired farm worker who lives in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, said he hated his stepfather because he was cruel to him and often beat him. Dagner died in Brighton, in 1981.
Mr Harwig was born in eastern Germany, in 1943. His father served on German Uboats during the war, but died in 1946 from wounds received when his vessel was destroyed.
Mr Harwig said: “Dagner was a dreadful man. He left a wife and two children in Germany, as well as another woman who had a baby by him. I am ashamed of him for doing that, but more ashamed of him for being in the SS, who were feared for killing people on their own side.”