British POW known as Music Maker was forced to play for Nazi captors

The Music Maker of Auschwitz: British POW locked in a death camp and forced to play for his Nazi jailers detailed the horrors he faced in a secret war diary

  • Drum Major Henry Barnes Jackson was 40 when he went with the British Expeditionary Force to fight Nazis
  • He was captured while trying to retreat to Dunkirk and sent on a death march to a brutal POW camp 
  • His captors soon discovered his musical talents, gave him instruments and instructed him to put on concerts
  • Jackson documented his ordeal – including being locked in sub-camp of Auschwitz – in a secret war diary 

A British Drum Major captured by the Nazis during the Second World War and then forced to put on concerts for them recounted the horrors he was subjected to in a secret war diary, which has now been published.

Henry Barnes Jackson, who was known to his jailers as Kapellmeister – or The Music Maker – was aged 40 when he went to France as a medic in the British Expeditionary Force before being captured during the retreat to Dunkirk.

Funnelled through a series of POW camps, Jackson was beaten, starved and bullied by the guards – until they learned he could play music, at which point he was given instruments and ordered to put on concerts for them.

Towards the end of the war Jackson found himself at Blechhammer, a sub-camp of Auschwitz which was located 40 miles away from the main camp, where he witnessed some of the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand.

Despite being forced-marched for 20 days across the Austrian Alps as the Russian approached Blechhammer, Jackson survived the war after being found by American troops – wearing nothing but rags and clutching his diary.

After the war he returned to Whitehaven, Cumbria, where his wife and four daughters were waiting for him. Years later, one of his granddaughters collated his diaries, revealing his account to the world.

British Drum Major Henry Barnes Jackson spent five years as a prisoner of the Nazis, subjected to brutal treatment in various POW camps – including a sub-camp of Auschwitz – and forced to play music for his captors. He kept a secret diary of his experiences which has now been published. Pictured, Jackson (centre) directs a band in one of the camps

Jackson (right, with wife Mabel) was 40 when he landed in France with the British Expeditionary Force where he served as a medic in the fight against the Nazis. But he was captured during the retreat to Dunkirk after his ambulance took a wrong turn and was surrounded by Germans

Jackson recounts how he was put on a death march to a POW camp in occupied Poland where he received appalling treatment, until his captors learned of his musical talents – at which point he was given instruments and told to put on concerts. Here, POWs watch as Jackson and his band practice

In one diary entry, Jackson tells how some of the men dressed up as women for a show, saying: ‘I have never seen better female impersonators anywhere’. For this performance their repertoire included ‘Light Cavalry’, ‘Florentiner March’, ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Wine, Women and Song’

As a result of the brutal treatment they suffered, some of Jackson’s band-mates tried to escape. In order to help cover up one escape involving his violinist, Jackson found a man to replace him for their performance. He wrote: ‘It was wonderful to know that we were outsmarting Jerry, if only in a small way, and the orchestra played better than I have ever heard them play!’

In his extraordinary account, Jackson recalls the day he was captured, saying he was riding in an ambulance with wounded men which took a wrong turn and found itself surrounded by German troops.

‘We are ordered to dismount and a Jerry officer points to me and beckons me to him,’ he wrote.

‘He tells me to take off my gun belt and throw away my revolver. He smashes me in the face with the butt of his rifle, and my head ricochets in response to the loud crack, blood oozing from my nose. 

‘He takes two steps towards me and slaps my cheek and then, in broken English, he jeers, “a long way from Tipperary, a long way now, hey?”

‘His eyes flash at my lack of response and he continues to hit me, his face twisted with hate and loathing, spittle flying from his ugly mouth.. Then he orders me to stand against a wall. This is it. I feel my time is up. 

‘The Jerry officer bends down and picks up my revolver. He hands his rifle to a grinning b****rd behind him. I watch on as he raises my own gun to my head. I’ve been in critical situations many times in my life, but I never felt that I was about to face my Maker.

‘My eyes well up with tears of deep regret as I pray that I will live to tell my dear sweet wife how deeply I love her but, as I stare down the barrel of my own gun, I doubt my prayers are going to be answered.’

Miraculously, the Nazi officer pointing the gun at Jackson was distracted at the very last second by the gold watch glinting in the Drum Major’s pocket. 

Jackson handed it over and went to tend his men, constantly fearing a bullet from behind, which fortunately never arrived. He spent the evening helping the desperately injured soldiers and trying not to think too much about the fact he was now a prisoner of war.

‘We are ordered to fall in, and we start what is called by us prisoners, for obvious reasons, as The Nightmare March,’ states Jackson’s diary entry, the day after his capture.

‘There are many horrific incidents that happen on this march that I will leave out of these memoirs but, on my life, I swear they will never be forgotten-and never ever forgiven.

Many of Jackson’s comrades either took their own lives during their imprisonment or else died from disease and malnutrition. He was often called on to play The Last Post as they were buried

‘When the sun comes out it gets hot and we’re all parched. The French townsfolk, bless them, place buckets of water on the side of the road, and it’s a scramble to get a drink before the merciless guards come along and kick the buckets over out of sheer spite. They wish us dead. It makes it easier on them.

‘The Jerry guards are absolute bastards. They find it amusing to stop us British prisoners while they allow the French to get far ahead before making us run to catch up to the Frogs. 

‘Naturally, many poor chaps are hardly able to walk, never mind run, and they have to drop out. On hearing shots, we know only too well what has become of them, each gunshot reverberating through our bodies as we trudge onwards, thoughts of our fallen comrades a terrible burden to bear.’

After miles of tramping with no food, little water, and the demoralising loss of friends and colleagues to German gunfire, Jackson eventually ended up on a crowded, disease-ridden train to Camp Schubin in occupied Poland.

‘I cannot describe the horror,’ he wrote.

‘The stench of wasting bodies. I feel as if I’m one of the walking dead, but I manage to make it to the camp, which I’m told is to be my home for a good while. We’re informed there are no barracks available to us. No tents, no blankets.

‘The conditions here are shocking and the food indescribably awful and meagre at that. It is hard to keep going, and many don’t, succumbing to dysentery, which is a horribly painful and degrading condition to suffer. We are all in a filthy condition. 

‘The heat is unbearable, made more so by the reek of human wastage. Men are beginning to die like flies all around me. I imagine this is not only due to physical exhaustion as a result of the arduous journey here and starvation and disease, but from the sheer mental anguish caused by Jerry’s cruelty, which is beginning to increase daily.

‘I find myself attending more and more funerals, often as a coffin bearer. Today it is of a chap who was brought in dead from a working party. The Jerry guards say he died from pneumonia but, as I march alongside the makeshift coffin, blood is running from it and dripping in gory, gelatinous globules onto my boots. 

‘I feel my chest rapidly rising and deflating with anger, and I strangle a scream of injustice, knowing that if I start to protest, I will be shot.’

Throughout the horrors unfolding before the Drum Major’s eyes, music is his one solace and he recounts doing all he can to cheer himself and the men around him, many of whom feel completely bereft of hope.

A POW funeral being attended by Jackson. Despite his enormous suffering, as the war went on Jackson became aware that there were other prisoners – mostly Jews – whose treatment was even worse than his. He wrote: ‘Their lives are worth absolutely nothing – the Jews – less than the rats that infest the camp’

Despite the mud and misery to which Jackson was subjected, he said he enjoyed playing music for his fellow POWs, always looking out at them in the crowd as he took his bow, rather than the Nazi officers who would be seated in the front row

Jackson (seated centre) holding his battalion’s pet kitten outside the barracks, Blechhammer 1943. Blechhammer was a sub-camp of Auschwitz, located 40 miles from the main camp. At its peak it held some 4,000 people, around 200 of which died there. Another 800 were shot on a forced march out as the Russian approached, and several hundred more are thought to have been killed at Auschwitz after being selected to go there

‘I’m glad to have been blessed with this God-given talent for music; to be able to entertain the lads and see the joy and hope in their eyes; eyes that may well soon be filled with nothing but terror before they become filled with nothing but lifelessness.

‘I keep reminding myself that if I can survive this, I can survive anything, and I want to take that attitude back to England with me and hand it on to my girls. 

‘Music is my saving grace and, although I can’t play due to having no musical instruments, I do spend a lot of time thinking about, singing and composing music. For me, where there is music, there is hope.

‘You should have seen spirits in the camp soar when our company receives some musical instruments and music sheets from the Red Cross.’

Jackson spent the next few months organising concert parties and stage shows to great acclaim. To his disgust, he was often made to play for his captor’s pleasure.

A passage in his war diary reads: ‘Some of the lads dress up as ‘girls’ for chorus work and I have never seen better female impersonators anywhere. Some of the pieces we play are: ‘Light Cavalry’, ‘Florentiner March’, ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Wine, Women and Song’. 

‘The Jerries, seated in the front rows of the concerts, beam with delight at being entertained, but it’s the faces of our boys that we concentrate on and we bow to them on their applause.’

These flickers of light relief were in stark contrast to the prison’s gruelling day-to-day routine however.

Jackson was often called upon to attend funerals – many of the prisoners have taken their own life – where he used his musical talents to honour them with renditions of The Last Post. 

Meanwhile, he began to realise other people were being subjected to far worse horrors than him. He wrote: ‘We hear that they decided last month that [the Nazis] need to completely eradicate the Jews.

‘I cannot conceive of how they can have such hatred for the Jews, nor how they ever imagine they can simply erase an entire race of people. Rumours are still rife regarding the treatment of the Jews, some of them truly disturbing, and I also hear more and more horrors regarding shocking experiments being done on the poor beggars in the name of science.’ 

Fearing for their lives, Jackson reveals how some tried to escape, efforts he helped in whatever way he could.

‘One of my violinists escaped along with two other men a fortnight ago,’ states the POW’s diary on 29 May 1943.

‘The two other men were captured the next day, but my violinist is still at large. The evening he escaped my orchestra was to give a concert in the next camp, so, to cover his getaway, I had to take another chap along to the concert to play the escapee’s violin. 

Camp Warthelager, located in Nazi-occupied Poland, is seen during the snow. This is one of the first camps where Jackson was kept after being taken prisoner, and where he spent two years between October 1940 and March 1942

With only one meal of soup a day provided by the Nazis, the POWs relied on Red Cross food parcels to survive. Jackson (sitting highest) wrote in his diary: ‘God bless the Red Cross!’

After Nazi Germany fell to the joint Allied and Russian attack, Jackson was freed and returned to his family (pictured in 1947) with his diary, and was warned never to talk about what he had seen. Years later, his diary was handed over to one of his granddaughters who has now published his account

‘We had arranged all this previously and were very well organised, although my violinist’s replacement was not a particularly good player, but the rest of the orchestra just drowned him out, and Jerry didn’t seem to notice. 

‘It was wonderful to know that we were outsmarting Jerry, if only in a small way, and I think the orchestra played better than I have ever heard them play! Anyway, my violinist got a good head start, and our lads have spent hours talking of him and sending their prayers.’

Unfortunately, the violinist was found and returned to camp a few weeks later in ‘a terrible way’. His eventual fate is unknown.

In 1944, Jackson writes how he and several others were moved to a labour camp in an area called Blechhammer, which is a sub-camp of Auschwitz – dubbed a ‘heaven camp’ by the British because nobody gets out alive.

‘We pass a civilian concentration camp, and all the prisoners are terribly emaciated and have their heads shaved. It is a pitiful sight indeed,’ Jackson states.

‘Their lives are worth absolutely nothing – the Jews – less than the rats that infest the camp. It is now pretty common knowledge that the Jews are being killed en masse. 

‘We have named that camp ‘Heaven Camp’ because no one leaves it alive. The Jews are absolutely terrified of being taken there for obvious reasons. 

‘A train goes right through the camp. Any Jew too sick for work, too frail, too old or too young is packed off there. When the Jews arrive, it is believed they are given a towel, told to strip off, and are told they are going for a bath, but there are rumours that it proves to be a lethal chamber. This mass killing is simply unthinkable to us.’

After four years in Nazi captivity, word reaches Jackson in the summer of 1944 that the Allies have successfully invaded France and the tide of war is turning.

Months later – after yet another lethal march in the cold and snow to evade the encroaching Russian army and a posting to yet another awful POW camp – Jackson ended up in an Austrian barn, on the cusp of death. 

But moments before collapsing, Jackson was found by an American soldier who tended to him.

After being nursed to for his injuries and malnourishment, Jackson was able to return home a to the warm embrace of his family. Dazed but deliriously happy with his own freedom, Jackson still felt a sense of burning outrage over the inhuman treatment he witnesses in the Nazi camps.

‘At the end of May 1945, we heard that Heinrich Himmler [a mister who helped orchestrate ‘The Final Solution’ and the death of 6 millions Jews] had committed suicide via a cyanide capsule. This incensed us all, as we recalled his many monstrous actions during the war, particularly towards the Jews. 

‘We were only now beginning to learn of the truly sadistic treatment of the Jews who were so savagely targeted by a crazed leader and his elite group of madmen. 

‘With so many others in the upper echelon of the Nazi Party dead by their own hands, we had all been looking forward to Heinrich Himmler having his day in court – and what a day that would have been. Not to mention how he would have been made to suffer in prison. 

‘But Himmler had taken the coward’s way out. My heart wept for humanity.’

Adjusting to civilian life, Jackson struggled to make sense of what had happened to him over the five years he spent under Nazi lock and key.

‘The officers who repatriated us had advised us not to discuss our war experiences with our loved ones,’ he noted in one of the diary’s final entries.

‘They said that we couldn’t possibly expect anyone who hadn’t personally gone through such indescribable horrors to identify with them. They told us to forget the war – to place it into a padlocked box and shove it in the very back of our minds. Said we should forget what we’d witnessed-the horrors, the losses of our mates, the mental strain, the deprivation and the torture. 

‘Well, that was all very well for them to say, but how did one ever get over such a thing? How did one simply forget? Oh, I wanted to. I really wanted to and, like most of the chaps, I had vowed to never again talk about the war. But I’m afraid there are reminders all around me.’

Drum Major Henry Barnes Jackson’s story is told in The Music Maker, a compilation of his war diary edited by his granddaughter Jaci Byrne and published by Pen And Sword Books. Available to order here.

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