He maybe a coward by name but certainly not by nature. Charles Joseph Coward was a British soldier who smuggled himself into a WW2 Nazi concentration camp!
Born in 1905 Charles joined the Army in 1924 and was serving as Battery Quartermaster Sergeant Major with the Royal Artillery in France 1940 when he took part in the Siege of Calais. As most of the British Expeditionary Force made their way to Dunkirk, Charles was one of the unlucky men who was captured. He was captured by the Germans in May 1940.
He attempted, unsuccessfully, twice to escape on the way to his first POW camp and later attempted no less than seven times to escape! Once, he escaped dressed as a German soldier and as he had some wounds at the time, he went to a hospital and was treated and there was even awarded the Iron Cross for services to the German Army! As his ability with the german language was so good, it took the Germans a good while to spot the ‘imposter!’ Back to the POW camp he went!
As known as he was to the Germans for his repeated escape attempts and generally being a handful, the Germans did find him useful to keep around due to his language skills but this saw him being sent to Auschwitz Monowitz. Auschwitz Monowitz was a camp around 5 miles away from the infamous Auschwitz Birkenau. Monowitz was a camp that was split into two, one section for the Jews and the other for non Jews. The place was a factory that helped manufacture the chemical Zyklon B as we now know was used by the Nazis for the Final Solution.
Charles had a role here which was to help the overall pretence by the Nazis in making it look like they were adhering to the Geneva Convention. Charles was allowed a lot of freedom here and he used that to his advantage to smuggle much needed food to the inmates and he was allowed to write letters home to his friend ‘William Orange’. Unbeknown to the Germans, ‘William Orange’ was a codename for the War Office, Charles was able to keep Whitehall abreast of the goings on in his camp.
At one point, he even managed to smuggle himself into the Jewish section of the camp. He managed to swap clothing with another prisoner and here for the first time, he saw the horrors and brutality dished out to them and he vowed to help. them.
He devised a morbid plan of bribing the German guards with chocolate for the corpses of non Jewish prisoners. He would then smuggle these plus whatever papers he had into the Jewish section to help them escape. Several 100 Jews escaped this way.
During January 1945, as the Nazi regime was ending and with the advance of the Russian Army, Charles and his fellow POWs were forced to march west towards Germany. On their way west, they were to be liberated by the Allies, his and everyone else’s ordeal was over.
Charles, because of what he knew and what he had seen, was able to give evidence against the Germans at the Nuremberg War Trials after the War.
A film called ‘The Password Is Courage’ was made in 1954 and is based on his memoirs. It starred Dirk Bogarde.
Anything but his namesake, Charles Joseph Coward, would later become known as the ‘Count of Auschwitz’