The Shooting of John Marsh
by Paul Angerer
In February 1942, an Australian prisoner of war, Sergeant Gilbert Lawrence Conyard, was transferred from Stalag XVIII A in Wolfsberg to Work Camp 10.029/GW in the Klagenfurt suburb of Waidmannsdorf. At that time, the camp held about 350 British, Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war.
At some point after his arrival, Sergeant Conyard was chosen to be camp man of confidence. As such, it was his role to liaise between his fellow prisoners of war and the German commandant and his staff on welfare matters in the camp. Conyard was in possession of a nominal roll of all the men in the camp, together with particulars of their next of kin. On about 27 December 1944, ten new British prisoners of war arrived at the camp and Conyard added their particulars to his list of camp inmates. Among them were Trooper Jack Keats from Bristol and Sapper John Marsh from Liverpool.
In early 1944, the Allies began launching air raids on Klagenfurt. During the attacks, the inmates of the Waidmannsdorf camp were allowed to take cover in an air-raid shelter in a tunnel beneath a hill about a quarter of a mile from the camp. Initially, they were marched to the tunnel under armed escort but, owing to the danger of machine-gun fire from low-flying aircraft, they were subsequently permitted to make their own way there when the air-raid siren sounded. Nevertheless, guards were posted in the vicinity of the tunnel.
Not all the prisoners of war took advantage of the air-raid shelter. On 19 February 1945, the camp was subjected to heavy bombing and six men were killed. Nine days later there were more air-raids; warning sirens sounded three or four times that day. The last air-raid siren sounded at about 12:30 p.m. and the all-clear was given at about 3:45 p.m. When taking shelter during air raids, the prisoners of war were allowed to take a small kit with them that could include a change of clothes, toiletries, and some food should they have to stay longer than expected in the shelter. At about 11:30 that morning, the two prisoners John Marsh and Jack Keats decided they would attempt to escape during the raids. Their first objective was to safely cross the nearby Yugoslav border.
Keats had already made one escape in July 1944, when he and a companion walked out of a work camp in Graz only to be caught by the police a few days later. Keats was also a member of the Graz camp’s Escape Committee. He had been praised for his work in volunteering for work assignments to exploit them for escape purposes. He also committed acts of sabotage where possible, on one occasion putting the dynamos at a factory in Niklasdorf out of operation for a week, and on another burning down a punishment block. Despite Keats’ experience, the escape was poorly planned. Rather, it seemed more of a spontaneous act, since the bags the men carried during their escape contained nothing more than a shaving kit and socks. Furthermore, 18 inches of snow covered the ground, which made progress difficult.
To reach the Yugoslav border, Marsh and Keats had to cross a wide river and a high mountain range under wintry conditions. Proceeding on foot, they kept to the forested foothills until they reached Viktring, a small village one mile south of Klagenfurt. Keeping to the trees, they made their way past an aircraft factory. They knew the territory surrounding the factory was a forbidden area. At the time, Yugoslav partisans were active and there was considerable anti-German activity in the area. Marsh and Keats proceeded south until a steep hill barred their way and forced them to turn east. They followed a rough path out of the foothills and approached a track some two hundred yards further on.
Unknown to Marsh and Keats, when they passed the aircraft factory they had been observed by Josef Gabalier, a woodsman, who was sitting some distance away eating his lunch. Taking the two men for enemy parachutists, Gabalier immediately hurried to the local police station to report what he had seen. The police officer in charge, Johann Mösslacher, ordered a search party to investigate. The search party consisted of four policemen, a young member of the German Home Guard, and was led by Josef Gabalier. The policemen, all of them experienced in anti-partisan warfare, were heavily armed with pistols, rifles, and hand grenades.
One of the policemen, Michael Widhalm, discovered suspicious footprints in the snow and followed them. He soon saw Keats and Marsh moving furtively along the forest path. Widhalm – a tall, heavily-built man with black hair and a Hitler-style black moustache – shouted “Hands up. Police!” Hearing the shout, Keats immediately threw himself to the ground. Marsh, who was behind Keats, slipped in the snow as he turned, and the policeman opened fire. Marsh was struck by a bullet and collapsed at once. Widhalm shouted “Get up!”, to which Keats replied in German “I am a British Prisoner of War!” The policeman then said “Stand up with your hands up!” and Keats obeyed.
Together with a second policeman named Robert Gross, Widhalm approached the two men cautiously, as he had been warned that partisans often feigned death and then opened fire from close range.
When the two policemen got closer, they saw that the man on the ground was severely wounded. He was lying on his side with one hand to his chest and the other on the ground. Gross opened Marsh’s uniform to see where he had been hit by the bullet. The projectile had entered his body on the right side and had left it on the left. The wound was bleeding in the vicinity of the kidney. Widhalm searched Keats and found a metal disc that confirmed the two men were indeed British prisoners of war. The remainder of the patrol then arrived.
Instead of trying to stop the bleeding and providing first aid to the wounded man, the policemen just stood around, doing nothing for several minutes. No one expressed remorse or pity. Widhalm, who was armed with a Russian automatic rifle, said “This weapon shoots well”, as if he was pleased with the accuracy of his shooting. Keats, still holding his hands above his head, was pale. When he asked for permission to put his hands down, one of the policemen shouted he should keep them up, saying in German “Keep your hands up or I will shoot!”
Meanwhile, some forced labourers, who had obviously heard the shot, appeared in the distance. They were immediately ordered away by the police.
After some time, several of the search party went off to fetch a stretcher at the nearby fire station, while one policeman and the young Home Guard member remained to guard the two prisoners. The Home Guard member was a 16-year-old apprentice, Erwin Modrin, who usually worked in the local grocery shop. Modrin would later state that John Marsh was still alive at that time, breathing slightly and moving his eyes. The policeman who had stayed with him was Robert Gross, a French collaborator. Gross said “I cannot see the wounded man suffering.” He then pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Marsh to finish him off. Modrin told Gross not to shoot because it was obvious the wounded man was dying fast, so Gross returned his pistol to his holster. He then picked up Marsh’s limp arm and allowed it to fall to the ground again, saying “Yes, you are right.”
Shortly afterwards, the rest of the party returned with a stretcher. Marsh had by this time died of his wound. While Keats was escorted to the local police station, Marsh was taken by stretcher to the fire station, where his body was examined by the local doctor, who wrote in his report:
The body was still warm. I ascertained that life had already passed away. The bullet had entered behind the armpit line and had left on the left front side of the chest. Death was instantaneous through loss of blood. The injury was in my opinion caused by a hard metal-headed bullet from a military firearm.
After a short interrogation at the police station, Keats was escorted back to the work camp and handed over to the guards. At about 4:30 p.m., Sergeant Conyard, the man of confidence, was called to the Camp Commandant’s office, where Jack Keats told him what had happened. In front of his captors, Keats cooked up a story to cover up his attempted escape. He maintained that Marsh had been afraid of the aircraft and had run away from the air-raid shelter and that he, Keats, had chased after him. At a point about a mile and three-quarters from the shelter, he had caught up with Marsh and they both stopped running and slowed to a walk. Then they had passed through some woods, where Marsh had been shot by the policeman. Conyard tried to make his case “easier” (as he later wrote in his report) by pointing out to the Germans that neither Marsh nor Keats had any food with them to assist their escape. However, the Germans were convinced that both had tried to escape.
At 5:30 that same evening, Keats was transported back to the main camp in Wolfsberg, where he was put into a punishment block. Meanwhile, back at the Waidmannsdorf work camp, the prisoners of war were paraded and informed by the commandant that a prisoner of war had been shot by a policeman while attempting to escape and that he was going to take a roll call to establish if anyone was missing. It was soon established that John Marsh was missing.
The following day, Conyard went to the cemetery mortuary at Klagenfurt-Annabichl, where he identified Marsh’s body. As the German camp authorities were convinced Marsh had been shot whilst trying to escape, Marsh was denied a Christian burial. Sergeant Conyard, however, was permitted to carry out the Christian funeral rites with the assistance of some of his fellow prisoners.
In Search of the Perpetrator
Shortly after the end of war, the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) of the British Military Police investigated John Marsh’s death. The matter was then classified as an alleged war crime on account of the fact that an unarmed prisoner of war had been shot without provocation. During the investigation, the SIB interviewed a former Australian prisoner of war, Kevin Byrne, who possessed information concerning Marsh’s death. The interview took place in Naples on 14th May 1945. Byrne had spent nearly four years in the Waidmannsdorf work camp and had managed to talk to Jack Keats on the day of the incident, before the latter was sent to Stalag XVIII A in Wolfsberg. Keats told Byrne of the escape and of Marsh’s violent death.
A few days after the shooting, Byrne spoke to an Austrian called Meyer, who worked for the hauliers Künstl & Söhne. When speaking of the incident, Meyer said he knew people who had witnessed it and named them as Heuryka Zolozolok, Helenor Nogoy and Maurier Karwaler. He claimed that the man who had shot John Marsh was a local named Kabalier Krittendorf.
Unfortunately, further investigations by the SIB came to nothing. The three witnesses were forced labourers who had already returned to their home countries shortly after the end of war. A Kabalier Krittendorf could also not be found, but it subsequently turned out that he was none other than the woodsman Josef Gabalier who lived in the village of Krottendorf and who had reported the two “enemy parachutists” to the police. However, he was not the man who shot John Marsh.
Finally, it was Sergeant Conyard, who through his own enquiries, provided important clues concerning the suspect, Michael Widhalm. Conyard wrote in his report:
In April this year, I received a note written by three Polish slave-workers on a farm at Viktring, to the effect that they knew that Marsh had been shot without provocation and in unwarranted circumstances, and that they knew the German personnel who were responsible. I remembered the name of one of these Germans, who by all accounts was a local farmer, but I destroyed the note in case it was found on me by the Germans, and I awaited the arrival of the Allied forces in the area, before I could commence further enquiries. On the 8th of May, when the unconditional surrender of the German forces in Europe came into effect, I took over control of the camp from the German staff until the arrival of the POW Collection Post Unit.
On or about the 11th or 12th May 1945, I went out to the police station at Viktring and demanded to be supplied with the particulars of the German Police personnel who had been controlling the area. I learned that the name of the German farmer I knew related to the death of Sapper Marsh was not on the local police nominal roll, but I was able to obtain his address, and which I subsequently visited. The man concerned was not at home, so I left instructions with his wife that he should report himself to me as soon as possible at the Waidmannsdorf camp.
A few days later this man came and reported to me, and I learned that his name was Josef Gabalier, and that he was not a policeman, but a member of the Volkssturm, a national militia established by Nazi Party during the last months of the war. I interrogated him concerning Sapper Marsh’s death, but he was able to give me the names of two of the German policemen who he knew to be responsible. These two names were Meister der Gendarmerie Jacob Widhalm and Oberwachtmeister Robert Gross. Gabalier told me that Widhalm had fired the shot which killed Marsh, and Gross wanted to finish him off whilst he was lying wounded on the ground. Gabalier also furnished me with the names of other witnesses who could substantiate his story, and whom I subsequently interviewed. I then endeavoured to trace both Widhalm and Gross but received information that Widhalm was not in the area anymore and was believed to be at his home in Salzburg with his wife. At the time, I was unable to find Gross but later I received information that he was living with another man’s wife at Viktring. I visited the address given on the 28th of May 1945 and found Gross locked in a room at the flourmill. The woman he was living with was in possession of the key, and the circumstances led me to believe that he was hiding himself. I checked his identity and then brought him to Klagenfurt, where I handed him over to the SIB.
Robert Gross was promptly detained and transferred to Internment Camp 373 in Wolfsberg. Unfortunately, the second policeman, Michael Widhalm, could not be found at his home address in Filzmoos, Salzburg. Some months later, in November 1945, it turned out that Widhalm had already been arrested by the American military. It was alleged that he was a higher-ranking member of the local Nazi Party and the SS. According to the statements of various witnesses, Widhalm was said to be of a ruthless disposition and a willing enforcer of the Nazi system, for instance, in one case arresting an innocent man and handing him over to the Gestapo, and in another, mistreating some forced labourers from Poland after a farmer had complained about their “inadequate work performance”.
Michael Widhalm was arrested as a war criminal and was interned in Camp 373. In early 1946, he was transferred to Internment Camp 209 in Naples.
Widhalm and Gross were charged and brought to trial on 22 May 1946 in Völkermarkt. The charge read:
Meister der Gendarmerie Michael Widhalm, a German National, and Oberwachtmeister Robert Gross, a French National, in the charge of Camp Commandant Headquarter, 11 Infantry Brigade, pursuant to Regulation 4 of “Regulations for the Trial of War Criminals” are charged with committing a war crime in that they at Viktring, near Klagenfurt, Austria, in or about the month of February 1945 in violation of the laws and usages of war were concerned in the killing of Sapper John Marsh, a prisoner of war.
The military court at Völkermarkt, comprising British officers, had summoned Erwin Modrin, Josef Gabalier and Johann Mösslacher (who led the search party) as witnesses for the prosecution. Yet, the most important witness, Jack Keats, was not able to attend the trial for health reasons. At the time, Keats was a patient in special unit at the Southern Hospital near Dartford, where a team of psychiatrists and psychologists were treating the psychological symptoms experienced by former prisoners of war.
At the end of the trial, the prosecutor admitted that he had been unable to produce Keats’ evidence apart from a brief affidavit, which was not of great value. Despite open questions concerning the course of events – mainly caused by Keats’ refusal to testify on account of his illness – the court saw sufficient evidence that Michael Widhalm had committed a war crime by violating the regulations on the use of firearms against a prisoner of war. As a result, on 25th May 1946 Widhalm was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment. The second defendant, Robert Gross, was acquitted, since no complicity could be determined.
One year later, Michael Widhalm – still proclaiming his innocence – appealed to the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in Austria, General James Stuart Steele, to show mercy and commute his sentence of nine years imprisonment. The truthfulness of Widhalm’s plea of mercy is questionable. For example, he claimed that he had challenged Marsh three times before firing, a claim that was refuted by all witnesses. Widhalm described the incident as he remembered it and attested that he acted lawfully and was carrying out the orders of Lieutenant Mösslacher. He also claimed that he had served with honour and illustrated this by describing how he had risked his life to rescue a downed American airman from snow and ice who certainly would have died had he not intervened.
General Steele carefully considered Widhalm’s appeal and decided that, although the proceedings of the trial were legal and that the Court was fully justified in arriving at their ruling of guilty, there was an element of doubt as to whether Widhalm had challenged before he fired. General Steele argued that the accused should have the benefit of the element of doubt, according to the principles of British justice. The remainder of Widhalm’s sentence was therefore remitted on 1st July 1947 and he was released after less than two years in prison.
On 25th June 1946, Jack Keats was honoured for his actions by being mentioned in dispatches, after being commended by a Warrant Officer on the Escape Committee for his escape activities, and by a colleague for his acts of sabotage during the war.
In June 1945, the British occupying forces established a Commonwealth War Cemetery in Klagenfurt-Waidmannsdorf. John Marsh’s grave was moved from Klagenfurt’s Annabichl cemetery into the new one. Yet the inscription on his headstone is incorrect in one important aspect: he was killed on 28th February 1945, not 1st March 1945 as shown on the headstone.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has published additional details of many of the graves in its care, included that of John Marsh. It notes, for instance, that he was the “Son of Joseph and Jane Marsh; husband of Matilda Marsh, of Liverpool”. (You can read more about his family here).
In late August 1945, John Marsh’s sister Edna (then Mrs. Brew) placed an advertisement in the Liverpool Echo, hoping to receive further information about the circumstances of her brother’s death.
At the time the newspaper ad was published, the Special Investigation Branch had already gathered detailed information about Marsh’s death but was unable to release any further information since the case was classified as confidential.
Edited by Michael Byrne & Paul Brazell
* * * * *