Count Folke Bernadotte and The White Buses – History of a dramatic rescue

The Second World War seemed lost. However, the Scandinavian concern grew that their abducted and imprisoned compatriots would be victims of mass shootings or blowing up camps. All over Germany they were distributed, the police, resistance fighters, Jews from Denmark and Norway.

Count Folke Bernadotte and The White Buses

During a visit to the former concentration camp Fröslevlejren near Padborg in Denmark, I come across a touching story. Shortly before the end of the war, under the leadership of Count Folke Bernadotte, the white buses from Sweden and later from Denmark started to rescue abducted prisoners from Norway and Denmark at the end of the Second World War. It is a race for life and death and not every lifesaver comes home for a long time.

The Norwegian government was exiled in Stockholm. And so it was their representative, Niels Christian Ditleff, who, out of the described concern with the Swedish Foreign Ministry, suggested a rescue operation under the leadership of the Red Cross. That was in November 1944.

The government commissioned Count Folke Bernadotte as vice-president of the Red Cross to negotiate with the Germans. Bernadotte flew to Berlin in February 1945. In the luggage a thick rune book from the 17th century as a gift for his interlocutor, the Reichsführer of the SS, Heimrich Himmler.

For Himmler wanted to negotiate a separate peace with the Western powers contrary to the ideas of Hitler, because he was the Vice President of the Red Cross just right. For Himmler’s hope was that Bernadotte used his contacts to England in Himmler’s request.

First negotiation success for Count Folke Bernadotte

For the first time, Himmler and Count Folke Bernadotte met each other in the healing towns of Hohenleychen in the Uckermark. This meeting was more positive than expected. Himmler expected from Count Folke Bernadotte absolute secrecy and said that all affected prisoners were transferred to the camp Neuengamme near Hamburg and collected there, the Swedish Red Cross but vehicles, drivers and gasoline must.

Back in Stockholm, Count Folke Bernadotte only needed two weeks to organize the rescue operation. Count Folke Bernadotte flew to Berlin a second time. This time Count Folke Bernadotte met the head of the Reich Security Main Office Ernst Kaltenbrunner and the secret service chief Walter Schellenberg. Because Count Folke Bernadotte wanted more. And so he made it, that also the Scandinavian Jews came to the collection Neuengamme and thus preserved from the safe destruction.

The white buses start

Germany was destroyed in its infrastructure and exposed to daily attacks. It was, so to speak, a suicide mission for the approximately 250 volunteers who met 350,000 liters of fuel, 36 buses and 39 lorries in Hässleholm, southern Sweden. Now the Swedish Red Cross did not have enough vehicles, so the Swedish military provided more vehicles for this convoy.

It was a journey into the unknown. Nobody had war experiences so far and so there were lectures, driving exercises or behavioral rules, so as not to endanger the command. In the luggage were tents, food, field kitchens. Some of the buses were equipped with overhead loungers to accommodate the sick and injured. Hurriedly all vehicles were painted white and provided with the Red Cross. So they became known as The White Buses.

For the first time, the helpers met the SS henchmen with drawn weapons, then waited the completely destroyed northern Germany with the bombed roads. The routes for the white buses were coordinated with the Allies, yet vehicles were destroyed in low-flying attacks and helpers killed.

Great distrust of the prisoners

Nobody in the camps really wanted to be happy about the white buses, because the people had gone through so much terrible things that they believed in a mendacious game of the Germans. In the Dachau concentration camp, the prisoners had already been standing for several hours, when the white buses with their helpers arrived, they did not believe them.

In the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the 423 Danish Jews refused to board the white buses. Because they believed that the white buses would bring them to certain death, to extermination camps.

Finally the rescued and completely emaciated people got something to eat again, which of course is very risky. Because the body then react quickly with diarrhea. That delayed the ride altogether. But who can you blame? The guards who accompanied these rides and complacently served this food as well, put their food with laxatives.

Chaos and bitter consequences for other prisoners

By the end of March 1945, about every second imprisoned Scandinavian had arrived in Neuengamm. The warehouse was bursting at the seams. There had to be room once again for so many people, no matter how. And for what is happening now, one should not blame the Swedish Red Cross, but only the polluters, the inhuman Nazis.

The white buses now transport people from Russia, Poland and France: from the Neuengamme concentration camp to its satellite camps in Hannover and Salzgitter. They were in miserable condition, emaciated to the bone, and in the final stages of certain starvation. Due to their appearance, they were contemptuously called “Muslims” by the Nazis within the concentration camps.

The Scandinavians were doing comparatively well, as long as you can use the word “good” at this point. They were not supplied so badly, they corresponded to the model of a Germanic race.

These Mussulmans, almost unable to live, were exposed to the brutal arbitrariness of the guards. Even in the presence of the Swedish helpers they were beaten. The journey to the satellite camps alone did not survive seven of these people.


In the review of this part of the story, 60 years after the rescue operation, emotional debates broke out in Sweden. Because the Red Cross is committed to absolute neutrality, in this case, it has taken a party for a part of society, namely only the Scandinavian prisoners, and these preferred. According to the Geneva Conventions, those in worse condition would have had to be cared for by the Red Cross regardless of their origin.

At the same time, it is difficult to place oneself in the role of the helpers who voluntarily enter a dangerous war zone and risk their lives, in part losing their lives. Especially in the last weeks of the war total chaos reigned.


Of the 2,000 people transferred to the satellite camps, few will have experienced the end of the war.

Last stage for the white buses

Count Bernadotte visited with a delegation of the Swedish Red Cross on 30 March 1945. The Danish and Norwegian prisoners from the evacuated barrack agreed to the count’s honor the Swedish national anthem. Three days later, Count Folke Bernadotte met with Himmler, who was still quite euphoric about a peace agreement with the Western powers and urged Count Folke Bernadotte for support. But Count Folke Bernadotte was important only to the prisoners, so he reached the white buses with all Danish policemen back to Denmark and allowed all women and sick people to neutral Sweden.

And that was a broad term. After all, all inmates were sick, although not consecrated to death like those described above.

If the rescue operation had now clearly gone beyond the four weeks for which the volunteers had committed themselves, a large part was now on the way back. On the other hand, many camp inmates had infectious diseases and parasites so they could not just be released home. That would have been devastating for Denmark. This is how a quarantine station was built in Padborg, Denmark. It took new helpers and means of transport for the final journey. Hurriedly, every tangible Danish bus was painted white, pasted and off we went to Neuengamme near Hamburg. In the last weeks of the war, it was no longer interesting whether the helpers were neutral Swedes or people from occupied Denmark. The first patient transport started on 9th April.

Himmler wanted to stand as best as possible with the Allies, because he was apparently aware of the imminent surrender. Ten days later, his headquarters ordered that the Neuengamme camp be vacated by April 21st. Overnight, another 124 buses were brought together in Denmark, painted white, and so the white buses started again in a convoy to Neuengamme. For there was only one day left when 4,200 prisoners could be released. Just think about bombed roads and completely destroyed infrastructure.

The last liberals left the camp 30 minutes before the deadline.

The white buses start to the next convoy

Count Folke Bernadotte had actually accomplished everything he had been told. But tirelessly he wanted to save as many souls as possible. And so Graf Folke Bernadotte reached in the next trial to bring all the prisoners of Ravensbrück concentration camp in the Brandenburg country to Sweden. Time was short, because the Red Army was at the gates of Berlin. The white buses once again set off as a convoy into this dangerous region, this time supported by a freight train that was miraculously not attacked. About 7,000 women from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic were saved. Of these, 1607 women belonged to Judaism. They were rescued shortly before the bitter sinking of the Cap Arcona with the same ship and then came on through the white buses to Sweden.

In Denmark and Sweden, the white buses were eagerly awaited, the rescued people received euphoria, some were able to recover in the sanatorium of Ramlösa in Helsingborg. For some of the rescued Sweden was the new home.

Count Folke Bernadotte

Count Folke Bernadotte never tired of getting involved with people after the Second World War. So he tried to mediate on behalf of the United Nations in the Palestine conflict. But on 17 September 1948, together with a French UN observer, he was the victim of a fatal act of terror by the Jewish terror group “Lehi”.

Denmark dedicated a memorial to Count Folke Bernadotte in honor and thanks as a monument in the Danish border town of Krusau.

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