Charles’ last name was Coward, but if there’s one word that could describe this British soldier of World War II, that is definitely not that. This is a story of human courage, and Charles Coward is the epitome of that.
Siege of Calais
Charles Joseph Coward’s story began on January 20, 1905, when he was born in Britain. He joined the army in June 1924 and became part of the 8th Reserve Regimental Royal Artillery. When World War II started in 1939, he was a Quartermaster Battery Sergeant Major.
On May 21, 1940, the Germans assaulted the port of Calais in what would later be called the Siege of Calais. The siege happened at the same time as the Battle of Boulogne before the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated through Dunkirk.
On May 22, the British forces managed to place roadblocks outside Calais while the French rearguard was tasked to deal with the advancing German armored units. The British infantry and their tanks were ordered to reinforce Boulogne in the south, but they were already late when they arrived. The next day, the British were pushed back, and by May 24, the siege started. By May 25, the Allies were forced to withdraw completely. The Germans attempted to convince them to surrender, but they held out, so, on May 26, more troops were sent to attack. Then by the afternoon, the French defenses began to collapse and the order became “every man for himself.”
His Captors’ Headache
Fortunately, many of the defenders managed to escape. But not Coward. He was captured and became a prisoner of war. Luckily, his German lessons paid off, and he used the skill to try to escape multiple times.
In one of his escape attempts, he posed as a German soldier. He got himself treated in a German field hospital when he got injured. The German doctors treated his wounds, and he was even awarded an Iron Cross for his bravery. But, of course, they eventually figured out it was all a charade and he was returned to the POW camp.
Coward continued to be a major headache to his captors, engaging in continuous acts of escape attempts and sabotage. In exasperation, the Germans sent him to Auschwitz, Poland, the site of the infamous death camp. Coward was sent to Auschwitz III in December 1943, which was a work camp 5 miles from the death camp. This work camp belonged to the IG Farben Corporation. He was kept at sub-E715, where he shared the areas with some 1,400 other British prisoners of war. There, Coward was assigned as a Red Cross liaison officer because of his German.
At the time, the German’s compliance with the Geneva Convention was spotty, at best.
There, he would witness with his very own eyes trainloads of Jews being transported to the extermination camp. There were approximately 10,000 Jews in the same Auschwitz camp that Coward was in.
The Jews were overworked, underfed, and treated poorly. He could see them dying from exhaustion, sickness, and brutality. Witnessing all the atrocities and not doing anything to help did not sit right in bold Coward’s mind, and so he decided that he would help. British POWs had access to Red Cross items, so he would usually steal food and medicine, along with the other prisoners, and then smuggle them to the Jews.
They were also given the privilege to send letters back home, and Coward regularly sent letters to his friend, Mr. William Orange. But such a person did not exist. Instead, it was just a code for the British War Office, where he described the horrible treatment the Jews were getting in the camps and all the other atrocities he witnessed.
Corpse and Chocolate
His most daring plan involved corpses and chocolates. He wanted to help the Jews, so he took the risk of bribing the guards with chocolates in exchange for the remains of non-Jewish POWs. What for, you ask?
They stripped these corpses’ clothes and their identity papers and gave them to Jewish prisoners on the IG Farben farm. They were then smuggled out of the camp with the help of the Polish resistance. This stealthy mission was successful since the number of the missing persons, and the dead bodies would always match. So the Nazis did not suspect anything of it.
They kept on doing the tactic, and they managed to smuggle out around 400 Jews.
Allied forces saved them during their forced march to Bavaria in January 1945.
For his bravery and selflessness, Coward was given the Righteous Among the Nations award in 1963 and became known as the “Count of Auschwitz.”