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Past Times

Number 45544: John Fletcher was decorated Dundee soldier murdered at Auschwitz

Graeme Strachan
'Mort pour la France': John Fletcher's death certificate states that he died for France.

It was a headline tucked away inside the Evening Telegraph of November 23 1946 that might easily have been overlooked.

‘Dundee man died in Poland’.

The three paragraphs on page four confirmed the death of John Gordon Fletcher following correspondence from the French Ministry.

But it was the year and the place where he died which was most significant.

“The Lord Provost of Dundee has received an announcement from Paris of the death in 1942 of John Gordon Fletcher, a Dundee man, which took place at Auschwitz, Poland.

“The letter is from the French Ministry dealing with records of war victims.

“It states that Mr John Fletcher was born in Dundee on December 12, 1892. The date of death is given as July 30, 1942.”

Fletcher remains the only known Dundonian to have died in the Nazi death camp, where at least 1.1 million people were murdered between 1940 and 1945.

He was a hero but to his Nazi aggressors he was simply number 45544 and Fletcher’s story of courage wasn’t public knowledge for decades.

Who was John Fletcher?

Fletcher was born in the Overgate on December 12 1892 and was the son of Margaret Robertson and John Gordon Fletcher, who was a sea captain.

He moved to France in 1913 where he served with the Intelligence Corps during the First World War and received the 1914-15 Star and the French military medal for his distinguished service as a British soldier by the French government.

John Fletcher in his striped pyjamas at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
John Fletcher in his striped uniform at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

According to his military registration card, Fletcher was 1.64m tall with brown hair and grey-brown eyes, a broad forehead and a fairly strong nose.

In 1919 he married Lucia Fontaine, who ran a bistro in the town of Albert in the Somme region, before becoming a French citizen in 1921.

By this time, he was using the French version, Jean.

He worked at the government-owned Potez aircraft factory on the outskirts of Albert, which was the largest aircraft factory in the world.

When the Germans swept through France in 1940 they requisitioned the factory because they needed aircraft parts.

Fletcher continued to work at the plant but he was arrested by German military police on May 20 1942 after being betrayed by an informant to the Gestapo.

A father and son working at the factory, Ernest and Rene Pignet, were arrested at the same time and the three men were locked up at the Albert City Hotel for two days.

The Pignets were secretly helping shot-down Allied airmen and prisoners of war to evade capture as part of an underground escape line.

The French authorities – who operated under direct Nazi control – asked why Fletcher had been arrested as he was “neither Jew nor Freemason nor political”.

They wrote to his wife Lucia saying they didn’t know why he had been taken but it was suggested that he assisted the Pignets “in the same affair”.

Fletcher could speak both French and English, which would have been an enormous assistance to British servicemen.

The three men were moved to Frontstalag 122 in Compiegne, which was a German military prison used as an internment camp primarily for political prisoners.

Fletcher was registered under the number 5821 and in June 1942 he was selected with more than 1,000 hostages who were going to be deported in retaliation for the activities of the Resistance despite never being tried by a court.

Cattle wagons to Auschwitz

At dawn on July 6 1942 the prisoners were forced at gunpoint into cattle wagons at Compiegne station to go to Poland, where the journey took two and a half days without water, food or sanitation.

The deportees did not know where they were going and when they arrived in Auschwitz they were not allowed to write to their families.

Fletcher was given the number 45544 on arrival at the Auschwitz base camp and was photographed before the prisoners were all marched on foot to Birkenau.

The gates of the Auschwitz death camp at Birkenau in Poland.
The Auschwitz death camp at Birkenau in Poland.

Fletcher was wrongly classified as a ‘French Jew’ on registration and received a ragged uniform and a pair of shoes and was sent to work at the camp.

Archivists from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum said Fletcher would have been assigned the prisoner category “simply by human error”.

No Jew was intended to survive Auschwitz.

Fletcher lasted just 21 days.

The death certificate that was drawn up by the SS administration – these were usually fictitious – indicated “weakness of the heart muscle” as the cause of his death.

Poles and other non-Jews at Auschwitz were mostly starved, poisoned or lined up against the infamous Death Wall and shot.

The Jews were herded into the gas chambers.

The bodies of the disappeared – whatever the circumstances of their death – were  reduced to ashes in the crematoria or in open-air incineration pits.

In November 1944, as the Nazis prepared to abandon Auschwitz, they began dismantling and dynamiting three of the crematoria at Birkenau.

The fourth had been destroyed in October, during a short-lived inmate revolt.

A newspaper clipping - how news broke of Fletcher's death in 1946.
How news broke of Fletcher’s death in 1946.

The Nazis destroyed most of the camp records to cover up their crimes but Fletcher’s documentation escaped the systematic destruction by the SS of their archives.

Fletcher’s registration photo was among 522, which the death camp’s interior Resistance had camouflaged to save them from destruction.

The French discovered his details in the remaining files including the picture of him in the now-infamous striped uniform that was given to inmates.

In October 1945, following a petition by Lucia, Fletcher’s death certificate was amended to include the words: ‘Mort pour la France’ – ‘Died for France’.

On November 16 1946 the registrar on duty at the Ministry of Veterans and Victims of War (ACVG) drew up Fletcher’s official death certificate.

The date of death was fixed at July 30 1942.

He was 49 when he died.

Labour councillor Richard McCready has asked Dundee City Council to consider how to commemorate Fletcher to keep his story alive for future generations.

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