Burial space, part 6: Birkshaw forest

Out of all the foot and mouth mass burial sites, Birkshaw forest had the highest estimated capacity per hectare: 1,000,000 sheep in 50 hectares, or 20,000 sheep per hectare. It’s a mere 5% of the density supposedly attained at Treblinka, of course, and the actual number of burials was less than half of the capacity. On the other hand, as at Great Orton and Throckmorton, only a fraction of the site was used for the mass graves. In any event, Birkshaw forest gives us a good look at just how high a burial density can be achieved, and thus offers the best challenge to our position that the burial space at the Reinhardt camps was inadequate to support the extermination that allegedly occurred in said camps.

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The number of carcasses buried at Birkshaw forest is given in the NAO report as 490,000. Another source gives the number 480,000, and states that several hundred were cattle, and the rest were sheep. A Scottish report confirms the 480,000 number. Using the equation 1 cow = 10 sheep, it’s clear that the cattle increased the number of sheep-equivalent carcasses by only a few thousand. As the cattle were all under the age of 30 months, this equation likely overestimates the contribution of the cattle. We’ll be generous and use the figure of 495,000 for the number of sheep-equivalent carcasses buried at Birkshaw forest.

How large a burial area, and how large of graves, were needed to bury these carcasses? I unfortunately do not have an aerial photo from the time of the burials, but I have found a number of other sources that while imperfect do allow a fairly clear answer to these questions.

The contractor responsible for the lining of the pits offers the following information:

CaseStudy2
Rawel_Birkshaw_ML

The pits were dug 15m deep, 30m wide and up to 75m long with the capacity of over 45,000 head of sheep or cattle.

They also show some pictures:

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The New Zealand guidelines on carcass burial give a picture of one of the Birkshaw forest pits.

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The guidelines state that the pictured pit had dimensions of “approximately 100 m long by 15 m wide by 15 m deep.”

What can we say about this data? It’s not easy to read exact dimensions off of these pictures, they certainly do confirm that the burial pits were very deep. One confusing point is the discrepancy between a width of 30 meters according to one source and 15 according to the other. Most likely the reason for this comes from one measurement being at the top of the pit and the other at the bottom, since the pictures suggest that 15 meters is a reasonable estimate of the width of at least one of the pits at the bottom; 30 meters would then presumably be the width at the top.

The pictures certainly show that the pits were very deep; whether 15 meters is accurate is another question. To my eyes it looks to be an overestimate. One possible explanation is that 15 meters was the length of the lining of the pit walls, but as they were angled the depth would be less. On the other hand, a depth of 15 meters is given by two apparently independent sources…

Another point of concern is the contradiction between a length of up to 75 meters in one case and 100 meters in the other; we will be able to sort out the truth of this in the next section. Another is the difference between the statement that the pits had “capacity of over 45,000 head of sheep or cattle” and the fact that (as we will see) there were six pits holding 480,000 or 490,000 carcasses, but this is only an imprecision.

Given the above sources, we can make an approximate estimate of the density of the burials in sheep-equivalent carcasses per cubic meter. If there were six pits with dimensions 75 m x 30 m * 15 m, this makes for a total pit volume of 202,500 cubic meters. We are using the high end figure of 495,000 sheep-equivalent carcasses at Birkshaw forest, which makes for 495,000/202,500 = 2.44 sheep-equivalent carcasses per cubic meter. Of course, we have not accounted for sloped walls, or for the dimensions being given as “up to 75 m” rather than “75 m”, but even if we assume that these factors have led us to overstate the burial volume by a factor of 3, the burial density would rise to a mere 7.33 carcasses per cubic meter. The figure of over 20 carcasses per cubic meter which anti-revisionists require at Belzec is nowhere in sight.

Calculating areas based on maps of the site

The available maps of the site allow for a more precise understanding of the Birkshaw forest graves.

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Now what do these maps tell us? First, that there were six pits used at Birkshaw forest. The second map states (in the lower right) that the burial area was 5.1 hectares. The first map does not give a scale for its grid, but using the given areas on the second map, comparing with google maps, etc. it appears that it must be a hectare grid, i.e. each box in the grid is 100 meters x 100 meters. The surface area of the graves themselves in the first map appears to be 1.3467 hectares.

If we scale this area from 495,000 sheep-equivalent carcasses at Birkshaw forest to 760,000 at Treblinka (assuming jews are equivalent to sheep) then we would require a grave surface area of 2.07 hectares. If we assume that 40,000 died on the trains or in the Lazarett, so only 720,000 were buried in the upper camp, the area would be 1.96 hectares. Given how much space was supposedly taken up by the gas chambers and barracks, as well as the forested area, this is essentially all the remaining area in the upper camp. Digging such large graves would only have been possible with by digging just two giant graves, one on either side of the gas chambers. If a larger number of pits were dug, the space between them would make it impossible to fit 1.96 hectares of grave into the upper camp. The fact that a huge amount of space would have been taken by the soil removed from the graves would also have prevented the digging of such a large area of graves, as would the fact that the excavation equipment allegedly present at Treblinka would not have been capable of digging pits as deep as Birkshaw pits, nor of excavating pits of the immense size required.

Using 5.1 hectares, the total area of the Birkshaw burial area, as the space required to bury 495,000 bodies, it follows that 720,000 bodies would require 7.4 hectares, which is much larger than the entire Treblinka upper camp.

An additional factor worthy of mention is the clearfell areas indicated on the first map, i.e. areas where all the trees were cut down. These are not included in the burial area, but given that it was necessary to fell the trees they probably played some role in supporting the operations. This indicates that the true area required for carrying out all operations involved in the burial was larger than we have indicated.

Comparison maps

Here are the Birkshaw pits and Laponder’s Treblinka map side by side (all the following comparisons are to scale):

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Here are the Birkshaw pits directly over the Treblinka upper camp:

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Here are the Birkshaw pits scaled up so as to be able to handle as many sheep-equivalent carcasses as Treblinka allegedly buried jews:

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And the same directly over the upper camp:

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Here are the Birkshaw pits compared with Sturdy Colls’ findings. Note that the line indicating the camp boundary on this map corresponds to the “anti-tank traps” on the Laponder map, not the inner barbed wire / camouflage fence.

BirkshawTreblinka5

The same with the Birkshaw pits scaled up to hold as many sheep-equivalent carcasses as Treblinka allegedly buried jews.

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Comparing the two Birkshaw maps

If you examine the two Birkshaw maps side by side, you’ll see some interesting differences. Most prominently, pits 5 and 6 appear to have been merged. Pits 7 and 9a are also joined, and pit 3 appears to have been considerably enlarged. (The two parts of this image are only approximately on the same scale, as exact linear data was lacking in the second map, and the comparison was only eyeballed.)

twotimesBirkshaw

In fact, by my calculation the grave areas indicated in the second map cover 61.84% of the burial area (taking the boundaries of the burial area from the maps together with the current aerial photos discussed below). As the burial area was 5.1 hectares, this gives 3.15 hectares – more than double the area shown on the first map. It is unclear precisely how this should be interpreted. Certainly many changes took place to the site over the course of the construction, and there is not enough information available to reconstruct events completely. At the very least, it shows how multiple graves can be merged into one over the course of work on a site – a phenomenon that may have contributed to grave enlargement at some of the Reinhardt camps, either during the final stages of the burial as may have taken place at Birkshaw, or during the (alleged) excavation of the buried bodies, or in the course of diggings at the site when it was no longer under German control.

Current aerial photos

Here is the aerial imagery of Birkshaw burial area from Google maps at three different scales:

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The troubling thing is that taking the area of what appears to have been the burial area using the scale given and pixel counting does not give consistent results. The two images at a lesser zoom give an area of 4.06 hectares, while the closeup gives an area of 5.08 hectares, which agrees with the figure of 5.1 hectares indicated on the map above. The fact that the scales are not consistent raises some question about the areas calculated from google maps aerial images in previous posts in this series. That said, the higher zoom (scale of 20 m) imagery gave a larger area (which was the correct area), and all such previous calculations used the lower zoom imagery, so if the pattern holds then the areas I gave would need to be increased, which would strengthen my argument. All the same, it would be worth checking the imagery at different zoom settings.

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One Response to Burial space, part 6: Birkshaw forest

  1. Pingback: Taking out the garbage | Holocaust History Channel

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