As World War II in Europe was fast approaching its end, an extensive operation known as “White Buses” began using a fleet of vehicles to rescue concentration camp inmates in Nazi Germany. White Buses was jointly conducted by the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government. (Sweden was neutral throughout the war; Denmark, for its part, had been occupied by Germany since 1940 but managed to keep its democratic form of government functioning –albeit tenuously — in the long shadow of Nazism.) The humanitarian effort owed its name to the fact that the buses used for transporting inmates had been painted entirely white with Red Cross emblems or the flags of either Sweden or Denmark to distinguish those buses from military vehicles.
White Buses was led by Count Folke Bernadotte, vice president of the Swedish Red Cross. The operation was carried out under restrictive conditions imposed by various German officials at a time when their country was being encircled by Allied forces. These officials initially would not allow rescued inmates to be taken out of Germany, for example.
More than 300 people, including doctors and nurses, took part in White Buses. A total of 36 buses were deployed for retrieving inmates and transporting them to a safer location, and other vehicles used in the effort included at least 19 trucks and seven automobiles. The first round of evacuations started on March 15, 1945, at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the town of Oranienburg (north of Berlin). Approximately 2,200 Danish and Norwegian inmates were rescued from this camp. While German officials maintained tight control over where these individuals could be transferred and detained in the short term, many of the inmates were allowed to be taken to Sweden starting in early April.
The buses completed the last of their evacuations from concentration camps on April 2, with the final round of inmates transported to freedom in Sweden on May 4 (just four days before Germany formally surrendered to the Allies). Altogether, the operation helped liberate 15,345 people from concentration camps. A few of the buses used in these missions are still around today.