Liberation of Belsen
Many articles have been published over the years of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp and its liberation. There is much to find via the internet (very little of it reporting the involvement of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry) and many websites contradict each other. The officers and men of 249 Battery, 63rd (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regiment RA were the very first unit from the Allied Forces to enter Bergen-Belsen on that fateful day of Sunday, April 15th 1945. In the days which followed there were many more units, with their relevant trades, skills and equipment, drafted in to deal with the great many problems found.
April 15th 2020 will be the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. No doubt many will have watched the TV broadcasts of the liberation of Auschwitz, some of these programs even covered Belsen. But nowhere shows the men of the QOOH and their involvement in this dreadful experience.
The task of liberating the camp, and taking command of the German SS forces which were running the camp, was detailed to 249 Battery, 63rd (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regiment RA. Probably the most dubious ‘claim-to-fame’ in the history of the QOOH. Certainly one, which most of the men of the Battery, have tried to forget over the years. These were men trained to fight an enemy and kill where necessary. They were certainly ill-equipped, both practically and mentally, to cope with what lay before them.
The Commanding Officer (CO) of the Regiment, Lt Col Dick Taylor, and 249’s Battery Commander (BC), Maj Ben Barnett were informed that the surrounding area of the camp was being guarded by some 600 Hungarian troops, as well as a large number of German Wehrmacht troops – these were outside the camp. The prisoners inside were guarded by the German SS, male and female. Due to the fact that many of the internees had infectious and contagious diseases, including typhus, TB and sundry other conditions, the whole area had been declared a neutral zone, agreed between the Allied 8th Corps HQ and the commander of the German 1st Parachute Brigade. The worry was that it was feared the typhus would spread if the internees managed to escape.
On April 13th, a group of German officers had approached our leading troops under a flag of truce. They informed the Allies that there was a concentration camp a few miles in front of the Allies line of attack. The Allies at this time were still several miles away on the other side of the river Aller and the Battery spent the next day (14th) waiting to cross the bridge at Celle, with the Germans putting up a stiff fight. Late in that afternoon, they managed to cross the bridge and spent the night of the 14/15th in woods just past the bridge. Next day, after being kept hanging about all morning, the BC sent his 2i/c, Capt Pat Ashton, to liaise with the Germans at Bergen-Belsen Barracks, (the German Panzer training-school barracks). The Battery was still being harassed by German marines at the edge of the neutral zone. Once inside, the CO, BC, and an interpreter, with a small bodyguard, moved on to meet up with Capt Ashton at the concentration camp entrance. To meet them there was the Commander of the Wehrmacht Training Area, Oberst Harries with his 2i/c, Schmidt. Also, Kramer, the SS Commander was present.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the Battery moved to the large Bergen-Belsen Barracks, about 2 miles away, to establish themselves in these barracks. The CO, BC, and the bodyguard and the Germans prepared to go into the camp, which covered an area of some 10-12 acres; it was surrounded by a 10’ high barbed-wire fence. They were informed that there were approx 45,000 internees. On the strength of this information the BC immediately sent for one troop of his battery, complete with their Crusader tanks.
They were also informed that there was enough food in the camp to feed everyone for 3 days, but in fact found there was no food at all. Not only that, but there was no water either, and there hadn’t been for 2 or 3 days ! At about this time, Brigadier Glyn Hughes, who was the DDMS (Deputy Director Medical Services) 2nd Army, had arrived. As there was no food or water, the DDMS Brigadier Glyn Hughes got on his wireless to Army HQ with a very urgent request for food and water. Also arriving soon after was a Maj Leonard Berney, a Staff Officer attached to the HQ of 8 Corps, of the British 2nd Army. He had been tasked to liaise with Lt Col Taylor, and the 63rd Anti-Tank Regt and to report back as soon as possible to the Chief of Staff and the Corps Commander. Later, Taylor wrote his report which Berney took back to the HQ. This started the immediate action to start the relief effort.
Next morning, there was a proper inspection of the whole camp area. The second troop of the Battery were sent into the camp with their Crusader tanks to take over from the German SS and to try to get some sort of order in the camp. This was a very major problem, as the Battery had not been in any way trained or given advice on how to administer camps with about 45,000 people, especially there being no food or water. They also discovered that apart from the absence of food and water, there was no sanitation of any sort in the camp, there did not appear to be any trenches to use as latrines.
What was discovered were many, many, large piles of naked corpses scattered around the camp. A large pit (50x10yds) had been dug and a large number of bodies in it. A message was broadcast telling the internees that food and water was on the way and that the German rule in the camp was over and that the Allies were doing everything in their power to relieve their misery. The next day the 2nd Army sent up several water bowsers and lorry loads of American compo-pack rations. This created problems of how these internees were meant to get into the cans of food in the rations. These rations were also not a suitable diet for people who had not been eating normally and indeed caused even more deaths.
It was discovered that there were about 50 SS men and women and these were then put to work (supervised and prompted by soldiers of 249 Battery) collecting and moving the piles of dead bodies into the pits.
Over the following days the might of the various Army departments swung into action. Late in the afternoon of the 16th, water tankers, food, coal and cooking equipment arrived. These food supplies consisted of dried milk powder, rye flour, oatmeal, sugar, salt, tinned meat and vegetables.
On the 17th, 224 Military Government Detachment, commanded by Major Miles, took control of Bergen-Belsen camp (the German Panzer training-school barracks), becoming the Displaced Persons (DP) camp and a hospital began to be set up at Bergen-Belsen. The 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, RAMC also arrived. Members of the 5th British Army Film and Photograph Unit arrived.
On the 18th, the first ambulances of 11th Light Field Ambulance arrived. A temporary Belsen Jewish Committee was elected, chaired by Josef Rosensaft. 113 LAA Regt RA also arrived to assist and eventually relieve 249 Bty, 63rd (OY) A-Tank Regt RA. 800 Wehrmacht soldiers left Bergen-Belsen Barracks to return to the German lines as per the truce of 12th April.
April 20th, despite the fact of a neutral zone being declared, an attack by 10 Focke-Wulf 190’s machined-gunned the camp. Major Davies, of the USA Typhus Commission arrived at Bergen-Belsen and is assigned the responsibility for the creation and command of a typhus control unit. After spending the previous 2 days, assessing the internees and finding a suitable building, the ‘Human Laundry’ is established (in a former stable) by the 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, and the evacuation of Belsen begins. After being shaved, cleaned and deloused, the former prisoners are moved into either the newly established hospitals or clean barrack accommodation at Bergen-Belsen Barracks. 300 former prisoners were processed through the ‘Human Laundry’ on that day. 113 LAA Regt Workshops, REME creates a makeshift water supply using civilian pumping equipment (from Celle Fire Dept), to pump water from the Meisse, a small river approx 500 metres away. Over the next 8 or 9 days, an average of 750 internees each day are processed through the ‘Human laundry’.
On the 24th, 249 Battery is moved out of Belsen and tasked to set up a camp for released Russian PoW’s at Celle. Evacuation of medically fit prisoners begins. 1,164 French/Dutch Prisoners evacuated from Bergen-Belsen Barracks to Displaced Persons (DP) route. On the 25th, 912 Military Government Detachment’s organisation of the bakery at Bergen-Belsen Barracks and the dairy at Bergen results in the first deliveries of bread, milk, butter and cheese into Bergen-Belsen. 1,130 Belgian Prisoners evacuated from Bergen-Belsen Barracks to Displaced Persons (DP) route.
April 29th, all SS camp staff are arrested and transferred to the prison in Celle. April 30th sees the first of 97 medical students arrive from London to help with relief work. On this day Adolf Hitler commits suicide ! From Apr 15th to 30th, over 9,000 prisoners died.
On May 1st, 30 Czechoslovakian Prisoners were evacuated from Bergen-Belsen Barracks to Displaced Persons (DP) route. 33 Germans evacuated from Bergen-Belsen Barracks were sent to PoW camps. 30 German Prisoners evacuated from Bergen-Belsen Barracks were to return home. May 2nd sees 2,468 Soviet Prisoners evacuated from Bergen-Belsen Barracks and sent to Fallingbostel.
On May 4th, the Officers Mess (The Roundhouse) in Bergen-Belsen Barracks is equipped with beds and brought into use as a hospital. And still the internees are being processed through the ‘Human Laundry’ at daily rates of 500-600. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery accepted the surrender of German forces in northern Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
In mid-May, Bergen-Belsen Barracks is the largest hospital in Europe housing over 13,000 patients. On May 17th, the last of the prisoners pass through the ‘Human Laundry’, making a total of 11,890. May 19th sees the last of the prisoners evacuated and the burning of the old Belsen camp begins. Approx 14,000 former prisoners have been admitted to the various hospitals in Bergen-Belsen Barracks. It is declared on May 21st that 17,000 former internees have been repatriated, with many thousands yet to go. From May 1st to 31st, 4,531 prisoners die and a further 1,827 are buried.
In June, the British rename Bergen-Belsen Barracks, to Bergen-Hohne Barracks. On 28th June, the Daily Mirror reports that 20 former SS staff had died of Typhus. 13,944 prisoners died since the liberation (2,000 of which because they were given the wrong type of food by well-meaning British Soldiers).
After spending 6 or 7 days at Belsen, the men of 249 Battery were relieved of their duties there and they moved on. They were soldiers, after all, and there was still a war to win. They were initially sent to Celle on the 24th April to set up the camp for released Russian PoW’s, then on 28th April they moved again to Luneberg to take up Garrison duties in the town. 249 Battery, along with the rest of 63rd (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) A-Tank Regt, were then involved in the ‘Dash-to-Kiel’, preventing the German port falling into the hands of the Russians, following the end of WW2 when the whole German territory was being split amongst the former Allies. Whilst these guy’s involvement in the initial liberation of this despicable camp and the horrors which met them was nothing to brag about, these men should hold their heads high and feel proud of what they achieved in attempting to make the conditions for the internees better. To witness these poor souls dying, in their hundreds daily, and not knowing how to help, must have been so traumatic. Unfortunately, all they had to carry out their task was an abundance of anti-tank shells, not the medical equipment or the correct food, unlike the many units which were drafted in after the Liberation and release from the SS command. What they did have, was a compassion for the internees suffering and most likely a hatred for the Nazis and their military governance. What a great many of the men ended up with was years and years of horrific nightmares, reliving the horrors of what they had witnessed at Belsen.
Over the next few pages can be found more information about :-
The history of Belsen camp, before Liberation;
More detailed events of the Liberation;
And what happened after Liberation – the War Crime trials.
Also,witness accounts from soldiers and internees, along with some carefully selected pictures.
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