The days of the Liberation
As mentioned on the first page about Belsen Camp’s Liberation, there are many stories, recollections, etc covering this event. What is below is a collection from many websites, the main two are – http://www.bergenbelsen.co.uk/index.html and http://www.scrapbookpages.com/BergenBelsen/ConcentrationCamp.html
A further source is the documented account from the personal War Diaries by Maj Ben Barnett, Battery Commander of 249 Battery, 63rd (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regiment RA. This covers the small, but hugely significant part played by the QOOH in the relief of this terrible place.
WARNING: This page contains graphic imagery that may be deemed offensive by some viewers.
The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was voluntarily turned over to the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian force, on April 15, 1945 by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the man who was in charge of all the German concentration and death camps. Bergen-Belsen was in the middle of the war zone where British and German troops were fighting in the last days of World War II and there was a danger that the typhus epidemic in the camp would spread to the troops on both sides, let alone to the surrounding civilian population.
Before negotiations with the British began, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), had sent an order on April 7, 1945, directly to the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen, Josef Kramer, that all the prisoners in the camp should be killed, rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy, according to Gerald Fleming, author of “Hitler and the Final Solution“, who wrote that this order had come from Hitler himself.
When this news reached representatives of the World Jewish Congress in Stockholm, they contacted Felix Kersten, a Swedish chiropractor who had treated Himmler. According to Fleming, Kersten succeeded in persuading Himmler to reverse the order. When Hitler heard this, he flew into a rage, according to Fleming.
Negotiations for the transfer of the Bergen-Belsen camp to the British took several days. Then on the night of April 12, 1945, a cease-fire agreement was signed between the local German Military Commander and the British Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Taylor-Balfour, according to Eberhard Kolb in his book, “Bergen-Belsen from 1943 to 1945”.
An area of 48 square kilometres around Bergen-Belsen was declared a neutral zone. The neutral zone was 8 kilometres long and 6 kilometres wide. Until British troops could take over, the agreement specified that the camp would be guarded by a unit of Hungarian soldiers and soldiers from the German Wehrmacht (the regular army as opposed to the SS). They were assured that they would be allowed free return passage to the German lines within six days after the British arrived. The SS soldiers who made up the staff of the camp were to remain at their posts and carry on their duties until the British arrived to take over. There was no specific stipulation in the agreement about what their fate would be, according to Eberhard Kolb.
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 15th, British soldiers arrived at the German Army training garrison (Bergen-Belsen Barracks which became the Bergen-Belsen DP (Displaced Persons) camp, now known as Bergen-Hohne), next door to the concentration camp, and the transfer of the neutral territory of the Bergen-Belsen camp was made. A short time later, a group of British officers entered the concentration camp, which was right next to the garrison, although the distance by road was about 1.5 kilometres.
The first British units to enter the camp were from the 63rd (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, and with a van with a loudspeaker, the 14 Amplifier Unit, Intelligence Corps.
Brigadier Llewelyn Glyn Hughes, a medical officer, was in command of the relief operation. The British had known that there were terrible epidemics in the camp, and that this was the main reason the camp had been surrendered, but they were unprepared for the gruesome sight of the dead bodies, and it came as an enormous shock to them.
In a book entitled “The Belsen Trial” by Raymond Phillips, published in 1949, Brigadier Glyn Hughes is quoted in this description of the terrible scene that the British found at Bergen-Belsen:
“The conditions in the camp were really indescribable; no description nor photograph could really bring home the horrors that were there outside the huts, and the frightful scenes inside were much worse. There were various sizes of piles of corpses lying all over the camp, some in between the huts. The compounds themselves had bodies lying about in them. The gutters were full and within the huts there were uncountable numbers of bodies, some even in the same bunks as the living. Near the crematorium were signs of filled-in mass graves, and outside to the left of the bottom compound was an open pit half-full of corpses. It had just begun to be filled. Some of the huts had bunks but not many, and they were filled absolutely to overflowing with prisoners in every state of emaciation and disease. There was not room for them to lie down at full length in each hut. In the most crowded there were anything from 600 to 1000 people in accommodation which should only have taken 100 !
There were no bunks in a hut in the women’s compound which contained the typhus patients. They were lying on the floor and were so weak they could hardly move. There was practically no bedding. In some cases, there was a thin mattress, but some had none. Some had draped themselves in blankets, and some had German hospital type of clothing. That was the general picture.”
Stable Blocks at the former Bergen-Belsen (now Bergen-Hohne) Barracks were identified and converted into improvised decontamination facilities (gaining the nick-name, ‘Human Laundry’). Here former prisoners would arrive from Belsen Camp, be shaven, washed and deloused prior to being moved into the newly established hospitals within Bergen-Belsen Barracks. The German nurses brought in to work in the Human Laundry were initially hostile. They laughed, joked, were definitely truculent, and made no effort to get things ready for the job in hand. Damned if they were going to work for the British. But when the first patients started to arrive, those nurses stood with their mouths open and gazed horror-struck as those bodies were brought in. First one, then another started to sob until almost the whole sixty were weeping. There was no more truculence after that. The humanity and professionalism of these Germans soon wore down British hostility. Those girls worked like slaves, they grew thin and they grew pale but they worked and they toiled from eight in the morning till six at night. They earned respect and in the end were given tea in the mid-morning and cigarettes. The German nurses were of course at high risk of contracting Typhus themselves. According to Allied accounts, they were offered immunisation but the German officer in charge of them refused it on the basis that they had received it recently. A month later, when 32 out of the 48 nurses were in bed with typhus, he admitted that they had not had a typhus vaccine and gave several lame excuses for his refusal.
In spite of massive efforts to help the survivors, about another 9,000 died in April, and by the end of June 1945 another 4,000 had died. Quite a number of these deaths were, sadly, due to the wrong food/diet being administered. The British troops and medical staff tried these diets to feed the prisoners, in this order:
- Bully beef from Army rations. Most of the prisoners’ digestive systems were in too weak a state from long-term starvation to handle such food.
- Skimmed milk. The result was a bit better, but still far from acceptable.
- Bengal Famine Mixture. This is a rice-and-sugar-based mixture which had achieved good results after the Bengal famine of 1943, but it proved less suitable to Europeans than to Bengalis because of the differences in the food to which they were accustomed. Adding the common ingredient paprika to the mixture made it more palatable to these Europeans and recovery started.
The following is a more detailed account of the involvement of the 63rd (OY) A/Tank Regt RA, plus the arrival of further military units :-
On arrival at Belsen camp gates, Lt Col Taylor tells Josef Kramer that the S.S. Administrative Staff are to hand in their weapons. Kramer answers that they could not enter the camp unarmed and they were required to protect the food supplies. Lt Col Taylor agrees “he can keep his arms for the present but that for every inmate of the camp who is shot one S.S. man will be executed”. Lt Col Taylor demands the camp records from Josef Kramer who reports that they have been destroyed on the orders of the Hauptwirtschaftsampt in Berlin.
With rumours of the liberation beginning to circulate amongst the prisoners, there come reports of prisoners rioting in the cookhouses, leaving no food remaining and Hungarian guards shooting several internees. When this is investigated, Josef Kramer is ordered to carry one of the wounded to the hospital block. Prisoners then loot the clothing stores and take possession of empty huts in the SS compound. British Army soldiers fire shots over the heads of former prisoners in an attempt to keep order. Prisoners loot Block 50, the tents from this store begin to appear all over the concentration camp. Despite British armed guards and a Sherman tank being tasked with protecting the contents of the food store (Block 9) and Gemüsekeller (Vegetable Cellar/Store), they are successfully looted by prisoners. Lt Derrick Sington (from the 14 Amplifier Unit, Intelligence Corps) is sent into the camp and broadcasts “The Germans have nothing more to do with this camp. The camp is now under the control of the British Army. Food and medical aid are being rushed up immediately. Obey our orders and instructions. By so doing you will help us and it is the best way by which you can help yourselves”.
The next day, April 16th, SS Administrative Staff of Camp 2 in Bergen-Belsen Barracks are disarmed and arrested. Major Leonard Berney of 817 Military Government Detachment (responsible for the general administration of Bergen-Belsen barracks) discovers a German supply depot in the Barracks, stocked with many tons of potatoes, tinned meat, dried milk, sugar, cocoa, grains and other foodstuffs. Next to this store was a bakery capable of producing 40,000 3lb loaves per day. In addition to these, a dairy was found in Bergen (approx 3 km’s from Belsen) with a daily production capacity of large amounts of milk, butter and cheese.
On the 17th April, all remaining SS personnel are disarmed, with Joseph Kramer being arrested and paraded around the camp showing the internees he was no longer in charge. On the 18th, Josef Kramer transferred to the prison camp in Celle.
Burial of the dead begins. At first the guards were ordered to collect the bodies and bury them. Due to the numbers of dead, and the risk of more disease outbreaks, it is decided to use bulldozers to push the piles of bodies into mass graves (this method was used on only two occasions and then mainly because of advanced discomposure). First reports of the conditions of Bergen-Belsen appear in the British press.
April 19th, and one of the SS Staff used for the burial details commits suicide whilst another two are shot attempting to escape. Their bodies are buried in the mass graves. 49 male and 26 female prison SS guards placed under arrest. Of these 75, approx 20 die within the following weeks, some from sepsis (through ptomaine), the majority from Typhus. On 20th April 800 Wehrmacht soldiers leave Bergen-Belsen Barracks to return to the German lines as per the truce of 12 April.
April 21st sees the ‘Human Laundry’ set up and operational with the first 300 prisoners processed.
The remaining German troops are returned to their lines on the 24th April. Approx 50% of these, including Oberst Schmidt wished to remain as PoW’s. This request was rejected by General Dempsey (Comd of British 2nd Army). The Bürgermeisters of Celle and other towns are paraded at a Mass Grave to witness the dead. Evacuation of medically fit prisoners begins from Bergen-Belsen Barracks to Displaced Persons (DP) route.
Burial backlog completed on the 28th April. Bergen-Belsen Barracks strafed by the Luftwaffe, bombing one of the hospitals in the DP camp, injuring and killing several patients and Red Cross workers.
All arrested SS camp staff transferred to prison in Celle on 29th April. Hitler commits suicide on 30th April. May 4th is the day of surrender of the German forces in northern Germany.
On May 19th, approx 14,000 former prisoners have been admitted to the various hospitals in Bergen-Belsen Barracks. The last 421 internees evacuated from Belsen to Bergen-Belsen Barracks. Burning of the camp begins by flame-throwing “Bren-gun” carriers and “Churchill Crocodile” tanks. And Shortly after 1800 hrs on 21st May, the last remaining Block of Belsen burnt to the ground (the former SS part of the camp remained).
More internees are becoming fit to travel, and by May 21st 17,000 have been repatriated to cities and countries throughout Europe with more following daily.
In June the British re-name Bergen-Belsen Barracks, to Bergen-Hohne. On June 20th, the Allies introduce a special category of Displaced Persons (DP’s) known as ‘Non-repatriables’, with the first JRU (Jewish Relief Unit) team arriving on June 21st. On the 24th June, the Belsen Jewish Committee is enlarged to represent all Jews in the British Zone. The Daily Mirror reports, on 28th June, that 20 former SS staff have died of Typhus. They were due to stand trial for War Crimes in a few weeks’ time. At the end of June, it was announced that 13944 prisoners have died since liberation (2000 of which because they were given the wrong type of food by well-meaning British Soldiers).
On 8th July a Conference of 54 Jewish communities in Germany was held in Bergen-Hohne. The representatives agree to elect a Central Jewish Representative Council. First edition of Unzer Sztyme (Our Voice) is published on 12th July – this was a publication of the Central Committee for the Liberated Jews in the British Zone.
September 17th sees the Trial of ‘Josef Kramer and Forty-Four others’ begins at 30 Lindenstraße, Lüneburg. On September 25th the Jewish memorial consecration ceremony is held.
In October 1945 the British Military Government orders the German Provincial Government in Hannover to set up the appropriate memorial ‘to ensure that the memory of infamy of the concentration camps does not fade’ .
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