Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen by units of the British Army including the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH). Commemoration of the events of the 15th April 1945 ensures that the horrors experienced by those involved, both liberators and liberated are not forgotten and that the lessons of the Holocaust are not lost due to the passage of time.
The War Diary entry on 14 April makes, in hindsight, a rather perfunctory statement, another line amongst the recordings of the day-to-day activities of the regiment
“249 Bty moved to take over the concentration camp at BELSEN”.
75 years on this statement acts as a harbinger of experiences that would resonate from that day forward.
Approach by Germans
“On instructions from the Reichsfuhrer SS* the military commander at BERGEN approached the Allied forces, 12 April, with regard to the concentration camp at BELSEN.”
So opens the appendix which outlines the agreement between the Germans and the Allies regarding the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen.
As the camp lay in enemy territory a neutral zone was created and plans were made for British troops to move into this area.
Receiving his orders on 13 April, Lt Colonel Richard Taylor, officer commanding, 63rd Anti Tank Regiment (QOOH) selected 249 Battery commanded by Major B Barnett to move into the neutral zone and take over the camp at Belsen.
One worrying part of the agreement was article 4,
“ the German military authorities will erect notices and white flags at all road entrances…in English and German…Danger – Typhus””
* Heinrich Himmler. At this time Himmler was making peace overtures to the Western Allies, something that was categorically rejected.
249 Battery prepared to move forward by smartening up their equipment and themselves.
“ We were stopped and told to remove all camouflage, to clean our vehicles and ourselves, to wear out best battledress which we hadn’t even seen since landing in France. It was as though we were going on a generals’ inspection parade in Britain.”
The move forward was delayed by 24 hours and it wasn’t until midday on 15th April that the troops moved into the neutral zone. Two troops of 17 pounder guns towed by Crusaders were accompanied by a loudspeaker van from the 11th Armoured Division. The third troop and support vehicles were to follow at a later time.
Moving beyond the frontline into the designated neutral zone the battery moved into the Wehrmacht Panzer (Tank) Training School located near the concentration camp.
First impressions were deceptive, as the British soldiers had arrived at the Wehrmacht Panzer Training School at Belsen rather the concentration camp:
“ We thought, well if this is a concentration camp, it looks pretty good! . . .”
On arrival Lt Colonel Taylor met with Oberst (Colonel) Harries, the commander of the training camp to get an overview of what he and his men faced.
In his report, that is an appendix to the War Diary, Lt Colonel Taylor describes his interview with Harries in which the German told him that,
“ the SS were solely responsible for, and had complete control of the Concentration Camp and dealt with all the administration”
“ He merely acted as L.O. (Liaison Officer) between the SS and the army…”
After this Taylor met the SS camp commandant, Josef Kramer. Following a discussion about the camp, numbers of inmates and the supply situation Taylor, Brigadier Hughes, Deputy Commander Medical Services, 8th Army and Kramer went into the camp.
It was at this point that Taylor discovered the actual conditions inside the camp.
“ A great number were little more than living skeletons…”
“ There was a concrete pit…with a few inches of dirty water in the bottom – this was the only water supply…”
Taylor also discovered a French girl he knew. The chance meeting was described by Major Barnett:
“ This figure pushed through our group of bodyguards and rushed up to Dick Taylor saying ‘Mr Dick, Mr Dick, I am Anna Marie, do you remember me?’ Of course he didn’t remember her because she was a skeletal figure with a shaven head and most of her teeth knocked out. It transpired that this girl had been employed before the war by Dick Taylor’s mother… as her French Maid, and at the outbreak of war, she had returned to her home in Paris and then gone into the resistance in Paris, had eventually been picked up by the Gestapo, tortured, thrown into a concentration camp and fetched up at Belsen where the first Englishman she saw was her employer’s son!”
Anna Marie had been arrested in Paris 18 months earlier for helping Allied officers escape.
Later that evening Taylor had Kramer arrested and confined to his quarters.
Other members of the QOOH recorded what they encountered on entering the camp:
“ The scene we first met beggars description. There were 40-50,000 in the camp of which about 10,000 lay dead or near death in the huts or lying around the camp in large heaps. Those still alive had no food or water for many days. The very air was poisoned and the task that faced us seemed insurmountable.”
“ Everyone wanted to speak to me, just to touch me. One big chap, a Russian, got down on his hands and knees and kissed my boots . . .”
George Leonard described the reaction of the inmates in a letter home:
The biggest problem now was how were anti tank gunners going to look after the thousands of people whom they had liberated.
“ We were soldiers! We were killers! We weren’t people who looked after other people. And that’s all we knew. That’s all we’d been trained for.”
But the men of the QOOH and other units of the British Army would do their utmost to help and in the following days food, water, medical supplies and personnel would arrive to help those who had been liberated 75 years ago today.
The impact of their actions can not be underestimated, nor can the impact that the experience had upon on those who were there. I hope to be able to tell more of their stories and the importance of these events in a wider context in further posts.