- Contributed by
- Eric Patience
- People in story:
- Eric Patience
- Location of story:
- Germany, Belsen and the Baltic
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 August 2003
Please let me tell you the story of the conflict that we, the 11th Arm. Div., had after entering Germany and the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp.
On or about the 28th March 1945 we crossed the river Rhine at a place called Wesel, this town was bombed and shelled for hours and was nearly destroyed. There was no sign of life and the stench from dead Germans and animals was terrible, just like Normandy all over again. The large town of Osnabruck was captured with some resistance. We took quite a few prisoners including some SS women — what a sullen bunch too.
On April 5th we found ourselves entering the small town of Stolzenau on the river Weser. The bridge was blown so we had to force a crossing under cover of farm buildings on the opposite bank. The Royal Engineers tried to build a pontoon bridge but they were badly mauled from shell fire and bombing from German aircraft. I was told they lost 18 men, we ourselves lost something like 13, and other units lost a few more. This was when we heard of the concentration camp that lay ahead of us.
We soon found this was the awful Belsen concentration camp. Here we were up against our old friends the 12th SS. We were relieved three days later so that we could cross a bridge further up river and carry on our advance.
A few days later we came across Steinbeck, a pretty little village with thatched roofs, it looked so peaceful. How wrong we were for as we entered all hell broke loose. It was our old friends the SS again. Here we had house to house and hand to hand fighting, no quarter was given and none was asked for. They lost nearly all of their men and sadly we lost one of our Officers. This was where I nearly lost my own life through being slack for one moment, maybe because I was exhausted I don’t know.
I didn’t see this German soldier who was lying behind a hedge just three to four feet away. I had the chock of my life when he came out from behind that hedge with his hands up; he had me cold, I am sure my old Dad was watching over me that day. H e had died in October 1942.
Next we came to the River Aller at a place called Essel where we freed hundreds of POW’s. We were now on the Hanover — Celle road and this is where we first saw the yellow signs edged with black with the word BELSEN. As we advanced we saw on one side of the road a large pine forest and on the other a large camp with 12 ft high barbed wire fences with watchtowers on each corner. It was being guarded by Hungarian troops. We had orders not to fire unless we were fired on first. We could see the poor inmates waving to us. They were dressed in black and white striped clothes like pyjamas. A few were standing but most were sitting or lying down, it was a sight none of us will forget as long as we live. The two commandants and two SS women were later hanged for their crimes. Years later the story was told of Anne Frank and her family. I read the diary and found that Anne and her sister died in Belsen just a few days before we got there. I f only we had got there sooner, we did try, we really did.
We pushed on towards the Baltic and the great port of Lubeck but first we had many more battles and the crossing of the River Elbe. We also liberated Belles Circus before we got there. After the war they came to where we were stationed in the town of Schleswig on the Baltic to put on a nice show for us.
We captured Lubeck on 3rd May taking thousands of prisoners who were willing to give themselves up. The following morning we pressed on towards Neustadt north of Lubeck. The great bay was full of ships and U-boats. These were attacked by RAF Typhoons and tanks of the 23rd Hussars. Three ships were capsized and set on fire. On one of them the SS had imprisoned their own political prisoners. The SS guards had opened fire on the Typhoons which made them attack it.
Pressing on towards Kiel and the Danish border on 4th May we reached the village of Struckdorf. Here we had orders to halt, by now we all knew something was up. My section of mates and myself found ourselves in the barn of a farmhouse; we were able to have a wash and shave, the first for many days. We also cooked ourselves a meal and had a nice brew up. I wrote home to my mother and sisters, again the first for weeks, telling them that I was OK but tired and dirty. I also told them that we thought we could see the end of the road but I could not tell them where I was or what I was doing. My old mum had four of us in the Army, I was the only one in the front line, and my younger brother was way behind me in the Medical Corp at Divisional HQ.
We were all listening to music when at about 9pm on Friday 4th May the music stopped and the announcer said that the Germans had surrendered and that all fighting had stopped. For just a moment there was complete silence then all hell broke loose. We all hugged each other and shook hands then out came the beer and wine that we had saved and liberated over the months which lay behind us. Those of us here had made it but a lot of our mates hadn’t and we thought of them with a toast and a speech by our C.O. I for the first time in my life got drunk and passed out. Next morning I found myself in the loft of a barn and to this day I never did find out how I got there. That day, Friday 4th May at 9pm, will always be a date which we all will remember all our lives.
Two days later we moved on to Schleswig but our job was still not done for there was still a lot of work to be done in guarding SS prisoners and rounding up those who were wanted for war crimes. We also captured the entire German Government in Flensburg.
That was the end of our war but not our Army life, that ended in September 1946. Peace came at last but will it last, I really so hope so.
War is a terrible thing and it brings back terrible memories such as seeing your own mates die and you have to bury them. Then there was the awful Belsen concentration camp and last but not least the hundreds of animals which were killed. There were however nice memories as well. Those of liberating villages and towns and seeing the joy and happiness of the people in them such as the great Port of Antwerp.
One thing that I enjoyed and remember most was when we cleared a small Dutch village of the enemy in September 1944. I was going past this house when a young lady came running out with a baby in her arms. There were tears in her eyes, she shook my hand and said nothing but the look in her eyes said it all. Wonderful I thought. I was tired, dirty and hungry but seeing that young lady made me feel very proud and a whole lot better, a small thing you might say but to me it was wonderful.
God Bless that lady and child wherever they might be.
To all the lads of 8th Rifle Brigade who are still around I wish them all the very best especially my mates ‘G’ Company.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.