- Contributed by
- Eric Patience
- People in story:
- Eric Patience
- Location of story:
- Germany, Belsen and the Baltic
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 January 2004
The 11th Armoured Division
Please let me tell you the story of the conflict that we, the 11th Armoured Division, engaged in after entering Germany and following the liberation of Belsen concentration camp.
On or about 28 March 1945, we crossed the Rhine at Wesel. The town had been bombed and shelled for hours and was nearly destroyed. There was no sign of life. 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 Schutzstaffel or SS women — what a sullen bunch too.
Belsen lay ahead of us
On 5 April, 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 by shellfire and German aircraft bombing. I was told they lost 18 men, while our losses were something like 13, and other units had a few more.
Here we were up against our old friends the 12th SS. It was here too that we first heard of the concentration camp that lay ahead of us. It was in a place called Belsen.
A further meeting with the SS
When we were relieved some three days later, we were able to cross the river via a bridge further up stream. From here we carried on our advance.
A few days later we came across Steinbeck, a pretty little place with thatched roofs. It looked peaceful as we approached it. How wrong first impressions can be. As soon as we entered the village, all hell broke loose. It was our old friends the SS again.
Here we engaged in house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting. There was no quarter given, and none requested. Sadly, we lost one of our officers, although nearly all their men were killed.
My brush with death
This was where I almost lost my own life, the result of a moment’s slackness, or perhaps just sheer exhaustion. Whatever the reason, the fact is that I didn’t see the German soldier who was lying behind a hedge some three to four feet away from me.
He gave me the shock of my life when he emerged with his hands up. He had caught me out cold. One thing’s for sure: my old dad, who had died in October 1942, was watching over me that day.
Signposts to Belsen
We reached the River Aller at Essel, where we freed hundreds of POWs. We were now on the Hanover to Celle road. It was there that we first saw the yellow signs, edged with black, indicating the way to Belsen.
As we advanced along the road toward Belsen, we reached a place with a vast pine forest on one side and a large camp with a 4m-high (12-foot) barbed-wire fence on the other. At each corner of the fence stood a watchtower.
A sight never to be forgotten
The camp was guarded by Hungarian troops, and we had orders not to fire unless they did so first. From where we were, we could see the desperate plight of the inmates. They were dressed in black-and-white striped clothing, like prison pyjamas. Some of them were waving to us — a few standing, but most sitting or lying down, too emaciated to move. It was a distressing sight, one that none of us will ever forget for as long as we live.
The two camp commandants and a couple of SS women at Belsen were eventually hung for their crimes. Years later I heard about the story of Anne Frank and her family. I read the diary and discovered that Anne and her sister had died in Belsen just a few days before we got there. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had managed to get there sooner. We did try, we really did.
Pressing on toward Lubeck
We pushed on toward the Baltic and the great port of Lubeck. Before we got there we had more battles to fight and the River Elbe to cross as well as Belles Circus to liberate. After the war the circus 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 3 May, taking thousands of prisoners from among those who were willing to give themselves up.
The following morning we pressed on toward Neustadt, north of Lubeck. The great bay was full of ships and U-boats. Three ships were capsized and set on fire by RAF Typhoons and the tanks of the 23rd Hussars. On one of them, where the SS had imprisoned their own political prisoners, guards had opened fire on the Typhoons, which led to our retaliation.
End of the road
Pressing on toward Kiel and the Danish border, we reached the village of Struckdorf on 4 May. It was then that we received the order to halt. By this time, we all realised that something was up.
We, as in my section of mates and I, found ourselves encamped in a farmhouse barn. We were able to wash and shave for the first time in days. We were also able to cook ourselves a meal and have a nice brew up.
It was from there that I wrote home for the first time in weeks to my mother and sisters to tell them that, though I was tired and dirty, I was OK. My old mum had four of us in the army. I was the only one in the front line. My younger brother was way behind me in the Medical Corps at divisional HQ.
In my letter I remember saying that we thought we could see the end of the road, though I could not say where I was or exactly what I was doing.
The surrender is announced
On a Friday night, about 9pm, we were relaxing, listening to music on the radio. All of a sudden the broadcast was interrupted to make way for an unscheduled announcement. It informed us that the fighting was to cease. The Germans had surrendered.
For a split second, there was complete silence before all hell broke loose. We hugged each other and shook hands, then got stuck into the beer and wine that we had saved and liberated over the past months. Those of us who were there, we were the ones who had made it. A lot of our mates had not been so lucky. In the midst of our celebrations, we remembered them, toasting our dead with a speech from our CO. That date and time, Friday, 4 May, 9pm, is a moment we shall remember all our lives.
I got drunk
For the first time in my life, I got drunk. I must have passed out, because the next morning I found myself in the loft of a barn. To this day, I have never managed to find out how I got there.
Although that marked the conclusion of our war, it was not the end of our army life, which continued until September 1946. Nor was our job in Germany quite done. Two days later we moved on to Schleswig. We still had work to do guarding SS prisoners and rounding up those who were wanted for war crimes. In Flensburg, we captured the entire German government.
A lasting peace?
Peace came at last. But would it last? I really hoped so then and I still hope so now.
War is a terrible thing. For me, it brings back appalling memories of seeing my mates die and having to bury them. Then there’s the terrible reality of Belsen concentration camp, of the people who lost their lives there in such dreadful circumstances. Last, but not least, there is the memory too of the hundreds of animals that were killed.
But the war holds some good memories too. Of the time we were able to liberate villages and towns, and witness the joy and happiness of the people who were free at last, just as happened at the great port of Antwerp.
A small but significant memory
One thing in particular I appreciated, something I remember most vividly, happened in September 1944. As we were clearing a small Dutch village of the enemy, a young lady came running out of a house with a baby in her arms. There were tears in her eyes as she rushed toward me and shook my hand. Although she said nothing, her eyes spoke volumes.
It was a wonderful moment, something that made everything worthwhile. I thought so especially at the time, tired, dirty and hungry as I was, because seeing that young lady made me feel very proud and a whole lot better. You might say it was a small thing, but to me it felt huge. God bless that woman and child, wherever they may be.
All the very best, too, to those lads of the 8th Rifle Brigade who are still around, especially to my mates in G Company.
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