THE LIBERATION OF BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP
A personal account
By Leonard Berney, Lt-Col R.A. T.D.(Rtd)
At the beginning of April 1945 I was a Staff Officer (Anti-Aircraft Artillery), rank of Major, attached to the HQ of VIII Corps, of the British 2nd. Army.
On 12th. April our Corps HQ was at the town of Winsen, about 50Km North-East of Hannover; we had just crossed the Aller river. The front line was rapidly moving East. A Colonel Schmidt of the German Army was escorted through our front line to our Corp HQ; he was in a motorcycle and side car and was waving a white flag. He met with our Brigadier Chief of Staff. Schmidt said that we were approaching a camp called Bergen-Belsen which contained civilian political prisoners and that typhus had broken out there. He had been sent by his general to propose that the area around the camp should not be fought over for fear that the prisoners might escape and spread the disease to both armies.
It was agreed that, as soon as our front line reached a certain point, a truce zone would be established around the camp. The units of the German army were to march out, with their weapons, but the SS camp guards were to stay behind and hand over the camp to an advance party from our side. The camp guards would then be allowed to leave.
Our advanced units reached that line on 15th. April. I was told by our Chief of Staff to take a jeep and a driver and rendezvous with Lt-Col. Taylor, the CO of 63rd Anti-Tank Regt, who had been given the job of entering the truce zone and taking charge of Belsen camp. I was to report back as soon as possible to the Chief of Staff and the Corps Commander and give them an eye witness report of the situation in the camp.
I arrived at the camp entrance just as the 63rd. arrived. About 30 SS guards (some were women, all were armed), with Captain Joseph Kramer at their head, had lined up as a reception committee. As I recall, Kramer had some document ready for Col. Taylor to sign. At that point we heard shooting coming from the camp (we could not see into from where we were). Kramer explained that some of the prisoners were rioting and trying to raid the food stores and that the guards in the camp were having to open fire on them.
Taylor ordered the SS to lay down their weapons and for our soldiers to stand guard over the them. Lt. Col Taylor took one of the tracked vehicles and a Lt. Sington who had arrived with his loud-speaker truck, into the camp. I went with Taylor and we toured around part of the camp. Sington made announcements in German that the British army had arrived to take over the camp and for the prisoners to stay where they were.
I remember being completely shattered. The dead bodies laying beside the road, the starving emaciated prisoners still mostly behind barbed wire, the open mass graves containing hundreds of corpses, the stench, the sheer horror of the place, were indescribable. None of us who entered the camp that had any warning of what we were about to see or had ever experienced anything remotely like it before. After this brief tour we returned to the entrance and Taylor ordered all the SS to be arrested and put under guard in their nearby barrack huts. He then wrote a report which I took back to Corp HQ; it was night-time before I got there. I gave Taylor's written report and my own verbal report to the General and other staff officers. The Corp Commander and his staff set about rounding up all the food stores, water trucks and ambulance/hospital services they could get hold of - the great liberation effort had started.
The next day I was ordered to go back to the camp and attach myself to the 224 Military Government Detachment (the CO was a Major Miles) which had been sent into the camp to take overall charge. The water supply to the camp had apparently broken down some time before. I was given the job of taking charge of the deployment of the water trucks which arrived from many units around, and also to get stand pipes rigged up from material we found in the camp stores. We made use of the German Fire Brigade men and equipment who had been rounded up to help.
Soon after we got the water organized, I was given the job of scouting the district, and in particular a German Army Panzer (Tank) barracks which was reportedly nearby, to find and requisition food supplies for the camp. I took a jeep and one or two soldiers and soon located the barracks. It contained vary large quantities of food. I also located a well stocked dairy in the village near the camp.
The Panzer Barracks at Hohne, a short distance from the Belsen camp, was quickly converted into a vast hospital and a transit camp. I was given the job of supervising the sending off those who were not desperately ill from the old camp to this new camp. The process was for the prisoners to discard all their clothes, to go under the showers (which we had rigged up), be thoroughly de-loused with DDT sprayed with pressure air hoses (which we had also rigged up), get dressed in clothes commandeered from the German civilian population, and then be loaded onto lorries to be ferried up to the new camp in the Panzer barracks. I and some of our soldiers and a group of conscripted German civilian nurses worked 12 to 14 hours a day, 'processing' several thousand weak and sick people every day. Even at this rate, it took two or three weeks to empty the camp. This meant that thousands of prisoners had to wait in the old disease ridden camp until we could shift them out to safety. As soon as the last prisoner had left, Belsen Concentration Camp was burned down.
In this period, those of us who worked in the camp were liberally sprayed with DDT every morning (typhus is spread by lice). The medics inoculated us against various diseases. Fortunately, few if any soldiers contracted typhus or any other disease other than dysentery, which almost all of us had - but we kept on working.
Just before the camp was finally cleared, I was given the job of being in charge of the 'fit' people in the new camp in the Panzer barracks. They consisted of some 20,000 people in various stages of malnutrition and emaciation, but not bad enough to be hospitalised. The prisoners from Belgium, Holland, France and other allied countries were swiftly repatriated. That left the great majority, later known as Displaced Persons ("DPs"), who had originated from Russian and Russian occupied countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia etc. and who were afraid to go back 'home'. At its peak, there were some 20,000 people in this 'Belsen DP Camp'. I did this job, 'The DP Camp Commandant', for some two months. With the enormous effort put in by our soldiers and the less ill of the ex-prisoners themselves, life was made at least tolerable for those poor people. One newspaper even told its readers that Belsen had been turned into a holiday camp!
In all, I was involved with the liberation of Belsen camp for over 3 months. Eventually, I handed over the camp to UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) and I was posted to the State of Schleswig as British Army Military Governor. In September 1945 I was called to L�neberg to give evidence at the War Crimes trial of Kramer and the other 43 SS guards. The court sentenced Kramer and 9 others of the guards to death.
People asked me, "What was it like?" No words of mine could adequately describe the sights, the sounds, the stench, and the sheer horror of that camp, and I will not attempt to do so here. Within two or three days of the camp's liberation, many journalist, broadcasters, film crews and politicians came to Belsen. Much has been written about the conditions we found. There are many web sites describing the scene - look up "Belsen Concentration Camp".
At the time, some politicians and religious leaders criticized the British Army for not having done enough to relieve the suffering of the prisoners. As one who was there, the task before us was the like of which nobody had any knowledge or experience. Neither had we the slightest idea of what we were to discover. All of us were in a state of utter shock - young soldiers (most were in their 'teens or early twenties) as well as senior officers. I, myself, had turned 25 only a few days before.
What SHOULD you do when faced by 60,000 dead, sick and dying people? We were in the army to fight a war and to beat the enemy. What we were suddenly thrust into was beyond anyone's comprehension, let alone a situation which could have been organized and effectively planned for. For example, one terrible fact: many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of starving people died BECAUSE we fed them the only food we had, our army rations - who in the circumstances could be level-headed enough to think that out in advance?.
It was said that after a few days, Gen. Montgomery, the British Army C-in-C, told Gen. Eisenhower, the Allies Supreme Commander, "...either we deal with Belsen camp, or we get on with the war - we can't do both!"