Scotland

'Belsen showed me how low mankind can sink'

Ian Forsyth
Image caption Ian Forsyth, now 96, says the horrors of the concentration camp were unimaginable

Ian Forsyth was one of the first soldiers to arrive at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in World War Two and what he saw that day has haunted him for the past 75 years.

"For the first time I realised just how low mankind can sink," says Mr Forsyth, who is now 96.

Although he was still a young man when he reached the Northern Germany concentration camp in April 1945, he had seen a lot of action.

The 21-year-old, from Hamilton in South Lanarkshire, had fought his way from Normandy in the days after to D-day and through Germany as a tank operator with a reconnaissance force.

Image copyright Ian Forsyth
Image caption Mr Forsyth was just 21 when he arrived at the gates of Belsen in 1945

When he arrived at the gates of Belsen he says he did not know anything about what had been happening there.

"There was a strange smell about the place," he says. "I asked a gunner what the smell was. We hadn't a clue."

Mr Forsyth says the soldiers were told "don't open the gates, don't let anyone out and don't feed them".

"When we got to first part of the corrugated iron fence that was around the camp there were bodies everywhere," he says. "Somebody who did not see this would not believe what it was like."

"There were people looking out of the barbed wire fence wondering who we were.

Image caption Mr Forsyth was a tank operator with a reconnaissance unit

"We broke the rules and tossed over some food, which I now regret because what we gave them they could not eat and the folk at the back rushed forward to catch what they had thrown.

"I did not know until quite a while afterwards that these people had died of starvation, of every disease you can imagine.

"It's really a horrible nightmare, which you can't get rid of."

More than 50,000 prisoners from all over Europe were killed there or died later as a result of their treatment in the camp.

British troops found 60,000 prisoners, suffering from malnutrition, disease and the brutal treatment they had endured. Thousands of corpses lay unburied on the camp grounds.

There was no running water in the camp and there were epidemics of typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis.

Mr Forsyth says that active soldiers, who had no medical experience, were not allowed inside the camp as those in charge feared an epidemic.

Within a couple of days, his regiment had moved on but memories of the scene haunt him to this day.

When he returned from the war, his mother stopped him from talking about his experiences. He was not allowed to discuss it in the house.

"Many a night I walked the streets," he says. "I could not stay in the house."

"When it is bottled up inside of you it is worse than reality."

"The one person who did understand was my wife and she suffered because of me," Mr Forsyth says.

But was he proud to be part of the liberating force?

"I'm not proud, I'm just glad that we got there when we did," he says.

"We did save some people, there's no question. But when you see the graves with about 1,500 folk in each one, it rankles."

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