Tuesday 23 January 2018

British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945. Thousands of bodies lay unburied around the camp and some 60,000 starving and mortally ill people were packed together without food, water or basic sanitation. Many were suffering from typhus, dysentery and starvation.

Bergen-Belsen was first established in 1940 as a prisoner of war camp. From 1943, Jewish civilians with foreign passports were held as ‘leverage’ in possible exchanges for Germans interned in Allied countries or for money. It later became a concentration camp and was used as a collection centre for survivors of the death marches. The camp became exceptionally overcrowded and, as a result of the Germans’ neglect, conditions were allowed to deteriorate further in the last months of the war, causing many more deaths.

The British Army immediately began to organise the relief effort. Their first priorities were to bury the dead, contain the spread of disease, restore the water supply and arrange the distribution of food that was suitable for starving prisoners in various stages of malnutrition. Additional military and civilian medical personnel were brought in to support the relief effort. The British faced serious challenges in stabilising conditions in the camp and implementing a medical response to the crisis. Nearly 14,000 prisoners would die after liberation.

For many survivors, the process of recovery and repatriation would continue long after the end of the Second World War.

In the audio clips below, British servicemen and relief workers talk about and reflect on their experiences during and immediately after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

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Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie

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Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie

By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.

See Harry Oakes audio record
See Bill Lawrie audio record

Two blindfolded German officers are led through British lines after notifying advancing British forces of a typhus outbreak at Bergen-Belsen, 12 April 1945
Two blindfolded German officers are led through British lines after notifying advancing British forces of a typhus outbreak at Bergen-Belsen, 12 April 1945.

'But the force we wanted to send in was too much'

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Dick Williams Part 1

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Dick Williams Part 1

Major Dick Williams was one of the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen. In April 1945, he was a staff captain in the Supplies and Transport branch of VIII Corps Headquarters and was part of a small force sent forward to assess conditions in the camp. Here he describes his first impressions of the camp and its atmosphere of death.

See audio record

A camp inmate, reduced by starvation to a living skeleton, delouses his clothes, 17-18 April 1945
A starving prisoner delouses clothing.

'The stench coming out of them was fearsome'

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Gilbert King

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Gilbert King

Gilbert King was a gunner attached to 249 (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Battery of the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, which was the first British military unit to go into Bergen-Belsen on 15 April. Here he remembers the moment he entered the camp.

See audio record

The British Army arrives at Belsen concentration camp. German and Hungarian guards stand at the camp entrance as German Wehrmacht troops (wearing white armbands) enter the camp under the truce agreement reached with the British on 12 April 1945. On the right is a vehicle equipped with loudspeakers from 14 Amplifier Unit, Intelligence Corps under the command of Lt Derrick Sington.
German and Hungarian guards stand at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen as German troops enter the camp with the British 14th Amplifier Unit, Intelligence Corps and elements of 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery on 15 April 1945.

'It nearly brought tears to me eyes'

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William Arthur Wood Part 1

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William Arthur Wood Part 1

32nd Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) and 11th Light Field Ambulance were among the first medical units to arrive at Bergen-Belsen after its liberation. William Arthur Wood, a medical assistant with 32nd CCS, describes the appalling conditions in the barracks and the process of separating the dead from the living.

See audio record

Wearing protective clothing, men of 11 Light Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps evacuate inmates from one of the huts at Belsen.
Men of 11th Light Field Ambulance evacuate prisoners from one of the huts at Bergen-Belsen, 22 April 1945.

'Outside the huts were piles and piles of dead bodies'

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Dick Williams Part 2

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Dick Williams Part 2

Many of the soldiers who first entered the camp were desperate to try and alleviate the prisoners' starvation by giving them army rations. This first intake of food was fatal for many prisoners, who were too weak to digest it. One of the British Army's most important tasks, as Major Dick Williams explains, was to find a safer and more appropriate way of providing food for the starving prisoners.

See audio record

British soldiers supervise the distribution of food to camp inmates.
British soldiers supervise the distribution of food to former prisoners, 21 April 1945.

'We would take a dixie of this broth and leave it at the door'

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Dr Roger Dixey

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Dr Roger Dixey

Nearly 100 British medical students arrived at Bergen-Belsen in May 1945 to assist with the relief effort. They worked directly in the huts to supervise the distribution of food and provide whatever medical care possible. Dr Roger Dixey, one of the students who volunteered at the camp, describes his work and the condition of the prisoners in the barracks.

See audio record

A woman inmate suffering from typhus in one of the camp huts.
A woman suffering from typhus in one of the camp huts, 17 April 1945.

'We were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus.'

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William Arthur Wood Part 2

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William Arthur Wood Part 2

Medical assistant William Arthur Wood reflects on the shock felt by British troops and medical personnel in response to the vast scale of death and suffering they encountered during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

See audio record

Women inmates suffering from typhus receive drinking water in one of the camp huts.
Women suffering from typhus receive drinking water in one of the camp huts, April 1945.

'We hadn’t been trained for this, and it was so, so different to, well to anything'

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Harry Oakes

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Harry Oakes

AFPU cameraman and photographer Harry Oakes describes how the SS guards were put to work burying the dead.

See audio record

Camp inmates watch German SS guards load a lorry with bodies of the dead. In the foreground, British Army officers escort a party of civilian visitors to the camp.
Former prisoners watch German SS guards load a lorry with bodies of the dead as British Army officers lead German civilians around the camp, forcing them to bear witness to the crimes of the regime, April 1945.

'Soon they had to dig more graves, huge graves'

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Laurence Wand Part 1

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Laurence Wand Part 1

Much of the initial medical relief work was done with limited manpower and supplies, which was still needed in the war effort against Germany. Dr Laurence Wand, one of the medical students who volunteered as part of the relief effort at Bergen-Belsen, explains how medical personnel coped with the shortages.

See audio record

Three women who are suffering from typhus lie closely packed together in one of the huts.
Three women suffering from typhus lie closely packed together in one of the huts, 17 April 1945.

'If a person could stand he was ‘well’, if he couldn’t stand he was ‘ill’'

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Laurence Wand Part 2

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Laurence Wand Part 2

Dr Wand describes the 'human laundry', which was a critical part of the evacuation process and helped contain the typhus epidemic. It was a stable block that had been converted into a decontamination centre where former prisoners would be washed, deloused and given clean clothing before being transferred to hospital.

See audio record

Scene inside the cleansing station, nicknamed the "Human Laundry", which was housed in a former stable for cavalry horses at the newly established hospital for Belsen inmates in Hohne Military Barracks. The photograph shows some of the 60 tables, each staffed by two German doctors and two German nurses, at which the sick were washed and deloused.
The 'human laundry' was staffed by German nurses and doctors from a nearby military hospital.

'The primary task of course was to save life and to get people fed'

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Norna Alexander

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Norna Alexander

As their health improved, survivors were sent to pick out new clothes from a supply store nicknamed 'Harrods'. This 'shop' was stocked with clothing provided by relief organisations or taken from German towns nearby. Norna Alexander was a nurse with 29th British General Hospital, which arrived at Bergen-Belsen just over a month after its liberation. Here she describes 'Harrods' and the effect new clothes had on the survivors' morale.

See audio record

Women at Belsen selecting new items of clothing from supplies provided by UNRRA and by a levy on the local population. Mrs H Tanner, an UNRRA relief worker from Grantham, assists inmates select a dress.
A relief worker helps former prisoners select new items of clothing from supplies provided by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), 16-17 May 1945.

'But the joy they got out of, it really boosted their spirits'

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Mike Lewis

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Mike Lewis

The AFPU recruited from the ranks of the British Army. Many of the photographers and cameramen present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen were tough, hardened by their own experiences of combat. Yet they were deeply shocked by what they witnessed at the camp. AFPU cameraman and photographer Sergeant Mike Lewis came from a Jewish family and describes how witnessing the camp's liberation made real for him the stories of persecution he had been told by his parents. He also reflects on his own reaction to what he had witnessed.

See audio record

In a frame from the film THE TRUE GLORY, a British Army Film and Photographic Unit cameraman and photographer, Sgt Mike Lewis, is caught on camera as he films the burial of the dead following the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.
Still from The True Glory showing Sergeant Mike Lewis as he films SS guards burying the dead at Bergen-Belsen shortly after its liberation, 1945.

'It was a sort of death by administration'

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Laurence Wand Part 3

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Laurence Wand Part 3

Dr Laurence Wand reflects on the Germans' systematic dehumanisation of their victims.

See audio record

Camp inmates scavenge amongst the rubbish and dead bodies in the camp.
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, April 1945.

'It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness'

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Leslie Hardman

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Leslie Hardman

Reverend Leslie Hardman served with VIII Corps of the British Second Army. He was the first Jewish chaplain to enter Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 and worked very closely with Jewish prisoners after their liberation. Here he reflects on the importance of talking about what he saw and of survivors sharing their experiences.

See audio record

Jewish camp inmates hold an open air service to celebrate the Jewish Summer Festival of Thanksgiving. The service was led by Rev Leslie H Hardman, Senior Jewish Chaplain to the British 2nd Army, and former camp inmates, Rabbi H Helfgott of Jugoslovia and Rabbi B Goldfinger of Poland.
An open-air service led by Leslie Hardman and two former prisoners, Rabbi H Helfgott of Yugoslavia and Rabbi B Goldfinger of Poland, at the former German Panzer Training School on 19 May 1945.

'Those who can talk and will survive they must represent all our suffering to the world'

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