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.
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.
'But the force we wanted to send in was too much'
The First Liberators
'The stench coming out of them was fearsome'
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.
'It nearly brought tears to me eyes'
'Outside the huts were piles and piles of dead bodies'
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.
'We would take a dixie of this broth and leave it at the door'
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.
'We were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus.'
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.
'We hadn’t been trained for this, and it was so, so different to, well to anything'
'Soon they had to dig more graves, huge graves'
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.
'If a person could stand he was ‘well’, if he couldn’t stand he was ‘ill’'
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.
'The primary task of course was to save life and to get people fed'
'But the joy they got out of, it really boosted their spirits'
Reactions to camp conditions
'It was a sort of death by administration'
'It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness'
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.