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.

The cameramen

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.

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

The First Liberators

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.

'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.

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'It nearly brought tears to me eyes'

Medical Treatment

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.

'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.

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'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.

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'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.

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

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

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'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.

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'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'

Visiting 'Harrods'

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.

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

Reactions to camp conditions

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.

'It was a sort of death by administration'

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

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'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.

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

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