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Belsen - Eye Witness Report

By Lt Col FA Johnstone DBE, MC, RAMC

and published in the Red  Lanyard, The Journal of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment January 1948

Belsen was liberated on the 15th of April 1945 by the 11th Armoured Division (Comd. Maj. Gen. G. P. Roberts, C. B., D. S. O.) The events leading up to the liberation were as follows; - The Germans intimated to us that there was Within their lines a concentration camp containing.1,500 cases of typhus fever, but at no time did they give any indication of the appalling conditions we were to find there when we captured the area. As events proved, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 cases of typhus. Two British officers went over to the German lines to discuss ‘how the situation could best be dealt with.

The Germans were asked to give up the whole, area but naturally pointed out that this would turn the whole of their right. flank defences; it was therefore agreed that no troops should be deployed within the camp perimeter and that no artillery should be directed into or from the area. The German commander was to ensure that all SS. except those required‘ for administration should leave the camp before the arrival of any British force; those required were to be disarmed and would become prisoners. A battalion of Wehrmacht was to be kept to act as guards and prevent the escape into the surrounding country of any internees who might be infectious, but as soon as British troops could take over the duty, the Wehrmacht would be given safe conduct back to the German lines. The ‘Horror Camp’ lay in densely wooded country about thirty miles to the north of Hanover and covered an area of approximately 0.4 by 0.8 of a mile. It contained about 40,000 people made up  of 28,000 women and 12,000 men. At the entrance was the administrative area with offices, accomodation for guards, stores, and prison cells. The camp proper had a ‘heavily wired perimeter with guard towers spaced at regular intervals around it. The perimeter enclosed five compounds, four on the left and one on the right of a broad road running through the camp.

Three of these were for men and two for women. The whole camp was originally built to contain 8,000 and on our arrival we found about 40,000 living, between 10,000 and 15.000 dead, and it was reported. that a further 17,000 had died during the previous month of March. The prisoners were mainly Jewish and were of practically every European nationality. They were housed in wooden huts all of which were grossly overcrowded; many huts contained at least ten tines the number they might reasonably have been expected to hold. For instance in one hut twenty women were counted in thirty five square feet, the absolute minimum of space allotted to one British soldier in the most crowded conditions. Many of the huts had neither beds or blankets and were, in fact, completely bare of anything other than the mass of dead and dying humanity on the floors. Where beds existed,‘ they were of the three tier bunk variety with, in many cases, two people to a bunk.

Clothing varied from striped cotton pyjamas, the official issue, to the scantiest of rags. Many, especially amongst the women, had no clothes at all. All were suffering to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the duration of their imprisonment, from starvation. Thousands were suffering from typhus, tuberculosis or both. Thousands had reached the last stages of emaciation and exhaustion and were too weak to stir from the place where they lay. Many dead lay alongside the living. The filth was indescribable. Not only had the huts not been cleaned for months, the prisoners ‘themselves, or the majority of them, had either not had the opportunity or the ability, to wash. All were covered .in lice which are, of course, the carriers of typhus. The appalling sights and smells made it impossible even for doctors and orderlies lies to spend more than a few minutes inside the huts at one time.
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Naked, emaciated corpses lay, piled in heaps, in various stages of decomposition throughout the camp. The death rate at the time of entry was about three hundred a day. I have heard it said that much that was Written about Belsen and that even the Ministry of Information film itself, could not possibly have been true; that the piles of dead seen on the film must have been deliberately planted there by us for propaganda purposes and to produce a horror picture. In fact, the Belsen film did‘ not show the real horrors which lay not in the piles of dead bodies littering the grounds, but inside the huts amongst the living. The reasons for the heaps of dead are as follows; — in the early days at Belsen, the dead were cremated or buried under the direction of the Germans, by internee labour.

As time went on and starvation and disease increased, so did the death rate but so ‘also did exhaustion in the remainder. The interness became physically incapable of digging graves and corpses“ were piled in the open space of the camp as far from the huts as possible. As this state of affairs worsened, corpses were deposited nearer and nearer the huts until, by the time we arrived, most huts were surrounded by piles of corpses sometimes four or five feet high and extending over a wide area. Later still, when they became incapable even of dragging the dead outside, hut. floor boards were pulled up and corpses pushed down through, we found many grisly evidences of this when we   lled the huts down. Eventually even this became too great an effort and they were allowed to lie where they died in the huts amongst the living. Sanitation was practically non existent. A few of the huts did have lavatories but those had long ceased to function. Water was obtained from large concrete tanks spaced at intervals throughout the grounds. The state of the water in, these tanks beggars description; some even contained decomposing bodies. ,The overall picture of Belsen was one of a congested mass of human scarecrows alive and dead, of in-describable filth and human degradation, a blot that will never be erased from the minds of those of us who saw it; a grim reminder of the beastliness ‘of Nazism and a warning for the future..
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