A personal account of the liberation of the Bergen concentration camp

January 28, 2015 by  
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Lt-Col Leonard Berney RA TD tells J-Wire of his participation and the events surrounding the liberation of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

By: Leonard Berney

THE NO FIRE ZONE

 At the beginning of April 1945 I was a Staff Officer (Anti-Aircraft Artillery), rank of Major, attached to the HQ of VIII Corps, of the British Army. Our Corps HQ was at the town of Winsen, about 50Km North-East of Hannover. We had just crossed the river Aller, some 300 Km into Germany and heading for Berlin. The front line was rapidly moving east but the German Army was still putting up a fierce resistance. On 12th April A Colonel Schmidt and another German Army officer appeared in front of our front line waving a white flag. They were blindfolded and escorted through to our Corp HQ

Pic1

Leonard Berney lecturing on his experience at Bergen

Leonard Berney lecturing on his experience at Bergen

They met with our Brigadier Chief of Staff. Schmidt said that he had been sent by his General with a proposal for our General. He said that we (the British) were about 20Km from a civilian detention camp called Bergen-Belsen which contained 60,000 detainees, their German guards, and a regiment of Hungarian soldiers guarding the camp perimeter. Typhus had broken out there. His General proposed that the area around the camp should not be fought over, a ‘No Fire Zone’ should be established, for fear that the prisoners might escape and spread the disease to both our armies and to the surrounding German civilian population. The British would not fire into this Zone, and the Germans would not defend it. Schmidt produced a map with the proposed No Fire Zone marked on it…

As soon as our front line reached the edge of the Zone the units of the German Army in the Zone were to march out, with their weapons, but the camp guards were to stay behind and hand over the camp to an advance party from our side. The camp guards would then be allowed to leave. The Hungarians would become Prisoners of War.

Our General agreed to this proposal and an agreement was signed by both parties. The German officers were transported back to their own lines

RAF photo of the camp

RAF photo of the camp

Later, the RAF sent a plane over the camp and gave us this photo of the ‘detention camp’.

It was not until three days later, the 15th April, that our advanced units reached the edge of the No Fire Zone. I was told by our Chief of Staff to take a jeep and a driver and rendezvous with Lt-Col. Taylor, the Commanding Officer of 63rd Anti-Tank Regt, who had been given the job of entering the Zone and taking charge of Belsen camp. At this point none of us had any idea of the situation in the camp. We assumed it would be similar the not-too-bad conditions in the one or two Prisoner of War camps that we had found on our advance through Germany. I was to report back as soon as possible to the Chief of Staff and the Corps Commander and give them an eye-witness report of the situation in the camp.

Taylor's advanced party

This is a photo of Taylor’s advance party, consisting of himself and about 50 soldiers, entering the Zone. The Germans had placed ‘Danger Typhus’ notices at the entrances to the Zone.

 

ARRIVAL AT THE CONCENTRATION CAMP

I arrived at the camp entrance just as Lt-Col Taylor and his men arrived. The Camp Commandant Joseph Kramer and about 50 SS guards, some were women, had lined up and ready to leave. They were members of the SS (“Schutzstaffel”, the German internal security organization, responsible among other things for controlling Detention Centres). Kramer later became known as “the beast of Belsen”. Kramer had some hand-over document ready for Lt-Col. Taylor to sign.

Joseph Kramer

Joseph Kramer

At that point we heard rifle fire coming from the camp (we could not see into it from where we were). Kramer explained that some of the prisoners were rioting and trying to raid the food stores and that the guards in the camp were having to open fire on them. Lt.-Col Taylor decided to enter the camp to investigate. Taylor, I and Kramer together with a German–speaking Lieutenant of the Intelligence Corps who had arrived with his loud-speaker truck, drove into the camp. We toured the length of the camp and back; announcements were made in German that the British Army had arrived to take over the camp and for the prisoners to stay where they were.

I remember being completely shattered. There were dead bodies lying beside the road, emaciated men and women prisoners still mostly behind barbed wire, open mass graves containing hundreds of corpses. The sights, the stench, the sheer horror of the place, were indescribable. None of us who entered the camp that day had any warning of what we were about to see or had ever experienced anything remotely like it before.

ARREST OF THE SS GUARDS

Arrest of guards

Arrest of guards

After this brief tour we returned to the camp entrance and Taylor ordered Kramer and all the SS to be arrested and put under guard in their nearby quarters.

Taylor then wrote a report which I took back to Corp HQ; it was night-time before I got there. I gave Taylor’s written report and my own verbal report to the General and other staff officers. The Corp Commander and his staff set about rounding up all the food stores, water trucks and Army medical and ambulance services they could get hold of, as well as taking a Regiment of Artillery out of the line to give general help and support.

The great liberation effort had started.

CONDITIONS IN THE CAMP

The next day, 16th April, the camp was entered and looked at by a number of our officers and men . . .

. . .  and the extent of the horror started to become clear. Here are some photos of the conditions they found in and around the huts.

There were more than 100 long wooden huts; some tattered tenting had been erected in an open area. The prisoners had had no water or food for four or five days. The bunks in the

Prisoners cannot lie down

Prisoners cannot lie down

huts each had three sometimes four occupants, nearly all desperately ill with typhus, dysentery and tuberculosis. Some still in the bunks had died there.

In some huts there were no bunks.

And in some the occupants were so packed in there was not enough room for them to lie down

In other areas the inmates had left their huts and were huddled in small groups or were wondering aimlessly about.

Corpses in various stages of decomposition were everywhere . . .

There were many children in the camp too.

WHO WERE THESE PEOPLE?

Gratitude

Gratitude

It seemed that until the end of 1944, about four months before the liberation, the Germans had used Belsen for several types of prisoners. There was a section where common criminals were imprisoned; there were foreign non-belligerent nationals such as Spanish, South American etc who had been in detention since 1939; political prisoners such as communists, trade union leaders, anti-Nazis; a so-called ‘Hospital Camp’ for women of other camps who were ill. Several thousand were ‘Exchange Jews’, mostly Dutch and Hungarian, mostly women and children, who had been assembled there ready to exchange for the German civilians who had been interned by the Britain and Americans at the beginning of the war — with a few exceptions, those exchanges never took place. At that time, the end of 1944, the camp was full, about 10,000 prisoners. Conditions were harsh but just about tolerable.

Then, at the end of 1944, the Russians were sweeping through the German occupied area of Russia and Poland. In front of the Russians there were many slave labour camps and ‘Final Solution’ death camps (gas chambers). Hitler gave an order that none of the prisoners were to fall into the Russian Army’s hands and that all the prisoners and their guards were to be evacuated west into Germany itself and placed in camps there. This resulted in the ‘Death Marches’ of that winter of 1944/5. Many hundreds of thousands of prisoners – it is said, more than half — died on the journey. Belsen was one of those designated camps and from the beginning of 1945 hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starved, sick and dying prisoners arrived daily.

When we arrived, there were said to be 60,000 prisoners in Belsen, of which 10,000 had died and the death rate was about 500 a day.

THE MILITARY PLAN

To return to my own story. The next day, 16th April, I was ordered to go back to the camp and attach myself to the Military Government Detachment which had been sent to take overall coordination the Army’s activities in the camp.

By that time, Brigadier-General Glynn-Hughes, the senior medical officer of the British 2nd Army, had arrived and had taken charge. He called a meeting of officers. What SHOULD you do when faced by 60,000 dead, sick and dying people? We were in the Army to fight a war and to beat the enemy. None of us had any experience of dealing with a situation like this and we had been all more or less traumatized by the sights we had seen. What we suddenly found ourselves faced with was beyond anyone’s comprehension.

Remember, also, that at this time the battle against the German Army was still raging. Our Army, like every Army on the move, was short of men, short of food and water, short of transport, short of medical back-up.

The major priority Glynn-Hughes said, was to save lives, or as many lives as possible. There were several immediate tasks.

  • Provide water and food;
  • Bury the dead;
  • As soon as possible evacuate the camp
  • Hospitalize the sick
  • Rehabilitate and then Repatriate

Setting up medical facilities within the concentration camp itself was considered but it was decided that the whole area was so infested with disease that to attempt this would be a waste of the limited medical facilities we had. Where to, and how to, evacuate those many thousands of inmates was left as an open question.

Tasks were detailed out to various officers: I was detailed to organize the water supply.

WATER

Army water bowsers ferried water to ‘water points’ established throughout the camp. Soldiers at each point helped the inmates and controlled the queues. We conscripted the Fire Department of a nearby town to supply men and mobile water pumps.

A group of Army Engineers arrived and we soon got the camp’s normal water system working again. After three or four days the water problem was solved.

FOOD

Organising food

Organising food

Army trucks loaded with Army rations and bread arrived together with some Army cooks. There were three large cookhouses in the camp. The cooks prepared hot stew consisting of tinned beef or pork, with vegetables and thick gravy.

There had been no food in the camp for several days and distributing the stew to many thousands of starving and desperate inmates, and controlling the crowds was a problem. We had nowhere nearly enough soldiers to take this food to each of some 100 huts and we had to rely on the inmates themselves to carry bin-loads to their huts and share it out fairly.

Unfortunately, due to the terrible treatment they had endured – life in the camp was, ‘every man/woman for him/her self’ — many of the sick people in the huts received nothing.

Another problem concerned the food itself. Many of the inmates were starving, emaciated and suffering from typhus; they bolted down this rich mixture food and that sadly caused their deaths. It was estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 died because of the food we gave them. But who, given the circumstances we faced, would have foreseen that? We compensated with the thought that those poor people were so near death that, whether we had fed them or not, they probably would have died anyway.

With many thousands of decomposing corpses lying unburied, it was essential to collect and bury them as soon as possible. The Germans had dug large burial pits which were partly full and we had no option but to continue what they had started. It was decided to use the male and female SS guards to remove the bodies from the camp area and have the corpses carried to and placed in those pits. This they were forced to do from morning till night supervised by British soldiers and with much jeering and hatred from the former prisoners.

BURIALS.

Given the thousands of corpses to be collected and buried, and the fact that the death rate was running at about 500 every day, it became necessary to bring in an Army bulldozer to dig more pits. The number of corpses to be buried was so great that eventually, that the bulldozer had to be used to shovel bodies into the pits that it had just dug. It took about two weeks before the ‘backlog’ had been buried and the daily burials were for those who had died in the night.

During this time, it had been decided that local German mayors and other prominent civilian persons should be taken to the camp and the burial sites to see for themselves what their countrymen had perpetrated on innocent people.

Soon, many reporters and press photographers visited the camp and “Belsen, the horror camp” was widely reported. The public reaction was shock and outrage. Ironically, it was the story and photographs of Belsen that for the first time, even after 5 years of warfare, made the people of Britain realize the atrocities that the Nazi regime practiced.

 

LOCAL FOOD SUPPLIES AND THE PANZER BAR RACKS

After having organized the water supply, the next job I was given was to take a jeep and a couple of soldiers and to scour the countryside to find what food stocks there might be that we could requisition. I was told there was a German Army barracks a short distance up the road from the concentration camp. I found there a very large military barracks (the Germany Army had left several days prior). The Barracks was a Panzer (tank) training school designed for 20,000 soldiers. There were many two-story dormitory buildings, fully equipped with beds and bedding, dining halls and lecture rooms.

I found a food store in the barracks holding hundreds of tons of various foodstuffs, tinned meat, powdered milk, vegetables, sugar, cocoa, potatoes etc. I also found there a large bakery capable of baking 40,000 loaves a day, complete with many tons of flour. The civilian staff was still there.

Within the grounds of the barracks there was a fully equipped 200-bed hospital.

I also found in the nearby village of Bergen a sizeable dairy supplying the area with milk, butter and cheese.

I reported what I had found to the Military Government Officer who had the job of organizing supplies for the liberation operation. The Barracks and its contents were immediately requisitioned. A British Army field hospital, an Ambulance unit and a Casualty Clearing unit was taken out of the line and ordered to set up in the Panzer barracks; work began on converting much of the barracks into a vast hospital. The countryside was scoured for German nurses, doctors, beds blankets, medicines and surgical equipment. In just six days the hospital was ready to receive its first patients from the concentration camp. Eventually the hospital had 15,000 beds and patients – the largest hospital in the world, before or since!

Another Army unit of several hundred men was given the task of converting the remainder of the buildings into a vast Transit and Rehabilitation camp.

EVACUATING THE CONCENTRATION CAMP – THE SICK

Evacuation

Evacuation

On the 21st of April – just six days after we had arrived at Belsen — we started to evacuate the inmates from the concentration camp to the newly prepared Hospital and Rehabilitation/Transit camp in the barracks. The sick would be stretchered out of the huts and ambulanced up to Hospital section of the barracks. The fit (the definition of “fit” was any ex-prisoner who could walk) would be conveyed to the Rehabilitation/Transit camp to recuperate and, as soon as they were well enough to travel, to be repatriated to the country they came from.

Meanwhile Army medics and some medical students who had arrived from the UK went into each hut in turn and had to decide which of the sick would be taken to hospital and which was so ill that he/she was beyond saving and would be left to die there.

Here are some photos of those who were judged as saveable being placed in ambulances to be taken to the newly created hospital.

When they arrived at the hospital they entered the “Human Laundry” – it had been the stables for Army horses – to be washed and de-loused (typhus is carried by lice). This was done by German doctors and nurses under British Army supervision.

Halls and dormitories were converted to bedded wards; the hospital eventually comprised 15,000 beds.

 

EVACUATING THE CONCENTRATION CAMP – THE ‘FIT’.  

Evacuating the sick

Evacuating the sick

Having completed the task of discovering food supplies, I was allotted the job of taking charge of the evacuation of the 25,000 or so “fit” inmates to the newly prepared Rehabilitation/Transit Camp in the barracks. Allocated to me were about 50 soldiers, an Army Mobile Shower unit, a Disinfestation Unit, and about a dozen trucks with their drivers. We also recruited some of the fitter female inmates to help. All of us worked 12 to 14 hours a day, ‘processing’ a thousand weak and sick people every day.

First, each ex-prisoner was given some soap and a towel…

Then they took a shower, rigged up by Army engineers…

Next they were thoroughly sprayed with DDT to destroy the typhus carrying lice.

In hospital

In hospital

Finally, helped into the trucks to be ferried to the Rehabilitation/Transit Camp in the Panzer barracks.

Even at this rate, averaging over 1,000 a day, it took three weeks to empty the concentration camp. This meant that thousands of prisoners had to wait in the old disease ridden camp for several days until we could evacuate them to safety.

In this period, those of us who worked in the camp were liberally sprayed with DDT every morning before starting work. The medics inoculated us against various diseases. Fortunately, few if any soldiers contracted typhus or any disease other than dysentery, which almost all of us had – but we kept on working.

COMMANDANT OF THE REHABILITATION/TRANSIT CAMP Just before the concentration camp was finally cleared, I was given the job of being in charge of the Rehabilitation/Transit camp in the Panzer barracks. By then this camp housed some 25,000 men women and children in various stages of malnutrition and emaciation, but not ill enough to be hospitalised. The main task that I and the about 30 officers and men allocated to me had was to ensure that all the ex-prisoners had a clean bed, adequate clothing, were fed and generally to prepare them for their journey home.

The clothing store, supplied by requisition of clothes and shoes from the surrounding German homes and shops, was dubbed by the British press as the “Harrods at Belsen”.

ORGANIZATION OF THE REHABILITATION/TRANSIT CAMP

At a higher level, arrangements were to be made with each country to collect their nationals from the camp and repatriate them. The policy I was given to execute was to have the inmates arranged in national groups to await repatriation by the authorities of their own countries. The Poles back to Poland, the Latvians back to Latvia, etc. Lists for each national group with full names and the address to which each inmate wished to go had to be compiled and sent to higher authority. The prisoners from Belgium, Holland, France and other allied and non-belligerent countries were swiftly repatriated. That left the great majority who had originated from Russia and the now Soviet-occupied countries, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Baltic States,etc.

Being sprayed with DDT

Being sprayed with DDT

The people from those countries feared that as soon as they entered their own by now Soviet-occupied countries they would be arrested and imprisoned again as “German collaborators and spies for the Allies”. They refused to leave the camp! This was a great surprise to us – we had assumed that all the ex-prisoners would want to leave the Transit Camp and go home as soon as possible. We were now faced with a new and unexpected problem.

These “refuseniks” numbered about 25,000; they were eventually designated as Displaced Persons, “DPs”, and the Rehabilitation/Transit camp became the “Belsen DP Camp”. Almost all the DPs wanted to go to America, and if not to Britain or France, Holland or other western country. The British Government made proposals to the governments of America, Canada, Australia and other countries to take in these holocaust survivors. One country after another refused asylum, they were also refused entry into Britain.

We (the Army) came to accept that we were in for a long haul and, with an enormous effort put in by our soldiers and the less ill of the ex-prisoners themselves, we set about making life at least tolerable for those poor people. For example, we organized a school for the children, arranged entertainment concerts. One British newspaper even told its readers that Belsen had been turned into a holiday camp!

After a few weeks with decent meals, separate beds, proper washing and sanitary facilities, the physical recovery of the previously emaciated and de-humanized inmates took place with remarkable speed. We started to receive gift parcels from many countries, mostly food and clothing. One crate we received contained hundreds of lipsticks! I remember remarking at the time, of all the essentials the camp inmates need, lipstick isn’t one. I was wrong! Those lipsticks probably did more to recover the self-esteem of the younger women than anything else could have done.

Rehabilitation and transit

Rehabilitation and transit

As the weeks went on and it became clear that no country would offer asylum. The inmates were asking, “What is to happen to us?” By July many of the Jewish inmates became desperate and believed that their only salvation was to make their way to Palestine where there was already a sizeable Jewish population. Every day or two groups of between 20 to 50 would leave for that 2,000 mile long and perilous journey. My instructions as Camp Commandant were to discourage groups going to Palestine since the British Army there were already having problems with “illegal immigrants” (the immigration quota under the United Nations British Palestine Mandate was limited to 60,000 a year). My sympathies, however, were with “my” inmates and their seemingly hopeless situation. While not actively participating in these groups’ plans, I would see to it that before they left they were well supplied with food and water supply and that they knew the locations of other DP camps along their route to the Mediterranean.

BURNING DOWN THE CONCENTRATION CAMP

Burning down the camp

Burning down the camp

As to the concentration camp itself, by the middle of May, the last inmate had been evacuated and the decision was made to bring in Army flamethrowers and burn down all the more than 100 disease-ridden huts. The last hut was torched on 21st May. The officer in this photo is Brigadier-General Glynn-Hughes, the British Army Chief Medical Officer, whose work, especially in the medical sphere, had proved invaluable and undoubtedly had saved many lives.

The Army erected this board outside the gates of the demolished Concentration Camp.

The Army erected this board outside the gates of the demolished Concentration Camp.

BELSEN WAR CRIMES TRIAL

 

Nazis on trial

Nazis on trial

In September 1945 a War Crimes Trial was convened in Lüneburg, not far from Belsen. There were 48 defendants. I was called to give evidence that very near to the Concentration Camp there were large stocks of foodstuffs and that could very easily have fed the prisoners, if the German authorities had so chosen.

11 of the defendants, including Kramer, were found guilty and were hanged. Most of the others were given gaol sentences.

 

J-Wire has set up a gallery of what Leonard Berney saw in the Bergen camp. The death. The dying. The images are distressing and will be available on a password-protected page on J-Wire. The images may cause to much distress for some of our readers if published in our normal fashion. To receive a password to visit this page please email bergen@jwire.com.au

We need your name and your reason for wanting to view the images….

 

 

Comments

One Response to “A personal account of the liberation of the Bergen concentration camp”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    Thank you for your personal account of liberating the Bergen-Belsen camp, Leonard Berney. It was special for its detail and tonality, giving access to the actions of you and other British Army personnel when facing the barbaric ramifications of the Nazi agenda. That ultimately some sort of order and responsible care was able to be implemented in such extreme circumstances is almost miraculous in itself. It allowed those who died there and those who survived into our imagination and hearts, a sobering and fine thing.

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