This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. The horrors found by troops who had overthrown the reign of Nazi terror shook them to the core. It fell to members of the Royal Army Medical Corps to undertake a programme of care which would save as many lives of the survivors as possible, whilst decontaminating the area for future use.
No. 11 Light Field Ambulance had crossed the Rhine in early 1945. By 13 April rumours began to circulate that Brigadier Glyn Hughes, the Chief Medical Officer of the Second Army had assigned the unit a special task, `something about a concentration camp infected with typhus.’
At 0015 hours on 17th April, orders were received to be ready to move within twelve hours and anxiety began to manifest itself in the men.
Having come through North-West Europe campaign virtually without a scratch and they were understandably wary of entering a typhus infected area with the war’s end in sight.
Belsen camp was closely camouflaged with wooded areas, and members of No. 11 LFA caught glimpses of huts and barbed wire fencing as they passed by the perimeter of the camp en route to the entrance. A detachment of Hungarian guards had been assigned by the Germans to act as camp guards, wearing a white armband.
11th LFA joined No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J.A.D. Johnston MC, the Senior Medical Officer at the camp. Later they would be joined by No. 163 Field Ambulance, No. 9 British General Hospital, No. 35 Casualty Clearing Station and the No. 29 British General Hospital. Assistance was also received from 567 Company American Field Service Unit.
Major D.T. Prescott of No. 11 LFA was shocked by the sight which confronted him:
The scene which met us as we entered the camp was one of utter chaos with dead and dying everywhere and an estimated 6-10 thousand people dead on site. The fitter ones seemed to be wandering about – a lot of them aimlessly – in the blue and white prison pyjamas which offered very little protection from the elements.
Captain Eric Godwin took a series of photographs of conditions at the camp. He recorded on the back of one `Belsen. We drove along the road & wondered what the people were. The local Germans must have known what went on.’
Photographs taken by Captain Ernest Godwin RAMC
(Courtesy of the Second World War Experience Centre)
Some prisoners could hardly shuffle, and Major Prescott saw some inmates collapse and die. Inside some of the huts, hundreds of people were crammed together without bunks. In the dormitories there were two to three people to a bunk, without a mattress. Often one of them was dead, with the survivors lacking the strength to remove the body. The vast majority were suffering from diarrhoea and typhus and tuberculosis were rife. People resembled human skeletons. Death and human excreta were everywhere.
Belsen’s inmates had not been sent there to be directly exterminated, but to be interned and to endure harsh forced labour. As well as Jews, there were many political internees. The camp possessed just one single-chamber crematorium, presenting a challenge in the disposal of the infected corpses. An attempt was made by British troops to raise the morale of the inmates by encouraging them to make small fires in the open, on which to cook the small amounts of food provided for them. Many inmates could not bear the smell of the Bengal Famine mixture (a rice and sugar mixture successfully used to address the 1943 famine) provided and rejected this fare.
It was decided that everyone would have to be evacuated and the camp completely destroyed. Bulldozers were brought in to dig enormous pits which could hold about five thousand bodies. The machines then shoved the bodies into the pits, which were marked by minefield tape. Members of the S.S. who had been running the camp prior to liberation were made to do a token burial of the dead by loading the deceased into lorries, taking them to the pits and throwing them in.
Jewish Rabbis who were internees spent their days conducting funeral services for those who had been recognised by friends of family. A hospital was established at a large cavalry barracks a couple of miles from Belsen. At its entrance a large stable was turned into a `human laundry’, in which the men of No. 11 LFA were dressed in anti-typhus suits, dusted with DDT powder and sent into the camp in ambulances to evacuate the sickest of inmates. Their clothing was removed and they were wrapped in army blankets and removed to the `human laundry’. Here, German female nursing orderlies worked, bathing and delousing the patients, who were then put into clean blankets and transported to makeshift hospital wards in the barrack area. Between 650 and 750 survivors were dealt with daily under this system.
RAMC personnel located German medical supplies, and these were brought together in a dispensary under Prescott’s leadership. He had working under him a German army pharmacist and a camp inmate who spoke five or six languages.
Two RAMC privates were given the job of decontaminating any visitors to the camp by spraying them with a gun filled with anti-louse powder on the head, arm and down the front of the trousers. Famous visited to be treated this way included Field Marshal Montgomery, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, and Richard Dimbleby, the BBC correspondent who reported on the horrors of the camp to the British wireless audience.
After three or four weeks the tasks of decontaminating and treating were near completion. On 21st May 1945 Prescott witnessed the Royal Engineers using flame-throwing tanks performing a ceremonial burning of the evacuated huts.
A Special Order of the Day, issued by the commanding officer of No. 11 LFA, Lieutenant-General M.W. Gonin, referred to the work undertaken at Belsen:
You then undertook what, for this unit, was the thankless and unspectacular task of clearing Belsen Concentration Camp. Our American friends and yourselves…have moved well over 11,000 sic from Belsen. To do this, 63 if you have worked for a month amid the most unhygienic conditions inside huts where the majority of internees were suffering from the most virulent disease known to man. You have had to deal with the mass hysteria and political complications requiring the tact of diplomats and the firmness of senior officers. During the first 10 days of the Concentration Camp and before any organised attempt had been made to feed the sick in those huts you distributed 4,000 meals twice daily from what RSM Marno could scrounge by initiative and subtlety.
By collecting medical equipment from all over Germany you produced a dispensary which has supplied drugs for 13,000 patients a day and has met the demands of excitable medical officers of all races requiring the most exotic drugs in half a dozen different languages. You may have, without hesitation, acted as undertakers, collecting over 2,000 corpses from the wards of the hospital area and removing them to the mortuary – a task which the RAMC can never before have been asked to fulfil.
The cost has not been light; 20 of you contracted typhus – a disease causing great personal suffering. Thank God all the patients are doing well.
One of us will never leave Belsen – the dawn attack by the German Air Force on our lines was the price he paid to come here.
Life can never be quite the same again for those who have worked in the Concentration Camp but you will go with the knowledge that the l1(Br) Lt Fd Amb has once again done a good job.
The work of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War across all theatres of war is covered in my recently published book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War