Leonard Berney was one of the first soldiers to enter the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated by the British Army on 15th April 1945. Here he gives his personal account of the liberation and the British Army’s attempts to save the lives of the thousands of prisoners.
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. We had just crossed the Aller river, some 300Km 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 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 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.
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. 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.
When we entered the camp, 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. I remember being completely shattered.
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 huts each had three sometimes four occupants, nearly all desperately ill with typhus, dysentery and tuberculosis. Some still in the bunks had died there.
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.
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 the situation and we were all more or less traumatized by the sights we had seen. What we suddenly found ourselves faced with was beyond anyone's comprehension.
There had been no food in the camp for several days and distributing 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 hut and we had to rely on the inmates themselves to carry bin-loads to their huts and share it out fairly.
Another problem concerned the food itself. Many who were starving, emaciated and suffering from typhus, 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?
One of the first of the media to arrive at the camp was a well-known BBC commentator, Richard Dimbleby. This is a recording of his broadcast.
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.
I was allotted the job of taking charge of the evacuation of the 25,000 or so “fit” inmates to the newly prepared Transit and Rehabilitation Camp in the barracks. All of us worked 12 to 14 hours a day, 'processing' a thousand weak and sick people every day. Even at this rate, 1,000 a day, it took three weeks to empty the 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.
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 huts. The last hut was torched on 21st May.
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 food. 11 of the defendants, including Kramer, were found guilty and were hanged. Most of the others were given jail sentences.