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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

The Liberation of Belsen

The Story of Belsen, by Captain Andrew Pares, Adjutant of the 113th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, The Royal Artillery TA, tells us about the liberation of Belsen concentration camp by the British Army in April 1945.

Sign erected at Belsen by British soldiers, 1945 (D/DLI 7/404/43) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This was a temporary board erected on the site of a future plaque, in memory of the thousands slaughtered in Belsen, 21 May 1945.

See a full transcript of the sign erected by British soldiers at Belsen.

When the British were asked, by the Chief of Staff of the First German Parachute Army, to take over Belsen concentration camps on 12 April 1945, a battle was going on all around the Belsen area.

'The Story of Belsen', p.4, The truce (D/DLI 7/404/10) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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A truce had to be negotiated to allow British troops to advance.

Under the truce, the Wehrmacht soldiers [the German professional army] were to be allowed to return to German lines, but the SS guards were subject to the British authorities.

Casualty Clearing Station personnel from the Royal Army Medical Corps and 63 Anti-Tank Regiment entered Belsen soon after the truce was negotiated.

On 18 April 1945, the 113th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, The Royal Artillery arrived, having covered 238 miles in 22 hours. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mather, they took over from the Anti-Tank Regiment.

'The Story of Belsen', p.4, The task (D/DLI 7/404/10) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office
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The scene that met the British troops was that of about 50,000 people who had been without any food or water for 7 days. They were suffering from typhus, a disease carried by lice and fleas that was able to spread rapidly in the overcrowded conditions of the camp.

Typhus kills people, and there were about 10,000 unburied dead bodies in the camp to deal with immediately and a high death rate to contend with thereafter.

The longer the dead people remained unburied, the more risk there was to the survivors from infection.

The Story of Belsen', p.6, The task (D/DLI 7/404/10) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Notes [reference D/DLI 7/404/11] made by a colonel in the Second Army on 18 May 1945 refer to corruption and filth everywhere, 'the very air was poisoned'.

The British soldiers commenced their task of burying the dead, providing medical attention for the sick, and feeding, disinfesting, sorting and repatriating the others.

Photograph of women with water, 1945 (D/DLI 7/404/69) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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'Unlimited water after days of thirst'.

 

The water supply was restored and the electricity supply reinstated by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Facilities were then organised for toilets and washing and drinking water.

Food was impounded from the Wehrmacht barracks and obtained from the surrounding district, and cookhouses were organised to feed the prisoners. One cookhouse specialised in the 'Bengal Famine Diet' for the very sick. Medical student volunteers, who arrived at Belsen on 30 April 1945, helped to feed those too weak to feed themselves.

'The Story of Belsen', p.6, Photograph of the inside of a hut (D/DLI 7/404/10) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Within 7 days of arrival, the British soldiers had disinfested with louse powder all the internees. Within four weeks, 28,900 people had been evacuated from the concentration camp to the hospitals and transit camps in the Reception Area in the Tank Training School Barracks, adjacent to the camp (see plan).

Photograph of a survivor, 1945 (D/DLI 7/404/70) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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There, they were registered, given medical attention, reclothed and made ready for repatriation. The padres (churchmen) dealt with their inquiries, for example about their families, and gave them writing materials.

Statement by Jeanette Kaufmann, p.4 (D/DLI 7/404/12) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This statement, by Jeanette Kaufmann, illustrates well the mixed feelings many of the internees must have had about their liberation.

Photograph of SS guards' burial party (D/DLI 7/404/66) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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The British Army also had to organise the burial of all the bodies of those prisoners who had died of typhus, and other diseases, and starvation.

SS guards and German prisoners of war were made to help with the work.

The 'Daily Express' of 21 April 1945 [reference D/DLI 7/404/27] commented:

'These Germans must not pause in the hot wind. Never before, nor ever again, will they see Englishmen so angry as are the cool, grim young men ... left behind the fighting to see they do this task.' 

'Ten of the GANG. One of the working parties of SS Camp Staff engaged in burying the 10,000 dead. Third from the camera is Dr KLEIN Camp Dr [doctor]'.

Photograph of communal grave (D/DLI 7/404/64) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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The bodies were buried in communal pits that were marked with the date of burial and the number of bodies each contained.

Funeral services were read at the graves daily. A total of 15,000 prisoners were buried at Belsen after liberation.

Photograph of flame thrower burning huts (D/DLI 7/404/42) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Photograph of burning huts (D/DLI 7/404/73) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Finally, the concentration camp huts were burned, using Wasp flame throwers - machines that could send a jet of fire towards a target.

You can see the large picture of Adolf Hitler the soldiers hung on the end of the huts before setting them on fire.

Photograph of ceremonial burning of the last hut (D/DLI 7/404/75) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Here, we see the ceremonial burning of the last hut in Belsen on 21 May 1945 at 6.00pm.