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

In Their Own Words

Oral history accounts from two officers who were present at the liberation of Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Photograph of 113 LAA Regiment on parade, Germany, 8 May 1945 (D/DLI 7/404/28(55)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Men of the 113 LAA Regiment  did not often speak of what they saw at Belsen. Many felt unable to express adequately their experiences or wanted to bury their memories.

Years later, the former DLI Museum, in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum (IWM), interviewed veterans from across the regiment, including Alexander Allan, who had served with the 113 LAA Regiment at Belsen. Paul Armstrong, who visited the camp while serving with the Royal Engineers, went to find out if the stories were true. 

Some of the key extracts can be found below, taken from recordings in the DLI Collection. The full recordings are free to listen to on the IWM Sound Archive

Alexander Allan

Alexander was born in 1910 in Scotland. In 1943, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and joined the 113th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, The Royal Artillery. He spent two months as part of the relief force at Belsen and was interviewed for the Imperial War Museum in 1991.

Carpet of Human Bodies

Well, the only way really to describe it is the fact that there was just a carpet of human bodies. Mostly very emaciated, many of them unclothed, jumbled together. People had just died where they stood. And they were outside and inside, of course, the various huts. But they were outside, you know, lying where there were trees or any open ground.   It just went on, it was incredible. The bodies didn't putrefy because they were so skeletal; there was so little flesh on them. Their arms and their legs were just like matchsticks really. But it was a gruesome horrible sight, and never again, never.

Burning of the huts

Photograph of burning the last hut at Belsen, 21 May 1945 (D/DLI 7/404/28(47)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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It was on the 21 of May, Crocodiles came in and with flame throwers set alight to all the huts, which were now deserted and empty except for a few skeletons I suppose you may say and full of human rags and excreta and all the rest of it. And all those camps, all the huts within the wire were set on fire one by one and they went up in great plume of horrible [pause]. It was all so wonderful really, smoke and flame. 

 

Listen to the full interview here: 

Allan, Alexander Smith (Oral History) © IWM

 

Paul Armstrong 

Paul Armstrong was born in 1914 in Bishop Auckland. His father had served with the DLI during the First World War. Paul worked in the town council's surveyor's office and then for an estate agent. In October 1938, he joined the Territorial Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion DLI, headquartered at Bishop Auckland. He was serving with the Royal Engineers when Belsen was liberated. Interviewed for the Imperial War Museum in 1993-1994.

Conditions in Camp

The buildings themselves defy description. I saw them for a long time afterwards. If you can picture the sort of thing that battery chickens are kept in only bigger, and the bedding was three planks long ways on and those in the top were lucky because the excreta dropped down on to those below. But they weren't lucky in that at the end of the day they had to climb back into them and they hadn't obviously the strength. And I learned that when they died they didn't tell the guards because they drew the food for them until the bodies had to be dragged out. I saw the ovens. I saw where they hanged them. I saw the place where they gathered the false teeth, where they'd stored the hair that they cut off them. I can't, I can't describe further what it was like.

Treatment of Local Germans

But the horrifying thing was there's a village nearby where the trains carrying these people had to pass through to get to the camp, and these people pretended they had no idea. And the officer that took over forced them at gunpoint, all the villagers, to go and walk round the camp to see what German soldiers had done, because they were pretending they knew nothing about it. He made sure that they did. They won't forget it.

Listen to the full interview here: 

Armstrong, Paul (Oral History) © IWM