How DLI soldiers helped liberate the horrific Bergen-Belsen concentration camp 76 years ago today
April 15, 2021 is the 76th anniversary of perhaps the single most gruesome and appalling event ever captured on film – the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.
An estimated 50,000 mainly Jewish people perished in the camp. There were other, larger camps where the figure was far higher, but Belsen is especially well remembered because of the live footage and photographs taken of almost unimaginable horror.
The most famous inmate was Anne Frank who had died from typhus there about a month before liberation, a few days after her sister Margot had met the same fate.
At the heart of the liberation was some of County Durham’s finest – the Durham Light Infantry.
British forces liberated Belsen on April 15, 1945. Soldiers found 13,000 unburied corpses. Around 60,000 were alive, but almost 14,000 of them would die soon afterwards. The main causes of death were typhus, dysentery and starvation.
Understandably eager to help the starving, many soldiers at the liberation gave away their Army rations. Sadly this proved fatal to those who were too weak to digest food.
DLI soldiers forced captured SS guards to bury the dead. The British Army did at least rescue about the same number who were still alive, nursed them back to health then evacuated them.
The situation could hardly have been grimmer when the Durham men arrived.
On April 12, 1945 the British Second Army and their Canadian allies were able to reach deep into Germany after crossing the River Rhine crossing. An Allied victory was only a matter of time so the German military commander at Bergen-Belsen attempted to negotiate a truce.
Nothing could have prepared the DLI for what they found.
A DLI officer, Paul Armstrong, later noted: “I saw the ovens. I saw where they hanged them. I saw the place where they gathered false teeth and where they stored the hair.”
But what angered soldiers more was nearby villagers, who affected not to know what had been going on. The villagers were forced at gunpoint to look.
The stench of bodies was overpowering and the danger of disease for everyone at the liberation was huge. It was therefore agreed that the Germans would erect notices and white flags at all the road entrances, marked “Danger – Typhus” on one side and “End of Typhus Area” on the reverse.
German and Hungarian troops, now prisoners themselves, had to remain at their posts wearing white armbands on the left sleeve. The Hungarians were used by the British for such duties as might be required and would be there indefinitely.
Members of the Wehrmacht, the ordinary German soldiery, were released within six days and returned to the German lines with their arms, equipment and vehicles.
However, the reviled SS personnel were treated as POWs. SS admin personnel would remain at their posts, carry on with their duties and hand over records.
We only have space to barely scratch the surface of the story of the DLI at Belsen. We can only imagine how it affected them. In 1945 the psychological effects were not given anything like the consideration they are today.
* North East historian Peter Sagar would like to find out more about these events. If anyone can help, please contact him through [email protected]