In mid-April 1945 Nazi Germany was on the verge of collapse, with the western Allies crossing the Rhine River into Germany and the Soviet Union similarly crossing the German-Polish border and advancing north from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It was now that the terrible crimes instigated by the Nazis were coming to the fore ten-fold, as Allied and Soviet soldiers discovered concentration and extermination camps on both fronts.
Auschwitz had been liberated by the Soviets in January 1945, and Buchenwald by the Americans in early April 1945. On 15th April, 70 years ago to the day, British and Canadian forces discovered Bergen-Belsen.
Originally a POW camp, but converted to a concentration camp from 1943 onwards, Bergen-Belsen held Jewish prisoners who were supposed to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries or for hard currency. In reality this rarely happened, and while the prisoners were generally better treated than elsewhere they were worked to death.
Towards the end of the war Bergen-Belsen was one of several concentration camps to receive prisoners from the east, crammed into boxcars or force-marched hundreds of miles as the Soviet Red Army advanced. The number of prisoners held in the camp had skyrocketed in just two years from 7,000 to over 60,000 which caused immeasurable suffering and death. Disease was rampant, particularly typhus, tuberculosis and typhoid fever, exacerbated by malnutrition and slave labour.
At least 35,000 men, women and children are thought to have died in the camp during the German ownership. When British and Canadian troops finally discovered the camp they found 13,000 unburied bodies and a starving, diseased camp populace with a death rate estimated at 500 per day. In addition, lacking man-power as they were, the British allowed Hungarian soldiers to remain in control of the camp; they subsequently, in collusion with the S.S., executed a number of starving prisoners and destroyed the vast majority of the camp's files and documentation.
Over the next few weeks emergency medical aid, food and clothing would be distributed, and the surviving prisoners were de-loused and moved to a former Panzer Army camp, which would be renamed Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp. In addition, the S.S. Camp Personnel were forced to assist in burying the thousands of bodies in mass graves.
The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was then burned to the ground by ‘flamethrowing’ Bren Gun Carriers and Churchill Crocodile tanks, in the hopes of destroying the diseases and louse infestation.
Sadly, and despite the efforts of the British, another 14,000 had died by the end of June 1945. Specialist teams were dispatched from Britain to deal with the problem of feeding the malnourished population. The first, led by Dr A. P. Meiklejohn, included 96 medical student volunteers from London teaching hospitals, who were later credited with significantly reducing the death rate amongst prisoners. A research team led by Dr Janet Vaughan was dispatched by the Medical Research Council to test the effectiveness of various feeding regimes.
The weakened digestive systems of the prisoners could not handle standard British Army rations like Bully Beef and the first alternative tried, skimmed milk, also proved unacceptable. A further alternative called Bengal Famine Mixture, made from rice and sugar, proved far better but was unsuitable for most Europeans due to the different dietary needs of Bengalis. Some prisoners were too weak to accept even this and became frightened when British doctors attempted intravenous feeding. S.S. doctors had executed prisoners via injections, and they became hysterical at the sight of the intravenous feeding equipment.utrition at Bergen-Belsen - The Forces War Records Collection
Many of the former S.S. staff were tried at the Belsen Trial. Of these, 45 were convicted of war crimes, and not just for Bergen-Belsen; some were also tried for crimes at Auschwitz and other German camps. Eleven were subsequently sentenced to death, including the former camp commandant Josef Kramer. Fourteen were acquitted, 1 was pronounced unable to stand trial, and the remaining 19 were sentenced to a variety of prison terms, though most were released early on appeal and pleas of clemency.
A permanent memorial to the prisoners of the camp was erected by the British government in November 1952. Jewish, Polish and Dutch national memorials were also raised at the site, which is now supported by the German Federal Government.