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1945: British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen

AUDIO : Richard Dimbleby describes the scene inside the camp

British troops have entered the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.

Inside the camp the horrified soldiers found piles of dead and rotting corpses and thousands of sick and starving prisoners kept in severely overcrowded and dirty compounds.

Belsen, near Hanover in Germany, is the first concentration camp to be liberated by the British. Details of the conditions inside are likely to horrify a public which until now has only heard limited descriptions from the camps in Poland freed by the Red Army.

The first British soldiers who entered Bergen-Belsen have described seeing a huge pile of dead, naked women's bodies within full view of several hundred children held at the camp.


"From where we were, we could see the desperate plight of the inmates"


The gutters, too, were filled with dead bodies.

One of the reasons the Germans agreed to surrender Belsen was because so many of the inmates were diseased. There was no running water in the camp and there were epidemics of typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis.

There were thousands of sick women, who should have been in hospital, lying on hard, bare bug-ridden boards. Of the 1,704 acute typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis cases, only 474 women had bunks to sleep on.

There were fewer male prisoners, but they were also kept in severely overcrowded and dirty conditions.

One of the British senior medical officers, Brigadier Llewellyn Glyn- Hughes, told the Reuters news agency he saw evidence of cannibalism in the camp. There were bodies with no flesh on them and the liver, kidneys and heart removed.

He said their first priority was to remove the dead bodies from the camp. He was told some 30,000 people had died in the past few months.

He said typhus had caused far fewer deaths than starvation. Men and women had tried to keep themselves clean with dregs from coffee cups. Medical supplies were severely limited - there were no vaccines, or drugs and no treatments for lice.

The only food available for the prisoners was turnip soup and British guards had to fire over the heads of prisoners to restore order among those desperate to get at the food stores.

Those prisoners who were too weak to get up and collect their food went without and died.

The camp commandant, who was described as "unashamed" at the camp conditions, has been placed under arrest.

In Context
Bergen-Belsen was the only concentration camp taken by the British and the soldiers were unprepared for what they found there. In fact most of the details did not appear in the media until a couple of days after the liberation when the first medical team arrived.

Mass graves were dug to hold up to 5,000 corpses at a time. The former army guards from the SS were deliberately made to use their bare hands to bury the prisoners, many of whom had died of contagious diseases.

The mass evacuation of the camp began on 21 April. Prisoners with any hope of survival were moved to an emergency hospital.

British medical students responded to an appeal from the Ministry of Health to go to Germany and help in the treatment of prisoners.

Photographs and a film taken at the camp and published in the media brought home the full horror of life in Belsen. German civilians living near to the camp were taken to see what had gone on inside.

The last hut in the camp was burned to the ground on 21 May 1945. Today the camp is a landscaped park.

Brigadier Llewellyn Glyn-Hughes, who was put in charge of cleaning up the camp, said it took a staff of 68 a fortnight to stamp out typhus in the camp. But prisoners too sick to respond to treatment continued to die. Historians say as many as 28,000 of the 38,500 prisoners in the camp when it was liberated, subsequently died.

The camp commandant, Josef Kramer, was found guilty at Luneberg of war crimes and hanged in December 1945.


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