Bergen-Belsen April 1945 – RAF Officer John Young’s memories.
2827 RAF 24th Training Sqd.
In August 1995 Agnes Grunwald Spier received a letter from a former RAF officer who had been based in Germany, very close to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945 when it was liberated. He wrote:
Our Padre had been allowed into the camp the day after it was overrun and returned to tell us of horrifying conditions there. Our Commanding Officer agreed that four of us, who had requested permission, could offer to help and also agreed that we could each take a large lorry with us, as we understood transport was desperately required.
He added that in April 1995 he had attended a Commemorative event organised by the Imperial War Museum and told me:
In conclusion, may I tell you that the Commemoration was not all sadness. In the last few days when the camp was more or less cleared we asked permission to take many children out into a nearby forest away from the camp, where we had music and games and sweets (scrounged from colleagues back at base on sweet ration day). We had a really lovely time with the children and it was so good to see them enjoying themselves away from the horror which had been their home. Fifty years on, at the Commemoration, I met a lady who was one of those very same children. She remembered it quite clearly having been 15 at the time. As you may imagine, that was quite a moment for me.
I asked him if he had written a memoir and he said he had not. I encouraged him to do so and was delighted when I finally received a copy in 2002. He hadn’t given his memoir a title and when I said I needed one for reference he said he’d like ‘And there were sweets’ in memory of the picnic treat he and his colleagues organised for the surviving children.
John was a 19 year old solicitor’s clerk in 1939 hoping to sign his articles soon. Not wishing to be called up to the army and being familiar with World War 1 air heroes he decided to join the RAF Volunteer Reserve in June. He was introduced to Radio Direction Finder (RDF) in a darkened hut on the East coast – the world later knew it as Radar. He joined a mobile radar unit which followed the army and controlled air cover as they advanced over Europe. That was how he came to be based near Belsen.
John wrote that he wasn’t sure how much was known about the concentration camps then, although some information came from camps such as Auschwitz liberated by the Russians earlier in 1945. The name Bergen-Belsen therefore meant nothing to John until the RAF’s padre, Reverend Neil Nye, ‘returned one day in very subdued mood and clearly shocked. He told us what the army had discovered at Belsen and we listened, hardly able to take in the enormity of what he was saying.’
As described above, John went into the camp with three colleagues. He described how even two or three miles away from the camp from the camp ‘we became aware of an unpleasant smell, which, as we arrived at the guarded gates, had become an odious stench.’ They were issued with passes so they could come and go freely. John wrote that after all this time he could not really recall what his feelings were when he was taken around the camp and now most people will have seen the films and TV programmes of what met their eyes.
I can only say that I found it almost impossible to eat or to sleep for days. Because of what I have said, regarding the knowledge of what anyone reading this must now have of the camps, I feel it is unnecessary to go into detailed description, and will content myself with saying that whatever you have read and seen – yes, it was so, and perhaps even worse than can be imagined.
John was not going attempt to describe the entire situation in Belsen but in particular incidents and stories with which he was involved. Probably the first impression was almost at the gate of the camp. An enormous pile of boots and shoes, taller than a house and covering more ground. Rotting, stinking leather, no doubt taken from the prisoners as they were admitted in the belief that it would in some way help the war effort. Of course, nothing was ever used and I have since heard that other such mounds were found in other camps.
Work was begun by the army and medical people rushed in to deal with the enormous task of clearing the foul huts in which so many people had lived and died. The survivors were divided into four groups. There were those who had died and there were those who could not be saved and just needed to be made as comfortable as possible. The largest group required medical care and a steady diet of good food and then those who were suffering from malnutrition and would recover relatively easily. However there were also the children:
Poor little boys and girls with arms and legs like broomsticks and yet quite cheerful. Some had no doubt been looked after by parents or others who had taken them under their wing. Of course these were the survivors, so many children having died.
After each hut was cleared, there followed cleaning, de-lousing , medical treatment and general rehabilitation. These were done by various nursing services from the forces , the Red Cross, St. Johns Ambulance and other voluntary bodies. People were very dedicated and never showed the horror or shock they must have felt. However John did recall visiting the old SS quarters which had been turned into a medical centre and finding a young nurse in tears. Her patient was a young lad with a terrible wound on his head. He thought it was the state of his head which had upset her, but he discovered she had cleaned, dressed and bandaged the wound only an hour before. Apparently his mother who was from the Roma had no faith in the treatment and had replaced the sterilized dressing with a cabbage leaf tied on with a dirty rag. The nurse recovered and started again with the task.
John also described the situation which we are all now aware familiar with:
One tragic result of the liberation and sudden increase in food was that it was just too much for these poor starved people and many died simply because their emaciated bodies could not cope with the additional intake. It was soon realised that great care had to be taken in the supply of food until a stage had been reached where the strengthened bodies could absorb a larger quantity.
Other necessities began to pour into the camp – clothing, blankets, medical supplies and other items arrived. But it was difficult to realise how much people had suffered over a long period of time – ‘Such everyday things a as knives, forks and spoons and the use thereof had in some cases to be learnt afresh as had the fact that it was no longer necessary to fight over food. It is easier to understand if one accepts the fact that it had been years since many had been given reasonable food to eat.’
After the cleaning and de-lousing everyone was given a blanket and then moved to an area where clothing was available. A choice of clothes and underwear was laid out for the women to take their choice and move on. This proved unworkable as after so many years of deprivation the women were, arguing, pushing and shoving each other. Instead they were presented with a bundle with one of each item available and this worked very well.
It is very sad to read what the prisoners had been reduced to by the Nazis’ brutality but John was very positive:
…it should be made clear that it appeared that the Jewish people responded so much more quickly to the humanitarian treatment than many others. An inherent tenacity to overcome even the most appalling treatment must have manifested itself and I was told that after only a few days of being liberated, some Jews with medical knowledge had made their way to the administration offices saying, ‘Look, I’m OK, now let me help!’ that in itself says so much.
John stressed that whilst the majority of the prisoners were Jewish from Germany, Hungary, Poland and some from the Low Countries and other countries, there were also non-Jews such as nomadic or gypsy people and political prisoners from many countries.
John wrote of an overwhelming sense of sadness in spite of the relief of liberation. So many had lost loved ones and their future would be tormented by their memories. ‘Old folk would move about the camp, slowly and painfully, burdened by all they had experienced. There was a hopelessness that we who had never know such terror would never understand.’ Only the younger ones seemed to have any hope.
John, still only 24, was in charge of a motley group of POWs who had been Hungarian soldiers to go and requisition hay from a barn some distance from the camp. He had trouble controlling them and getting their co-operation until firstly he fired a pistol in the air and secondly he bribed them all with a few cigarettes. The hay was used to stuff 1000s of palliasses in place of mattresses.
The camp was full of diseases including typhoid and typhus and people were NOT allowed to leave as soon as they were liberated. Such a mass exodus would have caused chaos and spread disease all over Europe. The restrictions must have been frustrating as they no doubt wanted to go home but at least they were now clean, clothed, fed and generally looked after. John recalled the very strict instructions they received about keeping themselves as clean as possible by having at least one bath a day, if not two. If this was not possible they were to wash all over. They were advised not to wear tight clothing and were able to abandon their RAF collars and ties.
It would appear that Typhus lice like to find their way into tightly clothed areas, and if there is any dirt in the area in which they bite, that could lead to catching the disease. After such cleaning we had to smother ourselves in a ‘Talcum Powder’ known as AL63, the AL standing for Anti-Louse. Even so, I believe that some medical people did in fact contract the disease.
In this connection John described what he called the ‘Bathroom Hotel’ built by slave labour for the use of the SS. He thought there were 12 bathrooms either side of central passage. The first one had black tiles and fittings, the next one was slightly lighter in colour until the final one which was completely white. He said they were palatial and worthy of a five star hotel and felt regret for the ‘poor starved people who had been forced to build such a place’.
When the old huts were cleared away, replacements were required. Someone had noticed a large timber yard a few miles away with prefabricated buildings like Nissen huts. The short, stout owner was unimpressed by John’s request to take some of his huts away and after some argument he turned away with a final ‘Nein’. However John again went to pull his gun from its holster whilst shouting ‘Kommen sir hier’ and the German, whom he nicknamed Otto, went ‘wobbly at the knees’ and completely changed tack. They loaded up their trucks:
Being now ready to set off, I tore a page from a small notebook and wrote: ‘Two loads of prefabricated huts, taken for use in Belsen Concentration Camp’, signed it, adding my rank and RAF. I handed this to ‘Otto’, saying ‘Hand that to someone, and one day you may be paid for it’. He did not seem to be very convinced. I have sometimes wondered if that scrap of paper ever turned up in an office with a request for payment. I have certainly never been charged for it.
One day John was given the task of taking two SS soldiers, who had been captured still in the camp, over to the town of Celle which was a UK base from 1945-2012. The soldiers were guarded by UK soldiers and were to be handed over to what became the War Crimes Commission. John was surprised to find that:
Although they were in the SS they were far from being the super beings that these people were supposed to be. They were in fact of low intellect and brutish, one having confessed that pre-war, he had been a burglar in Berlin.
It was ironical that after some time working at the camp, John and his colleagues were summoned to Wing HQ. As they had volunteered to help, the RAF had become concerned that they might catch a disease or have an accident and then claim a pension from the RAF. They were asked to sign disclaimer forms, which they all did and returned to the camp.
It was at this late stage that the picnic referred to earlier took place. They took about 25 children each time and there were several such events. They went into the nearby forest – ‘A beautiful place of glades and grassy areas, shady and cool and smelling so different from the camp.’
They were helped by two or three young women who had a smattering of English and their own language, which helped them communicate with the children. John comments that the young women had done better than most prisoners – they were well fed and very cheerful. The men did not question the situation but John says they were obviously disliked by the other prisoners.
What we were not prepared for was the frequently expressed desire to find an eligible and willing, future husband, who would get them to England. Between us we had several proposals of marriage, which we were able to decline, all of us being already espoused.
John returned home eventually and married his girl. He did not go back to do his legal articles and became a salesman and the later a hotelier with his second wife, Florence who was pleased that John’s efforts to record his experiences have come to be so useful.
He took a long time for him to put his experiences down on paper. He concluded his 13 page memoir with some reflections:
As I have said, memories fade and after 50 years, things are no longer as clear as they were, but I believe that future generations must know of these camps, must know of the millions of human beings who had been tortured , abused beyond all understanding and finally killed. If they know, if they can be made to understand why such evil came about, maybe a repetition can be avoided, although sadly the world of today gives little confidence that it will be so.
And now after all these years, long retired, living in comfort with my wife and family, always trying to keep busy, there are nevertheless those moments when one relaxes and then sometimes, the memories come flooding back Yes the edges have become blurred, but much remains and I have always been glad that in our very small way the four of us contributed to the truly wonderful work done by the medical people and others in Belsen. I take comfort in thinking perhaps it helped, just a little, to show some of those who survived the Holocaust that compassion of one human being for another, had not died in those hell-holes.
It only remains for the human race, to be made constantly aware of the evil which can result from the mentality which created, and allowed the Nazi party to function in the way which brought such horror to so many millions of people. Generations which are to follow, in all countries, must be taught by all available means about the Holocaust and the conditions which brought it about.
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