“The stench of death could be smelt miles away – even before the concentration camp came into view. The horrible smell was so thick in the air, you could almost slice it with a knife and it made us gag.”
Those were Ken’s words as he and a convoy of trucks drove up to the German camp for the first time. Seventy-five years ago Ken was a 27-year-old sergeant gunnery instructor with the 58th Light Anti Aircraft Regiment, and one of a 112-man detachment which liberated Bergen-Belsen.
Ken, who lived in Blackberry Way, Penwortham, said that his unit had a number of ack ack guns protecting engineers who were building a bridge to cross the River Alle, in Germany.
He recalled: “We were suddenly ordered to proceed to a place called Belsen concentration camp. We had never heard of it. Apparently a truce had been arranged between the German authorities and our Corps commander because typhoid and dysentery were rife in Belsen and the authorities were worried that the inmates would escape and spread the disease.
“Before we even got in sight of the camp, we could smell the awful stench of the place, it was terrible – but that was nothing to what we saw when we arrived. It was unbelievable… a nightmare. There were piles of bodies scattered all over the desolate camp – an estimated 10,000, rotting, unburied bodies.
“There were 40,000 starving inmates, dressed in rags, who were nothing but walking skeletons and they were dying at the rate of 500 a day. In control were 400 German guards, half of these were SS troops, and about 4,000 Hungarian soldiers. What struck us was the arrogance of the SS and their complete disregard of the suffering going on around them. We immediately ordered all of the guards, including the officers, to use pick and shovels to dig huge communal graves to bury the dead.
“We put the strongest of the inmates in charge of the work parties and gave them whips, which they used with relish on the former guards. You could say there were quite a few reprisals. On the evening of April 15 the prisoners rioted over a potato dump and soldiers had to fire over their heads to restore order. We were at Belsen seven days trying to clean up the camp and restore some semblance of order.
“It was seven days of hell, like something out of your worst nightmare. Even when we left it was still chaotic. What has remained with me throughout my life was the cruelty of the German guards and their complete disregard for human life.”
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