I am Kenneth Claude James Knight, now aged 85 (article dated November 2003 – Ed) and living in Dorset.
Mine was not really a military family, although my father had served in the Great War. My third Christian name is in memory of an uncle killed around the time I was born. I was educated in Essex and at London University Extension Classes (under Prof H Finder). I served in local government until 1940, when I was called up into the RAMC. Basic training at Aldershot was followed by Light Field Ambulance in Yorkshire – a magnificent unit, as will soon be revealed.
As part of the 27th Armoured Brigade we crossed to Gold Beach and I landed at Oustreham on D-Day (plus one). (Some of the places the main unit visited are in the Colonel’s order of the day. See the appendix.) This story is, however, about my own encounter with the infamous Belsen concentration camp. With my section (commanded by Capt Douglas Peterkin), I arrived at Belsen (properly – Bergen Belsen) on 17 April 1945.
With a few senior NCOs, I wandered round the camp that April evening with the stench of deceased and dying skeletons all around us – nobody said a word, except for those prisoners still alive, who had the strength to utter, ‘Ich habe kranke!’ (‘I am sick!’) Some of those poor creatures made it clear that they wanted food – sadly we could not give any. They were so emaciated that their bodies could not have coped with anything but special diets, specially administered (again see appendix). Their stare, through dull and lifeless eyes, had to be seen to be believed. They were prisoners because of faith, profession or whatever made them unacceptable to those said to be in authority.
Initially I thought, ‘How can a loving God allow this?’ In saner moments, however, I knew this was a clear example of man’s inhumanity to fellow man. I did write to my father, then a church warden, and received a most understanding reply.
Despite witnessing the horrors of war in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, I found Belsen an ordeal beyond reality. 11th LFA became part of 6th Guards Division (superb units). Among other things, we had exercises with them about crossing the Rhine. There we dealt with numerous casualties and worked incessantly, all that was expected – but Belsen… that was something different. Someone called it ‘incomprehensible, ‘an apt description.
The camp was one of a number in that truly beautiful part of Germany. It was not originally an extermination or work camp, like, for instance Dachau, but was meant for housing prominent persons, who could be used as bargaining tools to secure the release of Germans imprisoned abroad. This plan went wrong and within a year Belsen had become a concentration camp without medical facilities. Transfer to Belsen became, in effect, a death sentence.
After the building of a lager for women, the infamous and detestable Joseph Kramer became commandant. Under him the camp’s population increased from 15,000 to over 41,000, and it was at that point that chaos began to reign at Belsen, according to official information.
I was also informed that at the beginning of April, with the sound of allied guns getting louder, SS guards endeavoured to conceal some of the 10,000 corpses lying exposed, but the guards fled before the gruesome task was completed. So the decision was taken at a very high level to bury thousands of dead by means of huge pits and bulldozers. What a task for those concerned in the REs, etc! German doctors and nurses, along with Jewish rabbis, Hungarian priests and others, were everywhere. The last of the pits were dug and filled, and then arrangements for repatriation where put in hand and the trials of Kramer and the rest of them implemented.
All of this was most painful to me. It did however assist me in obtaining greater perspective and appreciation of life – what is good and, particularly, what is bad. The experience of all who were there (mostly religious) turned us rigid. I was inside the camp boundary for nearly six weeks and all agreed with the colonel’s word that life will never feel the same to those who experience something of this enormity.
But in years since, I have felt that above all it should not be forgotten. Some people – too young to have been in the war and with the scepticism bred from a life of comparative peace – have pretended that the Holocaust didn’t happen, perhaps because they find such stories impossible to believe. I was there – I saw dreadful things. I saw souls on the point of or actually dying, and even after all these years I can still hear the mournful sound of those voices calling out, ‘Ich habe krank!’
The situation in Bosnia bought it all back to me. Why don’t we ever learn?
Following Belsen, most of us went to that wonderful country, Norway. I was returned to the UK and demobbed from Pembroke. Wiser? Yes, and certainly older and more of a man. Although, like others, I complained about everything at the time, I am glad it has been part of my life. I became involved again in religious affairs and also travel both at home and abroad. Very pleasant times have been spent in Germany, although I have not returned to the Belsen area. I have no ill feelings about the German people, of course, but let us all ensure that the memory of the evil, which led to the concentration camps, shall endure to remind us of our responsibilities – to forget is to deface the memory of those who suffered.
(The Colonel was of course known as the ‘Old Man’. He knew it – we all knew it! He used to go around the unit with a kind of buzz, whether in a good or bad mood. Hence his other nickname of Buzz Gonin.)
Colonel Gonin’s order of the day 1945:
‘The unit will always be remembered for what some of you did on D-Day with 27 Armd BDE. For those uncomfortable weeks at Hermanville before Caen fell. For the restless months from Coumont to Maas, when you made yourselves a reputation with the guards that any unit might envy. With the guards you helped to clear the Sittard Triangle and with them took part in the muddy bloodless battles of Cleave and Goch. Since 27 Feb and the formation of the Bank Group, you have not had more than two days’ consecutive rest, and at the Rhine you evacuated 1,700 casualties in 56 hours, a role which has never been undertaken by any unit in the history of warfare. Finally, and again with the 6th Guards Armoured Brigade, you shared with the Americans in the capture of Munster. For all this you have received well-deserved acknowledgement from higher command.
You then undertook what for this unit was the thankless and unspectacular task of clearing Belsen Concentration Camp. Our American friends and yourselves, with the BRCS, have moved over 11,000 sick from Belsen. To do this, 63 of you have worked for a month amid the most unhygienic conditions inside huts where the majority of internees were suffering from the most virulent disease know to man. You have had to deal with mass hysteria and political complication, requiring the tact of diplomats and firmness of senior officers. During the first ten days in the concentration camp, and before an organised attempt had been made to load the sick in those huts, you distributed 4,000 meals, twice daily, from what RSM Marne could scrounge by initiative and subtlety.
By collecting medical equipment from all over Germany, you produced a dispensary, which has supplied drugs for 13,000 patients a day, and has met the demands of exitable [sic] medical officers of all races, requiring the most exotic drugs in half a dozen different languages. You have, without hesitation, acted as undertakers, collecting over 2,000 corpses from the wards of the hospital area and removing them to the mortuary — a task which the RAMC can never before have been asked to fulfil.
The cost has not been light: twenty of you contacted Typhus-A disease, causing great personal suffering. Thank God, all the patients are doing well.
One of us will never leave Belsen — a dawn attack by the German Air Force on our lines was the price he paid to come here.
Life can never be quite the same again for those who have worked in the concentration camp, but you will go with the knowledge that the 11 (BR) LT FD Amb has done a good job.
Brig HI Glyn Hughes, CBE DSO MC, and Lt Col JAD Johnston, MC, SMO, Belsen Camp, join me in thanking you all for the part you have played in achieving the impossible.
Lieut Col MW Gronin RAMC, commanding No. 11 (BR) Light Field Ambulance’
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