British soldiers discover horrors of Vught camp

Vught Concentration Camp: The electrically charged barbed wire fence around Vught concentration camp near Hertogenbosch in Holland.

Vught Concentration Camp: The electrically charged barbed wire fence around Vught concentration camp near Hertogenbosch in Holland.

Vught Concentration Camp: A high wall surrounding part of the concentration camp at Vught topped with steel spikes and broken glass.

Vught Concentration Camp: A high wall surrounding part of the concentration camp at Vught topped with steel spikes and broken glass.

The 4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers had arrived in France in late October and, in late November, found themselves taking over positions from the Canadians in Holland.

Unusually they found themselves billeted in military barracks which had been captured from the Germans. Peter White was one of the officers who soon discovered more about the history of their new base:

Our billets were mostly in a large incomplete German barracks consisting of pleasant red-brick buildings sprinkled in a pine wood on sandy soil beside a lake. These SS barracks struck us as delightful in their appearance and surroundings. They were modern, spacious, airy and only marred by harsh war-theme mural paintings.

We had not, however, yet seen the whole camp. The beauty and birdsong, the lake and the pinewoods were but a facade to a hidden horror which really staggered us. Vught, we soon found, included a notorious concentration camp.

Pitifully few of the original inhabitants had survived to be liberated and the buildings now housed Dutch Quislings and German civilians bombed out from Aachen.

Tammy, Charles and I strolled over to have a look. When we arrived these new inmates were being stripped and sprinkled with DDT powder to de-louse them. It all looked very. peaceful and orderly.

The same careful planning and construction had been lavished here as in the barracks, but in this case on scientific, modern, chromium-plated torture and methods of lingering and mass death as applied by painstaking Teutonic minds. We walked as in a-daze from one monstrous site to another.

Here were chambers where people were gassed to death, then for experimental variety others where they were locked in and steamed to death. A guard was reported to have said: ‘You can tell when they are dead when the screaming stops,’

Near this was a vivisection room where people were trussed on marble slab operating tables thoughtfully provided with grooves to drain off the blood. Six-inch iron spikes formed a carpet with a possible use we shuddered to think about. Then there were the more orthodox and classical tortures of thumb-screws, racks for stretching and solitary-confinement cells and other horrors we could only guess the use of.

Concrete operating table for the dissection of dead prisoners at Vught concentration camp.

Concrete operating table for the dissection of dead prisoners at Vught concentration camp.

Some of the confinement cells were small brick structures the size of dog-kennels in which the victim was locked doubled—up to fit in.

Outside stood a gibbet with a well-worn noose. Under this structure were two wooden blocks that tapered to a tiny base. The purpose was to string the victim up by the neck precariously balancing on tip-toe on the wobbling blocks. Here we were told the agonised victim might sway for hours until either fatigue or desperation caused the slight movement necessary to topple the blocks and complete the execution.

Beside the gibbet stood a triple crematorium, one unit being mobile. The walls of this building were shelved with little earthenware jars for the ash. This ash lay like thick grey flour all over the floor and on our boots while another pathetic little scattering of it dusted a well-worn metal stretcher which was used for the cremation.

The remains of 13,000 other victims, who had arrived too swiftly for the crematoria to cope, had been buried in a part open lime pit at the door.

We had started to get a clearer idea not only of our enemy, but more important to us, the reason for our presence in Europe. Tammy, Charles and I were far more thoughtful as we returned past the watch towers, electric and barbed-wire fences and ditches which surrounded the camp than we had been on our way in.

We were staggered to think that such monsters could exist to staff and run such a place, yet some news from the front showed that apparently any German unit with a stiffening of SS troops was capable of this. Just down river from our arc of, front, west of the blown rail-bridge, the Canadians whom we were taking over from reported that German troops had herded men women and children into Heusden church and there burned them to death.

See Peter White: With the Jocks: A Soldier’s Struggle for Europe 1944-45

Vught had been liberated by the Canadians on the 26th October. Around 500 bodies lay in the grounds, executed earlier that day as the SS sought to close down the camp. Another 500 people were waiting to be executed but were rescued by the unexpectedly swift advance of the 4th Canadian Armor Division.

Vught had served two functions. It had been a transit camp for Jews deported from France, Belgium and Holland, en route to the extermination camps further east. It had also been the main security camp (Schutzhaftlager) for political detainees from Belgium and Holland. Anyone suspected of opposing the Nazis might be sent here – and many died here.

A portable gallows for executions in Vught concentration camp.

A portable gallows for executions in Vught concentration camp.

The crematorium oven at Vught concentration camp. In the foreground is a pile of the ashes of human bodies.

The crematorium oven at Vught concentration camp. In the foreground is a pile of the ashes of human bodies.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon Griffin June 9, 2017 at 10:48 pm

My grandfather , George Henry Griffin of Gananoque Ontario Canada, was among the 4th Canadian Armour, 5th Anti Tank who helped liberate the camp. I never go a chance to ask about this, my father did once and was told that he didnt need to know about it. He was disturbed by the way one human would treat another.

I am proud of my grandfather for helping to save the lives of those in that camp.

Shannon Griffin

Chadam December 23, 2015 at 10:51 pm

laura – the photos bghurot tears to my eyes. I’m a huge patriot so of course it would. My uncle was in that war building railroads to get supplies off the beach and where they needed to go. He was blessed and made it home. Your writing and adventure is amazing to me!

a. gray November 23, 2014 at 9:24 pm

There will never be any possible excuse or apology for such behavior. Never.

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