Thousands of dead and dying – liberation of Belsen

A general view of part of the squalor and filth in the camp at the point of its liberation by the British Army.
A general view of part of the squalor and filth in the camp at the point of its liberation by the British Army.

It was about 5pm on 15 April when the miracle actually happened: the first British tank rolled into the camp. We were liberated! No one who was in Belsen will ever forget that day. We did not greet our liberators with shouts of joy. We were silent. Silent with incredulity and maybe just a little suspicion that we might be dreaming.

Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

A prisoner, too weak to move as a result of starvation, sits by the wire fence with an expression of agony on his face.
A prisoner, too weak to move as a result of starvation, sits by the wire fence with an expression of agony on his face.

It was the pictures and stories from the first concentration camps liberated, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen, that first made a real impact on public consciousness of the Holocaust. It was these names that became closely associated with the worst horrors of the Nazi system of brutality, even though they were, in some senses, not the “worst” camps. These were not extermination camps like Auschwitz, where people were sent to be killed immediately if they did not survive ‘the selection’. They were nevertheless lethal systems of incarceration and no less murderous over time.

…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.

BBC radio broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in an historic broadcast just days after the liberation which alerted the British and the world to the real horrors of Nazism.

Women inmates prepare food in the open air, using the boots of the dead (which can be seen piled up in the background) as fuel for their fires.
Women inmates prepare food in the open air, using the boots of the dead (which can be seen piled up in the background) as fuel for their fires.

Bergen-Belsen had gone through a number incarnations, starting out as a Prisoner of War camp for Soviet prisoners, at a time when the Nazis seemed intent on letting them all starve to death. Some 20,000 died here. Then as an SS concentration camp for Jews who might be used as hostages, the regime was probably somewhat better than at many other work camps. Then a variety of different groups were sent or passed through, including may women and girls – Ann Frank died here.

Then at the end of 1944 Bergen Belsen started receiving prisoners who had survived the forced marches from the camps in the east. Soon its primitive facilities were overwhelmed by over 60,000 sick and malnourished people. They had been dying in their hundreds every day for months. They would continue dying in their hundreds every day for the next two months, despite the best efforts of the Allied medical teams.

But we went further on into the camp, and seen these corpses lying everywhere. You didn’t know whether they were living or dead. Most of them were dead. Some were trying to walk, some were stumbling, some on hands and knees, but in the lagers, the barbed wire around the huts, you could see that the doors were open. The stench coming out of them was fearsome.

They were lying in the doorways – tried to get down the stairs and fallen and just died on the spot. And it was just everywhere. Going into, more deeper, into the camp the stench got worse and the numbers of dead – they were just impossible to know how many there were…Inside the camp itself, it was just unbelievable. You just couldn’t believe the numbers involved…

This was one of the things which struck me when I first went in, that the whole camp was so quiet and yet there were so many people there. You couldn’t hear anything, there was just no sound at all and yet there was some movement – those people who could walk or move – but just so quiet. You just couldn’t understand that all those people could be there and yet everything was so quiet…

It was just this oppressive haze over the camp, the smell, the starkness of the barbed wire fences, the dullness of the bare earth, the scattered bodies and these very dull, too, striped grey uniforms – those who had it – it was just so dull. The sun, yes the sun was shining, but they were just didn’t seem to make any life at all in that camp.

Everything seemed to be dead. The slowness of the movement of the people who could walk. Everything was just ghost-like and it was just unbelievable that there were literally people living still there. There’s so much death apparent that the living, certainly, were in the minority.

British soldier Dick Williams

The bodies of victims in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The bodies of victims in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

What happened was we were all allocated to a hut. We divided into pairs, as I said, and each pair was given a hut to cope with. And into the hut you went and it was designed, I think, to take about 60 soldiers. It was a typical army Nissen hut-type – only it wasn’t a Nissen hut because it wasn’t the same shape – and inside it were upwards of six or seven hundred people lying on the ground.

They were all totally emaciated. They were all in filthy rags – rags is literally what I mean, rags. They were all, or most of them, lying in pools of vomit and faeces and urine. A considerable number of the ones in the hut were dead and the first job to do each day was to go in, and with the help of two Hungarian soldiers – strangely enough we had a company of Hungarian soldiers to help as labourers – you’d go into the hut and pick out the dead bodies. You’d just go around and see who’s dead and who wasn’t.

It was sometimes very difficult to be certain who was dead and who wasn’t.

Remove the dead, take them outside, leave them in a heap and the Hungarians then moved them by truck to the mass graves where they were put in the mass graves. And having got rid of the dead you then made a sort of so say ward round to try and do what you could for the remainder, all of whom had diarrhoea, or the vast majority had diarrhoea.

They all had the most appalling coughs, they all had the most dreadful skin diseases, they were all filthy dirty and they were all absolutely skeletally thin… And we were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus. And typhus was killing a very large number of people every day.

Medical student Roger Dixey

A British soldier talks to an emaciated prisoner. The prisoner, Louis Bonerguer, was also British and had been dropped by parachute to work in German occupied territory in 1941. After his capture, he was interned at Belsen.
A British soldier talks to an emaciated prisoner. The prisoner, Louis Bonerguer, was also British and had been dropped by parachute to work in German occupied territory in 1941. After his capture, he was interned at Belsen.
Josef Kramer known as the "Beast of Belsen"
The camp commandant, Josef Kramer, known as the “Beast of Belsen”

These people had been degraded by the Germans. It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness. They’d been for as long as they’d – the Germans had degraded these people from the time they’d occupied their countries. They degraded them by putting them into ghettos, they degraded them by making them into second and third class citizens, they degraded them by herding them like cattle, by transporting them in conditions which were worse than animals would be transported, by totally dehumanising them.

Dr Laurence Wand

A young woman photographed two days after the British entered the camp; her face still bearing the scars of a terrible beating by the SS guards.
A young woman photographed two days after the British entered the camp; her face still bearing the scars of a terrible beating by the SS guards.

Something had changed for me after I’d seen that camp. Although I’d seen the terrible things in war, to have treated ordinary people like this. And there were so many theories and reasons as to who was responsible and everybody seemed to point a finger around until the finger came round in a circle and I had to think hard about it.

Why the Germans? They had their own culture, their own civilisation of a kind. They produced Beethoven, great scientists, how could it be?

The terrible discovery came to me, this sort of revelation like a flash of lightning, because it penetrated these terrible scenes to make me think – all the stories I’d heard about the persecution of people from my mother and father, here they were true.

But this was on a scale of – it had to be organised, it had to be done it could only be done with modern administrative service. It could only be done by moving masses of people by rail. It had to be planned and worked for. It was a sort of death by administration.

British soldier Mike Lewis

British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.
British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.
Women SS camp guards remove bodies from lorries and carry them to the mass grave.
Women SS camp guards remove bodies from lorries and carry them to the mass grave.
One of the mass graves at Belsen concentration camp.
One of the mass graves at Belsen concentration camp.
Dr Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro- Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945.
Dr Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro- Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945.

As soon as possible, we were transferred to the tank training school six kilometres away for delousing and then to makeshift hospitals, where German doctors and nurses were made to look after us. I was unconscious for 10 days after we were liberated. Two days after I regained consciousness, on 27 April, my mother died aged 42 and was buried in a mass grave, together with the thousands of others who died from starvation and disease after the liberation.

Survivor Renée Salt

For more on the liberation of Belsen and its context in the concentration camp system see UK government information leaflet. Quotes from British soldiers are transcripts of some of the audio recordings made by the Imperial War Museum.

German nurses wash an emaciated man lying on one of the tables in the cleansing station at the newly established hospital at Hohne Military Barracks, nicknamed the "Human Laundry".
German nurses wash an emaciated man lying on one of the tables in the cleansing station at the newly established hospital at Hohne Military Barracks, nicknamed the “Human Laundry”.
French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Camp No 2 at Hohne Military Barracks after having been passed fit to return to their own countries.
French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Camp No 2 at Hohne Military Barracks after having been passed fit to return to their own countries.
Miss S J Reekie, a British trained nurse and child welfare specialist works with the very young children in the kindergarten set up at Belsen after the liberation of the camp. All the children in the photograph were orphans
Miss S J Reekie, a British trained nurse and child welfare specialist works with the very young children in the kindergarten set up at Belsen after the liberation of the camp. All the children in the photograph were orphans

Gardelegen: concentration camp prisoners burnt alive

The scene discovered by soldiers of the 102nd Division.
The scene discovered by soldiers of the 102nd Division.
Another scene from inside the barn, most had died from asphyxiation.
Another scene from inside the barn, most had died from asphyxiation.

During the last months of the war hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners were on ‘death marches’ to the west. The Nazis were evacuating them from the camps in the east which would soon be overrun by the Red Army. There are numerous accounts of how those who could not keep up were shot out of hand.

One group from the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp complex were approaching the town of Gardelegen when it became apparent that the Nazis had run out of time, the area was about to be taken by the advancing US Army. Some of the SS fled and the prisoners sought to escape. They were rounded up by a combination of some SS, German parachute troops from a nearby training camp, other members of the Wehrmacht, and members of the Hitler Jugend and Volkssturm – according to some a representative sample of the German male population.

Most of the prisoners were political prisoners, the 300 Germans amongst them were apparently encouraged to participate in the murder of their fellow prisoners, on the promise of their own freedom, before they were betrayed and also forced into the barn and killed.

On the 14th an attempt was made to cover up the crime by digging a mass grave. The work had not been completed by the 15th when the area was occupied by F Company, 2nd Battalion, 405th Regiment, U.S. 102nd Infantry Division

The following account is based on the investigations of Col. Edward Cruise, U.S. Army, based upon the accounts of seven survivors, including Bondo Gaza, a Hungarian musician:

None of the prisoners had any inkling of the fate that awaited them. Rumours had it that they were being marched out to be handed over to the Americans. Guards told some of them that they were going to spend the night in a barn because of lack of space in the barracks. It was less than two kilometers to the barn. When halfway, the column stopped on the road for about an hour. A tractor passed by with several cans of petrol and a case of ammunition. From afar, prisoners saw some of the load being carried inside the barn.

The last group of 300 arrived at the barn around 1900 hours. It was still daylight. Here, the 80 guards were joined by some 20 Fallschirmjager, two of them on motorcycles, who arrived carrying Panzerfausts, machine pistols, hand-grenades and flare pistols. The prisoners on foot waited outside the barn for the carts with the sick to arrive, who were put inside first. An Allied aircraft was at that moment circling overhead, so when Unterscharführer Braun (one of the Jlfeld NCOs) ordered the others to move inside as well, many thought it was because of this. As the guards herded them in, a Fallschirmjager soldier fired his machine pistol into the group to make them move faster, wounding one man. All entered through the south-west door. It was now 2000 hours.

Once inside, many immediately noticed the strong smell of petrol, but contented themselves with the thought that the barn must have been used as a garage or to store fuel. The prisoners were ordered to sit down. The four big doors were closed and wedged fast on the outside with stones. A few minutes later, the door on the south-west side opened and two soldiers entered. One of them, identified as Braun by some, set fire to the straw with a match at several places. As soon as they had gone out, the prisoners rushed up and frantically put out the flames with their blankets, clothes and bare hands. Then they pushed all the straw to the middle of the barn. The soldiers re-entered and again ignited the floor by discharging the signal flares into the straw.

Several times, the prisoners managed to put the fires out but finally the soldiers prevented them by throwing hand-grenades, shooting Panzerfausts. and firing machine pistols and rifles into the frantic masses through the south-west door. The men inside reeled back. Others rushed sideways, pressing themselves against the barn wall to find protection against the bullets.

A group of some 50 or 60 Russians rushed to the opposite side of the building. The north-west door was broken open and the prisoners started to run out. The Fallschirmjager mowed them down with machine pistols and rifles. Two machine guns had been placed at the west side of the barn, one covering the northern and one the southern doors. Several of the armed prisoners, notably Kazimierz Drygalski, a Pole, and Adolf August Pinnenkämper, a German, joined in the killing, as did the crew of a nearby Flak battery, Hitlerjugend teenagers led by Wachtmeister Georg Bensch, who came running up with machine pistols.

Soon dead and dying men were piling up at all the doors. Cries of pain and panic rung inside the dark building, as others were trampled. To escape the rain of bullets, some men feigned death or hid under the dead bodies of others. By now the fire was completely out of control. The inside of the barn began to fill up with a suffocating smoke. Chaos and panic was complete. Men were swearing, crying, pleading, praying, shouting “Vive la France” and “Long live Poland.” Several even broke out singing their national anthem. Men were being roasted alive. Human torches ran around until they dropped to the ground dead. Others suffocated or were killed by the exploding hand-grenades and Panzerfausts.

[….]

The murder action continued well into the night, with German troops and Kapo guards watching the doors and walls for any escape attempts. In all, some 50 hand-grenades were thrown into the barn. Around 2100 hours, the Fallschirmjager went back to their depot to get a new supply of ammunition and Panzerfausts. They fired the Panzerfausts into the barn through the west wall and the southwest door.

Local residents remove bodies from the recently dug mass grave.
Local residents remove bodies from the recently dug mass grave.
Local residents remove bodies from the mass grave.
Local residents remove bodies from the mass grave.

About midnight, the paratroopers received an alert and left. Shortly after, Kreisleiter Thiele, who had been present from about 2200 (he had been conferring with Oberst Milz at the airfield before that), returned to the Remonte Schule with Unterscharführer Braun and ordered four of the Kapo guards left there (from the seven who had said they could not shoot) to collect a drum of petrol at the Kreisleitung garage and bring it to the barn so as to complete the incineration of the bodies. Once there, the men were told to stay on as guards.

The important thing for the Nazis now was to eradicate any sign of the atrocity that had taken place before the arrival of the Americans. From midnight until about 0230 Thiele and Debrodt were on the phone at the Kreisleitung headquarters, mobilizing local organizations to help with burying the dead and clearing up the site. The first to arrive, at 0430 on April 14, were 50 Volkssturm men from the neighboring village of Kloster Neuendorf, joined later in the morning by 15 men of the Gardelegen fire brigade, 15 from the Technische Nothilfe (technical emergency service), and 90 from the Gardelegen Volkssturm. In all, some 170 persons were at hand. Few of them had been told beforehand what to expect.

The SS men and armed Kapos were still at the barn doing their dirty work. Thiele, having returned there, ordered all survivors to be shot. Opening the doors and entering the still-smoking building, the SS men and Kapos called out that they were ready to give out medical aid to anyone who was still alive. However, this was a trick, as survivors who made their presence known were killed on the spot with a bullet through the head. This went on until 0830 when the last of the SS men and Kapos returned to Gardelegen.

Meanwhile, the Volkssturm men had begun to dig four grave trenches, two meters wide and two meters deep, two long ones on the north side of the barn and two smaller ones on the east side. Many of the bodies were totally charred, and the workers used hooks and pronged forks to pull individual corpses from the smoking piles of dead. As they worked to empty the building, the men found prisoners who had survived the carnage. Some of them were so horribly wounded that they begged to be shot. Hermann Hohls, the Volkssturm company commander in charge of the work; Gustav Palis, one of his men; and Paul Schernikau, the fire brigade chief, each shot a prisoner to put him out of his misery.

See Scrapbookpages for a collection of other images and a memorial leaflet produced by the 102nd Division.

Amongst the witnesses to the aftermath was US Army doctor Henry Swann, whose letter home about the incident can be found at US National Library of Medicine.

The recovered bodies are laid out in front of the barn.
The recovered bodies are laid out in front of the barn.
The local inhabitants were forced to dig individual graves for the victims.
The local inhabitants were forced to dig individual graves for the victims.

The rape and loot of Konigsberg, capital of Prussia

Red Army troops fighting in Konigsberg.
Red Army troops fighting in Konigsberg.
The destruction on the streets of Konigsberg.
The destruction on the streets of Konigsberg.

Konigsberg, the capital of Prussia in eastern Germany had been under siege since January 1945, surrounded by Soviet forces. Only the route out by sea had allowed some civilians to escape west. For thousands of concentration camp inmates there had been no route out, they had been forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Large parts of the city had been reduced to rubble, first by RAF bombing and then by the pounding of Soviet artillery. Thousands of civilians had died – but in many respects this was just the beginning of the horrors that would be visited on the German population.

Just before midnight on the 9th April the commander of ‘Fortress Koenigsberg’ Otto Lasch decided that, with ammunition short and the Soviet forces overwhelming, there was no point in continuing. On hearing that the ‘Fortress’ city had surrendered, Hitler ordered that Lasch’s family in Germany be arrested.

Pockets of resistance continued through the 10th April. Groups of German soldiers made desperate attempts to break out through the Soviet lines, most attempts ended in bloody annihilation.

As Lasch and the German officers eventually were marched off they discovered the reality of the Soviet occupation, where Red Army soldiers had been given official permission for two days of looting:

The houses burned and smoked. Soft furnishings, musical instruments, cooking utensils, paintings, china — all were thrown out of the houses. Smashed vehicles stood between burning tanks, clothing, equipment lay everywhere.

Amongst this danced drunken Russians, shooting wildly, searching for bicycles to ride, falling over and lying by the kerbstones with bloody injuries. Weeping girls and women were dragged into the houses despite their resistance. Children cried out for their parents. It was unbearable.

We marched on. We saw scenes that cannot be described. The ditches by the sides of the streets were full of corpses, many of them clearly showing signs of unbelievable maltreatment and rape. Dead children lay around in great numbers, bodies hung from the trees, their watches cut off.

Staring—eyed German women were led in all directions, drunken Russians flogged a German nun, an elderly woman sat by the side of the road, both of her legs having been crushed by vehicles. Farmsteads burned, the household belongings lying in the roads, cows ran across the countryside, and were indiscriminately shot and left lying.

Cries for help from German people came to us constantly. We could not help. Women came out of the houses, hands raised beseechingly — the Russians chased them back and shot them if they didn’t hurry. It was dreadful. We had never imagined such things.

Nobody had boots any more, many were barefoot. The untended wounded groaned with pain. Hunger and thirst were the greatest torments. Russian soldiers assailed the platoon from all sides. They took away coats from some, caps from others, the odd briefcase with its meagre contents. Everyone wanted something. ‘Watches, watches,’ they called, and we were left defenceless against this banditry.

Otto Lasch would not be released from Soviet captivity until 1955. He wrote his memoirs So fiel Königsberg. Kampf und Untergang von Ostpreußens Hauptstadt, in 1958.

German officers are marched out of Konigsberg.
German officers are marched out of Konigsberg.

Meanwhile another German officer, von Lehndorff, saw what happened in one of the improvised field hospitals:

In the ambulance, the young nurses defended themselves against a few particularly intrusive individuals. I didn’t dare imagine what would happen when they grew more confident. Now, they were still clearly in haste and concerned with loot.

Particularly striking were our storage buildings. I stood speechless before the heaps of foodstuffs there, which had been withheld from us during the months of siege, and thought back in anger at my naivety, at how we and our patients had gone hungry the whole time. Now there was a wild, howling mess, as the finest tinned produce and supplies, which could have kept hundreds alive for a whole year, were destroyed in a few hours.

Doktora was in the operating theatre, bandaging patients. A swarm of nurses had fled here and eagerly pretended to help. In the background, the Russians moved through the wounded soldiers, searching for watches and usable boots.

One of them, a young chap, suddenly burst into tears, because he had still not found a watch. He held up three fingers: he would shoot three men unless he was given a watch immediately finally a watch appeared from somewhere, with which he disappeared, beaming with joy.

The appearance of the first officers destroyed my last hopes of a bearable outcome. All attempts to speak to them were completely in vain. For them, too, we were no more than dressed clothes dummies with pockets.They only saw me from the shoulders down.

A couple of nurses who were in their path were seized and dragged along behind them, and before they could comprehend what was going on, they were released, completely dishevelled. They wandered around the passageways aimlessly. There was nowhere to hide. And new trouble came upon them constantly.

These account appears in Prit Buttar: Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45, which makes use of many German sources not published in English.

The surviving German occupants of Konigberg, perhaps as many as 100,000 people, would eventually be forced out of the city. Their place would be taken by Russian settlers. Today ‘Konigsberg’ is Kaliningrad, a wholly Russian enclave squeezed between Poland and Lithuania.

German prisoners are marched away from Konigsberg.
German prisoners are marched away from Konigsberg.

As the Allies move east, the refugees move west

Infantry and carriers in the German town of Lingen, 6 April 1945.
Infantry and carriers in the German town of Lingen, 6 April 1945.
Forced Labour Conscription: A group of liberated slave labourers enjoy cigarettes given to them by British paratroopers. The 'SU' painted on their clothes indicates that they are Russians.
Forced Labour Conscription: A group of liberated slave labourers enjoy cigarettes given to them by British paratroopers. The ‘SU’ painted on their clothes indicates that they are Russians.

One aspect of the Nazi treatment of people from their conquered territories might well have attracted more attention, had it not been overshadowed by more sinister discoveries as the war drew to a close. Suddenly as the Allied armies moved into the heart of Germany they discovered the true meaning and scale of the Nazi enslavement of Europe.

Peter White was an officer with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. On the 6th April 1945 they were ordered to forward in motor transport, making a rapid advance to catch up with the 7th Armoured Division that had driven a wedge deep into Germany. The progress was slowed by the volume of traffic coming the other way:

Here at last were some positive clues for us to add to our deductions and rumours as to the military positions. As soon as we got on to this road we began to meet among traffic coming in the opposite direction, waves of motley, liberated personnel.

They came, drunk from the joy of it… and sometimes just plain drunk… on foot, in looted cars and carts or by pushbike, cheering and saluting, Russian, Polish and French Displaced persons and Russian POWs.

For the next 50 to 100 miles this tide of fugitive humanity grew steadily into a torrent. They became the tenor and in many cases the means of the sudden demise of wayside farmers and members of their families on whom they descended at nightfall for food, plunder and often rape.

The squarely built Russian soldiers, as heavy in their appearance as they seemed in their wits, saluted every Allied object that moved, apparently without fail, on roads nose to tail with army transport.

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

Journalist Alan Moorehead was also making his way east, just behind the advancing troops:

As soon as we crossed the Rhine we were confronted by a problem almost as big as Germany herself; the millions upon millions of semi-slave workers.

With every mile we went into Germany they grew more numerous on the roads: little groups of Frenchmen, then Dutch, then Belgians and Czechs and Poles and Italians, and finally, in overwhelming majority, the Russians in their bright green uniforms with ‘SU’— Soviet Union – painted in white on their backs.

Half the nationalities of Europe were on the march, all moving blindly westward along the roads, feeling their way by some common instinct towards the British and American lines in the hope of finding food and shelter and transportation there.

These millions lived a vagabond existence. At every bend of the road you came on another group, bundles on their shoulders, trudging along the ditches in order to avoid the passing military traffic.

The Germans were terrified of the Russians. Again and again women ran out to us to cry: ‘Can’t you leave a guard with us? The Russians have taken everything. The next lot will smash up the place if they find nothing.’ More than that the German women feared for themselves. Cases of rape increased. The looting increased. And still that vast moving human frieze kept pouring down the roads, constantly augmenting its numbers with every new town that was captured.

One began to get a new picture of Nazi Germany. VVhat we were seeing was something from the dark ages, the breaking up of a medieval slave state. All the Nazi flags and parades and con- quests in the end were based on this one thing — slave labour. There was something monstrous about the wired-in worker’s compounds and sentry boxes round each factory, something that was in defiance of all accepted ideas of civilization.

As yet, in early April, we had only begun to glimpse the extent and depth of the Nazi terror system, but already one sensed the utter disregard of the value of human life in Germany. And now the Reich was collapsing at its roots because the slaves were melting away.

One saw mostly women in the country towns and in the farms as we passed on; nearly all the German men were either at the front or prisoners or dead. And the slaves were on the road. There was no longer anyone to sow the crop, no one to reap the harvest later on.

Here and there a foreigner chose to remain with his German master. Indeed, on the whole the country labourers got sufficient food and they looked healthy enough. But nothing on earth would have kept the industrial workers in the factories and the mines once the Germans had gone. First they rushed out into the streets to loot. Then they took the road to the west until they drifted into hastily made British and American camps where some attempt was made to sort them out and send them home.

See Alan Moorehead: Eclipse

Prayers are led by a German priest over the graves of 800 slave labourers massacred by the SS at Passau. The American Third Army authorities ordered that the local people be forced to dig individual graves so that each might have a decent burial.
Prayers are led by a German priest over the graves of 800 slave labourers massacred by the SS at Passau. The American Third Army authorities ordered that the local people be forced to dig individual graves so that each might have a decent burial.
Three Russian girls still wearing their slave labour uniforms photographed soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre, Hamburg Zoological Gardens.
Three Russian girls still wearing their slave labour uniforms photographed soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre, Hamburg Zoological Gardens.

Wounded captive to conqueror in a day

A B-24 Liberator of the 467th Bomb Group during a mission over Osnabruck. Handwritten caption on reverse: 'Osnabruck 23/3/45 467 BG.'
A B-24 Liberator of the 467th Bomb Group during a mission over Osnabruck. Handwritten caption on reverse: ‘Osnabruck 23/3/45 467 BG.’
A Comet tank of 11th Armoured Division rolls past German civilians during the advance to Osnabruck, 2-3 April 1945.
A Comet tank of 11th Armoured Division rolls past German civilians during the advance to Osnabruck, 2-3 April 1945.

If the situation in Germany was confusing to the senior German commanders it was no less so on the ground, where the front line was continually moving. Simultaneously there were shifting loyalties amongst the German troops, with many trying to find the right opportunity to surrender.

The Reverend Terence Quinlan, Senior Brigade Chaplain and R.C. Chaplain to the 1st Commando Brigade describes the situation around the German town of Osnabruck, which was occupied by the British on 5th April:

At a fork in the road to Osnabruck I took the wrong turning. I was in my jeep with my driver. The first we knew anything was wrong was a sniper’s bullet. It was a rotten shot and missed us by miles. We decided it was just an odd sniper, and pushed on, but 100 yards down the road a fusillade broke out from all sides. The hail of bullets shot the tires to pieces and we had to stop. We baled out pretty promptly and crouched down behind the jeep looking for cover. Then I was hit in the back of the leg and bled profusely.

I made a dash for a house by the road, but the door was locked. I hammered on the door with my stick, and a woman opened it. She looked alarmed, but I limped in and my driver joined me. The Jerries must have been rotten shots, or we should have been cut to pieces. While my wound was being attended to, ten or fifteen Germans walked into the basement. They let my driver finish dressing the wound, then told us to get outside. It was then I noticed a row of the German field grey hats poking up behind a hedge.

We were led across country, through gardens and over railway embankments. They were a most disorderly crowd. There were at least 100 of them, and they just straggled along. I told them they were completely surrounded and they might just as well give up. Some were muttering among themselves and appeared quite willing, but two N.C.O.s ordered them on. They told me their officers had left them the day before.

I had walked about a mile when my leg began to bleed again, so an escort of two Germans was left to guard my driver and me. We entered the south of Osnabruck. We were the first British to enter that part of the town, and I asked the escort if there was a church nearby. He pointed to one, and I sat on the steps to rest my leg. Immediately a large crows of foreign workers gathered, attracted by British soldiers with green berets. I asked one of the workers to fetch a priest, who offered me the hospitality of his house. He gave us lunch – my escort as well – and told me he could be shot for harbouring British soldiers.

I then turned to the two German soldiers and asked them: “Are we with you, or you with us?” and they replied: “With you.” They threw away their ammunition and rifles and became our prisoners. It was then reported that some British troops with guns were in the south of the town, so I asked them to send for a doctor and ambulance. The doctor arrived, patched me up, and drove me and my prisoners to the centre of the town to meet up with my Commandos who were in the north-west of Osnabruck.

We began to walk through Osnabruck, and the populace gazed in wonderment, for we were the first British troops in that part. We met my Commandos and handed over our prisoners. The next day I saw a number of other prisoners brought in and I recognized many of them who had been among my captors the previous day.

This account first appeared in ‘The War Illustrated’ magazine May 25, 1945. The British Army would maintain a large garrison in Osnabruck until 2008.

Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade in Osnabruck, 4 April 1945.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade in Osnabruck, 4 April 1945.
Liberated Russian slave workers being rescued from a cellar after it had been set on fire by a German policeman, Osnabruck, 7 April 1945.
Liberated Russian slave workers being rescued from a cellar after it had been set on fire by a German policeman, Osnabruck, 7 April 1945.

Sadistic treatment of POWs by Japanese remains unabated

A wartime photograph of Kinkseki Mine on Taiwan where over 1000 Aliied POWs suffered appalling treatment.
A wartime photograph of Kinkseki Mine on Taiwan where over 1000 Aliied POWs suffered from malnutrition, hard labour and routine brutality.

Across the territory occupied by the Japanese in the Far East, tens of thousands of Allied men continued to toil in the Prisoner of War camps. From China to Malaya, Thailand and Korea, right across to Japan itself, they were now aware of the changing fortunes of war through the increased activity of Allied aircraft. The effects of of the high level B-29 raids were everywhere, as well as the marauding P-38 Lightnings. Such raids put some POWs at risk but they were welcomed as great morale boosters.

John McEwan had endured the years of captivity since been taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942. He was a veteran of several Japanese POW camps including the notorious Kinkaseki mine on Taiwan. Kinkaseki closed in early March and they were transferred to another camp on Taiwan, but their sufferings were far from over:

The punishing labour went on as we tried to avoid Tashi’s beatings by stretching our wills to breaking point, a task made the more difficult by his resentment at the regular appearance in the skies of the twin-fuselage aircraft bearing the white star of the USA. He sank to lower depths of depravity, as the US warplanes bombed at will with never a Japanese Zero in the air to challenge them.

But as they had an effect upon him so too did they affect us. They provided the stimulus to keep going and their daily visits were a tonic to us, setting morale upon an upward spiral again. In contrast, Tashi would fall into a cowardly rage that made him even more bestial than before.

Occasionally, some of us allowed our approval of the actions of our US friends to show and even this mild show of resistance was dealt with severely. The offenders were made to kneel on the ground while a piece of wood was placed at the back of their knees. They were made to sit back causing intense pressure in this area and an effective blockage in the blood supply. After a short time the legs were left bereft of feeling.

Tashi then commanded them to stand and maintain an impossible upright stance, impossible because of the numbness of the already weakened limbs. When they fell he would batter them with his rod across legs and buttocks, shoulders and head. And he would laugh his evil laugh as his poor, painwracked victim cowered before him, trembling, attempting to maintain an erect position on incapacitated legs but usually unable to do so.

His underlings would attempt to ingratiate themselves with him by laughing and jeering. Watching one of these sessions, Dempsey was unable to contain himself. ‘Bloody Japanese bastards’ he swore quietly as a young Englishman was trying to stifle uncontrollable sobbing against a background of the barbarian contempt of the Japanese.

Tashi heard the forbidden words and went raving mad, ranting and swearing in abusive Nipponese and glaring at Dempsey. While the japs converged upon Dempsey, the young Englishman was left alone and began to compose himself. Dempsey, on the other hand, knew he had blundered and knew what was to follow but, though as weakened as the rest of us, he retained a spark of wild and irrational defiance, which did not allow him to do other than stand his ground. Tashi whacked him on the head.

The mad—eyed japanese screamed insanely, ‘Bastardo – no okay. Dammi – dammi. Bastardo dammio — Bagerro, dammi — dammi’ and with each cry he bounced his rod off Dempsey. Dempsey still refused to give ground and Tashi became ever more incensed and enraged as Dempsey refused to fall and as he saw the contempt in Dempsey’s eyes.

Like the rest of the squad, I could do nothing but watch as the mad NCO waded in with stick and fists. I willed Dempsey to swallow his pride and go down. At last one of the henchmen succeeded where Tashi had failed. He kicked furiously at the back of Dempsey’s legs, making him fall to the ground in a crumpled heap but still allowing him to contain the agony of his beating. He refused to show the usual tears of humiliation and this defiance was unbearable to Tashi, who was unable to comprehend the fact that one of the cowed and beaten men, calloused by years of starvation and humiliation, would refuse to beg for mercy under this demeaning abuse.

Tashi changed tack. He watched two of his lackeys kick Dempsey repeatedly. He then announced that another POW had to take part in the humiliation. This was a common depravity among them. They would make two prisoners face each other and swing punches until one of them fell.

I wondered who would be chosen and fervently hoped it would not be me. I could not have punched my friend in these circumstances. Tashi, however, strode to where Taffy Morgan was and jabbed him with the bamboo rod. ‘Yosh — anatowa’ he snarled at Taffy pointing to Dempsey and indicating the odious task in hand.

Taffy had still not recovered fully from his beating at Changi and was in a semi-stupor. His face was expressionless as he followed Tashi to the spot where his friend Dempsey stood, swaying weakly on quivering legs. Taffy took a long lingering look at the vicious Jap Corporal, who urged him on, bellowing the usual gutturals.

Tashi jabbed a finger at Dempsey and, at last, Taffy squared up to his mate. Dempsey raised his head, blood washing down his face, and nodded to Taffy to ‘Get on with it!’ He well understood the situation. Taffy met his friend’s eye and wasted no further time. He raised his calloused right hand and thumped Dempsey with all the strength he could muster in his own weakened state. Dempsey dropped like a stone.

It was obvious to all who watched that Dempsey would not rise for a while after being hit so hard and Tashi and his gloating serfs were convulsed with laughter and clapped their hands crying ‘Joto — Joto’ (Good, Good).

Taffy looked at me. As our eyes met I saw a glimmer there that had been absent for too long. His look clearly said that he had done what had to be done under the circumstances. Dempsey was having enforced rest, Tashi had been deprived of further depraved entertainment and Dempsey had surrendered to a British hand rather than a Japanese.

See John McEwan: Out of the Depths of Hell: A Soldier’s Story of Life and Death in Japanese Hands