75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen camp

Topic: PeopleRemembrance

Seventy five years ago today British forces discovered the horrors of Nazi rule when they liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

They found 60,000 Jews, political prisoners, PoWs and people classed as 'subhuman' by the Nazis, plus an estimated 13,000 unburied corpses.

Another 10,000 men and women would die in a matter of days – despite the arrival of British troops and medical aid.

Although Soviet troops had liberated Auschwitz in late January – a date now marked worldwide as Holocaust Memorial Day – Bergen-Belsen was the first British forces came across during their advance through north-west Europe.

The camp – between Hamburg and Hanover – was meticulously documented by army photographers and cameramen, while legal teams began gathering evidence against the perpetrators for subsequent war crimes trials.

The bulk of the work was performed by the British Army, but in the immediate aftermath of liberation, the Royal Navy’s greatest aviator was called upon to help.

Fluent in German and a seasoned test pilot, Lieutenant Eric Brown was helping to evaluate captured Luftwaffe aircraft at Fassberg airbase, 30 minutes’ drive away.

He was asked by the senior British medical officer at Belsen to help with translation – including questioning some of the Nazi officials.

What the 26-year-old airman saw – but especially smelled – during his short time at the camp stayed with him for the next 70 years.

He watched with horror as bulldozers drove piles of female bodies “as high as the ceiling” into mass graves, endured the stench of barrack blocks built for 60 people housing 250 – with just one toilet, and was shocked by the state of many of the prisoners.

“They were lost souls,” he recalled. “They were dying – there was no way back for them. If you tried to talk to them, to tell them: ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe’, they did not respond. They were zombies. Their minds had gone.”

Never before, nor since, had Eric Brown witnessed “such desecration of human beings”.

In the final six months of the camp's existence, at least 35,000 prisoners died - including teenage diarist Anne Frank.

Among the perpetrators were the camp’s commandant, Josef Kramer, and senior female guard Irma Grese, ‘the Hyena of Auschwitz’ who had helped select prisoners for the gas chambers.

“Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine,” Eric Brown said of them. Grese, just 21, was “probably the worst human being I ever encountered” while camp commandant Kramer (‘The Beast of Belsen’) was a dull bully who simply claimed he’d carried out orders.

Both were subsequently executed for crimes against humanity. Eric Brown went on to become the world’s most experienced and versatile test pilot, retiring from the Navy as a captain. He died in 2016 at the age of 97, having been one of the guests of honour at 70th anniversary commemorations of the liberation attended by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

The camp at Bergen-Belsen was eventually levelled – today nothing remains beyond the outline of the camp and a memorial site.

They were lost souls. They were dying – there was no way back for them. If you tried to talk to them, to tell them: ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe’, they did not respond. They were zombies. Their minds had gone.

Lieutenant Eric Brown