Seventy-Five Years On: The Durham Light Infantry and the Belsen Concentration Camp

Added about 4 years ago by David Lowther

GUEST BLOG: To mark the 75th anniversary of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp’s liberation, David Lowther retells the grisly story of what the British soldiers found on their arrival there.

Three quarters of a century ago, soldiers from the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army reached Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near the town of Celle in north-west Germany. What they found on 15 April 1945 beggared belief. Thirteen thousand corpses lay unburied around the camp grounds and a further sixty thousand prisoners, most of them starving and many close to death, were waiting for liberation or the final exit. More troops were obviously needed to help these people and the 11th Armoured Division was needed elsewhere. Three days later they were relieved by a larger group of troops which included a significant number from the 113th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery, 5th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry.

The task of these soldiers, and others who soon joined them including the Royal Army Medical Corps, was to bury the dead, tend to the sick, arrest the SS guards and others responsible for these atrocities and, ultimately, to destroy the camp. It is almost certain that nobody involved in that liberation is still alive but we have so much evidence of these terrible times through tape-recorded memories of those who were there (held by the Imperial War Museum), photographs, cine film including newsreels of the day and transcripts of Richard Dimbleby’s eye witness account as he reported on the scenes for BBC radio. Additionally, there are memoirs of survivors as well as diaries and letters of soldiers and others who were part of the liberation.

Chief amongst these soldiers’ descriptions of the horrors of Belsen are the letters of 11407267 Gunner John Walter Fairweather (known as Jack). His son Stephen found three hundred and seventy-six letters covering the period December 1943 to November 1946, which Jack Fairweather sent to his wife-to-be, Renee. There were five letters dated between 23 April and 10 May 1945. All five are treasure troves of primary historical evidence. Such was the dreadful reaction of the Allied authorities to finding Belsen, they relaxed the censorship restrictions and encouraged the soldiers to tell everyone “back home” what they had seen. Indeed, Jack makes a very important observation in his first (and longest) letter dated 23 April, four days after his arrival:

I want you to pass on this story, which is nothing but the truth, to anyone who still doubts the horror of the thing called “National Socialism”. The very same system which would have many of us in the same plight as the poor wretches one can see in this camp.

In my own book I make this very point. Anyone who doubted the wisdom and necessity of this war can see, in Belsen, why we have made such enormous sacrifices.

No words of mine can aptly describe the conditions here.

Jack Fairweather, 23 April 1945

This first letter continues with a detailed description with what the soldiers found when they entered Belsen and any reader would be full of admiration for the courage which these men showed in tackling these horrible tasks. Disease, especially typhus, was rampant and they must have been in some danger of contracting it. Each time they entered the camp, they were sprayed with DDT powder. Bravery can be demonstrated in many more ways than on the battlefield.

My own book goes into detail about the liberation and what happened afterwards, particularly to the SS guards and poses a series of questions aimed at young people who perhaps were unfamiliar with these events. For many British citizens, Belsen was the first time they became aware of what went on in Nazi concentration camps. The Red Army had found Auschwitz in January 1945 but kept evidence of it out of the public eye at the time. Four days before the British Army reached Belsen, the 6th Armoured Division of the United States Army liberated Buchenwald camp near Weimar. For many years after the war, British folk used the term “beast of Belsen” as an expression of loathing.

Little remains of Belsen but there is a visitor centre and a memorial there, located in Anne-Frank-Platz, in memory of the schoolgirl diarist who died there a month before the British soldiers came.

David Lowther is the author of Liberating Belsen: Remembering the Soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry. Perfect as a coursebook for GCSE and A-Level students, this book will also appeal to adults who are interested in this critical period of history, and the role played by the DLI.

The author extends his thanks to Stephen Fairweather who sent him copies of his father’s (Gunner Jack Fairweather) letters, charting his journey from Normandy to Belsen and beyond.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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