The Durham Light Infantry and the Belsen Concentration Camp
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 April 15th. 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 were required elsewhere. Three days later they were relieved by a larger body of troops which included a significant number from the 113th. Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment , 5th. Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry.
The task for 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’s is very unlikely that anyone involved in that liberation is alive today but we have so much evidence of those terrible times through the 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. Five were dated between April 23rd. and May 10th. 1945. All 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. Jack Fairweather makes this very important observation in his first (and longest) letter dated 23rd. April 1945, 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 would have many of us in the same plight as the poor wretches one can see in this camp.
In my own book Liberating Belsen, Remembering the Soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry (2015) I make this very point. Anyone who doubts the wisdom and necessity of this war can see, at Belsen, why the British people made such enormous sacrifices.
No words of mine can aptly describe the conditions here.
Jack Fairweather. April 23rd. 1945
The first letter continues with a detailed description of 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 shown 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 are, perhaps, unfamiliar with these events. For many British citizens, Belsen was the first time that they became aware of what went on in Nazi concentration camps. The Red Army had reached Auschwitz in January 1945 but kept evidence of it out of the public eye at the time. Four days before the British found Belsen, 6th. Armoured division of the United States army liberated Buchenwald camp near Weimar. For many years after the war, British folk often used the term ‘beast of Belsen’ as an expression of loathing. Jacob Kramer, the last Commandant of the camp was that beast and was later hanged for war crimes.
Little remains of Belsen but there is a visitor centre and a memorial there, located on Anne Frank Platz, in memory of the schoolgirl diarist who died there a month before the British soldiers came.
Many thanks to Stephen Fairweather who was good enough to send me copies of his son’s letters, charting Gunner Jack Fairweather’s journey from Normandy to Belsen and beyond.
Liberating Belsen, Remembering the Soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry, is published by Sacristy Press, PO Box 612, Durham DH1 9HT. It is on sale from the publisher, from bookshops and on Amazon and is available as an Ebook.