The Second World War had been raging for over five and a half years. Millions had perished and bitter fighting continued across much of Europe. Yet the end was finally in sight, the Nazis now reduced to desperate yet seemingly futile attempts to resist the Allied advances from both the West and the East. Germany’s defeat was inevitable, and it was just now a matter of weeks before Hitler would be dead. For many hardened British soldiers who had fought in the final months of 1945 it felt like they had seen war in all its brutal forms and experienced the worst humanity had to offer. Yet in this they would be sadly mistaken, for there was worse yet to come, as one young officer was about to find out.
It would be on 15 April 1945 that 24-year-old Lieutenant John Randall of the elite British SAS found himself driving through Northern Germany. He, and his driver, Corporal Brown, had been on a reconnaissance when they noticed a large iron gate across what appeared to be a track that led into some woods. Randall was intrigued enough to see what was beyond these imposing gates and so decided to make a detour to find out. Little did he know what horrors he was about to encounter. The lieutenant recalled: ‘We were totally unprepared for what we had stumbled across … I just drove through these gates because they were open. There were one or two totally dejected-looking German guards, but they made no effort to shoot. They didn’t even stop us.’
A bemused Randall continued his journey into what appeared to be a camp of some sort. Having driven about 30 yards down the road, he realised he was in fact in a prison when he was suddenly surrounded by around ‘100 emaciated prisoners’. Most were wearing striped prison uniforms, while others were in normal civilian clothes that had become worn and ragged. Randall knew this was no ordinary prison camp, it was a concentration camp.
When the prisoners found out Randall was British, they suddenly became wild with jubilation. They begged him for food and to set them free. The prisoners, however, went into such a frenzied state that they quickly began to concern the lieutenant: ‘They were all over us, pulling at my paratroop smock, speaking an array of different languages, including English. There were hundreds of them and there was an overpowering stench, like a farmyard.’
Randall moved on, driving deeper into the camp. Soon he came across an even more shocking sight, when he saw piles and piles of dead bodies. What was particularly shocking was the fact these corpses were highly emaciated, most being virtual skeletons. Other prisoners were seen pulling the clothes off the dead, seemingly in desperate need of the filthy, lice-ridden garments for themselves. One thing that struck Randall regarding the dead was that ‘it was difficult to tell whether they were male or female’, such was the poor state of the bodies.
Yet, what Randall had just witnessed was nothing compared to the horrors Bergen-Belsen still held in store for him. As he continued to explore the camp, the lieutenant spotted a large pit dug in the ground. It was filled with countless dead, their bodies contorted and twisted into all sorts of hideous positions, one on top of another where they had been unceremoniously tossed as if pieces of rubbish into a landfill. The unbearable, pervasive stench in the air was unlike anything Randall had ever experienced: ‘a mixture of rotting flesh and excrement’, a ghastly smell which he would later wake in the middle of the night with it still lingering in his nose.
Incredibly, Randall and Brown spent half an hour looking around Bergen-Belsen with no interference from the onlooking German guards. The SS men were there, they were armed, and they could see the two SAS men clearly in front of them. Yet they showed little interest in Randall and Brown, who were having free reign to witness the crimes the SS had committed in the camp. The war was lost, and the Germans staff simply appeared to no longer care about anything.
Randall and Brown would not be alone for long. However, it was not the Germans who eventually joined them but two more SAS men. Major John Tonkin and Sergeant-Major Reginald Seekings arrived in a jeep looking for the lieutenant. They were tough men, hardened by war and highly experienced in dealing with death. But what they were now looking at shocked even them. Bergen-Belsen, they must have thought, was literally hell on earth.
Finally, as the four SAS men stood conversing by the pit of rotting bodies, the Germans now took notice. Randall and his colleagues knew they could be overpowered at any moment. The SS were far more numerous, and if they were keen to eliminate witnesses to the butchery of the camp all they had to do was gun the British soldiers down. So, when two guards began walking over to them, the SAS men must have felt some trepidation of what was about to happen.
The German who first talked to them introduced himself as Josef Kramer, the commandant of Bergen-Belsen. With him was a woman, also of the SS, by the name of Irma Grese, who claimed she was responsible for the female prisoners. Instead of demanding the SAS men to surrender or lay down their arms, Kramer and Grese offered to take them on a guided tour of the camp. Astonished, the SAS men followed their SS guides around Bergen-Belsen.
Kramer and Grese showed the SAS men a hut where some prisoners slept. Pushing open the door, they could see the cramped and squalid conditions in which the unfortunate inmates were forced to exist. Barely alive, the starving prisoners within the hut seemed to hardly have the energy to even look at their surprise visitors. Indeed, not all were alive, many had died during the previous night and remained laying on the bunks, mixed in with the living. It was an appalling sight, and again the stench was utterly unbearable.
An overwhelming feeling of anger now began to set in for the SAS men, which was exacerbated when they saw a German guard suddenly beating a prisoner with the butt of his rifle. Seekings, a veteran of some of the worst fighting experienced by the British during the war, asked Tonkin for permission to ‘teach the guard a lesson’. The major, also angry at what he had just seen, told the sergeant-major to carry on, and so Seekings walked over to the guard and knocked him to the ground. The guard got up, and so the sergeant-major punched him hard in the head, the blow knocking him out cold. At that moment, Tonkin turned to Kramer and Grese and said: ‘We are now in charge, not you, and any guard who attempts to treat a prisoner with brutality will be punished.’
Several days earlier, a somewhat bizarre agreement had been made between the British and the Germans. An area of 19 square miles around the camp was to become a neutral zone. Most of the SS guards were to be allowed to freely leave the camp before the British moved in and took possession of it. A small number of Kramer’s staff, however, were to remain to maintain order in the camp and prevent the prisoners leaving. The British feared Typhus – from which many of the prisoners were suffering – would spread to the surrounding area and so they needed to maintain the security of the camp. This the Germans would do until enough British soldiers arrived to take over.
Thus, when the main force of British and Canadian troops finally entered the camp, they freely mixed with German and Hungarian guards, who still carried their rifles and pistols. It was a highly unusual situation but viewed as a logistical necessity at the time. Inside Bergen-Belsen, it was estimated that 60,000 inmates were living in horrendous conditions, and around them were some 13,000 unburied, decaying bodies that littered the camp. Many of the survivors were also sick and starving. These unfortunate, brutalised souls had finally been liberated, but thousands more would die as the British desperately battled to save them over the ensuing months.
Kramer, who became known as the ‘Beast of Belsen’, was tried and hanged, while Irma Grese, who similarly was dubbed the ‘Beautiful Beast of Belsen’ due to her blonde hair and blue eyes, was likewise found guilty of war crimes and executed. Randall, Brown, Tonkin and Seekings returned to their duties until the end of the war. Years later, Randall published his memoirs, The Last Gentleman of the SAS, in which he recounts his horrific experiences in liberating Bergen-Belsen. He truly had gone through the gates of hell.
A big thank you to Mark for kindly speaking with us about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by members of the British SAS in April 1945.
Why not enjoy reading other WW2 Nation articles written by Mark Simner?
Recommend Reading / Useful Links:
Daily Mirror Article about Lt John Randall: I found SAS hero who saved me in Belsen and now we’ll be friends for life.
Photo Credits: Lieutenant John Randall | Camp Inmate | Bergen Belsen Camp |Cheerful Women Inmates | British Soldiers Distribute Food | Typhus at Bergen Belsen | Royal Army Medical Corps Evacuate Inmates | German SS Guards Loading a Lorry | Camp Commandant Josef Kramer in Chains | The Last Gentleman Of The SAS |