Rumors about the extent and horrors of German concentration camps had been circling among the Allies for about two weeks, mostly from news stories about the Soviet discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system, and the American liberation of the camp at Buchenwald on 4 April. On 15 April 1945, the British 11th Armored Division became the next initiates into the horrific and insanity inducing fraternity of soldiers who first discovered a National Socialist concentration and extermination camp when they liberated the camps at Bergen-Belsen.
The camp at Bergen-Belsen was originally a Wehrmacht prisoner of war camp, and an exchange camp where Jewish civilians were held so they could be traded for German prisoners of war captured by the Allies. About 50,000 Jews, Polish and Russian pows died in the overcrowded camps before Bergen-Belsen was turned over to the SS in 1943. After the Wannasee Conference, Bergen-Belsen was expanded into concentration and extermination camps. Jews from across the Third Reich were sent Bergen-Belsen based on their potential ransom. The Jews were either exchanged for prisoners or sold to Allied and neutral nations for hard currency. Jews that didn’t sell quickly enough or got sick were shot. As the Russian armies closed in from the east, prisoners from the camps in Poland were sent west and many ended up in Bergen-Belsen.
By 1945 disease was rampant. Typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the overcrowded camps. Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in February 1945. On 11 April the typhus outbreak was so bad the SS created an exclusion zone around the camps and handed them over to British without a fight. Unfortunately, the peaceful transfer of the camps enabled time for the National Socialists to destroy the very meticulous records of their atrocities.
When the Brits arrived on 15 April 1945, they found 64,000 half starved and sick prisoners in camps designed to hold 10,000. They also found 19,000 unburied corpses. The captives had not eaten for days and madness and chaos engulfed the camps. The British troops restored order and trucked in food, water, and medical supplies and personnel to deal with the survivors. Medical specialists were flown in from Britain to assist. Despite their best efforts, about 500 prisoners died everyday for next the few months, mostly from disease. One of the last Luftwaffe attacks of the war occurred at Bergen-Belsen on 20 April which killed three British medical orderlies and several dozen prisoners.
The British forced the camp staff and civilians from nearby Celle to bury the dead. Correctly assuming that future generations would deny the Holocaust and National Socialist atrocities, the British command documented the Bergen-Belsen camps. No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit (like todays combat camera detachments) thoroughly covered Bergen-Belsen and interviewed as many survivors and liberators as possible.
The madness inducing pictures and recordings are available on the Imperial War Museum’s website.
The camps at Bergen-Belsen were so thoroughly riddled with disease that the camps were completely evacuated in August and burnt to the ground to prevent further spread. In the end, about 100,000 prisoners died at Bergen-Belsen from torture, medical experiments, disease, malnutrition, or execution, including about 14,000 after it was liberated, most to disease or complications in feeding.