06 November 2023

Bergen-Belsen 1945 (part 2: the situation)

References and Part 1: here.


Bergen and Belsen are two different villages, a few kilometers apart, in the Lüneburger Heath, on the border of a vast training area for tanks. The Panzer Training School had its barracks near Bergen, and was run by the regular army (Wehrmacht). In Belsen a concentration camp had grown, run by the SS under commandant Josef Kramer. Due to overcrowding, part of the army barracks at Bergen had also been turned into a prisoners' camp, called Camp 2 to distinguish it from the primary Camp 1.

The villages of Bergen and Belsen. Red is part of the Panzer training area.
(Bianca Roitsch, Mehr als Zaungäste, 2018, p. 189)

As of April 1945, the situation in Camp 1 was becoming catastrophic. British war correspondent Moorehead summarises how this had come about. 

A friend of mine, a trained intelligence officer and interrogator in the British army, went into the whole question very carefully with Kramer, and this was Kramer’s statement

“I was swamped. The camp was not really inefficient before you crossed the Rhine. There was running water, regular meals of a kind—I had to accept what food I was given for the camps, and distributed it the best way I could. But then they suddenly began to send me train-loads of new prisoners from all over Germany. It was impossible to cope with them. I appealed for more staff, more food. I was told this was impossible; I had to carry on with what I had. Then as a last straws the Allies bombed the electric plant which pumped our water. Cart-loads of food were unable to reach the camp because of the Allied fighters. Then things got really out of hand. In the last six weeks I have been helpless. I did not even have sufficient staff to bury the dead, let alone segregate the sick.” [M,A p.269]

His colleague Mosley writes more or less the same (read it in Part 5), ending with

The situation got so completely out of hand that Kramer and his staff no longer tried to handle it. [M,L p.94]

Eventually, Himmler himself decided to call in the British, and he had the local army commanders negotiate a truce to that purpose. 

BU 3624:

On 12 April 1945 two Wehrmacht officers approached British army lines under a white flag, and were led to the headquarters of British 8th Corps. There, the Germans informed the British of the situation and after some negotiating an agreement was signed. (More about it in Part 4.) The next day brigadier FitzGeorge-Balfour of the General Staff of 8th Corps sent a first report to the superior echelon [T, appendix A]. The information therein deals with Bergen-Belsen as a whole, i.e., Camp 1 + Camp 2, though both differed considerably. Here are some excerpts of the report.

13 Apr 45
1.  In the general area of BELSEN (...) there is a Concentration Camp containing approximately 60,000 prisoners. These prisoners are partly political and partly criminal.  They are accommodated in two camps:-

Camp ONE (...) is enclosed with barbed wire.

Camp TWO (...) is an ordinary unfenced hutted camp. (...)
3.  Disease has for some time been a considerable problem but the loss of the electricity (...)  and consequently lack of adequate water has led to a serious outbreak.  There are at present 9,000 sick:-

Typhus exantematious   1,500
Normal Typhus             900
Tuberculosis                  500
Gastric Enteritis             a very large number
4.  It is essential that this area should be kept as free of our troups as possible and that persons at present in the concentration camp should be kept there till adequate arrangements can be made to sort them out – both from the point of view of preventing the spread of disease and preventing criminals breaking out.
10.  The supply situation is as follows:-

(c) The prisoners have food for about 4 days but there is NO bread.

Medical stores are very short. (...)

  •  The criminal prisoners ("green triangles") were in Camp 2 [read about it here and here], and the "sick" mainly in Camp 1 [C, p.814]. Collis, the senior medical officer, entered the camp on 17 April.  
  • The number of "sick" given by the Germans is some 25% of the inmates of Camp 1 which, according to [C, p.814], housed approximately 22000 females and 18000 males. The situation must have been greatly different between subcamps, being terrible in some sections and less so elsewhere.  
  • The 4 days' provision of food is surprising given the overall state of starvation. Food consisted mainly of raw turnips and swedes, because the kitchens had been out of fuel for several weeks, and had to burn shoe soles instead [H5 p.231, situation on 2 April].

Two days after this first report, the British took over the camp, and Lieutenant-Colonel Taylor made a first inspection of Camp 1 on 15 April 1945. (In the layout below, translation is ours.)

Layout of Camp 1 in April 1945 [K, p.344]

Taylor's report registers the total collapse resulting from overcrowding, the lack of fuel and of water:

There was a concrete pit near the first cookhouse we visited, with a few inches of dirty water in the bottom – this was the only water supply that was seen. [T, p.3]
It was quite impossible for all the internees to enter the hut allotted to them at the same time, a large proportion were therefore living in the open. [T, p.3]

This [the crematorium] consisted of a single furnace which owing to shortage of coal had not been used for some weeks. Nearby was a covered-in grave. [T, p.4]

He also provides a glimpse of the Dantesque conditions in Belsen-the-Horror-Camp:

As we walked down the main roadway of the camp we were cheered by the internees, and for the first time we saw their condition. A great number of them were little more than living skeletons, with haggard yellowish faces. [T, p.3] 

There were men and women lying in heaps on both sides of the track.  Others were walking slowly and aimlessly about – a vacant expression on their starved faces.  [T, p.3]

in the women's camp 2 large piles of naked corpses and an uncovered pit some distance further on. [T, p.4]

He notes 
There was no sanitation of any sort in the camp, not even trenches for use as latrines [T, p.4]
but he may have been mistaken here. Kolb's layout (above) shows 4 locations with latrines, and Collis does mention sanitation pits:
Sanitation is non-existent. Pits, with, in only a few instances, wooden perch rails are available in totally inadequate numbers, but the majority of inmates, from starvation, apathy, and weakness defecate and urinate where they sit or lie, even inside the living huts. [C, p.814]

Speaking of Camp 1, Collis has also this to say:

Riddled with typhus and tuberculosis. (...) Approximately 3,000 naked and emaciated corpses in various stages of decomposition are lying about this camp. (...) Actually the state of affairs was worse than described above: for instance, when the corpses were more accurately counted the figure was nearer 8,000 to 10,000 than 3,000. (...) For a week they had had almost no water. (...) Death came chiefly through starvation, typhus, tuberculosis, and dysentery: 500 a day were dying from disease. [C, p.814]

Continued in part 3.