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Belsen Concentration Camp
Information about the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp liberation and the role of the British army doctors, nurses and medics
As the Allied Front Line advanced towards the end of World War Two the Commandant of the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp was in charge of thousands of Polish prisoners who were suffering from typhus and typhoid. He knew that when the British army liberated the camp many prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp would escape or be freed and would have spread these and other deadly diseases across Germany.
So under a white flag of truce he went to the nearest British HQ and explained the situation. A neutral zone and a truce was declared for 48 hours whilst administration and care of the prisoners was handed over to Britain. The British inspection party under the command of the Divisional Director of Medical Services Royal Army Medical Corps went to the Belsen Concentration Camp and were the first to see the horrors of this Nazi Concentration Camp. This included thousands of emaciated bodies lying unburied or decomposing in open pits and thousands of dying people in the overcrowded prison huts.
The book Sisters In Arms: British Army Nurses Tell Their Story has a collection of photographs of the Bergen Belsen camp including the burning by flame throwers of the contaminated huts, a QA nurse caring for a Russian Jewish prisoner and the RAMC and QAIMNS staff enjoying leave at Belgium after the horrors they had witnessed.
British troops took over the Belsen camp on the 17 April 1945 and at gun point ordered the Nazi guards and some of the locals to bury the dead. British engineers set up proper sanitation and a water supply. Number 32 Casualty Clearing Station and No 11 Field Ambulance were posted to care for the survivors of the Belsen Concentration Camp. The senior Sister was Miss Higginbotham and other QAs included Sister Mary Sands. An army report from the 10 May wrote that Field Ambulances are ideal because ...initiative, drive and improvisation are essential requirements. (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott).
Belsen Concentration Camp photos from the collection of RAMC medics and QAIMNS nurses can be viewed further below.
Most of the survivors were Poles and Russians (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott) and included men women and children. Those that survived the Nazi atrocities were like walking skeletons and despite the best care of the QAIMNS and the RAMC hundreds of the prisoners died each day.
Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 has extracts of the war diary of QA Nursing Sister Joy Taverner. Joy recalls being based in Eeklo in Belgium and having orders to pack immediately with no information other than that she and her other nurses were going to Germany. She boarded an aeroplane for the first time and the Dakota left Celles airport for Lower Saxony where the nurses of 29th General Hospital landed near Bergen. These nurses collected the starving babies and tried to feed and revive them. One of the responsibilities of 20 year old Joy was also to deal with the dead bodies prior to their burial. She witnessed the disrespectful treatment of the dead by the now German POWs who just threw the bodies into graves and used a bulldozer to cover them. QA Joy Taverner arranged for the dead victims of Belsen Concentration Camp to be decently wrapped in lengths of fabric and when placed in trucks the Padre would pray over them.
Her war diaries continue with her recounting the horrors of Belsen Concentration Camp and how she had to be decontaminated with DDT after nine weeks of being there. Though physically cleared of lice and no longer at risk of cholera, typhus, dysentery and typhoid fever she recalls in Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 that the horrors and nightmares stayed with her:
I don’t really know how we survived – we all supported each other and cried every night with our arms around each other…We had been through the war but this was something so terrible that it took some time for us to come to terms with what we saw…I have tried over the years to forgive the horrors…
Like many war veterans Joy Taverner talked little of her experiences though did manage to write about her experience at Belsen Concentration Camp in a moving poem which is included in Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949.
A sketch of a concentration camp survivor drawn by British soldier Eric Taylor can be seen in Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949.
When the British Army entered Belsen Concentration camp there were two camps. The people were housed in huts much like those used to house about 30 people. However the prisoners at Belsen were crowded into these huts without beds, furniture, sanitation, blankets and even no clothes. One hut had 1100 people housed along with corpses of varying stages of decomposition. Six hundred men were counted in the other building (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott).
The patients and their accommodation were thoroughly cleaned in an operation called human laundry. Each internee was hosed clean each day, shaved and sprayed with DDT (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott). All were ridden with lice and each patient had to be thoroughly deloused before admitted to the now cleaned ward accommodation. One QA Sister was placed in charge of the camp kitchen because food was still scare in the area and the patients had to be re-hydrated and given close monitoring of malnutrition as well as treatment for dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, heart and kidney problems and many more medical conditions.
Authority to Enter Belsen Camp Document
One QA Nursing Sister who cared for the patients of Belsen Concentration Camp was Sister Eva Moreen Jones. Below is a copy of her Authority to Enter Belsen Camp document:
Belsen Camp Pass B4 Serial No 186
No: P/209884 Rank: Sister Name Jones. E.M. Regt/Corps QAIMNS/R
is stationed in the Camp Area and is authorised to enter BELSEN Camp.
Date of Issue: 29/6/45
Signature of Holder:
Date of Approval: Issuing Officer:
HQ Belsen Camp
Sister Eva Moreen Jones
Sister Eva Moreen Jones gained her nursing certificates at Moorfields and Guys in November 1940 and Queen Charlotte's midwifery in February 1941. She rarely talked about her wartime service but she did mention on a couple of occasions to her family that she had given William Joyce, the Second World War propagandist known as Lord Haw-Haw, an injection after his arrest and handing over to the authorities.
Sister Jones married after the war. Her tunic and skirt uniform with her QAIMNS badges and documentation have been donated to the
AMS Museum by her sons John and Rob Vaughan who have kindly provided the images above and below.
Below is a copy of the Army Order granting the rank of honorary sister:
2/GEN/1577 No. 553
Certified that Reserve Sister Miss E.M. Jones
Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, is qualified
for employment in the duties of Sister in Charge of an operating
theatre in a Military Families Hospital under the terms
of Army Order 150/1935.
War Office Matron-in-Chief
11 August 1943 QAIMNS
Red Cross Identity Certificate
Below is a copy of the Red Cross Identity Certificate issued to Sister Jones:
Serial No: 246
Army Form W3050
Naval Form M190
RAF Form 1889
Date of Issue:11 July 44
British Red Cross Unit Stamp
Royal Air Force [Strike out services not applicable]
Number:209884 Rating or Rank: Sister
Christian names (in full): Eva Moreen
Ship or Unit: QAIMNS (R)
Signature of Issuing Officer: H.E. Forth Major RAMC
For O.C. Ship or Unit
Signature of Holder
To be withdrawn immediately on ceasing to perform the duties for which issued.
Reference from Matron
Here is the reference from Matron issued to Sister Jones:
121 British General Hospital
Sister E.M. Jones QAIMNSR P/209884
Miss Jones has completed more than four years very satisfactory war service. She is an excellent Theatre Sister, has a certificate for Ophthalmic Training and SCM part 1.
She has had good practical experience in war-time Surgery and Ophthalmic work, she is good tempered and undertakes every duty allotted to her with professional skill. Her patients are well cared for and happy. I am very sorry to lose her from my staff on demobilisation.
(sgd) Z. Scott
Principal Matron QAIMNS
War Office Discharge Letter
Below is a copy of the War Office discharge letter issued to Sister Jones.
It has the War Office stamp at the top and reads:
Sister E.M. Jones 209884 QAIMNS
Now that the time has come for your release from active military duty, I am commanded by the Army Council to express to you their thanks for the valuable services which you have rendered in the service of your country at a time of grave national emergency.
At the end of the emergency you will relinquish your commission, and at that time a notification will appear in the London Gazette (Supplement) granting you also the honorary rank of Sister. Meanwhile you have permission to use that rank with effect from the date of your release.
I am Madam,
Your obedient servant,
The War Office
10 May 1946
Army Release Certificate
Below is a copy of the Army Release Certificate issued to Sister Jones
Army Form X203 (Original)
Release Certificate Officers of the Women's Forces (Class "A" Release in UK)
Sister E.M. Jones (209884)
The above named has been granted 77 days leave
commencing 3-5-46 and is, with effect from 19-7-46
released from actual duty under Regulations for Release from the Army, 1945.
The War Office
10 May 1946
This certificate is not valid unless it bears the official War Office stamp, showing date of issue.
This document is Government property. Any person being in possession of it without authority or excuse is liable under Section 156 (9) of the Army Act to fine of £20 (twenty pounds), or imprisonment for six months, or to both fine and imprisonment.
If found, please enclose this certificate in an unstamped envelope and address it to the Under Secretary of State, The War Office, London, SW1.
29th BGH Belsen
Qaranc.co.uk would like to thank Simon Craine for kind permission to display the following photographs which are thought to be of Belsen Camp. They come from his Grandad’s (George William Jarvis) collection. George William Jarvis served in the 29th British General Hospital RAMC at Belsen before moving to BMH Hannover and eventually leaving the army in 1948. The Belsen Concentration Camp photos were included with the photo of the train stating 29th BGH Belsen.
Belsen Concentration Camp Photos
This sign was erected at Belsen. It reads:
This is the site of the infamous Belsen Concentration Camp liberated by the British on 15 April 1945.
10,000 unburied dead were found here
Another 13,000 have since died
All of them victims of the German new order in Europe and an example of the Nazi Kultur
More photos from the collection of Simon Craine and George William Jarvis can be found on the BMH Hannover page.
The book Sisters In Arms: British Army Nurses Tell Their Story has an account by QA Molly Budge who nursed at Belsen Concentration camp and met the notorious female guard Irma Grese and the camp Commandant Josef Kramer. Both were hanged as war criminals in December 1945. Sister Budge’s account narrates the difficulty the Nursing Sisters faced and the lengths they went to care for the prisoners.
During this period the Bergen Belsen Concentration camp was attacked by a German Luftwaffe pilot and several RAMC personnel were severely wounded and one medic was killed.
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Amongst the internees there were many doctors and nurses. Unfortunately their moral values had been destroyed by their treatment in Belsen. They were unable to help with medical treatment or nursing care because they would scrounge the food from patients for themselves. Many were incapable of giving care to others because of their own physical weakness (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott).
As the patients health improved they became more difficult to manage prior to their repatriation. Many turned to stealing food having been starved and ill treated by the Germans. For their own safety the CO had to stop QAs working night shift and would only allow infantry guards to keep the peace at night.
There is more written about Belsen Concentration Camp in the book Quiet Heroines: Nurses of the Second World War by Brenda McBryde.
Two weeks after the liberation of Belsen the Royal Army Medical Cops (RAMC) performed the same relief work at Sandbostel camp (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott).
The Last Nazis: The Hunt for Hitler's Henchmen has information about the Nazi Commandants of Belsen, those guards who stayed behind to assist the Allies including the female guards and how they became indoctrinated into the Nazi regime and the atrocities they committed. The Last Nazis also includes details of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp with extracts of the BBC broadcast by Richard Dimbleby, the atrocities he witnessed and photographs.
The Relief of Belsen
The Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp liberation was featured in the drama documentary The Relief of Belsen that was broadcast on Channel 4 television on Monday 15 October 2007 at 9pm until 11:05pm. It starred the actors Jemma Redgrave and Corin Redgrave (acting for the first time together), Iain Glen, and Tobias Menzies. The Relief of Belsen showed real life footage film from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp and factual events re-enacted as well as news footage from the Second World War.
The Relief of Belsen drama depicted the British ambulance unit that was diverted from the frontline to Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 during the local truce with Nazi troops. It captures the horrors that was witnessed by the British Army and those serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Services (QAIMNS) though the uniform worn by Jemma Redgrave looked more like a Red Cross nurse or a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. The Relief of Belsen also has scenes of a survivor of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp talking about her experience and how fellow inmates, including her son, died in the camps.
In The Relief of Belsen on Channel4 TV Corin Redgrave played Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Iain Glen was medic Colonel James Johnston, Tobias Menzies was Derrick Sington, Jemma Redgrave was Mac, Simon Day was Stadler, Nigel Lindsay was Gonin and Paul Hilton played Rabbi Leslie Hardman. The Director was Justin Hardy and The Relief of Belsen was written by Peter Guinness.
Buy The Relief Of Belsen On DVD.
There is more written about concentration camps and WWII on the QA World War Two Nursing page.
In the Company of Nurses: The History of the British Army Nursing Service in the Great War by Yvonne McEwen is the authorised history of the British Army Nursing Service in the Great War. It has been compiled from war diaries, journals, official documents and unpublished unofficial documents to tell the story of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) during the First World War. This is a must for anyone with an interest in the QAs. More Information.
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