The man who first saw Belsen
As Captain John Webster’s Jeep approached a small German town in 1945, he ordered his driver to turn down an unmade track. The officer had glimpsed some white buildings which, he recalls, “just didn’t look right”.
Capt Webster, senior liaison officer with Lowland Brigade HQ of the 15th Scottish Division, had been sent to find an armoured column that had failed to make contact with his unit in the British advance into north Germany in April 1945.
He told his driver to proceed cautiously – he didn’t want to blunder into an enemy position. However, what they found was not German soldiers but a sight so extraordinary and so disturbing it has stayed with Capt Webster ever since: hundreds of people, dressed in blue striped uniforms, emaciated and looking “as if they were no longer of this world”.
Recalling that scene, Capt Webster says: “They took no notice of us at all. I thought, 'What is this place?’ ”
This place was Belsen, and Capt Webster, now 87 and living in Ledbury, Herefordshire, was the first Allied soldier to discover the concentration camp, close to Bergen, about 25 miles from Hanover. It was liberated later that day, April 15, by the 11th Armoured Division.
He has never before spoken about that glimpse of hell where an estimated 50,000 prisoners had died – including Anne Frank and her sister Margot – and another 50,000 Russian PoWs were murdered.
But he knew none of this then. “I walked towards a freshly dug pit, about 25 yards long and nine feet deep. It was empty. Nothing in it at all, and I thought, 'What’s this for?’
“Not far away there was another one, but it was half full of skeletal bodies which had just been thrown in there.
“I still didn’t know what this place was. I could see some freshly turned earth nearby which looked as if another pit had been filled with bodies and then covered up. I was deeply shocked. It was a nightmare.”
In fact, the Allied command knew about Belsen, and it has since been claimed that a deal was done whereby the camp guards remained until liberation to prevent prisoners leaving and spreading a virulent strain of typhus. The guards would then be allowed to withdraw to German lines.
Capt Webster doubts this. “There were no guards when I got there. They’d all gone.”
There were 60,000 prisoners in Belsen at that time, and 13,000 unburied bodies.
The sight of the Army Jeep – the first portents of liberation – produced no reaction from the prisoners. “There was just nothing. They looked so ill, I thought I’d walked into a lunatic asylum.”
Capt Webster, who was awarded the Military Cross and honoured by the French Resistance for his bravery during the advance across France and Germany, also faced a practical problem: what to do about his discovery.
To his immense relief, it was taken out of his hands when three tanks from the “missing” armoured column arrived.
“I said to their officer: 'What this place is, I have no idea’, and then rejoined my driver in the Jeep, leaving them to deal with it as it was in their allocated line of advance.”
Capt Webster returned to his HQ but couldn’t bring himself to talk about what he’d seen. “I simply didn’t know how to describe it. I had no idea what I had stumbled upon.”
Even today this articulate former English teacher and headmaster struggles to find the words to describe Belsen. “To see human beings reduced to this state, and to think that other human beings had done this to them, well, I still try to make sense of it. What did it mean?
“You can’t explain the inexplicable. I didn’t even try.”
Subsequent generations have been brought up with history books, novels, films and personal accounts that give context to the unimaginable cruelty of the Nazi regime.
Capt Webster had no warning of what to expect that day 65 years ago, when he turned down a country track and came face to face with a horror that haunts us even today.
comments powered by Disqus