An eyewitness account – to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2024 

During the Allies’ final advance in 1945, the RAF Regiment’s Norman Board was in Germany when his unit was tasked with helping at a newly liberated concentration camp.

I cannot remember the date after all these years, but we halted as a unit and were put on standby to escort lorries carrying food and medical supplies. We were told there was a prison camp by the name of Bergen Belsen, and that prisoners there were starving. We thought they were British, American and Canadian.  

“We moved through this pleasant and fruitful German land with nice houses, farms, and people well fed. Coming on this outer perimeter ring of towers and barbed wire, I saw groups of people of different races, clothed and not looking too bad. 

Norman Board holocaust memorial

Norman Board (Courtesy of the Board family archive).

 “Upon entering and going further into the camp, the sights were worse, with emaciated men and women, and dead lying on the ground. Skeletons with blank looks on their faces. The smell of death everywhere. Such a smell will never be forgotten by me. The guards were held by infantry and we were put to our patience by not taking revenge on these heartless bastards.  

“I gave chocolate to a young Jewish girl about my age, 19. I was admonished the next day as she had died because she could not take food. The grateful looks, tears, the clutching of hands from these people touched me deeply. They could not realise that they were free.  

“The Royal Army Service Corps put the water back on, and hot showers with army soap were enjoyed by the women, especially with washing of hair. They were quite unabashed with their nakedness. Foraging parties were sent out into local villages and clothing was confiscated to clothe these people. The joy of being able to sort over clothing like buying from a jumble sale was a sight to see, and the realisation that the British were now in charge, and that they were being fed, having sores and wounds dressed with clean bandages, and lice and fleas being eradicated. I gave of my rations and did not notice my own hunger.  

holocaust memorial bergen-belsen

An inmate of Belsen concentration camp after liberation by the Allies after the Holocaust. © IWM.

“The next job was to burn the huts with all their filth. The dead which had been lying there for weeks being removed from the beds. We spread petrol in all the huts, and there were many. Then after giving warning, hand grenades were thrown and fire cleansed everything. Huge pits were dug by bulldozers, and the corpses were carried there by prisoners of war. They were buried in graves of 500, 3,000 and 5,000.  

“Ever since, I’ve had no [religious] faith, nor any belief whatsoever. We left after some days. I was glad when we were finally relieved of our duties in this dreadful place.”  

Crowds watch the destruction of the last hut at Belsen

Crowds watch the destruction of the last hut at Belsen after the Holocaust had ended. © IWM.