Women gathered at Bergen-Belsen 150420 NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM

Bergen-Belsen: How British Troops Liberated The Nazi Concentration Camp

On 15 April 1945, the British Army found 60,000 prisoners who were in desperate need of help and medical attention. 

Women gathered at Bergen-Belsen 150420 NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM

Warning: this article contains content some may find distressing.

On 15 April 1945, British Army soldiers liberated the Nazi concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, northern Germany.

The 11th Armoured Division discovered 60,000 prisoners, who were in desperate need of help and medical attention. 

There were also more than 13,000 prisoners, who had already died, and lay unburied around the camp.

The site was the first concentration camp British forces camp across as they made their way through north-west Europe, with its discovery coming after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in January 1945.

After overpowering the Nazis and crossing into Bergen-Belsen, 11th Armoured Division was moved on to continue the British campaign across Germany.

The liberation quickly became a relief operation, under the control of Brigadier Hugh Glyn-Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services, British Second Army.

Personnel worked to prevent any further lives being lost, bury the dead and restore a supply of food and water.

British soldier looks at sign of Bergen-Belsen 1945 CREDIT ROYAL NAVY.jpg
A British soldier at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 (Picture: Royal Navy).

The Field Ambulance Unit evacuated the sick, while the Military Government moved healthy former inmates.

A hospital was also created in the Panzer Training Barracks, which would become a British garrison in Germany for seven decades.

By 16 April 1945, a day after British forces crossed the threshold at Bergen-Belsen camp, a food cart arrived with enough for every inmate to have an evening meal.

Two days later, medical teams started to arrive on site, including British Army personnel, the Red Cross, nurses and civilian medical students.

Despite this arrival of aid, 10,000 people died in the days after Bergen-Belsen's liberation.

More than 1,000 people each day were moved out of the camp into the Panzer barracks hospital.

The burning of Belsen Concentration Camp, Germany, 21 May 1945
The burning of Belsen Concentration Camp, Germany, 21 May 1945 (Picture: National Army Museum)

Within four weeks, 28,900 people were moved out of Belsen and into the ex-training barracks hospital, where they were registered, re-clothed and prepared for life after liberation.

It took over a month for death rates to fall from between 300 and 400 a day to below 100.

On 21 May 1945, once the last prisoners had been moved out, British personnel burned down the remaining barrack buildings at the camp to prevent the spread of disease.

During the final six months of the camp's existence, at least 35,000 prisoners are believed to have died.

Among them was the famous teenage diary-writer, Anne Frank.

Following the discovery of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, photographers and videographers recorded the scene at the site, while evidence was gathered by legal teams ahead of war crimes trials.

The only remains of the camp now are numerous memorials and an outline of the original site.

For more on Bergen-Belsen, you can listen to a BFBS Radio documentary made to mark the 70th anniversary of the concentration camp's liberation by clicking here.

Cover image: Women at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (Picture: National Army Museum).