Article by John-Paul Tooth
After 70 years the last Allied troops have finally left Bergen-Hohne Training Area in Germany, after Hohne Camp was officially handed over to the country's armed forces.
Built by the Nazis in December 1935, British troops from 11 Armoured Division first occupied it 10 years later, shortly after they liberated Belsen concentration camp.
The soldiers discovered around 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them severely ill and half-starved. 13,000 bodies lay around the camp unburied.
Around 70,000 people died there, with half of those succumbing to typhus either before or after the camp’s liberation on 15 April 1945. The risk of infectious diseases at the camp was so high that it needed to be totally destroyed.
The survivors were moved to Hohne Camp. Those who needed it were sent to the former Nazi hospital there, while those who were comparatively fit and healthy were housed in the former Nazi barrack blocks in Hohne itself, around 18 miles away.
The camp quickly became a central location for the many displaced persons and the treatment of ill survivors. By June 1945 over 11,000 former Belsen prisoners had been treated and by September some 10,000 displaced Polish people were located there.
The camp played a key role and focal point for displaced Jewish displaced people and a significant amount remained until the summer of 1950.
On liberating Belsen, British forces also took over the Bergen-Hohne Training Area. Covering 284 square kilometres (70,000 acres), it remains to this day the largest military training area in Germany. It’s also still controlled from within Hohne Camp, which is situated inside the training area.
Under British control, the training area was gradually expanded until it reached its present limits.
Picture: The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 2004 during live-fire exercises on Bergen-Hohne Training Area
It was a key base during the perceived threat from the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, and was on the frontline, forming part of 1st Armoured Division and the home for the 7th Armoured Brigade (Desert Rats) from 1947. Up to 50,000 British, American and German soldiers were stationed there and it became the largest military training area in Europe.
In 1957 the German Army was given authority to start using it again, having become a NATO member two years prior, and it’s since been used by the country’s soldiers as well as troops from other alliance states.
As the Army reformed to meet the changes required after the reunification of Germany in 1990, Hohne Camp remained a key base and numerous operations were mounted from it around the globe.
Personnel from Germany, Netherlands, Britain and Belgium use it regularly to this day, putting equipment including Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks, Apache helicopters and artillery to the test on the numerous ranges. Troops can also practice urban warfare and deep wading skills there, while the area has been used increasingly in recent years by unmanned aerial vehicles, with it being the only training area in Germany which can be flown over by reconnaissance drones.
The camp, with an approximate population of 5,000, has been a key location for the British Army and over the years formed into a thriving community of its own, and more importantly one that had a strong and everlasting affiliation with the local communities, namely Bergen. Together with civilians and military families the garrison population varied between about 10,000 and 12,000.
Looking forward, it will continue to be the HQ for the training area, and will still be used by NATO forces.
It will also become the home for the newly formed 414 Panzer Battalion in 2016. This will be a Leopard 2 tank battalion and unique in that one of the tank squadrons will be from the Dutch Army.