FEW could believe what the first outsiders witnessed when they passed through the gates of Belsen.

Behind the Nazi concentration camp’s barbed wire fence, the ground was strewn with more than 10,000 corpses. Inside, there were 60,000 prisoners – diseased, starving, and close to death.

Belsen was not a purpose-built execution camp. But 70,000 people died there during the Holocaust, including the 15-year-old diarist Anne Frank.

During the Second World War, the compound in northern Germany held Jews, prisoners of war and political prisoners, Roma and Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, among others.

It was packed more than ten times over its intended capacity. In squalid conditions, typhus killed thousands. The German SS presided over one of the most horrific war crimes in history. Nazi soldiers continued to execute inmates as the British army arrived.

As one of the officers who liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, Major Leonard Berney was tasked with restoring order — feeding the hungry, hospitalising the sick, and burying the dead.

Leonard studied at Brighton College, and was 25 when he entered the camp. He died in 2016 aged 95. His son John Wood, who lives in East Grinstead, told reporter Laurie Churchman what his father saw.


For four decades, Major Leonard Berney did not speak about the horrors he witnessed at Belsen.

Then, aged 65, he told his son what he had seen.

He would later write: “We saw dead bodies lying beside the road, and many hundreds of emaciated men and women prisoners still mostly behind barbed wire.

“We saw many long wooden huts with corpses littering the ground between them. In open areas at the rear of the huts, more piles of corpses.

“At the end of the road, we saw a large open mass grave containing hundreds of corpses. The sights, the stench, and the sheer horror of the place was indescribable.”

John Wood explained why his father stayed silent for so long.

“It was traumatic for him”, he said. “My father was stationed at Belsen for months. The smell of the place stayed with him. He described it as ‘the stench of death’.

“My mother told me Belsen was not a topic to be discussed with him. If the subject came up on the radio or the TV, he’d turn it off.

“Before 1945, people didn’t know about the Holocaust as we understand it now. The outside world did not believe initial reports from Belsen.

“But before long, footage from the camp was being shown on Pathé newsreels in cinemas. That was the first time anyone had seen anything like it. The public was shocked.

“Dad saw it face to face.”

Major Berney and his battalion stumbled upon the concentration camp by chance. As they were advancing on Berlin towards the end of the Second World War, two German soldiers hailed them down, waving white flags.

The Germans were blindfolded and taken behind enemy lines.

John remembers his father telling him what happened. He said: “The German soldiers sat around the table with senior British officers. They were concerned. They warned the British that a few miles up the road, they would come across a prison camp with 60,000 people inside.

“The natural thing to do would have been to let everyone out. But there had been an outbreak of typhus, and the Germans advised the British to take control of the camp and keep the gates shut to stop the spread of the disease.”

The two sides agreed an unprecedented ceasefire, implementing a no-fire zone around the camp while the British surveyed the site.

John said: “My father had the ominous task of assessing the camp. He was in one of the first British Jeeps to pass through the gates.

“He had no idea what was inside at this point. He expected a prisoner of war camp like any other.

“German soldiers and members of the SS were lined up on either side of the road.

“In the Jeep with him was a senior officer, a camera crew, a translator, and the commandant of Belsen Josef Kramer.”

Kramer was previously the commandant at Auschwitz. He was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.

John said: “The translator told the prisoners as they went past: ‘The British are here, you’re safe.’

“As they went down the road, they saw piles of dead bodies everywhere. Then they came across a huge pit. There were thousands of bodies. It was an open grave.

“The death rate in the camp was so high the Germans tried to burn the bodies, but they couldn’t keep up.

“The prisoners were starving. Disease was rife. Around 500 people were dying every day.

“When my father finished the reconnaissance mission, the British arrested the Germans there for committing war crimes.

Then, they set about trying to help the poor dying people. They had to hospitalise the sick, and rehabilitate the well.

“There were so many half-dead prisoners in the camp my father couldn’t tell who was alive.

“The soldiers had to choose who to help – who would live, and who would die.

“If the prisoners could stand up and walk onto the lorry to the hospital, they could be helped.

“If not, they were made as comfortable as possible and left to die.

“That was the way it had to be.

“One of the soldiers’ first objectives was to bury the dead to control the spread of the disease.

“They had to find food and water, and evacuate the camp.

“They gathered food and clothes from all the neighbouring villages, and managed to get clean water flowing again.

“Before that, the water supply was foul, but the prisoners had no choice but to drink it. It was all there was.

“They rigged up showers, too. Can you imagine — it must have been heaven to feel fresh, clean water.

“But prisoners were still starving. They begged for help. One of the saddest things happened when British soldiers gave out their rations of biscuits and corned beef. They didn’t know at the time, but for someone who is starving, eating such rich food so early on can be lethal.

“Hundreds of inmates they were trying to help died – and the soldiers had to live with that on their conscience.”

Nearby the camp, soldiers discovered that the Nazis had kept stockpiles of unused food.

He said: “The British soon found a barracks a few miles up the road.

“There was so much space they transformed it into the largest hospital the world has ever seen, with 15,000 beds to treat the sick.

“They also found a vast store of food and a fully-staffed bakery with the capacity to make 60,000 loaves a day.

“Later, when my father testified at the trial of Josef Kramer and the camp’s officers, he said there was no reason at all why the food was withheld from the starving inmates at Belsen.”

Food, water, and medicine were readily available. In transcript of the trial, Major Berney testified: “If the administration of the camp had wanted to supply those things, they could all have been supplied.”

John said: “Until people like my father saw what was going on, no one understood the true face of fascism.

“In the year before his death, he wrote about his experiences. He published a book, Liberating Belsen Concentration Camp: A Personal Account.

“It’s very lucky for history and for future generations that he told us what happened”.