Veteran Stories:
John Gratwick

Air Force

  • Sign erected at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, follwing its liberation by the British Army, Belsen, Germany, 1945.

    John Gratwick
  • The pass John Gratwick used to come and go from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, 1945.

    John Gratwick
  • John Gratwick, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2010.

    Historica Canada
  • A wooden jar that John Gratwick bought from a former Prisoner of War for 50 cigarettes.

    John Gratwick
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"In a lot of cases, they were living on top of about three layers of dead bodies."


Our job [in Royal Air Force Mobile Close Air Support] was to control fighter bombers that were in direct support of ground troops. In other words, we were never far off the ground and we were never very far away from the front because the troops would go and say, look, there’s a machine gun nest and then they’d give us some reference point, can you get an aircraft to come and bomb the daylights out of it or just shoot it, just shoot at it with a heavy machine gun? Well, we had machine guns that were really light. They were shells; it was a shell machine gun. They were that size, the shells.

They were explosive and they could do a great deal of damage. We used to control, we had army people with us who worked in liaison, and our controllers talked directly to the aircraft; and we used to direct them literally, so you’ll say, you’ll see two fields away and over in the corner. That sort of thing. That was the sort of close control we were doing.

That’s all very well, but to do that, you’ve got to keep up with the [front] line and the line was moving. The army was doing very nicely at this time [late 1944, early 1945], this was coming down from the north from Holland into Germany; and we were onto the Lüneburg Heath plain which is a very great big plain…. Anyway, sometimes, twice in a day, we would pack up the whole thing and move it another half mile maybe or a mile, and set it up again. And then get working. We had to do that when we set ourselves almost impossible targets, it was more like, but it was great fun.

Then suddenly, this was now moving on, this was April of 1945 and on 8 May 1945, the war in Europe suddenly collapsed and stopped. About two weeks before that, we were on the top end of Lüneburg Heath and two Germans turned up with white flags on their rifles, obviously local troops. They were asking to come and discuss. Typhus had broken out in the camp, in this concentration camp, which we weren’t too sure that we even knew it was there, but they said, look, this is [Bergen-] Belsen concentration camp, typhus has broken out, we can no longer handle it. We haven’t got the resources, we haven’t got the people and it’s got beyond us.

So we went, we drove down in a truck, was easy to find. There was this camp, this enormous area. We got down there; and this small group and I met up with the army people, and we marched into the camp. It’s very difficult. This is, they were about, I suppose, about 100 huts. It was mainly male; I think it was almost entirely male prisoners in there. So there were 100,000 unburied dead in the camp and something like, I think, 60,000 sort of alive. In some cases, in these 100 huts which were meant for only about 100, 150 people, had about 1,000 bodies or sort of half dead people in them; and they were living on top. In a lot of cases, they were living on top of about three layers of dead bodies. Typhus had broken out in the camp, so we had to be inoculated and covered with, they managed to get stuff quite quickly for us, some sort of, oh, DDT [insecticide]. That was it. And that was supposed to be safety disinfectant that would protect us. They used to cover us with this dust every day, my clothing and everything was soaked with it, and I can still smell it.

I, for five or six days, I was given, they found a number of people who were, what we would call in, what we used to call in Britain, trustees. These are like prisoners who were one up the hierarchy and they used a bit, they have a little bit of authority over the other prisoners. They had several Hungarians in the camp and they left them behind, they didn’t take them with them, the Germans, they left them there. I still don’t know whether they were prisoners of the Germans or allies of the Germans.

But, anyway, they were being used as camp guards. We were able to hold on to some of them. I was given a group, I think, of six of them; and I found an old horse cart without the horse, and I put three of them on the shafts to pull this thing. And the rest of them and myself, we just went around to these huts, dumping bodies into it. When we got a truckload of bodies, a British engineer had acquired somehow a bulldozer, and he dug a deep trench; and we just dumped the bodies by the hundreds into this trench.

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