My time in Bergen-Belsen

A brick memorial at the gates of Belsen.
A brick memorial at the gates of Belsen.

THIS WEEK IN 1993: Portsmouth teenager killed in knife fight

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Ron Meatcher from Fareham spent the first year of his life in war-torn Portsmouth.

During his school years he was told of the atrocities which took place in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka. Little did he know that one day he would live in an apartment which at one time housed guards from another notorious camp – Bergen-Belsen.

A memorial at Belsen concentration camp. It says: Here are buried 50,000 Soviet prisoners of war tortured to death in captivity by German fascists.

A memorial at Belsen concentration camp. It says: Here are buried 50,000 Soviet prisoners of war tortured to death in captivity by German fascists.

Ron joined the army in April 1960, aged 16, and trained for three years at Arborfield near Wokingham to become a fitter/mechanic in REME, working on tanks.

His first posting was to Sennelager Paderborn in northern Germany where he spent four years from 1963 until 1967.

In 1967 Ron went on active service to Aden just a few months before the country was given independence.

Although British troops were about to leave, many soldiers were picked off by the locals. Ron says: ‘When we visited local shops it was always in twos at least and one of us had to be armed with a pistol or sub-machine gun. The soldier with the gun waited outside. If a soldier arrived without an escort and went into a shop he would be followed in by a terrorist and shot at close range.

Part of the garrison at Bergen that housed  German officers and was used by the British in peacetime. It was just a mile from Belsen concentration camp.

Part of the garrison at Bergen that housed German officers and was used by the British in peacetime. It was just a mile from Belsen concentration camp.

‘In the final months it got out of hand and so the armed escort was always on hand.’

Ron left Aden and in early 1968 was back in Germany at Bergen, which was a mile from the former Belsen concentration camp.

Ron says that when the rooms were being redecorated several layers of wallpaper were stripped off and the final paper was red flock. The decorator told them that when the camp was discovered at the end of the war the surviving inmates who were in, shall we say, a better condition were housed in the apartments while the remaining victims were taken to hospital. These were the people who decorated the apartments with the flock wallpaper.

The area around the camp was used as a training base for German tank regiments during the war and the former garrison still kept some of the finery which the German officers were used to.

Ron Meatcher.

Ron Meatcher.

After the war the blocks of apartments were taken over by NATO and British troops were based there until last year when the army moved out. It was just a mile from the former concentration camp which Ron visited several times.

He says: ‘When we were first there it felt as if the war had finished just a few years before. There were mounds stating how many were buried under each one and all there was to say what it once was were a few huts with photographs. I have been back in recent years and there is now a museum and it has become, unbelievably, commercialised.’

You may have heard that there is no wildlife or that birds do not sing around Belsen even though it is surrounded by forest.

Ron told me this is true. To this day everywhere is silent, which can be overpowering if you are in the area alone before visitors arrive.

Ron also explained how the inmates arrived at the camp. ‘The trains arrived at Bergen railway station where the prisoners were offloaded. They were then marched from the station around the German garrison and then down a lane for a mile before reaching the camp. What those thought who arrived towards the end of the war, when there were dead and dying lying all around the three square miles of the camp, can only be imagined.’

I asked if there was any antagonism towards the British 20 years after the war and his wife Ruth told me of a time she visited Paderborn town with her first-born child. She was waiting at a tram stop when she was surrounded by local women all dressed in black. Realising she was British they set about her covering her coat in spit and abusing her. She has never returned to the town.

Later in his career Ron served in Dortmund and Cyprus. He left the army in 1984 and worked as a civilian at Bordon Camp until retirement in 2009.

He then cycled from John O’ Groats to Land’s End to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society and in 2012 he did it again for a cancer charity.