Bergen-Belsen Liberation - Army Cooks

Discussion in 'Prisoners of War' started by Coopfooty, Aug 23, 2015.

  1. Coopfooty

    Coopfooty Member

    I am investigating the war records of my wife's grandfather, John Rollinson who served in WW2 as a cook with the Army Catering Corps, army no. 7600895. In 1945 he was attached to 91 Reception Camp in Amersham, catering for injured repatriated POWs. We know from John's personal testimony when he was alive that he was one of a number of army cooks sent to Bergen-Belsen on the camp's liberation to feed the prisoners. However, there is no reference to this on his records (Army form B103 etc.), presumably as it was a secret operation (?).

    Does anyone have any further information or insight?

    Many thanks,

  2. 4jonboy

    4jonboy Daughter of a 56 Recce Patron

    Hello and welcome to the forum Chris.

    I'm afraid service records don't go into that much detail, but there may be war diaries for the unit he was with which give the day-to-day activities of the unit.

    They are available at the National Archives in Kew, London; if you cannot get there, there are members on the forum who can copy them for you at a very reasonable price. Many members have obtained war diaries from these members and they give a great service.

  3. Coopfooty

    Coopfooty Member

    Thanks for the information Lesley,

  4. BrianM59

    BrianM59 Senior Member

    Welcome Chris - we always say service records are the way to go but they are often general in character and sometimes lack details of detachments/attachments etc. On the other hand I might have thought (and you can see what others here think) that a unit draft overseas would have been a matter of record - different pay scale and conditions etc. I can't see any reason why being sent to Belsen would be secret - the Allies used the liberation and subsequent events widely in propaganda and publicity. Good luck with your researches.
  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I'm assuming from the info you have provided you have a copy of his service records? They should state if and when he deployed overseas and what unit he went with.

    Nothing secret and it certainly would have been classed as a secret operation sending cooks to a camp to look after refugee's.
  6. Coopfooty

    Coopfooty Member

    Thanks for all the responses. John's daughter (my mother-in-law)' who is 83 years old with a razor sharp memory contends that her dad was told not to talk about the Belsen assignment. One thought is what happened to some of the POWs when fed food that their digestive systems could not handle. In Leonard Berney's 'Liberating Belsen' book, he reckons 1500-2000 prisoners died in this way. Might this have created the sensitivity?

  7. BrianM59

    BrianM59 Senior Member

    The first troops into the camp handed out army rations - bully beef, condensed milk etc. This was indeed too rich for the starving inmates and many died from the results of eating it. When the medical effort got under way some days and weeks later, the main food used was 'Bengal mixture', variously described but consisting in the main of milk powder and sugar or molasses and flour to thicken. This letter gives more detail from a member of the medical relief team. The issue of Bengal mixture sems to have been regrettable, but not secret or covered up in any way that I have read about. Tens of thousands of inmates of the camp died as a result of typhus and other diseases left uncontrolled by the Germans and the prevailing opinion was that they would have died anyway - again, no cover up there. That said, had I been feeding such people and discovered that my efforts were in vain, I most certainly would have been quiet about it and morale must have been low if that happened.

    I'm interested in your story and stories like it because my work is about memory and history. In my own case I was told six widely differing stories about the death of a relative in 1940, including one by an 'eye-witness'. None of them was true, some approximated the actual events I have been able to find evidence of and others were wildly astray. Each person was prepared to swear that their version of his death was right. That doesn't mean I am casting aspersions on your story nor your mother in law's - indeed my own mother in law was the source of one version of Trooper Small's death.

    However, the liberation of Belsen is a significant trope in the history of WW2, possessed as it is of near mythical status given the efforts to record in very graphic detail the horrendous conditions that prevailed there as a reminder of the excesses of Nazism. There are many threads on here about liberators of Belsen - it simply sticks in the mind of a good many people - and rightly so. I don't know if your wife's grandfather was there or not and in the end, no one person can be the arbiter of that. You have to weigh up what evidence you can find with what he and his relatives said.
    dbf likes this.
  8. Dave55

    Dave55 Atlanta, USA

    Why did the people become ill when eating the army rations? Were the eating too large portions too rapidly? I've felt unwell when eating too much rich food and think I might have vomited if I forced myself to eat more, but that wouldn't have killed me. The Bengal mixture sounds like it would have been a good choice. Lots of calories and pretty mild. The letter says they didn't like the sweet taste.

    I have no doubt the poor people died after eating a lot of food but I don't understand why
  9. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery

    As the men toured the camp, they found an estimated 10,000 unburied bodies (the crematorium had broken down) together with about 40,000 barely living prisoners. Of these 40,000, 28,000 died after liberation – there was little that could be done to help those who were severely ill. Between 400 to 500 died each day after liberation – the task faced by the British simply overwhelmed them. Legend has it that some were killed by kindness – that British soldiers gave their chocolate ration to the prisoners and this accounted for about 1000 deaths. However, very many of those who received their gift were seriously ill. RAMC officers at the camp believed that most died of their condition prior to liberation not from chocolate.
  10. BrianM59

    BrianM59 Senior Member

    I'm no medic but I do have Michael Hargrave's memoir somewhere - He was a medical student sent to Belsen in May 1945 . Ben Shephard's 2006 book 'After Daybreak' is very good but I don't possess a copy.


    "It is sobering that, despite all these efforts, 13,000 Belsen inmates died after liberation. Some inmates had been starved for so long that they had lost the ability to digest the rations that well-meaning British soldiers offered them; within minutes of taking a biscuit, some inmates just passed away. Largely through trial and error, the medical staff developed special nutritious but easily-digested concoctions for the inmates. Undertaking these relief efforts took a heavy psychological toll on the British medics. One doctor commented that if they did not get blind drunk each night they would all 'go stark staring mad'."

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