The Shock of Belsen

Published: 25/01/2022

The Tank Museums recent re-display of its World War Two Gallery concentrates on British tank crew stories of Belsen.

One of the items chosen for the new displays by David Willey the Curator is a whip, used at the camp and donated to the Museum in 1951.

Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp was liberated on the 15th April 1945 by the 11th Armoured Division who were shocked and horrified by what they saw. Many Allied soldiers were encouraged to visit the concentration camps to see first-hand what they had been fighting for. Initially there had been disbelief that the stories about the camps were true.

One of the most noticeable features is the personal recollections of those soldiers who saw the concentration camps as they progressed through Germany.

‘’Seeing Belsen and the people in it, you realise that you’ve been up against something pretty horrible. It was very, very sobering seeing Belsen.’’  Bill Wright, 13th/18th Hussars and Staffordshire Yeomanry.

David explains “To me, the donation was amazingly prescient. The donor, Lieutenant Cartmell, gave the item to the Museum after it had been used as evidence at the Nuremberg War trials’. Cartmell said he feared “a day may come when people will refuse to believe such things as Belsen really happened.”

“Sadly he was so right in his fears. This item shows how Museums do not just hold items of beauty, interest or historic moment – they also hold evidence – in this case, evidence in its clearest form of what people did to each other.

“We asked a number of veterans their reflections on fighting in the Second World War and if they thought now, looking back, it was worth it?”

“A number mentioned the camps and so we purposely positioned this item to be seen as people leave the WW2 Exhibition. It is small, but one of the most powerful objects the Museum holds.”

You can see this object on display and hear first person accounts from Veterans that witnessed the shock of Belsen in the WW2: War Stories Exhibition, at the Museum.