In April 1945 Williams was a staff captain at HQ 8 Corps, serving with the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). He was one of a reconnaissance party — among them a number of senior Army officers, some sappers and a Jewish padre — whose task it was to ascertain the conditions in a camp that the Germans had told them was in the direct line of the Allied advance and they wished to hand over.Now do you believe?
They travelled in jeeps with white flags hoisted along the Bergen road from Celle. Their final reference point was a small cutting in a dense plantation of fir trees leading to a side road. There were no signs or markings, but 30 yards along the road there was a sentry box manned by an armed Hungarian soldier who raised the barrier to let them pass. Behind it, there was a large fence of barbed wire. They went through the gates to find the SS guards on parade with their commandant, Josef Kramer, and Irma Grese, a warder on the women’s section. The task of Williams and his team was to check the supplies of food and water. He had to move carefully because, covering the ground throughout the camp, were inmates with emaciated faces, shaven heads and sunken eyes, some lying on the ground, some hanging on to the barbed wire for support, some trying to stand. There were piles of dead bodies everywhere. Dazed, apathetic figures, dressed in rags, wandered aimlessly around. The stench of putrefaction hung over the camp, an acrid haze obscured the sun and the silence was oppressive. There was no food, water or fuel in the camp. All Williams could find in the five cookhouses were 50lb of rotten turnips. When two of the inmates tried to approach him, the SS guards knocked them out of their path.
Williams returned to Corps HQ and reported that food and fresh water had to be found for thousands and that thousands more lay dead and had to be buried. The next day, Williams was able to lead the first food convoy into the camp.
Solid food had to be turned into something like soup for shrunken stomachs; tea could be distributed only in small amounts. The British units had the dreadful task of trying to separate the living from the dead, for both were lying side by side.
An anti-tank regiment was put in charge of the SS, who had the task of collecting all the dead bodies, loading them on to trailers and taking them to the mass burial trenches. Some of the SS tried to escape through the barbed wire and were shot.
Their colleagues were ordered to retrieve their bodies and load them on to the trailer to be buried with the rest. It was a ghastly operation. “How our gunners managed to stay sane, I will never know,” Williams said afterwards.
On a search of the surrounding area, Williams found a deserted Army barracks a mile away with a storehouse of cereals and a bakery in full working order. He asked why it was that the SS had not made use of these to feed their prisoners and was told simply that they had not been prepared to do so.
William Richard Williams, the son of a clergyman, was born at Peterson Super Ely, Glamorgan, on August 23 1920 and educated at Wrekin College. He left school early to take up an apprenticeship with Austin Motor Company but was called up on the outbreak of war and joined the RASC. He landed in Normandy on D-Day and remained with 8 Corps as they pushed eastward...,