Ely High School 1905-1972

WWII - Edna Gotobed, 103 Spearhead Relief Section

from the Ely High School magazine, July 1945

Edna Gotobed, BRCS [British Red Cross Society] Commission, BLA [British Liberation Army]

4th May 1945: I feel that to-day of all days is the exact moment to take an hour off duty and write my long promised letter, to the accompaniment of willy-nilly gunfire as our Hungarian guards run amok with every round of ammunition in which they can lay their hands in the general excitement.

When I left England, I did not know a soul on the continent, nor did I know a single member of the Unit to which I belong. We knew that as the 103 Spearhead Relief Section, we would be called upon to go anywhere and do anything at any time of the day or night, but our present work has still rather surprised us in spite of being prepared for anything. The information given us on our departure led us to hope for excitement as well as arduous work, and we have certainly been well rewarded.

We had a safe, although rough and quite exciting crossing to Ostend where we stayed for a week or two ‘in transit’ having various military lectures and demonstrations. We were delighted to move up to Northern Belgium and worked for some time in Antwerp, and then Buzzbomb Alley – a belt of country where all V1s were shot down North of Antwerp. Here we did a 24-hour shuffle Ambulance Service for air raid casualties which kept us fairly well occupied day and night and various disinifestations of displaced persons’camps in odd moments. This district was for a time, quite an unhealthy spot, as you may have read in the newspapers in their rather exaggerated articles on the ‘City of Death’. From there we went into Holland and had a certain amount of reconnoitring to do and I as Welfare Officer was kept busy with all manner of things.

Our first stay in Holland was only destined to be a matter of days, as we were whisked away suddenly into Germany, where, we knew not. We had such an interesting journey for two days and three nights, stopping just long enough to snatch a few hours sleep in our ambulances and trucks, and to collect further marching or movement orders through country and towns of BBC fame until we wondered if even the front lines of that time would stop our charge.

From the devastation of Cleves we went through to Goch in tank convoy in an absolute cloud of dust, so thick, that we could only judge our distance by voice or by bumping the vehicle in front. It was worse than any London ‘pea-souper’ and we had to use our pneumatic air pumps to rid the engines of dust and so keep them working. Sometimes as we crossed pontoon bridges they were still working on unfinished sections and once we had to wait one’s completion.

Our destination was a concentration camp in N Western Germany of which you have heard and read so much. The Germans surprised us all by holding to their truce terms* of the International Red Cross and we took up residence in the SS OCTU [Officer Cadet Training Unit] quarters unmolested. Of the Concentration Camp itself I am not allowed to write much, although the fighting whaich was once behind us and all around is passed, ahead of us. The RAMC is in charge and a Military Government has everything superbly under control. You will have read most of the reports on the Horror Camp. I can only say that even the Daily Mirror and Daily Express in no way exaggerated, and one need to work right in it to see it all and to be able to estimate its horrors and the SS bestiality. I myself can only say that I find it utterly indescribable.

My first day’s work started off very abruptly: I was shown a Luftwaffe Sick Bay which I could use as a children’s hospital and with another Norlander we started to work as the first ninety children would reach us - having been disinfested and washed - within an hour. By the end of that day the complete children’s block of 110 beds was running - a little crudely perhaps - and we left a Russian girl in charge with several ‘Nationals’ as helpers.

The following day we opened the next block 100 yards away even more quickly than the first. This was really rather an amusing situation, but we were far too busy to appreciate it: we pushed out the Boche and made them scrub their way out: when they got half-way through I started admitting children, and at one stage I was – metaphorically speaking – pushing the Germans out of one door and pulling the children in by the other. This block took quite two days to get running as I was trying to hand it over to a Pole and this time I had no French interpreter. Her staff also could not understand her as they were mainly Hungarians (and were ill themselves) and between us we were unable to muster more than 2 words of German, our only common language. However, we mimed our way along.

Then came the immense task of starting Women’s Hospitals. The British Army had by then removed the Germans and were making them do the dirty work for a change and three Army Sisters (QAs) went round requisitioning and equipping blocks and we BRCS, numbering about 30, each took a hospital of 150 beds and got it running with the help of nationals for two days before starting all over again. In seven days we had warded some seven thousand patients and had got the typhus to a certain extent under control. At the end of the week the daily mortality had been brought down from a four to a three figure rate, and now the patients are beginning to revert to human beings rather than the lowest of cannibalistic animals as they were when we entered.

A mobile hospital and numbers of Doctors and Nurses have arrived here now to relieve us and we are able to work shorter hours and so get rid of a degree of exhaustion.

It seems so long since we arrived in what we call the Stench Zone that it is difficult to believe that it is only a matter of two weeks, but the noise of the gunners and guards going haywire reminds me that our work as the spearhead unit is almost over here owing to the good news and we hope to be going to the Northern Netherlands, which is our ultimate destination, very soon.

The Liberation of Belsen: Richard Dimbleby: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/4445811.stm

* Editor: Joanne Reilly Belsen - the liberation of a Concentration Camp (Routledge,1998) states that with the knowledge that there had been an outbreak of typhus in Bergen-Belsen, an aide to Himmler visited the camp on 10 April 1945. The Allies were quickly approaching and it was clear to the Germans that they could not risk exposing their own troops to the disease by moving the inmates, nor could they - as they had done elsewhere - now destroy them and the camp. On 12 April an emmissary came through the British lines to declare the presence of a concentration camp at Belsen. The Germans agreed to neutralise a zone of several km around the camp and erect 'Danger -Typhus' notices and white flags at all road entrances to the area. Wehrmacht troops were to be allowed to return to German lines and the Hungarian troops guarding the camp were to be placed at the disposal of the British forces. The SS administrative personnel were to stay at their posts and hand over remaining records.

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