Dirk Bogarde and Belsen

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Dirk Bogarde’s claim to have seen that ‘hell on earth’ at first hand is reassessed by his official biographer, John Coldstream

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‘I can remember the day very well, even after all these years,’ wrote Dirk Bogarde in The Daily Telegraph in 1988. ‘It was a clear, cold, April morning.’ The precise date in 1945 eluded him, however. He thought it was the 17th or the 18th, but could not be certain – ‘one seldom was in the war.’ Someone in the unit to which he was attached as an intelligence officer had said that the Germans had abandoned a large concentration camp, ‘and we ought to “swan off” and have a look.’

Bogarde had little more in mind than that he might find a pair of service-issue boots, which were made better in Germany. ‘I don’t know what I expected to see. I had known for some time that the camps existed – we saw them on our aerial photographs often enough – but it didn’t really occur to me that through the greening larches and under a clear, hard, blue sky, the last traces of the snow melting in the woods, I would be entering a hell which I should never forget and about which, for many years, I would be unable to speak.’ That hell on earth was Bergen-Belsen – a name which, 70 years after the camp’s occupation by Allied troops, resonates as powerfully as ever as a symbol of infamy.

Despite his reticence – an attitude shared by many – Bogarde in his later years was occasionally prevailed upon to talk about what he had seen. ‘Sometimes, perhaps if I’d had a drop too much, I might try to explain and usually ended in unmanly tears.’ This was certainly the case in a celebrated 1986 interview for Yorkshire Television with the late Russell Harty. There was no disguising his feelings, either, when he addressed the pupils at two private schools in the 1990s. Sir Anthony Seldon, who retires this summer as Master of Wellington College, was head of history and general studies at Tonbridge in 1991 when he invited Bogarde to speak to the older boys on a topic of his choice: ‘The Story of My Life’, ‘How to Write’, or some such conventional fare. However, shortly before he fulfilled the engagement, Bogarde wrote a second review for the Telegraph of books about the Holocaust, and he agreed with Seldon that at least part of the time should be given over to the subject.

‘It was an astonishing talk,’ recalled Seldon; ‘one of those occasions in your life when you are aware that you are listening to something utterly extraordinary, the like of which you will not hear again. He spoke about enlisting in the Army, about his father in the First World War, and about how he happened to be in the area of Bergen-Belsen on that day, and what it was like to go in. It was an outpouring of liquid emotion. And afterwards he just clammed up, he didn’t want to speak to anybody, and went home.’

It was the most moving talk Seldon had ever heard. When he went to teach the boys afterwards, he found them ‘still shell-shocked’. Naturally, there had been no question of Bogarde accepting a fee. As he put it: ‘Talking to the young is fee enough.’

Dirk in Kings School, Headmaster Study, Rochester

He would tackle the subject twice more in front of a large audience. First, at a memorial meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to mark the anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto; and finally at King’s School in Rochester, warning its head of history, Edward Towne, that at Tonbridge ‘it had been a bit of a battering’ for the boys, who ‘had never even heard of the Holocaust!’ He was pleased to report that some ‘blubbing’ had been noticed among the younger Tonbridgians. ‘This is not as unkind as it sounds,’ he qualified; ‘it merely proved that somewhere a nerve had been touched.’ Mr Towne’s Roffensians – as the Rochester pupils are known – were just as harrowed, and never more so than when Bogarde offered them the shocking image of a Belsen inmate recognisable as a girl, ‘because she had breasts – but only just.’

That day in the countryside 68 kilometres from Hanover, Bogarde said, cost him any faith he might once have had. Of God there was no sign. ‘God was invented by man for those who lost faith in living. I believe in another force – the force that helps plants to grow.’

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Not long after I began my research for Dirk Bogarde’s official biography I had to face the prospect that he might not have been to Belsen at all. One or two people who knew him well had raised a quizzical eyebrow at his reminiscence. At its crudest level, I found myself asking why would he? Surely, the camp and the area around it must have been declared out of bounds to all but essential personnel; after all, Typhus was rife. Bogarde’s job while on active service was, as an intelligence officer with 2nd Army, to interpret photographs taken by 39 Reconnaissance Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force. A considerable task it was, too, even at that late stage in the war: the total number of pictures processed in April 1945 by No 5 Mobile Field Photographic Section – one of two such teams operating with the Canadians – was a staggering 348,306.

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Second, the brief accounts that he gave in four of his seven volumes of autobiography and in private correspondence seemed, at best, confused, if not contradictory – not only about the date, but also about the extent of his visit to the camp and about what he saw there. They stood in marked contrast to the mood apparent from a card that he sent on 21 April to his sister Elizabeth, in which he reported: ‘We have been having the most beautiful weather here – I’ve actually been sunbathing, and got quite brown.’ Even given the necessity for censorship and self-censorship in any communication, it is surprising, to say the least, that he gave not even a hint of having seen with his own eyes why this war was justified. After all, three months earlier he had written on the reverse of a picture postcard from the Waal at Nijmegen: ‘I thought you would be interested to have a look at this! Its [sic] going to be one of the most famous bridges in history.’

Bogarde was a fine teller of stories. His six novels are evidence enough of that. So too are his memoirs. The record he compiled of his personal life and of how he secured a unique place in the world of the arts, with his 15 books and more than 60 films as a ‘name above the title’, is a fascinating, often brilliant, exercise in literary embroidery by a born writer; a highly-coloured tapestry, which amply proves the axiom that all autobiography is merely a version of a life.

There is no doubt that as 39 Wing moved north from Holland, through Belgium and into Lower Saxony that its members saw the shocking residue of atrocity. My concern, however, stemmed from the special circumstances at Belsen. I speculated that his recollection was a composite of what he had learned at second hand thanks to the unsparing newsreels and photographs shown immediately after the camp’s liberation; and of the images conjured in his ever-active imagination. Some of my interviewees said that received imagery was so vivid that soldiers serving in the vicinity became convinced that they had seen events for themselves. If Bogarde was experiencing what is now termed ‘false memory syndrome’, he had ample justification. For, as the writer Frederic Raphael told me: ‘Belsen stood for something much worse even than Belsen itself.’

In the 11 years since my biography’s publication no one who was with 2nd Army or 39 Wing in April 1945 has come forward to validate – or, for that matter, categorically to refute – Dirk Bogarde’s account of visiting Belsen. However, it is now possible to state with some authority that he did at least set foot inside the camp.

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On the morning of 13 April, following a local truce arranged between the German forces and the advancing 2nd Army, an agreement was signed for the surrender of Belsen to Allied forces. Two days later troops under the command of 8 Corps entered the first of the two areas that constituted the camp. It contained some 42,000 internees – men, women and children. Many thousands were mortally ill: in the previous month at least 17,000 had died. An estimated 10,000 Typhus-infected bodies lay around the camp, both inside and outside the huts, all of them requiring immediate burial.

In the second area, a former barracks housing about 18,000 men, mainly from Eastern Europe, there was gross overcrowding. Many of the occupants were ill. All clamoured for food and water. None the less, conditions were described as ‘palatial’ compared with those in Camp 1, where, according to a report compiled a fortnight later by 2nd Army’s Medical Services: ‘The general impression at first sight was of a seething mass of ragged sub-humanity aimlessly moving through the compounds in the final stages of starvation. A Demonic brain could scarcely have conceived such a tragic exhibition of complete degradation of the species.’

As the British forces took over the camp, 39 Wing was completing a move to Wunstorf, less than an hour’s drive away. Although the Army had declared from the outset that ‘as soon as operations permit the whole of the area will be placed out of bounds to all British troops except on essential duty’, controls were lax to begin with. For one thing, it was important to let the world know the truth. Hence the celebrated report by Richard Dimbleby for the BBC; hence, too, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey a film commissioned from Sidney Bernstein by the Ministry of Information, but later shelved for political reasons. (It has been restored and completed by the Imperial War Museum, and was screened at BFI Southbank from 16 to 29 April.)

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It took at least a week before a proper exclusion zone was established. In that time, according to HQ 10 Garrison, who took control of the camp for 11 days from 18 April: ‘As usual with any matter of interest, floods of visitors descended on Belsen, mostly without authority or clear purpose.’ This certainly chimes with Bogarde’s account of the casual reasoning behind his own visit. Eventually, so many came that ‘they impeded work’. As with all Allied units in the surrounding area, the men of, and those attached to, 39 Wing had their curiosity piqued.

In the past few years a Canadian scholar, Mark Celinscak, has made a minute examination of the surrender and relief of the camp at Bergen-Belsen. His particular focus is on the responses of both the British and Canadian military personnel, whose achievement in practical ways was, he found, ‘remarkable’. His full account has earned him a doctorate from Toronto’s York University and will be published later this year as Distance from the Belsen Heap: Narratives of Liberation. Most relevant to the Bogarde story is Dr Celinscak’s discovery that it was easier to search for members of the Wing who had not made the journey to Belsen from Wunstorf and, later, from the even closer village of Reinsehlen. Early in May two RCAF padres gave a talk on the camp at the Wing’s temporary theatre, and members of the two MFPS units made ‘liberty runs’ on two successive days. In Dr Celinscak’s view it is, given the geography and the context, highly unlikely that Bogarde did not go there.

His opinion is supported by an extraordinary oral testimony given to the Imperial War Museum in 2007-09 by an Austrian, Andrey Kodin, who came to Britain in 1938, joined the Pioneer Corps in 1941 and by the spring of 1945, aged 22, was working with the Intelligence Corps in Germany. On 20 April he was sent to Belsen in order to help the British troops communicate with the inmates. He, unlike Bogarde, would never confuse the date: 20 April was the birthday – the 56th – of the Führer, ‘the monster’ whose policies had led to the indescribable scenes that confronted him.

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As Kodin stood beside his jeep, speechless with shock at the mounds of decomposing bodies nearby, another Army vehicle drove up and stopped a few yards away. Three British officers stepped out. His attention was drawn to one of them, standing with his hands on his hips and staring ahead with a look of acute sadness. The other two turned back towards their jeep, one calling: ‘Come on D—-, haven’t you had enough?’ Their comrade stood rooted to the spot. Eventually they persuaded him to join them, but, recalled Kodin, ‘he turned round and stood and looked again and I’ll never forget his face.’ It was the large, dark eyes in particular that haunted him.

About 10 years later, after leaving the Army, Kodin took his wife to the cinema. As the camera closed in on the face of its star, Kodin leapt to his feet and said: ‘That’s him! That’s him!’ His wife, who was Greek, had no idea what he was so exercised about, said he was mad and made him sit down. ‘Afterwards I told her about it and she wouldn’t believe it. She said, “Ah, you’re dreaming. You’re just imagining things”.’

Fast forward another three decades and Kodin was reading The Daily Telegraph. Once again he leapt to his feet, saying to his wife: ‘Here, Eva, you called me mad, remember? There’s the proof.’ For him the ‘proof’ was the review mentioned at the beginning of this article. The officer whose demeanour had so struck him on that fateful day in Lower Saxony was, he firmly believed, Dirk Bogarde. Yes, the fellow-officer had probably called out to Derek rather than Dirk – because 24-year-old Captain Van den Bogaerde of the Queen’s Royal Regiment had yet to assume his stage name – but Andrey Kodin may be excused a slight mis-remembering.

One month and one day after their wordless encounter, the last huts at Belsen were razed to the ground. The name will never be erased, however. As Leading Aircraftman Leo Velleman, later a renowned puppeteer, wrote in the August 1945 issue of FLAP, the magazine of 39 Reconnaissance Wing RCAF: ‘Belsen stands as a terrible warning to the people of the whole world . . . It will take unwearying vigilance and clear thinking to make sure that this does not happen again anywhere – ever.’ Dirk Bogarde was passionate in endorsing that sentiment. On this gravest of anniversaries it would be gratifying to think that his own credibility as a witness at first hand is secured.