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London medical students at Belsen
Volunteers treating Nazi concentration camp victims, 1945
The London Medical students who went to Belsen, 1945
In early April 1945, the British Red Cross and the War Office, at the request of the British Army, called for 100 volunteers from among medical students at London hospitals to assist in feeding starving Dutch children who had been liberated from German occupation by advancing Allied forces. However, in the meantime, British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the students were diverted there on the day they were due to travel to the Netherlands. The students had previously spent most of the Second World War at school and in medical training.
The students were tasked with taking over one or two of the 200 camp huts each, with the responsibility of cleaning and feeding the survivors and supervising a fair distribution of food. Their work was instrumental in reducing the death rate from over 500 a day at liberation to less than 100 a day by mid-May 1945.
The Imperial War Museum holds a number of the students' letters and diaries which were a source for Ben Shephard's 2005 book After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945. Their story has also been portrayed in the 2007 feature-length drama, The Relief of Belsen. The diary of Westminster student Michael Hargrave was published in 2014.
In early April 1945, a call for 100 volunteer medical students in their final 18 months of medical school was made by the British Red Cross and the War Office at the request of the British Army, to assist in feeding starving Dutch children. However, in the interim, British troops had liberated Belsen and at the request of Brigadier Hugh Glyn-Hughes, the students were diverted to Belsen on the day of departure to Holland. The total number of students who volunteered was more than 100 and they were therefore shortlisted by ballot. Somewhere between 95 and 100 took part, with the exact number uncertain. Up until this time, these students had spent the larger part of the Second World War at school and in medical education.
Journey to Belsen
At the end of April, the students were immunised against typhoid, typhus and diphtheria. They collected their kit from the British Red Cross and were taken to Cirencester, from where they were to fly to Holland. However, Belsen, in Germany, had in the interim been liberated by British troops and a request for extra help was made upon realising the extent of the problems there. The students were subsequently re-directed to Belsen, where they were under the supervision of nutritionist Arnold Peter Meiklejohn.
London medical students at work in Belsen
A group of students discuss some of the medical details experienced during the day with E. M. De Greff, British Red Cross Relief Officer and second-in-command of the medical students, at their daily evening conference.
The first students arrived at Belsen at the end of April, with the remaining students reaching the camp at the beginning of May 1945. Following a briefing, they began work at Camp 1. Initially, their role was to take over one or two of the 200 huts each, with the responsibility of getting them cleaned and supervising the feeding of and fair distribution of food to the inmates. The association of intravenous feeding and Nazi activities rendered this kind of feeding inappropriate. An unpopular mixture known as the "Bengal mixture" was used for feeding. In addition to malnutrition and starvation, tuberculosis, typhus and cancrum oris were common, and later Wernicke's encephalopathy and pellagra.
Some students became unwell themselves. Bart's student Andrew Dossetor was hospitalised with typhus, as too was John Hancock from The London, who was cared for by Horace Evans. John Jenkins of Westminster medical school recovered from life-threatening tuberculosis. Westminster's tercentenary publication reports that four students of the 96 died.
The work by the students was significant in reducing the death rate from initially more than 500 a day to fewer than 100 a day by mid-May. On 20 May 1945, Camp 1 was destroyed and the students moved to Camp 2. They were issued with SS Panzer dot-camouflaged coats by Captain Walter Carton “Frosty” Winterbottom.
Most of the students were in their penultimate year of medical education and were recruited from nine medical schools.
Guy's Hospital medical students who went to Belsen. From left to right: D. Davies, D. Strange, J. S. Jones, D. Rahilly, D. Westbury, M. E. Davys, D. S. Hurwood, D. H. Forsdick, J. V. Kilby, J. E. Mandel, J. L. Hayward and J. A. Turner.
After a month at Belsen the students were relieved by Belgian medical students and returned to England. Dr. A. P. Meiklejohn, who was responsible for administering the "starvation mixture", paid tribute to them and majors A. P. Prior and E. M. Griffin gave particular thanks to students D. G. A. Westbury and J. A. Turner from Guy's and J. Stephenson from St Thomas'.
Major A. P. Prior's papers and photographs of the students are kept in the Wellcome Collection. The Imperial War Museum holds an archive of a number of letters and diaries of the students. Some of their memoirs were used by historian Ben Shephard in his 2005 book After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945. In 2006, St Mary's student, Andrew B. Matthews' story was told in the Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History.
The operation was also portrayed in the 2007 feature-length drama titled The Relief of Belsen in which Alex Paton says "in my hut there were no deaths today, sir". Michael Hargrave's diary was published in 2014.
In 2019, the Guy's alumni are to give their John Fry lecture based on the students who were sent from Guy's Hospital.
^"An anaesthetist at Belsen". J. Gareth Jones and Oliver C. Winterbottom, in "Brexit: Implications for Anaesthesia and Healthcare", Bulletin of the Royal College of Aaesthetists, September 2016. Issue 99. pp.53-55
^Kemp, Paul (1997). "The British Army and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen 1945". In Reilly, Jo; Cesarani, David; Kushner, Tony; Richmond, Colin (eds.). Belsen in History and Memory. Taylor & Francis. pp. 134–148. ISBN07146 43238.