On the day a new memorial was unveiled in Bury St Edmunds, a World War Two veteran tells of his horror on arriving in one of the death camps.
Looking at John Darby you would never guess the images that have been imprinted on his mind or the haunting memories that he has carried with him for almost 70 years.
“I dream about it every night, the horrors of it,” he tells me, preparing to relive the moment he has never forgotten, being confronted by the atrocities of a Nazi concentration camp.
The 86-year-old, who has lived in Bury St Edmunds for around 40 years, was ‘a 16-year-old Yorkshire lad’ when he joined the Army and just 17 when he was first sent abroad to serve with the 15th Field Artillery Regiment in Belgium.
It was only once stationed with the 12th Anti Tank Regiment that he began fighting against the Germans.
Of the day he and his colonel found themselves in a tank on a road by Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, John said: “We stopped because there were half a dozen German officers walking up the road. We enquired – they were officers from Belsen and said ‘be careful how you go because there’s disease in the camp’.”
John says it was curiosity that led them to the camp, where they used their tank to open the gate and saw around 60,000 inmates, many dying or in need of medical assistance, and a further 30,000 dead bodies.
“I saw bodies all around – they looked like tree logs, piled up,” said John, tearful at the memory.
He recalls seeing Belsen Commandant Josef Kramer and warden Irma Grese burning papers and four Nazi youths shooting at the genitals of inmates trying to escape over barbed wire fencing.
John said he radioed for medics and stood guard, ‘opening fire’ on any German soldiers who tried to get past him.
“I shot the Germans – I felt no compunction about that,” he said.
“I felt something tug at my gaiter,” he continued, still visibly affected by the memory. “I looked down at a bundle of rags and a face appeared – it was a Gypsy lady. She looked up and I said ‘it’s alright love, we’ve come to release you, you’re fine now’.
“I’ve never got over Belsen, it has lived with me all these years.”