The Queen has spoken of the “horrific” scenes British forces faced when they liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
As she visited the notorious site at the camp in northern Germany where 70,000 people died from disease, starvation or brutal mistreatment, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh paid their respects by laying a wreath yesterday.
The royal couple quietly toured the site of the camp, which was razed to the ground and is now a museum and memorial to those who died during the Second World War.
The Queen, who is patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, had not visited a concentration camp previously and it is believed she requested the trip, the last event of her four-day state visit to Germany.
Dr Jens-Christian Wagner, head of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, gave the royal couple a guided tour and said the experience of visiting the site had been an emotional one for the Queen.
The Queen also met British survivors and liberators of Belsen including Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, 96.
She asked him what sort of scene greeted him when he first arrived.
Mr Brown said: “I told her this was just a field of corpses”. He said the Queen replied: “It must have been horrific, really.”
He added: “She was listening very carefully. I would say she was quite affected by the atmosphere here. You can’t avoid it, can you?”
Among those who perished at the site were diarist Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who died a few months before British troops walked through the gates and liberated those interned on 15 April 1945.
Near to where the wreath was laid was a headstone dedicated to the sisters, who became world famous through Anne’s diary written while she and her family hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam before their capture.
Brigadier Hugh Llewellyn Glyn Hughes, who served as the 2nd Army’s deputy director of medical services, was the first to arrive at the site and took control of the relief operation.
He later said: “No description or photograph could really bring home the horrors that were outside the huts, and the frightful scenes inside were much worse.”
The British troops found 10,000 prisoners dead when they entered the gates, and thousands more suffering from malnutrition, disease and the brutal treatment they had endured. In the months leading up to liberation, the population of Bergen-Belsen, which was not designed as an extermination camp, had quadrupled to 60,000 and conditions worsened due to a lack of water, shelter and sanitation.
Anne and Margot Frank are thought to have died in February 1945 from the typhus which ravaged the camp. They were among 35,000 who perished in the months leading up to liberation.
In the weeks that followed, 14,000 people died as a result of ill-treatment or sickness and the British burned the camp to stop the spread of disease.