Evacuation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. RG2/030, Charles H. Horton Collection. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives.) This photograph cannot be reproduced outside the guidelines of United States Fair Use (17 U.S.C., Section 107) without advance permission from the AFS Archives.
In 1940 German military authorities established the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near the city of Celle in northern Germany between the villages of Bergen and Belsen. It was originally a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp for French, Belgian, and Russian soldiers from 1940 to 1941. In April 1943 a section of the camp was taken over by German SS guards, who established a detention camp for Jews intended for exchange with Germans held in internment abroad. By April 1945 the population of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp complex reached over 60,000 due to the arrival of thousands of prisoners evacuated from concentration camps close to the front line. Overcrowding in the camp huts, poor sanitary conditions, and the scarcity of food, water, and shelter led to an outbreak of diseases such as Typhus, dysentery, and tuberculosis.
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British forces. Shortly after liberation, a contingent of around seventy American Field Service (AFS) ambulance drivers from C and D Platoons of the 567 Company (Coy) was called in to assist in what became a seven-week mission offering aid to the survivors of the camp. Ambulance drivers from the D Platoon under the command of Lieutenant Murray drove to Lübeck on the Baltic to retrieve 130 German nurses to assist with the evacuation of the camp. A section of the C Platoon under the command of W.J. Bell volunteered to assist with stretcher-bearing details and distribution of meals to the survivors. AFS drivers helped evacuate over 11,000 people from the camp and drove them to the displaced persons camp established near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. AFS drivers also transported medical equipment for the treatment of survivors and transferred the corpses from the wards of the hospitals to the mortuary.