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A life worth remembering

Graham Marshall - Sunday, May 27, 2012

Major Dick Williams, who has died aged 91, was one of the first British soldiers into Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp.

As the second World War neared its end, Williams was in a reconnaissance party  whose task it was to ascertain the conditions in Belsen which was in the direct line of the Allied advance.

Travelling in jeeps with white flags hoisted along the Bergen road from Celle, their final reference point was a small cutting in a dense plantation of fir trees leading to a side road. There were no signs or markings, but 30 meters along the road there was a gaurd post manned by an armed soldier who raised the barrier to let them pass.

Williams and his team had to check the supplies of food and water but they had to move carefully because, covering the ground throughout the camp, were inmates with emaciated faces, shaven heads and sunken eyes, some lying on the ground, some hanging on to the barbed wire for support, some trying to stand.

There were piles of dead bodies everywhere. Dazed, apathetic figures, dressed in rags, wandered aimlessly around. The stench of putrefaction hung over the camp, an acrid haze obscured the sun and the silence was oppressive.

There was no food, water or fuel in the camp. All Williams could find in the five cookhouses were 50lb of rotten turnips. When two of the inmates tried to approach him, the SS guards knocked them out of their path.

Williams returned to Corps HQ and reported that food and fresh water had to be found for thousands and that thousands more lay dead and had to be buried. The next day, Williams was able to lead the first food convoy into the camp.

Solid food had to be turned into something like soup for shrunken stomachs; tea could be distributed only in small amounts. The British units had the dreadful task of trying to separate the living from the dead, for both were lying side by side.

An anti-tank regiment was put in charge of the SS, who had the task of collecting all the dead bodies, loading them on to trailers and taking them to the mass burial trenches. Some of the SS tried to escape through the barbed wire and were shot.

Their colleagues were ordered to retrieve their bodies and load them on to the trailer to be buried with the rest. It was a ghastly operation. “How our gunners managed to stay sane, I will never know,” Williams said afterwards.

On a search of the surrounding area, Williams found a deserted Army barracks a mile away with a storehouse of cereals and a bakery in full working order. He asked why it was that the SS had not made use of these to feed their prisoners and was told simply that they had not been prepared to do so.

William Richard Williams, the son of a clergyman, was born at Peterson Super Ely, Glamorgan, on August 23 1920 and educated at Wrekin College. He left school early to take up an apprenticeship with Austin Motor Company but was called up on the outbreak of war and joined the RASC.

He landed in Normandy on D-Day and remained with 8 Corps as they pushed eastward, providing transport and supplies to the advancing Allied forces. After the war, he rejoined Austin and spent four years in Canada and the Far East as its advertising manager.

He stayed in the automobile industry and with Austin as it went through its many changes of name, but in 1981 he had quadruple heart bypass surgery, a pioneering operation at that time, and was forced to retire. He was told that he might survive for 10 years; in the event, he lived for more than 30.

He used this reprieve to educate a rising generation about the Holocaust and became involved with the Imperial War Museum and the Jewish community at home and overseas.

At the Holocaust Memorial Day Service at Westminster Hall in 2005 a BBC film was shown which recounted the return to Belsen of Susan Pollock, who survived the deportations from Hungary in 1944. She was accompanied to the camp by Williams, and the part that he had played 60 years earlier received wide coverage in the press and led to many speaking engagements.

He was a quiet, modest man but felt it his duty to reach out to as wide an audience as possible so that others would never have to witness what he had seen.

Dick Williams married, in 1954, Jean Wilson, who survives him with their son and daughter.

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