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Return to Sandbostel - August 2014 - By Kathryn Ingham

In August 2014 I travelled to Sandbostel with my husband Terry. The following was written on my return. Click on the photographs to enlarge them.

My mum, Freda Blackburne (nee Laycock) served with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service during World War Two. Latterly she was with the 10th Casualty clearing station following the troops after D Day. Whilst in Germany on May 5th the casualty clearing station was suddenly diverted to Sandbostel. Here she looked after victims of the concentration camps.  

That was the reason for my visit to Sandbostel – a place that had played such a large part in my mother’s life. I believe that Sandbostel began life in the early 1900s and was used as a prisoner of war camp in the First World War. 

It was built in two parts, one area for the guards as living quarters and one for the POW’s. During the Second World War it was filled with POW’s from Russia, USA, Britain, France etc with about 30,000 being interned. 

As the war drew to a close, the Germans began moving some of the concentration camp victims housed nearer the cities, into the countryside. Hence the inmates of Neuengamme Concentration Camp near Hamburg, were moved to Sandbostel. This was a journey for them, of eight days on a cattle trunk with very little food or drink and then a 10 mile walk to the POW camp at Sandbostel.  

They arrived at about the time the Germans were admitting defeat and so much of the care of the concentration camp victims initially was done by the POW’s until the British  Army arrived - within a day or two. The officer in charge of the army was overwhelmed by the task of how to care for these poor people, so he went straight to Belsen (of which Neuengamme was an offshoot) to see how best to treat the victims. 

Recognising the immediate need for nursing care at Sandbostel, help was requested by the army and sent in the form of the 10th Casualty Clearing Station of which mum was one of 10 nursing sisters.  Hence, with no prior warning, mum and the rest of the staff were placed in this harrowing situation. 

A decision was reached that the concentration camp victims must be treated in what had been the old guards’ living quarters of the camp. So when Terry and I arrived this is the first place we visited. There is little to see here. On one side of the road is an old hut which is now a garage but was then the Casino that the German Officers frequented in their free time. 

Across the road there is a field, now left to grass, which is where mum nursed the victims. After the war this area was burnt to be sure of ridding the area of any contamination as the concentration camp victims suffered from diseases and primarily from typhoid. Immediately to the left of the field are other huts which are remnants of the camp and are now owned and used by a farmer.  

We then moved on to the POW camp itself. Here a museum has been established. It has many explicit photographs and some artefacts. Obviously it is a long time since the end of the war and the museum has only just been set up, so little of the era is left to put on display. However the photos and good English commentary tell the story well. 

Once we had looked round the museum we went to the remaining POW huts. Some of these are in the process of being renovated to give an impression of how they were. Others are still in a derelict state as there is no money to improve them. However I felt it good to see them as they were. 

The latrines are still there to view, so very few of them for so many inmates and they could not be used at night without the fear of being shot. We then moved onto an area that was the kitchen. Here the walls are lined with the photocopied identities of the Russian POW’s who were very badly treated during the war. At the end of the war, Russia demanded all the original identity papers back from the Germans, so for a long time there was no record of who had been a POW in the camp. Then a while ago the identities were sent back to Sandbostel and so they line the wall in memory of those who died there. 

Just beyond the camp perimeter is a church with a plaque to the victims. One of the plaques erected at Sandbostel has been donated by a German. As a young boy he watched the concentration camp victims being marched along the road and saw two randomly shot. He never forgot this dreadful incident and so has now given this plaque in memory of them all.

Some of the original POW camp land is now privately owned. It houses some of the original brick built huts used by the camp. The owner will only sell the land at a huge price, so for now you can just view but not visit it. 

After the war the camp was used to house the people who escaped from East Germany. Here they were assessed and then moved on. 

We were then taken to the cemetery which is well looked after by the Sandbostel inhabitants. Each year a service is held here and the children of the area do the readings. The children have also inscribed a clay tablet for each of the Russian prisoners of war- it states their names and their date of birth and death. These have now been erected in the cemetery.

A large area of the cemetery is laid to grass with occasional crosses interspersed. This is the last resting place of the concentration camp victims as of course no name could be given to each victim as they were laid to rest so quickly. A large cross dignifies the area as a whole.  

In another part of the cemetery is a slightly raised area of land which is covered with small plants. This area is for the Russian victims, again unknown by name. Occasionally a wooden cross is seen with a name on put there by a parent or family member. These are placed randomly but ensure the people are not forgotten. Elsewhere there are graves with names on which are nicely looked after. The atmosphere is sombre but peaceful and quiet – a dignified end for all those who suffered. 

Terry and I felt so grateful to be able to go and see where mum had been and performed along with others so heroically. God bless them all. 

I was able to give the curator pictures of mum and Win Lacy in full uniform and a picture of the 10th CC station taken at Cuxhaven. 

My sister and family hope to visit at a future date and I feel I will go back.

© Kathryn Ingham 2014