Book review: Dunkirk to Belsen by John Sadler

During the Second World War, one extraordinary British ‘band of brothers’ fought in every major land campaign from France and Italy through to the unthinkable horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Wednesday, 22nd December 2010, 6:00 am

Remarkably, the Durham Light Infantry was not a regiment of professional soldiers but mainly young men drawn from civilian life, what General Montgomery called a ‘Citizens’ Army’.

John Sadler’s compelling book uses the personal and eyewitness accounts of the conscripts and volunteers who were pitted against the seemingly invincible might of the Wehrmacht and lived to tell the tale.

Their stories of terror, misery, hardship, comradeship and sacrifice are both moving and awe-inspiring and paint a vivid picture of life for the ordinary soldier in one of the most destructive conflicts the world has ever seen.

The men of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) came back with indelible memories of service that took them from the calamity of Dunkirk to the deserts of North Africa, to Sicily and the Italian campaign, the landings on D-Day and finally to the liberation of the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp.

The DLIs were mainly a conscript regiment, young men dragged from occupations and professions far removed from military life.

War for most of them would be a challenge involving sometimes tedious, often disagreeable and occasionally terrifying experiences.

Their enemies, whether they were German, Italian or Japanese, were formidable opponents and the ground over which they fought was often hostile and unforgiving.

Despite the dreadful defeats and infinite hardship, this makeshift army came through to emerge victorious but the years of struggle took their toll and the men came out very different people.

The experiences of the DLI battalions mirror that of the British Army as a whole. They fought in France in 1940, throughout the Desert War, slogged through Italian mud and in the jungles of Burma.

But for the DLIs, when it all seemed to be over, one of their battalions uncovered the horrors of Belsen, what the late British comedian Michael Bentine described as ‘the ultimate blasphemy’.

Nothing these hardened soldiers had so far witnessed could prepare them for the scenes that confronted them there...an unspeakable darkness and level of human cruelty previously undreamt of.

‘Half-starved, emaciated, spiritless, demented’ people reduced to ‘animal level’ roamed the camp surrounded by about 10,000 typhus-infected bodies, many in an advanced stage of decomposition.

One witness reported that ‘two Tommies, entering the camp for the first time, must have thought they had walked into a supernatural world...they dropped their heavy sacks and fled’.

Some found their belief in God challenged after what they saw there.

‘I emerged unscathed but my beliefs did not,’ wrote one soldier. ‘There is no God, either in spirit or substance, only a Devil and that Devil is mankind.’

Sadler’s poignant book is a must-have for all those interested in military history, but the message of the soldiers’ inspirational stories will resonate with readers of all persuasions and every generation.

(JR Books, hardback, £20)