Hartlepool man helped save thousands by liberating a concentration camp

Frank Lavin with mementoes of his father, Wilfred.
Frank Lavin with mementoes of his father, Wilfred.
0
Have your say

A Hartlepool man who witnessed one of the worst tragedies of World War Two remained haunted by what he saw for years.

The sight of thousands of sick and starving prisoners met Wilfred Lavin as he helped liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Wilfred Lavin and his wife Ruth on their 60th wedding anniversary.

Wilfred Lavin and his wife Ruth on their 60th wedding anniversary.

“He never forgot what he saw, and had nightmares for months after coming back from war. It was a truly terrible tragedy,” recalls Wilfred’s son, Frank.

“There were long lines of corpses, men, women and children, lying on top of each other. Thousands of others were very ill and close to death.”

Wilfred, the third child of Frank Lavin and his wife Elizabeth, was born in West Hartlepool in 1910 and went to sea as a cabin boy at just 14.

“Frank worked for the Co-op as a master tailor and cutter, while Betsy always claimed she had the first knitting machine in West Hartlepool,” said Frank.

There were long lines of corpses, men, women and children, lying on top of each other. Thousands of others were very ill and close to death.

Frank Levin, son of soldier Wilf - who helped liberate Belsen concentration camp.

“But my father was only a boy, really, when he left home. He spent several years in the merchant navy, until being paid off during the Great Depression.”

Wilf found work building sea-defences in Sussex - and love soon followed. Indeed, he met and married his sweetheart Florence Redman in just three weeks.

The storm clouds of war were gathering, however, when Frank was born in 1933. As Britain prepared for conflict, so Wilfred decided to move his family back home.

“Everyone thought that, if an invasion happened, it would be along the south coast. My father believed we would be better off up in Hartlepool,” said Frank.

Wilf joined his local territorial unit, the 2/5th Durham Light Infantry, in early 1939 and was one of the first to be called up once war was declared.

As the years of conflict passed, so his battalion became a Searchlight Regiment, Then, in 1942, it was converted to the 113th (DLI) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

“My father saw action across Europe, including France and Belgium. But in April 1945, his unit was ordered 280 miles behind enemy lines,” said Frank.

“The soldiers thought at first they would be dealing with a typhus outbreak. Instead, they ended up helping to liberate the prisoners of Belsen.”

Wilf and his comrades reached camp in northern Germany on April 15. Inside they found thousands dead, and thousands more sick and starving.

“It wasn’t a camp where gas was used; instead people were shot or left to die of sickness. My father’s task was to feed the female prisoners,” said Frank.

“The soldiers gave up their own rations to help, but most of the inmates couldn’t tolerate solid food. In the end, a milky “famine diet” proved more effective.”

Wilf returned to Hartlepool after the war, later working for ICI. Belsen, however, remained a vivid memory for him - and now Frank continues to spread the word.

“We must never, ever, forget the lessons of the Holocaust,” said the retired construction manager.