A Brief History ~ Hohne camp 1936 to present day


 

Decisions leading to the creation of Hohne Camp

The conclusion of the First World War had left the victorious allies with the problem of how to deal with

the defeated Germany. Should they try and help to rebuild the nation and the newly formed democratic Weimar government, or impose punitive sanctions on them to make sure that Germany could never again be allowed to make war on her European neighbours? The latter way of thinking prevailed and the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. A condition of the treaty was that Germany had to pay crippling war reparations, which, from the start were a massive drain on the economy. This, along with the stipulation that Germany was allowed to keep a defence force, the Reichswehr, of only 100,000 men would lead to future political problems.

Treaty of Versailles.
Mr. Lloyd George; Signor Orlando; M. Clemenceau; President Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.
(Credit: National Archives and Records Administration)
 

The extreme economic conditions of the 1920s and early 1930s led to unrest in Germany and a subsequent lack of confidence in the Wiemar government. These times of great political turmoil and unrest were a fertile breeding ground for conditions that led to challenges to the democratic government by both the extreme left and right of the political spectrum. The National Socialists, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler fought an aggressive and brutal campaign, declaring they would overturn the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and came to power in 1933.

 

Rise of Nazism. Adolf Hitler receiving an ovation in the Reichstag.

(Credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

 

Hitler had made it very clear in his book, Mein Kampf what the foreign policies of the National Socialist government would be. Firstly, to undo what had been imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, then re-unite all of the German speaking peoples into one nation with a policy of Lebensraum; or room to live. To carry out both of these fundamental foreign policy changes the National Socialists knew they would have to re-arm and increase the size of the Reichswehr to make it a credible military force.

 

Birth of Hohne Camp

 

Expansion of the former Reichswehr, now called the Wehrmacht, began in March 1935 with the introduction of conscription (Wehrpflicht). To train the newly expanded armed forces, barracks and training areas would be needed. These areas would need to be large enough to enable two divisions to train at the same time. The Luneburger Heide was chosen for the largest of these training areas and in 1934 work began. Despite strong protests both locally and in Berlin some 24 villages and small settlements were evacuated, involving the resettlement of 3650 people. These farmers, land labourers and tradesmen were compensated by the government and were able to find employment on the training area and within the new barracks.

 

 

A postcard illustrating Wehrmacht at training and the camp (Credit: Captain Andy Vick)

 

The training area covered hundreds of square kilometres, on the outer perimeter of which two new camps were built at Bergen-Belsen (Hohne) and Fallingbostel. Hohne camp was completed in December 1935 and Fallingbostel three years later. The first troops (III Abteilung Artillerie Regiment 19 and Infantry Regiment 17) marched in on 4 May 1936. By 1938 the training area comprising of twelve ranges was fully operational and the first large armoured exercise took place in August (Panzer Regt 5, Infantry Regt 73, Artillery Regt 19 plus Rocket artillery, anti-tank units and the Luftwaffe). Throughout the war Hohne continued to accommodate both instructors and the troops who would be trained on the surrounding ranges before being sent to fight.

 

 

DP Camp Bergen-Belsen (Hohne) – The Survivors

 

The camp continued in this role until April 15th 1945 when British troops occupied the barracks after liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The high risk of contagious diseases at the concentration camp meant that it needed to be totally destroyed. The survivors were moved to Bergen-Belsen (Hohne), where those requiring hospitalisation were sent to the former Wehrmacht hospital. This later became known as the Glyn Hughes Hospital after the first Medical Officer to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Those who were relatively fit and healthy were housed in the former Wehrmacht barrack blocks in Hohne itself.


The camp became the largest Displaced Persons camp in the British zone of occupied Germany and became synonymous with the plight of the Jewish DPs and their conflict with the British. Over the next few years it was to become an important centre of Jewish political and social activity and a constant thorn in the side of the British. The first point of conflict came as the British tried to rename the camp Hohne, but the Jewish DPs refused to accept this and for political and symbolic value continued to call it Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Survivors of the concentration camp wasted no time in organising themselves and within three days of liberation they had formed a camp committee. The organising continued and by June 1945 the first Central Committee of Liberated Jews was formed in Bergen-Belsen (Hohne). Under the leadership of Josef Rosensaft and Norbert Wollheim, the committee would become a formidable organization. They would lobby fiercely on behalf of the DP’s causes and rights, particularly on the issue of allowing the emigration to Palestine. Hohne would become the scene of many volatile protests by the DP’s against the British policy of forcefully turning ship loads of emigrants away from Palestine. Amazingly, social life soon flourished in the DP camp as the survivors started to rebuild their lives. After a few months family life began again and soon there were many marriages taking place. Education returned to the agenda as an Elementary school was organised in July 1945 and a High school in December 1945. The DPs of Hohne also had a lively cultural life and published their own Unzer Shtimme (Our Voice) which was the main Jewish newspaper of the British zone. By 1946 the camp housed over 11,000 Jews and was the only exclusively Jewish DP population in the British zone. In March 1946 the British handed over the running of the camp to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

 

By the end of 1947 Bergen-Belsen (Hohne) was once again being used as a military training establishment. Secretly, the Haganah (the Jewish military force in Palestine) and some members of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army began to prepare the DP’s for their eventual emigration to the soon to be state of Israel. Although released from the tyranny of the Nazis, the survivors were not allowed to move freely during their time in Bergen-Belsen (Hohne) and were confined to the area of the camp. This continued up to 1949 when the British authorities finally allowed free departure from the camp. By this time British run Palestine had been replaced by the Jewish state of Israel. Finally, the camp was being run down and its last refugees had left by August 1951.


Hohne – Home of the “Cold War” Warriors.

During the period after the war, Hohne was not totally given over to the DPs and was shared with some units of the British Army, who were part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). However, by 1950 when most of the DPs had departed and the whole of Hohne was passed over to the British Army, major renovation work was carried out throughout the camp. As each section was completed, fresh troops would move in to their new accommodation, Hohne was being prepared for the next chapter in its history.

Cold War adversaries Kruschev and Kennedy 

(Credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

With the onset of the “Cold War”, and the formation of NATO there came the perceived threat of invasion from the “Warsaw Pact” countries in the East. This was reinforced by world events throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s such as the Berlin Blockade, Korean War and uprisings in East Germany and Hungary. Being so close to the East German border, the British troops stationed at Hohne found themselves close to the front line!

 

In times of crisis BAOR would come under the command of NATO as 1 (BR) Corp which was given the task of defending a sector of the North German Plain. If this area of responsibility should come under threat the Corps would fight with two of its armoured divisions forward and one in reserve. Hohne would house units that formed part of one of those forward Divisions, 1st Armoured Division. Over the coming years Hohne would become home for many different kinds of units of the British Army, from Tank, Artillery, Engineers Regiments and many other units.

 

Thus Hohne became a little piece of the United Kingdom on the Luneburger Heide. Although the camp would be shared with units from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, it remained predominantly British. The camp contained a considerable number of married quarters and The Roundhouse became the centre of family life, housing the NAAFI, with its foodhall, butchery and gift shops. From here the troops and their families could buy those items they were used to buying back home. There was also the YMCA which provided a canteen and newspaper services for the troops. Other facilities were opened and soon the camp boasted a cinema, library, post office, swimming pool and excellent sporting facilities. Schools were started, and in 1962 a secondary school, Gloucester School Hohne, was opened at the Glyn Hughes hospital. This later moved when the forest on the Belser Berg was cleared and a new school built for use in 1965. Troops were constantly exercised to battle readiness and frequent manoeuvres on the nearby ranges were carried out. Units were sometimes called to serve overseas as UN peacekeepers and of course many did their share of Northern Ireland tours.

 

NATO tanks firing on Bergen-Hohne ranges 1967

(Credit: Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Museum)

This way of life continued until the collapse of the communist states in the East and Germany was reunified. This led to a draw back of UK forces in Germany and in 1994 BAOR was disbanded and became British Forces Germany (BFG). BFG has provided Hohne with a different role, it is now home to the Headquarters of 7th Armoured Brigade.

In the past 60 years or more, the camp has gone from being home to the military instructors and trainers of the Wehrmacht, who trained the troops participating in the invasion of Western Europe and who so nearly reached Asia with their invasion of Russia. Then it provided a home for the survivors of Nazi atrocities and a training ground where they would practise the way of life that they would lead when they finally reached their new home - Israel. The survivors were then replaced by the British Army, who fortunately were never called upon to defend that part of the North German plain against the threat from the East. This brings us to the present day with the camp now being used by BFG following the disbandment of BAOR . It leads to the question of what the future holds for the camp. There is a distinct possibility that with UK governments always looking to cut defence budgets, the removal of British troops from Hohne could be a financially attractive proposition. This, coupled with pressure from German environmentalists wanting to demilitarize the area, could well see Hohne and the surrounding area being returned to agricultural and forestry land in the near future just as it was over 60 years earlier, and thus coming full circle after bearing witness to one of the most terrible episodes in modern history.