A few weeks ago, I was taken to a muddy farm in Enfield to meet Harold Mills. Harold runs a wholesale plant nursery on the site of his lifelong family home, and is a veteran of the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army. He fought from the Ardennes and across the Rhineland, and enlisted at the age of 17, against his mother’s wishes.
My dear friend Veronica, a world-renowned garden designer I met on my recent trip to Poland, who coincidentally lives in a beautiful listed building on the conservation area I work on, knew Harold through garden jobs she had worked on, and had told him about our trip. He explained that he had been in the army and seen Belsen, and she encouraged him to give testimony.
Most testimonials I get to read are of survivors or from Europeans. At 87, I knew it was important for us to record the history of this British soldier, and for educational work, to preserve the memory of his important perspective.
Everything in quotation marks is direct transcription of the conversations we had on 15/05/12. I have rearranged some sections, so that the chronology of Harold’s service is easier to follow:
“I trained in Yorkshire, just outside of York. For about 15 months. Until November 1944.”
Harold takes a seat at the wobbly table in the Portacabin in a muddy corner of the plant nursery. There is a torrential downpour, and the sound of the heavy rain on the thin roof above our heads means I have to put my dictaphone right beside him, which clearly makes him feel uncomfortable. He pulls out a commemorative program of service, printed before his company came home from Europe, and begins by trying to find his name on the Roll of Honour.
“You can see my name there – Harold Mills – this address was Clockhouse Farm in those days. Look at the list. There was 150 people in a company. Mum changed the name from Clockhouse Farm to Clockhouse Nursery because she went off of keeping animals. If you look at the back you can see it was printed where we were stationed – that’s where I was stationed. After the war, the commanding officer – Major Bell – he’s still alive, he’s 97 but I don’t see him anymore as the reunions have stopped everyone’s got too old. Anyway, after the war he’d say it was a privilege to serve with us and all that so he had this printed in Sleznick where we were stationed. “
Each time Harold stops speaking, he glances at my dictaphone and concludes “and that’s pretty much it” with a nervous dismissive chuckle. I know he has more to tell me, and I can see the bag full of photographs and documents he’s brought to show me under his chair. I ask him about enlisting and how he ended up in Germany.
“I joined the army in 1943 when I was 17, did an officers training course which I chucked in. You had to specialise in something so I took a wireless course, and then I came up on draft and I was in the King’s Royal Rifles then, which is what I volunteered for. And then all of a sudden, the Battle of the Bulge came and I was in Belgium at the time, in Dubek. When the Germans broke through, we had to go and help them out. I was transferred then to the riflers. And that’s where I stayed until I came out. And then on April 15th we found Belsen. I was the first one to the gate at Belsen. I took my section down – 9 blokes. We stopped the German guards from escaping. We caught them and they were hung later. We moved on right away. Where we ended up – over the Rhine, March 24th. 70,000 German troops surrendered in one day. May 7th.”
Harold shows me a photo of himself in his uniform, clutching a mug of tea. The message on the back, sent home to his wife, reads:
“The reason why I look in a semi-stupor is because, well – think for yourself. —— I WAS sober.”
He tells me how it struck him that they caught all of these men – 70,000 soldiers [I have since read reports which claim this was actually 80,000] – and they were just young boys, like him. They tended to the wounded soldiers, and he felt confused and conflicted enough about the situation to drink an entire bottle of Apricot brandy, hence his ‘worse for wear’ state in the photo.
I ask him to think back to Belsen, which he clearly brushed over. He quite obviously struggles to speak about that particular part of his service.
“I didn’t know there was a camp there. We didn’t know. The smell…” “We caught a man at Weser on April 5th. He was a Colonel – Colonel Schmidt. My friend was a German Jew – I’m still friendly with him. He was born in Munich and his mother and father got him out in 1936 and they moved to Stanmore. I met him in 1944 in Belgium in the Ardennes. The amazing thing was I was born in Stanmore and he lived down the road! Strange isn’t it? I wasn’t living there then I had moved. 84 years ago we came here [Enfield] when I was 2.”
Harold shows me some photos he took – beautiful picturesque postcard-perfect scenes of German landscapes.
“That’s everything we captured.”
Again, I ask him to back up a little, to his brief mention of Belsen. Again, I can see him struggling, but know he has things to say that haven’t been recorded before.
“That’s all there is too tell, really. Quite a few battles on the way, but Belsen was the thing. Because we didn’t know what it was. It was just because of this Colonel Schmidt. We captured him. He went to see our commanding officer and he told us to keep away from a camp because he thought there was a lot of Typhus there. Major Bell had taken note of that and as we went on, he told me to take my 3 equipment carriers down this track, and the rest of them went down in to the village of Bergen.”
“I didn’t know. We didn’t understand. We didn’t know. All we could – the smell. We didn’t know what the smell was. As we approached it, there was just this terrible smell. We couldn’t make it out. Didn’t know why all these people had got their pyjamas on. But we didn’t stay there long because of the risk of Typhus, and we left the Hungarians to guard, armed. They came down and gave us all a Typhus jab, and then we had to move on, and then we made it to Lebeque[?] just before the Russians. And that’s it. That’s my story. That’s it.”
I ask him what else he remembers from Belsen, other than the pyjamas and the smell.
“Just bodies. Bodies. But the smell – you can’t believe it. No one went in to the camp then. We weren’t allowed to. That’s why the Hungarian guards were there. They were brown suited guys, armed, they were quite affable too. The Germans were still there then. [the camp was officially liberated ten days later]. They seemed to be oblivious to us – I couldn’t make it out.”
“I’ve got a school friend, Peter, he’s still alive. He’s about 80 I think. And he became chairman of the Bench of Magistrates in Tottenham. He had this chap come to him who was a doctor – Dr Roger Sheridan. He died a few years ago, and Peter said to me “You were at Belsen weren’t you Harold?” so I said “yes.” and he said “well I’ve got something for you to read”. And he – Roger Sheridan – a very young Jewish doctor, he went to Belsen to see what they could do, after, to sort everything out. They had to sort the dead from the partly dead. He died, and nobody knew that he was at Belsen and what he did, until he died. Helped all those people.”
I switch the dictaphone off, as I can see how uncomfortable it is making Harold. We continue to chat, so I revert to taking notes and some pictures of him as we look through his postcards, discharge card and the photos he sent home.
“I tell you what, I used my machine gun quite a lot.”
At this point, Veronica has joined us after choosing some plants for a garden she is working on and has been listening for a while.
“Did you kill a lot of people?”, she asks.”I don’t know – I fired at them! I was 19, in the Ardennes.”
“The war was pretty much over. We had been moved on. We had to go from Dubek to Sleznik. We were on the Baltic, and a German sub popped up. They started firing at us. We couldn’t make it out. Anyway, we were hit, we only had little gun carriers. All of a sudden, two flying Typhoons came over us, and sank the sub. The problem was the war was over but no body knew. It hasn’t been officially declared yet. The terrible thing was, that Sub was full of political prisoners. They all died. That’s one of the tragedies of war, you see. You don’t know who you’re killing.”