Old soldier’s never ending memory of war
PUBLISHED: 12:21 09 November 2006 | UPDATED: 11:11 06 May 2010
To mark Remembrance Day this weekend, Comet reporter HANNAH GRAY spoke to World War II veteran Harry King about his unique experiences helping some of the most desperate victims of the conflict, women who had been held in the notorious Belsen concentra
To mark Remembrance Day this weekend, Comet reporter HANNAH GRAY spoke to World War II veteran Harry King about his unique experiences helping some of the most desperate victims of the conflict, women who had been held in the notorious Belsen concentration camp.
LIKE so many young soldiers of the time, Harry King went into World War II with feelings of excitement and fear of the unknown and came out with memories that would stay with him forever.
After being called up at the age of 17 the Londoner, who now lives in Kite Way, Letchworth GC, spent time in Africa and Italy and was at the battle of El Alamein.
But in a period fraught with drama and danger, the memory of one particular day near the end of the war stands out for him.
Mr King had been trained as a medic and spent much of the war in various locations with the 50th Northumbrian division.
By 1945, he was with the 43rd Wessex division in a 'wandering column' in Europe.
In the early morning of April 15, 1945, they arrived at Uelzen, a town near Belsen.
Shortly after their arrival, Mr King was summoned by the brigadier and asked if he would be prepared to undertake a special mission.
The brigadier wanted Mr King to go into the women's quarters of Belsen and bring as many of the female prisoners as possible back to Uelzen.
The women were under threat of execution from the camp's commandant, Josef Kramer - known as the Beast of Belsen.
Because Mr King had grown up in the multicultural East End of London and had a smattering of German and Italian plus his medical knowledge, he was an ideal candidate for the task.
"If you had sent the infantry in, I know a tank could have smashed the door down but what about the people lying there? They'd have been scared to death," Mr King said.
The area was not at that time the 43rd Wessex division's 'venue', so the brigadier could not order Mr King to go into the camp - instead he had to ask him to volunteer.
Although the dangers of the mission were unknown - there was fighting going on at the camp in a bid to liberate it - Mr King agreed to go.
"In those days a job had to be done and we did it. I did something I had to do," he said.
Mr King took a driver and a truck to the camp, which was a few miles away.
As they neared the site, they could hear first hand the fight that was going on in the male quarters.
"We could hear the people that were trying to liberate Belsen, I could hear the rumpus going on," he said.
When they got to Belsen, women were milling around by the gate and Mr King shouted at them to get out of the way so he could force it open.
Once the gate was open, together with his colleague Mr King was able to usher 40 prisoners onto the lorry.
Many of the women were confused and distressed and Mr King was helped to gather them up by a young woman, whose name he discovered was Rachela Friedenreich.
"They were a bit wary, they'd been treated so badly," he said.
"I sat in the back with them, next to Rachela and she was telling me what happened. It was very, very nasty.
"I remember one lady there, a very old lady, she got hold of my hand and kissed it."
Mr King and his comrade took the woman to Uelzen town hall where food and clothing was awaiting them.
"To start with they just looked at it. They were frightened to touch it because at the camp they were in if they touched something they got shot," he said.
Because Mr King's division could not take charge of the women, that evening he was asked to take them back to the camp.
The battle to liberate Belsen was eventually won that day, and by the time Mr King's lorry returned, international organisations such as the Red Cross were present.
Mr King's involvement in Belsen ended when he returned the women, and later that year he was demobbed and returned to Hitchin, where his parents had moved during the war.
In 1948, he married a fellow Londoner, Alice, who had also moved to the area, and the couple had two children, a son and a daughter.
Although the years passed, Mr King never forgot the women of Belsen, especially the young Rachela.
"I often wondered what happened to her," he said.
"Through different people I'm in touch with, I found out she went to Palestine, she met a soldier there and got married.
"She lives in America now.
"They said to me 'If possible would you like to meet her?' But I said no. It would be far too traumatic, not only for her but for me."
Alice died in 2000 and today Mr King, now in his 80s, is a doting grandfather of four and great grandfather of two.
Pictures of his large family adorn the tidy living room of his bungalow in Kite Way, nestling alongside the neat frame containing his many service medals and his cap badge.
Although his actions undoubtedly provided comfort and hope to those 40 women from Belsen, to this day Mr King remains humble about volunteering to go on the mission.
"These people were human beings and somebody had to do something," he said.
Remembrance parades and services
Biggleswade - Sunday: Marchers assemble at station at 10.15am, service 10.45am at war memorial in Market Square.
Arlesey - Sunday: Service 2.30pm, 3pm parade from the war memorial.
Henlow - Sunday: Service 11am at the war memorial, parade afterwards to the church.
Clifton - Sunday: Service 10.45am, parade afterwards to church.
Langford - Sunday: Service 10.45am at the war memorial.
Sandy - Sunday: Service 11am at war memorial, parade will go on to the church.
Shillington - Sunday: Service at 10.30am in village hall folowed by wreath laying at war memorial at 11am.
Stotfold - Sunday: Parade from cemetery to church at 2.30pm, service 3.30pm.
Kimpton - Sunday: Parade 10.15am from village hall, stopping at war memorial and arriving at church at approx 10.40am.
Letchworth GC - Sunday: Service at war memorial at 10.45am, ending with march off at 11.40am.
Whitwell - Sunday: Parade begins 2.45pm outside Dr Archer's Surgery to the war memorial at junction of Whitwell Road, High Street, and Codicote Road.
Hitchin - Sunday: Parade starts 2pm from Hitchin Town Hall, service in St Mary's Church starts 2.30pm. Wreath laying at the war memorial afterwards.
Pirton - Sunday: Services at the Methodist Church at 10am, and at St Mary's Church at 10.30am. Remembrance service at war memorial at 11am followed by morning service at St Mary's.
Baldock - Sunday: Gather at 10.30am at the war memorial in High Street for 11am service.
Ashwell - Sunday: Service at war memorial at 2.30pm followed by service at URC at 3pm.
Graveley - Sunday: Service in St Mary's Church at 10.50am.
Knebworth - Sunday: Act of Remembrance at war memorial, 12.30pm.
Saturday: Two minute silence and short ceremony at 10.50am in front of clock tower in town centre. Sunday: Parade members will move from Primett Road car park at 10.30am to war memorial on the Bowling Green, High Street. Service will commence at 10.35am and finish at approx 11.05am.
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