It was a cold, damp and miserable morning in 1946. The Second World War had ended and Pilot Officer Leonard Barnett was responsible for the inspection of German units. Barnett and his driver left the town of Celle, Germany, and headed out on assignment.
They arrived at a small village. A large black sign with white lettering read: “Bergen-Belsen.” Along the road he noticed a single railway line disappearing into a thick pine forest.
P/O Barnett then saw an elderly German man approaching and yelled “Ist dis ein Konzentrationslager?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know!” the man replied.
As Barnett travelled farther into the village, he saw buildings with large chimneys and what seemed to be a hill, east of the centre of the village. As he got closer, he realized it wasn’t a hill of earth, but a hill of shoes 30 feet high, thousands of shoes. These were all that was left of thousands of Jewish and other prisoners, killed in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“It made an indelible impression on me, indelible,” Barnett said.
Leonard Barnett, 87, served during the Second World War with Bomber Command in the British Royal Air Force (RAF).
This morning, he attended the Remembrance Day observance at the Old City Hall Cenotaph. He was there to commemorate his fallen comrades. P/O Barnett served for 10 years and during the war he flew 54 operations to targets in German-occupied Europe.
Barnet said it was said among RAF airmen that if a pilot flew 12 operations, he was lucky. He said that the events he experienced and what he saw drove home the realities of war.
“When anybody asks me was it worth it, I say yes, to get rid of that bloody lot (of Nazis) it was. It was a period of utter contrast,” Barnett said.