As the end of the war approached, and the allies began to march across Germany, rumours of the concentration camps suddenly became terrible reality.
On 21 April 1945 a delegation of ten British Parliamentarians entered the Buchenwald camp near Weimar. It had been liberated by the American army shortly before. The delegation included two Somerset MPs – Mavis Tate, MP for Frome, and Lt Col. E.T.R. (Tom) Wickham, the member for Taunton.
Mavis Tate would later provide the commentary for a shocking newsreel film of their visit. In 1947 she took her own life, partly, it was said, because she never could recover from what she saw that day. Tom Wickham provided his own testimony in an interview with the Somerset County Gazette. It appeared in the same edition that contained the paper’s VE Day coverage.
Somerset County Gazette, 12 May 1945
“After passing under the gatehouse of Buchenwald, with its superscription in flaring capitals, ‘My country, right or wrong’, spending some three hours examining the evidence of infamous, inhuman treatment, and trying to offer a word of comfort here and there, one had the feeling that one was in the private domain of some monstrous madman, the incarnation of cruelty and hate.”
This studied declaration was made by Lieutenant Colonel E.T.R. Wickham, M.P. for the Taunton Division, in an interview with a “County Gazette” reporter shortly after the publication of the report on conditions in the German concentration camp prepared by the Parliamentary delegation of two Peers and eight M.P.s, of which he was a member.
Colonel Wickham had obviously been profoundly moved by the tragic scenes he had witnessed, and his hands visibly trembled as he sought words to express how deeply shocked he had been at the “calculated, meticulous, bestial cruelty” practised by the Nazi prison guards.
War correspondents have written despatches affirming that prevalent conditions at Buchenwald defeated descriptive writing. Certainly the story told by Colonel Wickham and the other members of the delegation requires no embellishment. Sober and restrained, it speaks for itself with a cogent simplicity which imprints its contents indelibly upon heart and brain.
Colonel Wickham said that in preparing their report members of the delegation had endeavoured to avoid obtruding personal reactions or emotional comments. It was their considered and unanimous opinion, however, on the evidence available to them, that a policy of steady starvation and inhuman brutality had been carried out at Buchenwald for a long period of time, and that such camps marked the lowest point of degradation to which humanity had yet descended. The memory of what they saw and heard at Buchenwald would haunt them ineffaceably for many years.