D-Day veteran who helped liberate Bergen-Belsen camp dies aged 95

D-Day veteran who was one of the first Allied soldiers to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after its Nazi guards fled dies aged 95

  • John Gardiner, from Sidmouth, Devon, fought on Sword Beach in D-Day landings
  • Aged just 18, he helped secure Pegasus Bridge before liberating Bergen-Belsen
  • In 2017 he was awarded Legion d’honneur – France’s highest military decoration
  • He died from kidney failure in hospital on May 4 after suffering an earlier fall 

A D-Day hero who battled the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy as a teenager and was one of the first soldiers to discover the horrors of the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp has died, aged 95.

When he was just 18, John Gardiner, from Sidmouth Devon, fought his way off Sword Beach during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

With his unit, part of the Devonshire Regiment, John battled inland to help his comrades hold Pegasus Bridge, which Allied soldiers had famously captured a few hours earlier.  

His unit then made their way across Germany towards the Baltic coast when John and an officer arrived at Bergen-Belsen – making him one of the first Allied soldiers to come across the horrors of the infamous concentration camp.

Approximately 50,000 people, most of them Jewish, died at the concentration camp, including Anne Frank and her mother Edith.  

When he was just 18, John Gardiner, from Sidmouth Devon, fought his way off Sword Beach during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944


With his unit, part of the Devonshire Regiment, John (pictured right during the Second World War) fought his way inland to help his comrades hold Pegasus Bridge, which Allied soldiers had famously captured a few hours earlier. After the war John (pictured left in his latter years) worked as a bus driver in his home town of Sidmouth, Devon, before retiring in 1990

After the D-Day landings, John (pictured left) and his unit, the 6th Air Landing Brigade, then made their way across Germany towards the Baltic coast, when John and an officer came across the horrors of Bergen-Belsen

Approximately 50,000 people, most of them Jewish, died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, including Anne Frank and her mother Edith. Pictured: Starving internees at Bergen-Belsen in 1945

After the war John worked as a bus driver in his home town of Sidmouth, Devon, before retiring in 1990.

The horrors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: Where Anne Frank was taken after she was captured

Bergen-Belsen was first established by the Nazis in 1940 as a prisoner of war camp, but was later turned into a concentration camp.

It was the first major camp to be liberated by Allied Forces, on April 1945. 

Anne Frank died  in 1945 while being held in Bergen-Belsen

Bergen-Belsen did not have gas chambers, but became exceptionally overcrowded and many prisoners died through starvation, overwork or disease.

Towards the end of the war the camp had a typhus epidemic, which would lead to the death of Anne Frank, whose wartime diary later became world-famous.

It is estimated around 50,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen, the vast majority of whom were Jewish.

When British forces arrived, they found thousands of bodies unburied around the camp and some 60,000 starving and mortally ill people packed together without food, water or basic sanitation. 

The British were forced to bury thousands of corpses in mass graves hastily excavated on the site, while, despite their best efforts, many of those liberated from the camp would die from their ill-treatment.

Sources: The Imperial War Museum and Encyclopedia Britannica 

In 2017 he was awarded the Legion d’honneur – France’s highest military decoration – for helping to liberate the country from the Nazis. 

Now tributes have been paid to John, who died in hospital on May 4 from kidney failure after suffering a fall.

He did not have coronavirus, his family confirmed, though they were unable to say goodbye to him due to visiting restrictions in place due to Covid-19.

His daughter Terina Worrall said: ‘Dad will be mainly remembered as a quiet, gentle, kind, generous and helpful gentleman.

‘He was always happy to help others and was a very humble person with a quiet humour.

‘He enjoyed gardening and had a collection of tortoises in the garden too.’ 

John served with the 12 Battalion Devonshire Regiment, part of the 6th Airborne Division, and after training his first action was landing on Sword Beach on D-Day.

After fighting in the D-Day landings, John and his unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium to help quell Hitler’s last major offensive of the Second World War.

In March 1945 he was flown by glider 50 miles behind the German lines to help secure strategic river bridges as part of Operation Varsity.

During the operation – the largest ever airborne operation – John saw pal Private Jack Bristol fatally shot through the stomach.

John was unable to stop for the 20-year-old fellow Devonian as they were still under intense fire.

The death of his friend continued to haunt John after the war and his family say he would send money to his relatives as a means of support. 

Mrs Worrall said: ‘ He didn’t talk about (the war) for ages. He lost his best friend – he was hit and he was ordered to leave him to die as they were under fire.

John served with the 12 Battalion Devonshire Regiment, part of the 6th Airborne Division, and after training his first action was landing on Sword Beach on D-Day

In 2017 John was awarded the Legion d’honneur – France’s highest military decoration – for helping to liberate the country from the Nazis.

‘He never really got over that. He used to send money to his friends’s mum to help her out financially as she was a widow.

‘Today I would say his experiences left him with PTSD but like so many of that era they just got on with it.’  

In March 1945 John was flown by glider 50 miles behind the German lines to help secure strategic river bridges as part of Operation Varsity

Three weeks later after John’s unit headed north through Germany he and a senior officer came across a series of huts behind barbed wire fences.

They were urged to approach it by a skeletal figure of a man who opened the gate for them.

Mrs Worrall said: ‘At Belsen he found the camp all but empty of people apart from a German/Jewish guy who spoke a little English.

‘He showed him around and one can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to find bodies in a pit with lime spread over them.

‘Again, I think that contributed to his quiet demeanour.’

John had four children with his first wife Pat.

After they divorced in the early 1970s he met his second wife and now widow Joan who he later married in 2003.

John’s funeral is due to take place at Whimple Crematorium on May 19.

His family has set up a fundraising page in his memory in aid of the armed forces charity Help for Heroes.

  • To donate, visit the JustGiving page.

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