Holocaust education chiefs have paid tribute to the “remarkable” Royal Navy pilot who helped interrogate Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering after the liberation of Belsen, following his death at the age of 97, writes Stephen Oryszczuk
Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who acted as interpreter during the interrogation of high-ranking Nazi officials, last year accompanied Queen Elizabeth II to the site of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, working closely with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
“He was a remarkable man who had the most extraordinary career,” said an HET chief executive Karen Pollock. “I had the privilege of accompanying him to Bergen-Belsen last year as he met Her Majesty the Queen and it was a great honour to have the chance to hear just some of his incredible stories.”
Capt. Brown, born in Scotland in 1919, was the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot, piloting more than 2,400 aircraft carrier landings. His record for having flown 487 different types of aircraft is yet to be beaten, despite the United States employing someone for the specific purpose of doing so.
Known as ‘Winkle’ on account of his small size, Capt. Brown was one of only two men (out of 24) to survive his ship being torpedoed by a German U-boat, later piloted Britain’s first supersonic flight, and always believed flying was in his blood, having first flown on his father’s knee aged 8.
Overheard speaking German by a British medical officer, Capt. Brown was asked to translate during the questioning of Belsen’s former camp commandant, Josef Kramer, and the warden of the women’s section, Irma Grese.
In 2014, interviewed for BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs, he relived the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he sensed a “blanket of evil, something underlying that was very wrong”.
During that interview he described Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s right-hand man, as “quite charismatic in many ways… he had a presence, no doubt about that, and he was very straight-forward”.
Of Belsen, he said: “I’ve never seen such desecration of human beings. When we went in there were piles of bodies as high as the roof, mostly female, all in grotesque positions, and they were bulldozed with a bulldozer.”
The Belsen barracks were originally designed to house 60 people, but Brown said there were 250 people per barrack when he arrived, with one toilet at the end.
“There were three tiers of bunks. The ones at the top messed on the ones below. The stench was utterly, utterly appalling. That lives with me to this day. They were all lost souls, they were dying, there was no way back, they’d gone too far. There were zombies walking outside. But even if I stopped and tried to help them, they didn’t respond, their minds had gone.”