The Prescotian Webzine

John Webster, PGS Pupil, Soldier, Teacher [Daily Telegraph, 11, Feb. 2016]
John Webster, who has died aged 93, was one of the first British soldiers to witness the horrors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Webster, then a captain and senior liaison officer with 44th (Lowland) Infantry Brigade HQ, part of 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, had been sent to make contact with an armoured column north of Hanover during the British advance into Germany.

Through a group of trees, he caught sight of some white buildings which, as he said afterwards, “did not look quite right” and he ordered his driver to turn down an unmade track so that he could investigate.

The buildings were barracks for the SS but there were no guards to be seen and he drove on until he came to the camp behind. He never forgot the sight of hundreds of emaciated survivors in blue and white striped pyjamas who, he said, looked as if they were not of this world. The sight of his jeep produced no reaction. They took no notice of him at all.

He walked towards a freshly dug pit. It was about 25 yards long and nine feet deep. It was empty but another, nearby, was half full of skeletal bodies. There were 60,000 prisoners there and many thousands of unburied bodies.

  John Webster
Webster was profoundly shocked. He thought that he might have stumbled on a lunatic asylum and was greatly relieved when 11th Armoured Division arrived to take over. Allied commanders had known about the camp for 24 hours because the previous day the Germans had given its location and warned of an outbreak of typhus.

To avoid spreading the disease, it was agreed that German forces would withdraw from the area leaving a small number of guards in charge of the camp. Webster was in no doubt, however, that all the guards had vanished. Many others have claimed to be the first Allied soldier to enter the camp but Webster’s detailed account places him close to the top of the list.

John Webster was born at Prescot, Lancashire, on September 23 1922. He was educated at Prescot Grammar School before going up to Queens’ College, Cambridge, to read English. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war and, after attending Octu, in 1940 he was commissioned into the Royal Scots and posted to the 8th Bn. On April 29 1945, during the assault crossing of the river Elbe, Webster was in charge of the control and disembarkation of all the brigade’s vehicles. He landed with the assault waves to make a reconnaissance of the bank while the defenders were bringing down accurate fire.

When daylight came, the enemy began continuous shelling and bombing of the single, narrow approach to the bank. Webster’s control post was in the most exposed area but he moved about in the open giving every possible assistance to drivers of all units. He was awarded an Immediate MC. The citation stated that, as a result of his efforts, it had been possible to achieve a rapid expansion of a vital bridgehead.

He was demobilised after the war and, having returned to Cambridge, graduated in 1947. He taught English at the Holt High School, Liverpool, and became head of English at the Liverpool Institute where his pupils included George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

In 1956, he was appointed head of Gillingham Grammar School and charged with the task of merging it with the adjacent secondary modern school to create the first comprehensive school in north Dorset. It became the model for many such amalgamations across the country. Webster believed strongly in equality of educational opportunity and the situation at Gillingham lent itself to the comprehensive system.

He became chairman of the Southern Region Examinations Boards and was a JP in Dorset for many years. He subsequently moved to Ledbury, Herefordshire, to be nearer his children and enjoyed restoring clocks, and walking in Scotland and in the Lake District. He was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur a week before he died.

John Webster married, in 1948, Lesley Airey. She predeceased him and he is survived by their two sons and a daughter.

John Webster, born September 23 1922, died December 24 2015

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