Published Date: 08 August 2010
By Emma Cowing
IN APRIL 1945, he was the only Scot to witness the horrors of Belsen concentration camp at first hand. Now, 65 years on, Ian Forsyth is to be given the highest honour awarded to foreign nationals by the Polish government for work inspired by what he saw.
Forsyth, 86, has been awarded the prestigious Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, for a distinguished contribution to international cooperation between Poland and other countries. He will receive the award from the Polish president-elect, Bronislaw Komorowski, in a ceremony later this year, and is believed to be the only Scot to have been given the honour.

Piotr Leszczynski, Vice-Consul of the Republic of Poland in Edinburgh said: "Ian Forsyth has done some remarkable work supporting Polish ex-servicemen in Scotland, arranging memorial services and running the Polish Naval Association for many years. Many Poles in this country are very grateful to him."

Forsyth, originally from Ross-shire, said he was astounded to have received the award. "To be awarded something like that - I'm thrilled to bits but it's embarrassing because I ask myself, what in the world have I done for this? According to the letter I got it was for the many years of work, but it still makes me embarrassed."

Forsyth was serving with the 15th-19th Hussars when his tank arrived at the gates of Bergen-Belsen, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, on 15 April, 1945.

"No-one had told us anything. 'Bash on' were our only orders of the day, so we bashed on, firing the 77mm guns of our Comet tanks at anything that moved," he said.

"Then came a strange order: 'Halt! Stop firing!' Our hearts raced for we were in the open. There was a strange smell in the air which I can only describe as greasy."

Forsyth, then just 21, and his fellow soldiers, were told not to feed any of the inmates in the camp or to go near to them, in case they caught typhus, and to leave the German guards on duty where they were. It was an order he found difficult to comprehend. "It was bewildering. Why couldn't we just burst through the gates and announce 'We're here, you're free'?"

More than 50,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen, including the famous diarist Anne Frank. More than half died from typhus, and many more of starvation.

Forsyth, who went on to become a secondary school teacher in Hamilton, says what he saw that day profoundly affected the rest of his life.

"It was such a negative thing that we witnessed that there must be a positive outcome from that experience."

After the war, Forsyth threw himself into work for the Polish ex-services community, many of whom had been posted to Scotland during wartime and had decided to settle here.

He helped set up the Polish Naval Association which provided a lifeline to Polish sailors, and acted as a liaison between many Polish ex-servicemen and the Royal British Legion.