Peter Crill's own story

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Escapes from Jersey during the German Occupation by Sir Peter Crill

Peter Crill, Roy Mourant and John Floyd relive their escape 50 years after in 1994

It is just as well that most young people in their late teens believe themselves to be immortal otherwise it is possible that many of those who escaped from the Island in 1944, or tried to do so, would not have made the attempt. In the summer of that year the Channel Islands lived in hope that the invasion would result in the Germans withdrawing their forces, but this was not the practice of the Wermacht and so they stayed. As it sunk in that we were not to be freed until the end of the war groups of young men and women, but mainly they were male, met to talk about escaping to the French mainland as soon as it had been liberated. In the event it took the allies longer than they had anticipated and so it was not until the end of August that In a manner of speaking the coast was clear. Throughout the occupation the Germans far from encouraging people to leave threatened reprisals which they did. The example of Francois Scornet was after all still fresh in our minds and it would be idle to say that in escaping from festung Jersey there was no risk, not only to those who undertook it but to their families who remained. Nevertheless the impetuosity of youth overcame any such fears.

Preparations essential

Accordingly preparations were made, some thorough and some not. Those who prepared as much as they could generally succeeded. I am not sure if all those attempting to escape realised how the currents ran around Jersey. There were two. The first one went around the Island anti clockwise and did so irrespective of the main stream which ebbed and flowed towards the French coast. If one failed to get clear of the local Jersey stream there was a risk that one would be carried around the Island rather than in the direction of the French coast should one's means of propulsion fail.

Throughout the late summer and early autumn the "buzz" amongst the young was "who is going to try" or "who has got away" or "who has been caught". One thing was clear but not wholly understood. The German forces although only of garrison standard were nevertheless trained troops and somewhat jittery in case there was an allied landing in the Islands. It should not come as a surprise therefore that those who were detected trying to escape and who tried to run away under the search lights were shot at and, in some cases were killed.

Peter Crill

Crill's own escape

Speaking for ourselves, that is to say John Floyd and Roy Mourant, with whom I escaped, decided that if we were rumbled, our hands would go up, and it was "kamarad"; there were to be no brave gestures. With one exception the favoured place for leaving was Grouville Bay and in particular from the house, or at least garden of Mr Wilfred Bertram, whose help to many of those escaping was recognised after the war by an MBE. He had even built a kind of slide in wood to take the keels of the boats down the sloping sea wall.

John Langley

I know of one other escape this time with a girl and her fiancé and this was from Bonne Nuit. Those escaping from Grouville at least did not have mines to negotiate but these two certainly had as they made their way down the cliffs to the harbour. It was a miracle that they did not set one off. They were married shortly afterwards and are now living in New Zealand where John Langley, the male partner, had become a Methodist Minister.

Diary published

All who escaped have a variety of stories to tell. My own is recorded in the diary I wrote very soon after the event and is published by the Societe Jersiaise in one of their Bulletins. With hindsight we achieved very little except to confirm through the memorandum of the then Bailiff, Mr A M Coutanche, the state of the Island as regards food and heating. Coutanche had prepared a memorandum about the problems facing the Island and had handed it to the German authorities. It contained courageously a hint that if they failed to fulfil their obligations under the Geneva Convention that might be something to be levelled against them after the war.

Most of those escaping were debriefed by the war Office and records now released are fascinating not least in the way In which the interviewing officer assessed the reliability of his informant.

Some escaped through patriotism and many of those who did joined the Forces or entered some form of war service. I have no doubt that others escaped "just for the hell of it". Whichever category they fell into, the exploits of whose who escaped to the French mainland cannot compare to that of Denis Vibert, who in 1941, at his second attempt, made his way alone to England in a small dinghy.

American prisoners

The second escape that carried with it greater risk, as they were American prisoners of war, having been captured in Normandy, was that of George Haas and Ed Clarke in January 1945. Not only did they escape from custody twice but made their way from St Helier to Gorey without being detected, where at their second attempt, the first one having failed because they had forgotten to untie the painter at the stern of the boat, they succeeded after having spent a miserable night listening to the German sentry walking up and down Gorey Pier. They rowed the full distance to the French coast in bitter cold and a snow storm. Each attempted "to go over the side" but was hauled back by his companion.

I believe that the palm for a brave escape should be shared between Denis Vibert, George and Ed, particularly as George was suffering from a serious leg wound that the German surgeon at the General Hospital had attempted to alleviate.

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