By Gilly Carr
Alfred William Howlett was born in Guernsey on 26 December 1891. He had previously served in the army during the First World War, from which he retired at the rank of sergeant on 20 May 1919. He joined the Island’s police force on 20 April 1920 and was promoted to the rank of sergeant in May 1928. He was still a police sergeant at the time of the occupation of the island and lived with his wife, Annie, in the Vale parish.
Howlett, along with many of his fellow policemen, was to get involved in a case which would cause ripples for decades to come. From the earliest post-war days, these men of military age consistently argued that their actions were inspired by the BBC broadcasts of ‘Colonel Britton’, otherwise known as Douglas Ritchie. These broadcasts were transmitted on the European service to the occupied peoples of Europe but were not aimed at the Channel Islanders because of the precariousness of their situation as sitting ducks in small islands. These broadcasts gave instructions to civilians to sabotage and harass the occupiers in numerous non-military ways. For these young men denied the opportunity of fighting in the armed services, or the older men who had previously served in WWI, such broadcasts appealed greatly. Their role as policemen gave them opportunities for action denied to most other civilians, such as being out after curfew. However, their position was a double-edged sword. Policemen were also required to salute passing German officers, which they found hard to stomach.
We have four main sources of information from which to draw to learn more of Howlett’s story: Bill Bell’s interviews with the policemen later in their lives; Howlett and his wife’s post-war affidavits, which record Howlett’s treatment at the hands of the Germans during his trial in Guernsey; International Tracing Service records relating to his sojourns in various German prisons; and the memoirs of his police colleague, Kingston George Bailey, from which we can learn much about the experiences of the other policemen. Bailey described how he and fellow ringleader, police constable Frank Tuck, decided, in the first winter of the occupation, to do all they could to annoy the Germans. From March 1941 they compiled a dossier on their activities, cut telephone wires, put sand in the petrol tanks of German cars, and painted V for victory signs around the island.
By the following winter, the civilian population was suffering from food shortages while, at the same time, the Germans stockpiled food in stores throughout St Peter Port. Bailey and Tuck broke into these stores by night and took tinned food to redistribute to those in need. They brought a number of other policemen into their group such that, by February 1942, ‘the operation was … getting out of hand … practically the whole police force was now taking part and, as we were on different shifts, it was impossible to know what each man was doing.’ Civilian stores run by people trading with the Germans were also entered.
On 3 March 1942, Bailey and Tuck were caught red-handed by German soldiers lying in wait for them at one of the food stores. They and most of the other police were taken to Guernsey prison and their houses were searched. The men were taken to Grange Lodge in St Peter Port, the HQ of the Secret Field Police (Geheime Feldpolizei) for questioning. They were beaten and given decreasing rations over the period of interrogation. Back in the prison they were kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to wash or change their clothes. Lack of sleep also took its toll. They were also presented with forged confessions during this period.
During this period of questioning, Howlett later wrote about his ill-treatment at the hands of the Geheime Feldpolizei. When he was first arrested, he was taken to Guernsey prison. ‘When I denied being concerned in the theft, OESER struck me on each ear with his clenched fist and then had me removed to a cell. On 10th March 1942 I was taken from the prison by car to the German Military Headquarters at Grange Lodge, and I was there interrogated by OESER, who employed a member of the Gestapo named Wolff as an interpreter. On my again denying any knowledge of the stores OESER struck me in my face with his fist, knocking me off a stool into the fireplace. I was then taken back to the prison.’
Howlett was then driven, a week later, to his home and, from the car, made to watch his wife being dragged across the yard by Sergeant-Major Oeser, while she shouted for help and was threatened with prison. Howlett confessed to the hidden location of some foodstuffs. He was then accused of breaking and entering a food store. ‘When I denied doing so he picked up a field-boot jack and pinned me by the neck with this against the wall. While I was in this position he struck me two or three times on the head. On releasing me he struck me again and I fell into the fireplace. During the assault my top dentures were broken. I was then returned to the prison.’ – [Affidavit by Alfred Howlett, 15 May 1945. TNA ref. WO 311/11.]
Sixteen of the policemen were then taken to Fort George in St Peter Port for four weeks, where they were able to recover from their beatings and receive food from family and friends so that they looked well for their trial.
On 24 April 1942 the men were tried by the Germans and, controversially, also by the local authorities in the Royal Court on 1 June 1942, on account of the civilian stores that had also been entered. This was to be a show trial. Howlett was sentenced to two years imprisonment for ‘receiving goods’ by the German court, and 9 months hard labour by the Royal Court, the sentences to run concurrently. After sentencing, the men were taken back to Fort George until their deportation on 13 June 1942, during which they were handcuffed to each other in pairs. They were taken first to Jersey Prison for the night, then on to a prison in Granville for a few hours, and then Caen Prison, all the while still in handcuffs.
They were in Caen from 16 June to 16 July 1942. For the first night they were put in dungeon cells in which straw mattresses, complete with wet blankets, were placed on the floor, in two inches of ‘what smelt like a cesspool’. After that they were placed in a room filled with 100 cubicles, each locked up at night, and each containing a bed. In his memoirs, Bailey wrote that ‘the cubicles and bed frames were full of bugs which were, indeed, as hungry as ourselves … The food was terrible, consisting mainly of cabbage soup, with about 3/4 of a pound of bread each day … Many of the prisoners suffered from a mild form of dysentery, probably caused by too much cabbage water.’
On the next stage of his journey, Howlett and his police colleague Archibald Tardiff were separated from their colleagues and taken, on 16 July 1942, to Troyes Haut-Clos Prison. The other men were sent to Fort de Villeneuve St Georges Prison near Paris. After only three weeks, on 8 August, Howlett was moved to Clairvaux Prison, where he remained until 17 May 1943. On this date he was transferred to Germany with a prison escort via Freiburg Prison.
Records from the International Tracing Service indicate that he arrived in Bernau Prison and Forced Labour Camp three days later, on 20 May 1943, where he was given prisoner number 2460. Five of his police colleagues were to experience this brutal camp. Howlett was fortunate to be moved from Bernau to Landsberg Prison on 16 June 1943, as prisoner number 1378. He endured just over three weeks of hard labour. He was, by this period, classed as ‘unfit for outdoor work.’ He was 53 years old.
After Landsberg Prison, which he left on 23 December 1943, the trail from the International Tracing Service runs cold. We do not know how long he was in this prison. Fortunately for us, Howlett made a sworn statement immediately after the war, on 15 May 1945, about his treatment at the hands of the Germans. In his words, ‘while in prison camps in Karlsruhe, Bernau, Landsberg, Munich and Stuttgart had no complaints with regard to my treatment or food. I returned to Guernsey on 8 January 1944, three months of my sentence having been remitted by Doktor Knackfuss, Commandant of the Channel Islands’.
There are three observations we can make from this extraordinary statement. The first, that he had ‘no complaints’ about his treatment, is utterly incredible when one considers the testimony of other islanders who experienced these places. Could it be that his period of hard labour was used up in France and thus the absence of a sentence of hard labour by the time he reached Germany saved him from the ill-treatment experienced by his colleagues? Is this why no testimony of Nazi persecution by Howlett has yet been located in The National Archives files?
Second, this sequence of ‘prison camps’ provides the missing information we need – but not all of it. If it is in chronological order, which is not certain, it would allow just three days (including travel from Clairvaux Prison in France to Bernau Prison via Freiburg Prison in Germany), for a very short stay at Karlsruhe Prison. Such train journeys containing prisoners typically took several days at this time, and so the sojourns at Freiburg and Karlsruhe would have been a night at most. Howlett is also not specific about which prisons in Munich or Stuttgart he was incarcerated in. As Channel Islanders, for the most part, tended to cluster in certain prisons, we can only note that the Frank Falla Archive lists only one prison in Stuttgart which housed another Islander (Emma Constance Marshall): Stuttgart Remand Prison. Two prisons in Munich housed Islanders: Munich Gestapo Prison, where two other Guernsey policemen (Kingston Bailey and Frederick Short) were sent; and Munich Stadelheim Prison, where Guernseyman Roy Machon was incarcerated. We can thus suggest that it is strongly likely that Howlett was in Munich Gestapo Prison.
The third observation we can make is that, remarkably, Howlett was actually returned to the Channel Islands in January 1944. He was extremely fortunate in this regard; most in his position would have had to continue with their sentences (regardless of whether that sentence had expired or not) until the end of the war. For Knackfuss to have intervened suggests that Howlett’s wife Annie intervened, and asked others to do so too, on Howlett’s behalf.
Annie would not have been able to do anything after February 1943, because she was deported, along with the wives and children of the other policemen, to Compiègne Internment and Transit Camp. In May 1943 they were moved to Biberach Civilian Internment Camp. Annie also had the good fortune to return early to Guernsey in April 1944, either because of ill-health or as a fit Islander willing to accompany the seriously ill members of the camp back to the Island. Alfred Howlett thus returned home before his wife. He worked on his land full time and, in January 1945, reported to the police that one of his greenhouses had been broken into and food stolen; the culprit was, it seems, a German soldier.
After the occupation, Howlett was not reinstated as a policeman. He instead found employment as a commissioner at the Gaumont cinema. Alfred Howlett, like the other Guernsey policemen, never cleared his name and the judgements against him and the other policemen made by the Royal Court in Guernsey still stand to this day, long after his death.
Bailey, K.G.1979 . Dachau. Guernsey: CI Marine Ltd.
Bell, W.M. 1995. I Beg to Report. Guernsey: Guernsey Press Co. Ltd.
Sanders, P. 2014. ‘Economic resistance and sabotage’, pp. 277-306 in G. Carr, P. Sanders and L. Willmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation 1940-1945. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Alfred Howlett, International Tracing Service records, Wiener Library refs. 11538703, 11495013, 11749220/1.
Alfred Howlett affidavit, 15 May 1945, TNA ref. WO 311/11.
Annie Howlett affidavit, May 1945, TNA ref. WO 311/11.
Alfred Howlett, records from Troyes Prison and Clairvaux Prison, Archives départementales de l’Aube, Troyes, France, refs. 1039W14 & 1360 W362.