By Gilly Carr
Cecil Duquemin is best known for his role in GUNS, the Guernsey Underground News Service. His experiences after his deportation from Guernsey, and those of his colleagues, are detailed in the 1967 memoir, The Silent War, written by his GUNS colleague, Frank Falla. He also wrote a short unpublished memoir of his experiences, available on this website.
Cecil Duquemin was born in Guernsey on 17 July 1909. At the time of the German occupation he was working in the greenhouses in St Sampsons, although he was a baker by profession. He lived at 54 Victoria Road in St Peter Port, on the same road as his GUNS colleague Charles Machon.
Duquemin was one of several people involved in the writing of GUNS. This news service had its origin with four people: Henrietta Gillingham, Ernest Legg and Joseph Gillingham, who gave the BBC news every morning to Machon, the ringleader, and a linotype operator at The Star newspaper. Henrietta would write down the BBC 9pm news from her hidden illegal radio, making eight copies using carbon paper. The following morning, Legg would listen to the 8am news and made additions. The copies were taken into their workplaces by Legg and Gillingham, and another copy would be given to Charles Machon, who would incorporate it into his typed (and sometimes linotyped) news sheet.
Less than a year later, Frank Falla and Duquemin joined the group. Henrietta pulled out in mid-1943 after becoming pregnant, fearful of the risks she was taking. Providing the news to the people of Guernsey was vital after radios were confiscated in the Channel Islands in June 1942. The occupiers did not want people to hear pro-Allied propaganda from London, and it became a punishable offence to retain a radio set or listen to the news. GUNS operated from May 1942 to February 1944. Around 300 copies were produced every day, and these were borrowed and passed around the island. A copy was even passed daily to the Bailiff of Guernsey, Victor Carey. A number of other people were involved in distribution, including Hubert Lanyon in Sark.
The men involved in the news sheet were denounced. Duquemin was arrested late at night on 11 February 1944. Machon was arrested at the same time at Duquemin, and both men were placed in Guernsey prison and interrogated at the HQ of the Geheime Feldpolizei, the secret field police popularly referred to as the ‘Gestapo’ in the island. Duquemin appeared in court on 26 April 1944, and was given a sentence by a German military court of 1 year and 11 months. On 4 June 1944, all of the men except Machon (who was deported earlier) were sent straight to Germany via St Malo, arriving at Frankfurt am Main Prison on 7 June.
A key written source of Duquemin’s experience in Frankfurt is Falla’s memoirs; the men from Guernsey were treated alike. Falla wrote that he had to wear prison garb consisting of clogs, pale blue dungaree trousers and coat and a handkerchief-sized scarf. The back of his coat carried the initials ‘JV’ to show that he had been sentenced, so that he would be recognised as a prisoner when working on forced labour projects outside the prison. While Falla, Legg and Gillingham shared a cell on the third floor of the prison, Duquemin was put in a cell with a Frenchman and an Algerian.
The conditions in Frankfurt were grim: Falla wrote about the bugs in the cells, the regular beatings-up of prisoners by warders, and his forced labour in the prison yard, where he had to build air-raid shelters for the warders. While carrying out this work, Falla heard the cries of chained prisoners waiting to be guillotined. In mid-1944, Falla heard that 30 prisoners were being guillotined a week in the prison. He also worked on outside working parties, clearing rubble from the bombed-out streets of the city.
On 4 July, 11 Channel Islanders in the prison, including Falla, Legg, Gillingham and Duquemin, were moved to Naumburg Prison, where they endured solitary confinement, malnutrition and starvation. They were not allowed to send or receive letters, were denied medical attention. During the day the prisoners carried out forced labour, making clogs in a wooden shed in the prison yard. Beatings and lice were also common in Naumburg.
Unexpectedly, Duquemin was singled out from his group and taken away from Naumburg in October 1944. He was taken to Bad Dürrenberg Forced Labour Camp, despite his protestations. In his memoirs, he described his experience thus:
One morning at 5.30am a guard came to my cell and hauled me out to go to the Commandant’s Office where he told me that I was going to work in a factory. There were three other foreigners with me and one guard. We went by train to Dürrenberg. We were taken to a large hut close to a factory. In this hut there were between fifty and sixty prisoners of all nationalities. I palled up with a Frenchman who taught me the ropes. I could speak French and got to speak it almost like a native. Half of us were on day shift for one week and night shift the next from six am to six pm, cutting, cleaning and drilling huge shell cases. My job was to clean up the metal shavings and wheel them outside. The bombing by Allied planes was severe, they were after Leuna, Europe’s biggest single factory.
I was eventually put on a machine to skim the metal off the shell cases, they had to be very accurate, mine were nowhere near it. I didn’t know whether to be sorry or glad, the latter I think. I was taken to the office and was made to clean toilets; also my bread ration at 9am and 3pm was cut off for two weeks.
Around Christmas 1944 the factory was bombed and Duquemin was transferred to Halle Prison, where his work was to put papers in envelopes for the military, and where people were executed by guillotine. It is unknown how long he was here, but perhaps as little as just under 2 weeks. This was followed by Torgau Forced Labour Camp, where he stayed until late March 1945, and where his forced labour included making a brick path outside the guards’ hut.
He was then among 100 prisoners put in closed cattle trucks heading to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. After the line was bombed, he was put on a forced march and, after around 8 miles, put in open cattle trucks. At ‘Lesny’ (probably Lěznice) in what is today the Czech Republic, he was among ten men made to dig mass graves in the local cemetery for 42 men who had died in the cattle trucks. Soon after this, Duquemin escaped with two Frenchmen near Saaz (modern Žatec), but they were then captured by the Russians. He was taken to ‘Leplitz’ (probably Teplice in the Czech Republic) and handed over to the British, who were in a POW camp at Eichwald. He then joined the Americans, who took him to Pilsen and put him with other displaced persons. He was then sent to an American international camp at Würzburg for a week, and then taken to Stuttgart, then Strasbourg, then Paris. From here he was flown to Hendon in the UK and interrogated before he was allowed to go to St Helen’s, where his wife and son were living as evacuees. The three of them returned to Guernsey in October 1945.
Falla, F. 1967. The Silent War. Leslie Frewin.
Private papers of the family of Cecil Duquemin
International Tracing Service records for Cecil Duquemin, Wiener Library, ref. 11554187.
Island Archives, Guernsey, Cecil Duquemin’s occupation registration card.
Island Archives, Guernsey, Cecil Duquemin’s court records.
The National Archives ref FO 950/2063, Nazi persecution claim Cecil Duquemin.