By Gilly Carr
John Leister is notorious as being one of the men tried at the Old Bailey after the war for helping the enemy. But what was the real story of this half-German lad who came to Jersey just before the Occupation? To what extent was he led astray by a man older than himself? Can we excuse his wartime record based on his youthful rebelliousness or his dual heritage?
While a small number of archival sources exist about his case, we have two memoirs which discuss his story, both of which are told by his partner-in-crime, Eric Pleasants, whose story also features on this website, and who accompanied Leister throughout most of the war. As Leister did not write his own memoirs, we are reliant on these accounts when discovering the details of his story. However, these accounts are flawed, and not just because they were not written by Leister himself.
The first memoir is Pleasants’ own unpublished memoirs, written in 1981 and currently held by the Imperial War Museum. This manuscript was published in 2003, after Pleasants’ death, under the title Hitler’s Bastard. It is unknown to what extent the fine details of the story was changed by the book’s editors as a page by page comparison has not been carried out.
The second key source is Pleasants’ story as told to Eddie Chapman, another partner-in-crime from the German occupation years in Jersey. This book, I Killed to Live, was published in 1957. This is significant because Chapman published his own memoirs in 1953 and Anthony Faramus, also known to Chapman and, it is alleged, also Pleasants and Leister, told his story to Frank Owen in 1954. The reader should be aware of the possibility that these men or their publishers could have competitively exaggerated parts of each successive memoir. This early memoir has the disadvantage of being exaggerated or changed to suit a post-war audience, but also the advantage of being written soon after the events unfolded.
Although the details of Leister’s life remains unknown, it is likely that both of Pleasants’ versions of events contain many true episodes between them, although which source is the most reliable cannot be stated with accuracy where archival evidence is missing.
Dennis John Alfred Leister, or ‘John’ to his friends, was born on 19 Jun 1922 in London to a German father and English mother. According to his Occupation registration forms, he stated that he arrived in Jersey on 27 May 1940 from England when he was just 17 years old. In February 1941, at the time of registration of Islanders, he was living in Sand Street and his profession is stated as that of pastry cook.
According to Pleasants, he and Leister met for the first time at the time of the evacuation of the Island; Leister was standing in the queue but passed out through alcohol intoxication. Pleasants took him to hospital and recognised a kindred spirit in the lad when he visited him the next day. Leister had, apparently, come over to Jersey with the Peace Pledge Union and had no desire to fight. Leister had been working for his family’s business in London, but after the windows were smashed and the place covered in anti-German graffiti, rather than be interned he joined the PPU. Now, disillusioned, he was trying to find a way out of the organisation.
Once trapped in the Island, Leister and Pleasants formed an “intelligence network of people who on the surface led respectable lives but who would ferret out for us the places where privileged people had hidden secret supplies of food and fuel. We would plunder these caches after curfew, rewarding our informants with a share of the spoils.”
Leister, Pleasants, and other men in their black market group operated out of the Panama boarding house on Green Street and were known to the authorities as the ‘Panama Group’.
Records at Jersey Archives list a number of offences in which Leister was involved. On 12 January 1942 he was convicted (with Eric Pleasants and two others) by the Court of the Field Command 515 and fined 25 Marks for ‘infraction of the Registration Order’. Leister was only able to pay 1 Mark, and so served four days in Jersey Prison from 23 to 27 March 1942. At the time, both men were already in prison. They had been convicted on 10 February 1942 to four weeks’ imprisonment for receiving stolen goods. Finally, on 31 July 1942, Leister and Pleasants were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, again for receiving and concealing stolen goods.
On 8 August 1942, both Pleasants and Leister were deported, handcuffed together, to Fort d’Hautville Prison in Dijon, France. The records from Fort d’Hauteville show that they arrived on 9 August 1942. The men were due to be released on 3 February 1943 but on 21 January 1943 they passed through the German prison of Dijon to be ‘put at the disposal of the German work bureau’. Pleasants stated that he and Leister agreed to work for the Germans in order to get out of the prison. He claims that they were sent to Granville to work on the Atlantic Wall, but escaped after four days and headed to the Pas de Calais area, where they were caught by the Germans who checked their story with the authorities in Jersey and in Dijon. They were sent back to Jersey.
Although we cannot put an exact date on their arrival in Jersey, Leister’s Occupation registration card indicates that he was deported from the Island again on 25 February 1943, indicating a maximum of one month between leaving Dijon and returning to Jersey. The list of deportations in Jersey Archives show that both Pleasants and Leister were deported from 17 Garden Lane in St Helier on that date.
Pleasants and Leister were thus caught up, along with many other islanders, on the second of two waves of mass deportations, as ‘undesirables’. They were taken to Kreuzberg Internment Camp, where Pleasants stated that they were interned for eight months. Both men were very bored and frustrated in this camp, which they found small-minded and riven by factions. They had, Pleasants wrote, offended the camp protocol by attacking the established hierarchy. They found camp life so “excruciatingly monotonous … [with] its nit-picking, interfering authority” that they tried to escape just after Christmas 1943, which earned Pleasants a month in the cells. Leister was apparently semi-successful in his escape but was recaptured, held in a Gestapo prison in Oppeln for some weeks, and then sent back to Kreuzburg.
Eric Pleasants claimed that Camp Captain, Mr Duncan, asked for the men to be transferred as they were so disruptive to camp life, so they were sent to Marlag and Milag Nord Ilag Westertimke, a camp for merchant seamen; however, Pleasants and Leister were still intent on escape and hated life behind barbed wire.
At this camp there were given a lecture by a propaganda agent in May 1944 about the fight against international communism. Following this, and still keen to escape internment, Leister and Pleasants told the German Camp Commandant that they wanted to join the fight. They were sent to the HQ of the International SS Brigade in Hildersheim (although Pleasants later said that he had joined the British Free Corps (BFC) rather than an international brigade). Pleasants later described joining as a ‘foolish decision’ and ‘a matter of bad judgement’. Neither of them, he wrote, ‘had the slightest intention of fighting for them on the Russian front or elsewhere. We were determined to survive; we were opportunists.’
Leister and Pleasants became military police in the BFC, but were singularly unimpressed by the other British men in the Corps. The men in their unit were sent to the SS Wildemann Kaserne in Dresden for military training as a precursor to being sent to the Russian front; Pleasants found the place ‘repugnant’.
While being sent to a sporting engagement in Prague, the two men decided to abscond from the British Free Corps and went their separate ways. After Leister was told that he was to be seconded to the Waffen SS in Berlin as a war correspondent, he decided to head to Italy with his new wife, Lena. The couple caught the last train out of Berlin while Russian shells were raining down on the city.
After arriving in Italy, John Leister was arrested by the British and brought back to England to stand trial with other members of the British Free Corps. He was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude at the Old Bailey on 20 February 1946 for ‘conspiring to assist the enemy’.
In July 1954, when Eric Pleasants returned to the UK after a long sojourn in a Russian gulag, John Leister was there on the station platform, along with many journalists eager for a story, to welcome him home.
John Leister died in September 1990 in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
Leister’s surrogate step-daughter, Teresa Matingley, has contacted the Frank Falla Archive with some background information on John Leister, who lived with her on and off until he died. She says that John had three sons, Jeffrey (Lena’s son, who was born in Rome in November 1945 and moved to America with his mother in 1956 when she remarried. Jeffrey died in California in 2001); Garry and Guy. Leister is believed to have annotated a copy of Eric Pleasants’ memoir with is own memories of the war years and it is thought to be with his son Garry; the Frank Falla Archive would like to encourage Garry Leister to get in touch. Teresa described John as ‘the most amazing man I have ever met. I loved John deeply. He was a unique person who had a profound effect on me and my sisters. He loved living by the sea and eventually died of emphysema and anemia. He loved dogs and was the wisest, funniest man and I still miss him every day.’
The Frank Falla Archive would like to invite Garry and Guy Leister to make contact in order to fill out the gaps in Leister’s story and provide any further documentary or photographic evidence of his life. The aim of the website is to document lives and to seek to explain, understand and learn. This approach helps us to make our own decisions in life at times of crisis.
Pleasants, E. 1981. Hitler’s Bastard, unpublished memoir, Imperial War Museum ref. 99/57/1
Pleasants, E. 2003. Hitler’s Bastard, edited by Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting. Mainstream Publishing Company: Edinburgh.
Chapman, E. 1957. I Killed to Live: The Story of Eric Pleasants as told to Eddie Chapman, Cassell and Company: London.
Dennis Leister, Occupation registration card, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/2/3/185.
Dennis Leister’s Occupation registration form, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/6/78.
Dennis Leister’s charge sheets, Jersey Archives ref D/Z/H6/3/16 & D/Z/H6/4/4.
Dennis Leister’s record in Jersey’s political prisoner logbook, Jersey Archives ref. D/AG/B7/7.
Dennis Leister’s name on the deportation lists, Jersey Archives ref. B/A/W80/1.
Dennis Leister’s prison record from Fort d’Hauteville Prison, Dijon, Archives Départementales de la Côte d’Or, ref. 1409 W.