By Gilly Carr
There are two key sources of information used for this text. The first is Pleasants’ own unpublished memoirs, written in 1981 and currently held by the Imperial War Museum.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 story was changed by the book’s editors. Given the controversy surrounding his life choices, it is important that Pleasants is given a chance to defend or explain his actions in his own words, so the unpublished manuscript and published book have been drawn upon heavily. The second key source is Pleasants’ story as told to Eddie Chapman, a ‘partner in crime’ from the German occupation years in Jersey. This book, ‘I Killed to Live’, was published in 1957, which is significant because Chapman published his own memoirs in 1953 and Anthony Faramus, also known to Chapman and, it is alleged, Pleasants, 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.
The reader should also be aware that Pleasants returned to the UK after he was released from a Siberian gulag in 1954. Chapman wrote Pleasants’ story just three years after Pleasants’ release, when Pleasants’ memory would have been fresh. Although the truth of Pleasants’ life remains unknown, it is likely that both 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.
It is fitting for a figure like Reginald Eric Pleasants (or Eric Pleasants, as he called himself) that even his birth date is in doubt. According to his German Occupation registration card in Jersey, he was born on 17 May 1910. His official birth and death record state that he was born on 17 May 1913. Among his papers in the Imperial War Museum in London, his marriage certificate states that he was born on 17 May 1911. The reasons for Pleasants to lie about his age and switch around his first two names are probably connected to his desire to hide his true identity.
He was born in Saxlingham in Norfolk and, while still at school, earned cups and medals for boxing and wrestling. After he left school, he trained in boxing and wrestling at a gym in London and then trained to become an instructor. He also trained as a weight-lifter and toured the country with his strong man act under the stage name of ‘Panther Pleasants’. He was a bodyguard to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in the 1930s and is alleged to have joined the British Union of Fascists, but this episode of his life is not discussed in either of the books mentioned above.
Before the war broke out he worked as a Red Coat at the Butlins Dovecourt Bay holiday camp as a sports instructor
In I Killed To Live, Pleasants claims to have joined the Merchant Marines and first came to Jersey on a frieghter carrying potatoes from Jersey to Southampton. While in the Island briefly, he claimed that a dalliance with a Jersey woman made him miss his boat; the next boat did not arrive, so he got a job picking potatoes. In his 1981 memoirs, Pleasants stated instead that he was a conscientious objector at the outbreak of war and joined the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), coming to Jersey with his wife on 18 May 1940 to take up non-combatant agricultural work. As conscientious objectors were extremely unpopular in the war, it is possible that the climate still was not conducive, in 1957, to admit to having been in the PPU. We might observe that Plesants’ wife, Eileen Pleasants née Hardingham, was born, like Pleasants, in Norfolk, further supporting the later version of events.
Pleasants tried to leave the PPU and get back to the UK before the Occupation began, but the PPU representative in the island had him thrown in prison for two weeks for threatening him.
On his release, Pleasants started to steal and deal on the Black Market, working with John Leister, his partner in crime, and others. He was caught by the Germans and placed in Jersey Prison.
The prison ledger in Jersey Archives lists at least four occasions in which Pleasants was placed in Jersey Prison (noting that the German records of the prison, which could have revealed other sentences, do not survive). These indicate three days in prison from 17 to 20 February 1941 for ‘insults and interruption to the working peace’; another three days from 31 January 1941 to 2 February 1942 for a ‘political’ offence; 23 February to 27 March 1942, again for a ‘political’ offence; and 14 July 1942 for theft, for which he was given a 6 month sentence and later deported. These dates do not entirely correspond to the copies of the court martial charge sheets against Pleasants’ name, which also reside in Jersey Archives. The lack of exact correspondence between the charge sheets and prison records could be either because he was in prison more than four times, or because he was kept in the German side of the prison, the records for which no longer survive.
These dates don’t entirely match those given by Pleasants in his memoirs, which indicates that he was in prison during Christmas 1941, where he met notorious criminal Eddie Chapman for the first time. Chapman joined Pleasants in black market trading upon his release. Pleasants’ marriage broke up around this time, when his wife left him to become a housekeeper to the Germans and later testified against him at his German military trial.
The court martial charge sheets surviving in Jersey Archives show that, on 24 January 1942, both Pleasants and Leister were both convicted of infraction of the registration order. This is because neither had papers to prove their identity. From 22-27 March 1942 both men served four days in prison for this offence, which was added to an earlier sentence of 22 February to 27 March for receiving stolen goods, for which they was already serving four weeks in prison. Both were released on 27 March 1942. On 31 July 1942, both men were given a sentence of six months, again for receiving and concealing stolen articles. In both his memoirs and the 1957 volume, Pleasants said instead that he was caught for trying to escape from the island (now seen as a much more honourable offence) and sentenced to two years hard labour. Archival evidence does not back up this version of events, and 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 Pleasants arrived on 9 August 1942. He was due to be released on 3 February 1943 but on 21 January 1943 he was transferred to the German work bureau via Dijon Prison. This might not raise many eyebrows, but Pleasants tells a different story in his memoirs.
Unhappy in their damp and louse-ridden communal cell and the squalid conditions in prison, Pleasants stated that he and Leister sawed through the bars of his cell and broke out of prison with a group of other prisoners, including Dutch man Edmund Vandievoet, who later also wrote about this event. Vandievoet described this event as happening in the month of May, which is impossible as Pleasants and Leister arrived in prison in August and by the following February were back in Jersey. In the 1957 account, Pleasants said that the escape was made after six months in prison, taking them to February 1943. If this was so, then it remains unclear how Pleasants got back to Jersey that month unless he escaped.
In the earlier account, Pleasants alleged that he and Leister agreed to work for the Germans to get out of the prison (which explains the note in the Dijon prison records). They were, he said, sent to Granville to work on the Atlantic Wall, but escaped after four days and headed to the Pas de Calais area. They were supposedly caught by the Germans who checked their story with the authorities in Jersey and in Dijon. They were held in St Malo prison for three months, and were then sent to Kreuzberg Prison for three months, followed by Kreuzberg internment camp.
In his later memoir, Pleasants wrote that he and Leister escaped from Dijon prison, made their way to Paris, and were taken in by an unregistered Jewish family. They then went to St Malo, where they were sheltered by a group of female Organisation Todt labourers. Soon after their arrival, they were arrested again and, as they had no papers, were sent back to Jersey Prison after they said that they had arrived from the island after stowing away. In his memoirs, Pleasants said that he was back in Jersey for only three to four weeks before he was deported again. Indeed, the list of deportations in Jersey Archives show that both he and Leister were deported on 25 February 1943 from 17 Garden Lane in St Helier and not from the prison, unlike some other deportees.
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 (no evidence has been found of any sojourn in St Malo Prison nor Kreuzberg Prison), 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 monotonous that they tried to escape, 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 Kreuzberg.
In his later memoirs, 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. In his earlier volume, the Germans sent the men there for being troublemakers. Pleasants and Leister were still intent on escape.
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, the two men 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). He 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.’ Pleasants said, of his decision to join up, ‘The fact that I joined Hitler’s army has no political or moral significance for me. In a war forced upon me I was on nobody’s ‘side’ except my own, neither traitor nor partisan, and I never fought for anybody except myself … I most certainly was, and still am, anti-war and anti-establishment.’
Adopting the new name of Erich Doran (using his mother’s maiden name), Pleasants, who with John Leister became military police in the BFC, was unimpressed by the other British men in the Corps. The men in his unit were sent to the SS Wildemann Kaserne in Dresden for military training as a precursor to being sent to the Russian front.
By February 1945, Pleasants went on leave to Wilmsdorf, 20 miles from Dresden, planning to marry Anneliese Nitzschner, a member of the SS who he had met after joining the BFC. While he was away from Dresden, the city was firebombed by the RAF. After helping to pull bodies from the rubble for several days, the couple went to Berlin and Pleasants unofficially deserted from the BFC.
By May 1945, Anneliese and Pleasants were still in Berlin and finally got married. However, the Russians soon arrived in the city, and so the couple tried to escape via the sewers tunnels, then later in disguise as a nurse and patient. They travelled to Dresden and then moved into the American zone, where the couple were put in a displaced persons camp in Halle. Pleasants earned money by trading in Nazi militaria with American soldiers for a while, and then began people-smuggling between the Russian and American zones of Germany, before deciding to become a strongman in a Russian theatre and then a German circus.
However, the question mark over his alleged ‘German’ identity led to his surprise arrest by Russian state police in 1947 or 1948. When they realised that he was British, he was sentenced to 25 years hard labour in a gulag in Siberia. The first two years of this were spent in solitary confinement in Höhenschauenhausen in Berlin, followed by 6 months in Lichtenberg Prison, and then Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which the Russians had taken over. He was then sent, via Lubyanka prison in Moscow, to Inta labour camp, where he worked in a coal mine. As the only Englishman in the camp, he felt isolated and alone. He was picked on, and got in many fights until he killed a fellow prisoner. After that he was treated with more respect, but another five years were added to his sentence for this offence.
Some time after Stalin’s death, Pleasants was freed from the Gulag after the British government negotiated his release. He returned to the UK in July 1954. Rather than stand trial like the other members of the British Free Corps, it was decided that he had served his time and suffered enough. A video exists on Youtube of his return to the UK.
Eric Pleasants returned to the village in Suffolk where he grew up. He married again and taught martial arts for 30 years. In 1984, aged 71, he had a heart attack and stroke and was paralysed down one side. However, he drove himself back to semi-fitness. He died in 1998 aged 87.
Of his life, Pleasants said: ‘I have no apology and no regrets.’
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.
Eric Pleasants’, Occupation registration card, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/2/3/379.
Eric Pleasants’ Occupation registration form, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/6/420.
1954 Newspaper article about Eric Pleasants from the Jersey Evening Post, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/2/380.
Charge sheets of Eric Pleasants, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/3/16.
Eric Pleasants’ record in Jersey’s political prisoner logbook, Jersey Archives ref. D/AG/B7/7.
Eric Pleasants’ prison record from Fort d’Hauteville Prison, Dijon, Archives Départementales de la Côte d’Or, ref. 1409 W.
Eric Pleasants’ name on the deportation lists, Jersey Archives ref. B/A/W80/1.
Eric Pleasants’ records, International Tracing Service ref. 52921906, 76838418, 76838419, 86464624, 86464625, 91023231, 100844015.