By Gilly Carr
Ernest Legg 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.
Ernest Legg was born in Guernsey on 25 March 1902. He never married. His sister was Henrietta Legg, who married Joseph Gillingham in 1935; both were to become members of GUNS. At the time of the German occupation, Legg (who was a carpenter) was working as a salt maker at the States Chemical Department, based at the Piette saw mill. He lived at 38 Bordage Street in St Peter Port, just a few doors away from his sister and brother in law.
Legg was one of several people involved in the writing of GUNS. This news service had its origin with four people. Ernest Legg and Joseph Gillingham, through Henrietta, gave the BBC news every morning to Charles 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 Cecil 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. Legg was arrested and interrogated in March 1944 and then released. He was then told to appear in court on 26 April 1944, and was given a sentence by a German military court of 1 year and 10 months. During the trial, Legg and Gillingham protected Henrietta and did not let on that it was she who had written the news bulletins produced at the trial. Legg was then imprisoned in Guernsey prison until 4 June 1944, when the men were sent straight to Germany, arriving at Frankfurt am Main Prison, via St Malo, on 7 June. Gillingham, Duquemin and Falla were deported with Legg. Machon had been deported in April to another destination in Germany.
A key written source of Legg’s experience in Frankfurt is from 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. Falla, Legg and Gillingham shared a cell on the third floor of the prison. 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 (including Legg) carried out forced labour, making clogs in a wooden shed in the prison yard. Beatings and lice were also common in Naumburg.
Many islanders died in Naumburg of conditions such as oedema, dysentery and malnutrition, not to mention ill-treatment which lowered their abilities to withstand hunger and other hardships. Ernest Legg was thrown down a flight of fifteen stone steps by a sadistic senior prisoner who was in charge of the clog workshop, an event witnessed and recorded by Frank Falla, who wrote that ‘Ernie just rolled and bumped down those steps – and we helpless bystanders thought he’d been killed. But he struggled to his feet and somehow carried on. For days his leg was stiff and swollen and to this day he suffers from a limp as a result of his fall.’ It is likely that his hip was fractured by this incident; in any case, over the years, his leg shortened by an inch and he suffered severe osteoarthritis for the rest of his life. In his compensation testimony, Legg recalled that he was often ‘booted along’ by guards when he couldn’t walk as fast as the other prisoners.
Ernest Legg, like Frank Falla, was liberated from Naumburg by the Americans on 13 April 1945. By that stage, he was suffering from dropsy (oedema) and was close to death. He was taken to hospital where it was estimated that he had a week left to live. Falla described the situation thus: ‘Ernie’s body was flooded with water, his legs and belly swollen to twice normal size. The water only had to reach his heart and … he would have died.’ After the German doctors in the hospital did little to help Legg, Falla complained, backed up by an American Red Cross doctor. Within 24 hours ‘they’d drained out of Ernie’s body one bucket and a half of water – and from then on he really started to live again.’.
After he was released from hospital, Legg rested in a local hotel with Falla. On 5 June 1945 they were flown back to Croyden in the UK, via Halle (where, unbeknown to either man, Gillingham’s body was by then in the local cemetery) and Brussels. After being interrogated by the secret service, Legg went to stay with some family in Huddersfield until he was able to return to Guernsey a couple of months later. Legg was unable to continue in the same profession due to his injured hip. Every year after the war, Legg attended reunions, with Frank Falla and Cecil Duquemin, of select group of Guernseymen deported to Frankfurt, Naumburg and Buchenwald.
Falla, F. 1967. The Silent War. Leslie Frewin.
Private papers of the family of Joseph Gillingham
The National Archives ref FO 950/2026, Nazi persecution claim Ernest Legg
Ernest Legg, Occupation registration forms, Island Archives, Guernsey.
Ernest Legg, court records, Island Archives, Guernsey, ref. CC14/05/345.
Ernest Legg, International Tracing Service records, Wiener Library ref. 11944554.