By Gilly Carr
Frank Falla was a Guernsey journalist, best known for his experiences during the German occupation, which he detailed in his 1967 memoir, The Silent War. Like other islanders who committed acts of protest, defiance and resistance during the occupation, Falla drew upon the skills of his day job as a journalist and acting editor on The Star, and then assistant editor of the Guernsey Evening Press, to carry out his own acts of defiance out of hours. Falla was one of five men involved in the writing of an underground newsletter named GUNS (Guernsey Underground News Service). This news service had its origin with four people. Ernest Legg and Joseph Gillingham, through Joseph’s wife Henrietta, gave the BBC news every morning to Charles Machon, the brainchild of the operation, and a linotype operator at The Star newspaper. Less than a year later, Falla and Cecil Duquemin joined the group. Henrietta pulled out after becoming pregnant, fearful of the risks she was taking. Falla’s role was to sub-edit the news brought in by Duquemin, Legg and Gillingham, as well as to provide his own contributions.
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 (nor the occupying soldiers) to hear pro-Allied propaganda from London, and it became a punishable offence to retain a radio set or listen to the news. It was Falla’s idea to call the news service ‘GUNS’, and the news-sheet 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 of Sark, who was imprisoned in Guernsey for his part in GUNS.
The men involved in the news sheet were denounced. Falla was imprisoned in April 1944, given a sentence by a German military court of 1 year 4 months, and then deported straight to Frankfurt-am-Main Preungesheim in Germany, via St Malo, on 4 June 1944. Legg, Duquemin and Gillingham were deported with him. Machon had been deported in April to another destination in Germany.
In Frankfurt, Falla wrote in his memoirs 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 was put in a cell with Legg and Gillingham 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 1944, 11 Channel Islanders, 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 (Falla was forced to work during his bout of pneumonia in February 1945), and did not see anyone from the outside world during the period of their confinement. During the day the prisoners made clogs in a wooden shed in the prison yard. Beatings and lice were also common in Naumburg.
Falla’s profession as a writer led to him exchanging his ration of bread for a stub of pencil. He recorded the names and dates of eight Channel Islanders as they died, writing on a thin sheet of tomato-packing paper at the bottom of his shaving-stick case. As nobody had informed those back in the Channel Islands that these men had died, Falla was determined to survive to let those back home know what had happened to their loved ones. ‘It was the least I could do’, he wrote, ‘for the relatives of those who waited in vain for those of my colleagues who had failed to pull through.’
On 11 April 1945, Falla was one of 52 men sent daily to the oil-producing town of Krumpa to dig live bombs, dropped by the RAF, out of the rubble. Fortunately for him, the Americans liberated Naumburg prison just two days later. He was taken to hospital, weighing just 8 stone (112 pounds) where an American doctor told him that he had ten to 14 days to live. He was treated but had to leave hospital to make way for Buchenwald prisoners. Falla moved to a local hotel being used by the American soldiers and helped out in the kitchens.
On 5 June, Falla and Legg flew by Dakota to Brussels, and then on to Croydon airport in the UK. They were taken to London for interrogation by security officers, after which Falla went to stay with his sister in law in Manchester, learning there about the death of his brother who had served in the Royal Navy.
On 26 July 1945, Falla sailed back to Guernsey, having already submitted articles to the Guernsey Evening Press and Jersey Evening Post about his experiences in Frankfurt and Naumburg prisons, detailing the deaths of his friends. He then visited the families of all of his dead friends to let them know about their loved ones.
In 1946, Falla received an invitation which cemented his calling as a spokesperson for other Channel Islanders who had suffered or died in Nazi prisons. In place of Harold Le Druillenec, the only British survivor of Belsen, who was still recuperating from his ordeal, he was sent to Vielsalm in Belgium to represent the Channel Islands at a meeting of ‘that great European army of uniformed and civilian men and women the world knew as the Maquis or Resistance.’ It was an immensely moving, formative and proud experience for Falla, and a BBC interview with Falla made at this event can be heard below:
Annually after 1945, Falla also organised a reunion for his friends who had been in Naumburg or Frankfurt with him, inviting also islanders who had been in Buchenwald and other camps. During this meal, the men ate, drank and smoked as much as they wanted and drank toasts in memory of ‘absent friends’. They also spoke to each other about the difficult times they had experienced during the war, details of experiences that they could not share with their families.
Falla’s health was permanently affected by his experiences in Germany. Pneumonia left him with spots on the lungs and he became a ‘chronic bronchial sufferer’, as he put it. He also suffered from PTSD for two years, during which he experienced ‘severe sweats at night and haunting hallucinations that I was back again in my prison cell at Naumburg’. Nevertheless, he took up the job of chief reporter on the Guernsey Evening Press, later becoming a freelance journalist in 1958. Falla married in 1949 and had a son and daughter. His marriage was a very happy one and his family life was the most important thing to him. His children remember him as a good father and a family man and not someone who dwelt upon his war years.
In the mid-1960s, when Britain signed an agreement with West Germany to receive a £1 million payment to be given as compensation to victims of Nazi persecution, Falla immediately wrote to the Foreign Office (FO) to tell them about the Channel Islanders and the categories of people who were deported to Nazi prisons and camps. He also successfully petitioned MP Airey Neave to ask him to make sure that Channel Islanders would be allowed to submit claims.
Falla was assiduous in contacting his fellow political prisoners in all of the Channel Islands and sending them compensation claim forms from the FO. He helped the FO track down other islanders, and visited many people to help them structure their testimonies. He did his best to help others get compensation after they were turned down. In short, he was instrumental in helping Channel Islanders make successful claims. While around 100 people submitted claims from the Channel Islands, fifty were successful. The number would have been much lower without Falla’s hard work.
The compensation claims and his fight on behalf of his fellow islanders brought to the fore Falla’s memories of his experiences during the occupation. He decided that it was time to write his memoirs, an action that helped him to get the bitterness out of his system.
Falla continued to arrange annual reunions for him and his friends until the numbers started to dwindle as his friends passed away in the 1970s and early 1980s. Falla retired in 1981 at the age of 70, describing journalism as ‘not only my work and my life [but] my hobby as well.’ In his old age, Falla wrote another memoir, Guernsey Ink in my Veins, about his life in journalism. This was never published, but some of the chapters added more details to his wartime experiences. Falla himself moved in with his daughter and died a couple of years later, in 1983.
In 2010, Dr Gilly Carr tracked down Falla’s daughter, asking whether she had any papers from her father. Fortunately, she had kept his entire archive, the contents of which were revealed to form the most important resistance archive ever to emerge from the Channel Islands. Not only was Falla’s archive important for what it contained (in terms of letters and testimonies from other former political prisoners, and correspondence with MPs and the FO), but it also indicated that there was a larger collection of closed Foreign Office files containing other testimonies.
Today, those Foreign Office files have been released to The National Archives, and Falla’s own archives are being partly digitised and put online in this website, the remainder of his papers being deposited at Guernsey Archives.
BBC Interview 1946 with Frank Falla in Vielsalm, Belgium. Copyright Frank Falla Archive, Island Archives, Guernsey. Digitisation by Guernsey Museum.
Falla, F. 1967. The Silent War. Leslie Frewin.
Frank Falla Archives, Island Archives, Guernsey.
Frank Falla’s occupation ID card, Island Archives, Guernsey.
Frank Falla’s charge sheet, Island Archives, Guernsey, ref. CC14-05, 348.
Frank Falla’s records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library, ref. 11554254/0/1.
Frank Falla, Nazi persecution compensation claim, TNA ref. FO 950/978.
Cambridge Ideas: 'Forgotten Heroes'
After the 2010 discovery of Frank Falla's briefcase containing testimonies of islanders, the University of Cambridge commissioned a short documentary on the work of Frank Falla.