By Gilly Carr
Gordon Augustin Prigent was born in St Helier, Jersey, on 5 November 1924. He was 15 years old when the island was occupied in 1940. Prigent left school aged 14 and was learning his trade as a builder when the Germans arrived. As building supplies (especially cement) became rationed after the invasion, Prigent’s work, and that of his colleagues, was restricted to repairs. He was thus registered as working as an apprentice plasterer at the time of the registration of islanders, and living at 3 Hope Street in St Helier with his parents, Dorothy and Augustin.
Prigent comes to our attention because he was one of the very few islanders to spend time in a concentration camp in Alderney. He was initially sent to the island as a civilian labourer for the Organisation Todt, along with another young Jerseyman, Walter Gallichan. Because of the trauma of what he experienced in Alderney, it would take Prigent many years to speak about what happened to him. Gallichan was also traumatised to the extent that he was sent in St Saviour’s Hospital in Jersey for the rest of his life because of PTSD.
Gordon Prigent shared his story with the Imperial War Museum in London in 1989, and with the Channel Islands Occupation Society in 1982. We are fortunate to have this recorded information about his life and experiences.
From these sources, and from Prigent’s identity card, we learn that he was sent to Alderney on 15 March 1944, aged 19. Prigent himself spoke of being sent away in November 1943 and being in Alderney for 9 months. We do not know which date is correct, but November 1943 seems more likely. He had previously been working at the airport and got into a dispute with the Germans about painting German tanks, which he refused to do on account of not being a painter. He went home but was arrested as a trouble maker later that evening.
He was taken to the harbour and put on a boat, where he met three or four other young Jerseymen, including Walter Gallichan, with whom he was at school. They were sent to Guernsey and then straight on to Alderney. After they arrived, they were sent to the Organisation Todt farm where Russians, Poles and Frenchmen were already working. After a week or so, he was sent to the Soldatenheim, where he was told to scrub floors. One day, he heard English voices and looked out of the window to see Walter Gallichan and some young men from Guernsey. They were peeling potatoes. The young men sneaked into the office of a German officer so that they could hear the English news on the radio. After a week or so of doing this, Sister Maria, one of six German nurses in the Soldatenheim, caught and reported them to the German officer. They were told that they would be punished by being sent to Germany or back to the OT farm in Alderney. Prigent and Gallichan started to accompany the other Guernsey men to the farm, but the two of them were instead taken to Norderney Concentration Camp instead, where they stayed until around late June 1944.
Of the daily regime in Norderney, Prigent later recalled that in the morning the men queued up for a ladle of coffee, then were sent to roll call. They would then be told what work they would be doing. At midday, they paused work for half an hour during which they were given a slice of bread and some hot water in which floated a cabbage leaf. They would then work till 6pm, at which point they were given more hot water, a cabbage leaf and a slice of bread, and then have another roll call.
In the months with longer daylight, sometimes they would be put to work again in the evening, from 8pm until 11pm. After D-Day, this work involved digging trenches around Braye Bay, but before this date the work included toiling in the stone quarry, where they’d work with a sledge hammer. The stone would then be taken to the stone crusher to be used on gun emplacements. Once a fortnight, on a Sunday afternoon, the men would be given a lighter job, such as hoeing the camp commandant’s garden. Other common jobs included unloading sacks of flour from the harbour onto a horse and cart, and transporting them to the bakehouse. Prigent recalled that the best job was working at the Soldatenheim, scrubbing the floor, as he could then steal food when nobody was looking. The worst job was cracking stones in the quarry.
Prigent later recalled that there were a total of seven men who spoke English at the camp: four Guernseymen, one Irish man (named Jim O’Sullivan), Walter and Gordon. They were accommodated in wooden huts with triple-decker bunk beds, sleeping on a bit of straw and bare wood. The men were so exhausted that they had no problems sleeping, although they got very hungry.
Prigent later had this to say about his camp experiences:
‘The guards made sure you did your work … The always seemed to be frightened. They were always nervous of being caught being lenient because they might be shipped to the Russian front … They reckoned that once you’d been there nine months, the Germans thought you were so starved that you weren’t fit to work. You had to be fit enough to do a day’s work to be fed.
I was lucky … I was young and had stamina … the ones over 40 died. There were some in the sick bay but we weren’t allowed in there. At roll calls you would notice that some were missing. There were burials several days a week. They used to bury them on Longy Common. There were people dying of starvation. None of the English-speaking people got sick … One or two of the huts got lice. We didn’t get them. There was a shower … we could wash once a day before the invasion and they used to supply us with water, but after the invasion they didn’t deliver water to the camp … After the invasion everything stopped coming to the island from France. Everything got scarce and they didn’t bring water to the camp any more.’
The other nationalities in Norderney were Russians, French, Spanish, two French-Chinese men, and a Belgian. Prigent said that there were 1,000 men in the camp at one time, but this number dropped to 700 after the allied invasion of Normandy. Every so often, the Germans would take the weakest prisoners away. When the men were working, they tried to speak to each other, but they had a guard standing over them who would prevent this. The Irishman, Jim O’Sullivan, told Prigent that he was working in a factory in Germany when ‘something went wrong’ and he found himself in Alderney. A French friend of Prigent’s was sent to Norderney for receiving radio messages.
Prigent is likely to have been one of the sources for the gabled ‘tunnel of death’ in Alderney. He told the interviewer at the Imperial War Museum that each camp had such a tunnel. The one connected with Norderney was a tunnel with a road running out to a fort, one end of which was sealed. At the other end there was a machine gun. If there had been an invasion, the men were told that they had two minutes to get in the tunnel and, if they didn’t, they’d have been shot on sight.
Prigent testified that if you dragged your feet, which they all did because they were exhausted and starved, the guards would whip them to make them march faster. If they were working too slowly in the stone quarry, they would beat them. One night the guards came in to the barrack every hour to do a roll call in case any of the men had escaped. The prisoners had to stand to attention beside their beds. Prigent was a bit slow getting out of bed and they hit him and knocked his teeth out. Physical punishment was commonplace; Prigent saw people being hit and kicked during roll call. When they collapsed, the guards would carry them to a nearby wooden tool shed and the prisoner wasn’t seen again.
At the time of the allied invasion of Normandy, the men were told to dig trenches and stand in them till morning. The men believed that they were digging their own graves. After the invasion, the prisoners were told at roll call that they had to be punished for the allies landing in France, so their rations were cut. They had nothing to eat after lunch but were not put to work.
On 27 June, about 3 weeks after D-Day, Prigent stated that there were three thousand prisoners left on the island and they were to be deported to German camps. The Germans were going to send the men to Germany via Cherbourg, but they found out that the Americans had Cherbourg surrounded, so they sent them to Guernsey, packed tightly into a vessel, for a day or two, then on to Jersey, where they were put in the dungeons of Fort Regent (possibly lager Ehrenbrietstein). They sent the men in batches of 300 to 400 to St Malo. One of the boats was sunk outside the town. Eventually the sailings stopped, so Walter Gallichan and Prigent were released, but they had to report to Victoria College, the Feldkommandantur, every morning at 10am to see if a boat had arrived for them.
Eventually, Prigent decided to apply for a job as an auxiliary policeman with the States of Jersey, although the Germans said that this would not prevent him being shipped to Germany and that he was still to report every day. They wanted him to work at the marina instead but he refused although Walter Gallichan agreed. Prigent’s job as a policeman involved guarding the Red Cross parcel store, patrolling the streets to make sure that nobody was out after curfew and, later, at liberation, controlling the crowds on liberation day. After this, when the British troops arrived and began to collect up German weapons, Prigent had to guard the stores of ammunition to make sure that nobody stole anything for souvenirs.
Gordon Prigent died on 1 November 1991. The Frank Falla Archive would like to invite the Prigent family to make contact if they would like to share photos, stories or documents to supplement that which is shown here.
Gordon Prigent’s Occupation registration card, Jersey Archives ref. St/H/7/10717.
Gordon Prigent’s Occupation registration form, Jersey Archives ref. St/H/7/10718.
Bessenrodt, O. 1944. Der Insel Alderney, 2nd Edition, Deutsche Guernsey-Zeitung, Guernsey, February 1944.
Bunting, M. 1995. The Model Occupation. BCA for Harper Collins Publishers.
Ginns, M. 1995. Gordon Prigent’s obituary. Channel Islands Occupation Society Review no. 20: 78-81.
Sanders, P. 2005. The British Channel Islands under German Occupation 1940-1945. Jersey: Jersey Heritage Trust and Société Jersiaise.
Channel Islands Occupation Society interview by Gordon Prigent (recorded in 1982), Jersey Archives ref. L/D/25/L/52.
Imperial War Museum sound recording, interview with Gordon Prigent, reference 10711 (recorded in 1989).