By Gilly Carr
Harold Edward Piesing was born in Guernsey on 22 September 1908. Piesing was working as a police constable at the time of the occupation of the island and lived with his wife, Eileen. He had previously been in the army, from which he was discharged on 20 March 1939.
Piesing, along with many of his fellow policemen, was to get involved in a case which would cause ripples for decades to come. From the earliest post-war days, these men of military age consistently argued that their actions were inspired by the BBC broadcasts of ‘Colonel Britton’, otherwise known as Douglas Ritchie. These broadcasts were transmitted on the European service to the occupied peoples of Europe but were not aimed at the Channel Islanders because of the precariousness of their situation as sitting ducks in small islands. These broadcasts gave instructions to civilians to sabotage and harass the occupiers in numerous non-military ways. For these young men denied the opportunity of fighting in the armed services, or the older men who had previously served in WWI, such broadcasts appealed greatly. Their role as policemen gave them opportunities for action denied to most other civilians, such as being out after curfew. However, their position was a double-edged sword. Policemen were also required to salute passing German officers, which they found hard to stomach.
We have three main sources of information from which to draw to learn more of Piesing’s story: Bill Bell’s interviews with the policemen later in their lives; the archival records of the French prisons in which Piesing was held; and the memoirs of his police colleague, Kingston George Bailey, from which we can learn much about the experiences of the other policemen.
Bailey described how he and fellow ringleader, police constable Frank Tuck, decided, in the first winter of the occupation, to do all they could to annoy the Germans. From March 1941 they compiled a dossier on their activities, cut telephone wires, put sand in the petrol tanks of German cars, and painted V for victory signs around the island.
By the following winter, the civilian population was suffering from food shortages while, at the same time, the Germans stockpiled food in stores throughout St Peter Port. Bailey and Tuck broke into these stores by night and took tinned food to redistribute to those in need. They brought a number of other policemen into their group such that, by February 1942, ‘the operation was … getting out of hand … practically the whole police force was now taking part and, as we were on different shifts, it was impossible to know what each man was doing.’ Civilian stores run by people trading with the Germans were also entered.
On 3 March 1942, Bailey and Tuck were caught red-handed by German soldiers lying in wait for them at one of the food stores. They and most of the other police were taken to Guernsey prison and their houses were searched. The men were taken to Grange Lodge in St Peter Port, the HQ of the Secret Field Police (Geheime Feldpolizei) for questioning. They were beaten and given decreasing rations over the period of interrogation. Back in the prison, the men were kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to wash or change their clothes. Lack of sleep also took its toll. They were also presented with forged confessions during this period.
Sixteen of the policemen were then taken to Fort George in St Peter Port for four weeks, where they were able to recover from their beatings and receive food from family and friends so that they looked well for their trial.
On 24 April 1942 the men were tried by the Germans and, controversially, also by the local authorities in the Royal Court on 1 June 1942, on account of the civilian stores that had also been entered. This was to be a show trial. Piesing was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for ‘serious theft with extenuating circumstances.’ Unlike ten of the other policemen, he was not additionally convicted by the Royal Court. After sentencing, the men were taken back to Fort George until their deportation on 13 June 1942, during which they were handcuffed to each other in pairs. They were taken first to Jersey Prison for the night, then on to a prison in Granville for a few hours, and then Caen Prison, all the while still in handcuffs.
They were in Caen from 15 June to 15 July 1942. For the first night they were put in dungeon cells in which straw mattresses, complete with wet blankets, were placed on the floor, in two inches of ‘what smelt like a cesspool’. After that they were placed in a room filled with 100 cubicles, each locked up at night, and each containing a bed. In his memoirs, Bailey wrote that ‘the cubicles and bed frames were full of bugs which were, indeed, as hungry as ourselves … The food was terrible, consisting mainly of cabbage soup, with about 3/4 of a pound of bread each day … Many of the prisoners suffered from a mild form of dysentery, probably caused by too much cabbage water.’
On the next stage of his journey, unlike the majority of the other policemen (who were sent to Fort de Villeneuve Saint Georges Prison near Paris), Piesing was sent to Fort d’Hautville Prison in Dijon with Alfred Le Gallez and Eugene Le Lievre, where he was given prisoner number 1450. He arrived 16 July 1942. Rather than serving 12 months of imprisonment, the order came on 23 January 1943 for his release. The following day he was transferred to Granville where he would have been escorted back to Guernsey. Archival records in Guernsey indicate that he arrived back in the island only on 4 February 1943. This indicates that he was most likely held in Granville Prison or in a guest house in the town while waiting for a boat, but there is no archival evidence to suggest which. Instead, a shipping pass for Piesing, dated 29 January for a ship on 3 February back to Guernsey exists in Guernsey Archives.
Piesing’s sojourn in Guernsey was brief. He and wife Eileen, so newly reunited, were deported together on 13 February 1943, scarcely ten days after his return from France, along with the wives and children of the other policemen. They were sent to Compiègne Internment and Transit Camp, followed by Biberach Civilian Internment Camp in May 1943, where they remained until the end of the war.
After the occupation, when Piesing returned to Guernsey, he was not reinstated as a policeman as no men convicted of stealing or receiving stolen goods could be employed in the police. He instead became a poultry farmer. Harold Piesing, like the other Guernsey policemen, never cleared his name and the judgements against him and the other policemen made by the Royal Court in Guernsey still stand to this day, long after his death.
Bailey, K.G.1979 . Dachau. Guernsey: CI Marine Ltd.
Bell, W.M. 1995. I Beg to Report. Guernsey: Guernsey Press Co. Ltd.
Sanders, P. 2014. ‘Economic resistance and sabotage’, pp. 277-306 in G. Carr, P. Sanders and L. Willmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation 1940-1945. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Prison records for Harold Piesing, Fort d’Hautville Prison. Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or: 1409 W 1-13, Régistre d’écrou Prison d’Hauteville.