By Gilly Carr
Harold Osmond Le Druillenec was born in St Ouen in Jersey on 5 August 1911, and married Phyllis Le Rossignol in 1937. By the time of the German occupation, they had a young daughter, Mary. Harold worked as a school master in Jersey from 1931, having trained at St Luke’s College in Exeter.
Le Druillenec is best known as the only British survivor at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. What is less known about Le Druillenec is that he was also sent to a number of other prisons and camps.
After being informed upon, Le Druillenec was arrested and imprisoned on 4 June 1944 for helping his sister, Louisa Gould. Louisa had harboured, for 18 months, an escaped Russian forced labourer, Feodor ‘Bill’ Buryi; she, too, was deported. Le Druillenec was also charged with possessing a wireless set and ‘sundry acts of non-cooperation with the German forces in the island’, as he later wrote in his testimony for compensation. These included refusing to teach German to his pupils. He was given a five month sentence.
Before being deported to Germany, Le Druillenec spent two months in French prisons. He was first taken to St Malo, then briefly to Jacques-Cartier Prison in Rennes. Here he was kept in a prison annex called Camp Marguerite, which comprised 18 barrack blocks, each housing up to 120 people. The barracks were made of breeze blocks with corrugated iron roofs; the camp was surrounded by barbed wire and had watch-towers. It was used for political prisoners at the time that Le Druillenec was there.
Le Druillenec was then taken to a third French prison, Fort Hatry – Belfort Gap, before being sent to Neuengamme Concentration Camp on 1 September 1944. In this camp, ‘all inmates wore the typical blue and white striped uniform, suffered the same deprivations in food and personal comforts, lived with their only permitted possession – a dessert spoon – and “laboured to the death for the ultimate benefit of the Greater Reich.”’ He was then sent on an Arbeitskommando (working party) to Alter Banter Weg Concentration Camp in Wilhelmshaven, Germany (a sub-camp of Neuengamme), where he worked from 4.30am to 7pm, six and half days a week, as an oxy-acetylene welder in the arsenal where submarines were constructed. Banterweg was ‘a tough camp with torture and punishment the rule day and night. Means of putting inmates to death included beating, drowning, crucifixion, hanging in various stances … no-one escaped severe corporal punishment.’
Eventually he was sent to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, a journey which took five days in a badly overcrowded cattle wagon. He arrived on 5 April 1945 and was put in block 13, which was populated by 400 to 500 people. He described the camp as a place of ‘no food, no water, sleep was impossible … we had to rise … at 3.30am. All my time here was spent in heaving dead bodies into the mass graves … Jungle law reigned among the prisoners; at night you killed or were killed; by day cannibalism was rampant.’
Le Druillenec was liberated on 16 April 1945. He stayed in hospital for five months after this, with a six month convalescence period. His ailments included food poisoning with septicaemia which led to a ‘perturbing unbalance of mind’. He also had acute dysentery, fluid on the lungs, and various skin diseases including scabies and impetigo. Malnutrition meant that his weight was about six stone at the time of his liberation. Longer term, Le Druillenec was left with a weakened constitution, with his heart and lungs affected (he suffered a coronary thrombosis in 1961). He also suffered complete loss of memory of his pre-war life.
Le Druillenec interrupted his convalescence to testify at the Belsen trial in Luneburg in October 1945. His distressing testimony is available to read here
He also attended two further concentration camp trials as a witness: that of Neuengamme in 1946 and Banterweg (Wilhelmshaven) in 1947, both of which were held in Hamburg. He was also co-opted onto the War Crimes Investigation teams whilst in Germany.
Later in 1945, he recorded an interview with the BBC about his experiences, which was broadcast at Christmas that year, when he introduced the King’s speech.
Early in 1946, Leonard Cottrell produced a drama documentary on Neuengamme and Belsen based on Le Druillenec’s experiences. It was broadcast on 12 April 1946, on the anniversary of the liberation of Belsen. It can be read on this webpage and an extract can be heard here.
Le Druillenec returned to teaching and, in 1949, was appointed headmaster of St John’s School in Jersey. He had a very strong ethic of discipline for all in the school, teachers and pupils alike, and saw any illness as a weakness in himself or in others. Former colleagues testify that he felt compelled to talk constantly to the other teachers about his experiences in concentration camps in the early years of his return to teaching, which they found difficult. He had a breakdown in the mid-1950s and took six weeks off before returning to teaching. When he returned, his character was much mellowed according to those who knew him. He was described as having been a perfectionist and having a strong personality. He was seen as a fair man and a family man. He was much loved by his pupils.
In the 1950s, Le Druillenec was asked to write a book on his experiences. A friend of the family and former colleague, who started to type up his notes for him, reported later that he was unable to finish them as it was too difficult for him to write about Belsen. The unfinished memoirs are now lost. It probably became harder for Le Druillenec to speak publicly about his experiences later in his life; at the time of the compensation claims in the mid-1960s, he wrote to the medical assessors that ‘the filling in of this form has been somewhat of a trial’, indicating that he was by then unused to speaking frequently about it.
He retired from teaching in 1971 aged 60. During his lifetime he was awarded the French Médaille de la Résistance. He was also presented with an inscribed gold watch from the Russian government in 1966 and invited to Moscow, with other Jerseymen who had helped escaped Russians, to meet the men whom they had helped.
Le Druillenec died of heart failure in 1985, aged 73. Only after his death, in 2010, was he honoured as one of British ‘Heroes of the Holocaust.’ His wife collected his honour on his behalf.
In 2016, the Foreign Office files relating to Nazi persecution were sent to The National Archives; the BBC included Le Druillenec’s story in the publicity surrounding the move.
Cottrell, L. 1950. ‘The Man from Belsen’, pp. 97-110 in L Gilliam (ed.), BBC Features. London: Evans Brothers Ltd.
Interview with Harold Le Druillenec, Jersey Evening Post 29 September 1945
Harold Le Druillenec records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library, ref. 3421491.
Harold Le Druillenec Occupation ID, photo and registration forms, Jersey Archives ref St/S/4/580-583.
Harold Le Druillenec court records, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/7/102
Harold Le Druillenec Nazi persecution claim, The National Archives ref. FO 950/1100.
Harold Le Druillenec’s testimony about Wilmshaven, TNA ref. WO 309/400.