By Gilly Carr
WARNING: CONTAINS DISTRESSING DETAILS OF THE DEATH OF HERBERT SMITH
Herbert Percival Smith was born Neath in South Wales on 15 February 1904. He was a police officer in Guernsey at the time of the occupation of the island and married with three children.
Herbert Smith, 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, 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.
Much information about the experiences of the Guernsey policemen comes from the 1979 edition of the 1958 memoirs of Smith’s police colleague, Kingston George Bailey (in which police constable Frank Tuck, who was in camps and prisons with Smith, also dictated his story). Because Smith did not survive his experiences to tell his story after the war, we can only rely on the insight of these Bailey and Tuck to provide a testimony about certain camps and prisons for him.
By the winter of 1941, 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 they 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 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 then, on 1 June 1942, controversially, in a show trial, the local authorities in the Royal Court, on account of the civilian stores that had also been entered. Smith was sentenced to four years hard labour by the Germans and 15 months hard labour by the Royal Court, to run concurrently. 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 16 June to 16 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.’
The next stage of their journey, also spent handcuffed in pairs during the night, took them to Fort de Villeneuve-Saint-Georges in Paris, where Smith was imprisoned from 16 July to 7 August 1942. This prison was managed by French wanders but inspected daily by the German officer in charge. The men were split up and put in a room for sixty, but the beds were full of fleas and lice, according to Bailey’s memoirs. Bailey recorded that he found the monotony ‘unbearable’; they spent each day locked in their dormitory, allowed only thirty minutes exercise a day. While the French prisoners in their dormitory were allowed food parcels from relatives, the Guernsey policemen found the prison food insufficient. Bailey recorded that a ‘black market flourished in the prison … with the help of the warders.’ Even stamps for letters and Red Cross parcels were available. Otherwise prisoners were issued them once a month. Bailey was helped in the prison by two French ladies, Marie and Suzanne Hubert, who wished to help him and his ‘English comrades’. These women brought food parcels and clothes to the men and promised to write to Bailey’s wife. They operated through one of the French warders, who was pro-British and a former policeman.
On 7 August 1942, three of the policemen, including Tuck, Smith and Jack Harper, were among 100 men taken away on lorries to perform forced labour in Germany. As narrated by Tuck in Bailey’s memoirs, they were taken by train, manacled in pairs, first to Karlsruhe Prison for a ‘few days’, and then to Landsberg Prison in South Bavaria, which he described as ‘huge, spacious, cold and bleak’. They were then sent on working parties to repair the railways for two days before being admitted to the main prison in Augsburg. From here they were sent, the next day, to Neuoffingen Labour Camp, four miles outside the nearby small town of Gundelgfingen, a camp that comprised only two barrack blocks on the edge of a forest. Between 80-100 men of various nationalities, most of whom were French, were interned there, included a total of four Guernseymen (Frank Tuck, Charles Friend, Herbert Smith and Jack Harper) and two Jerseymen (probably Philip Ozard and Paul Gourdan). ‘Needless to say I was delighted about this; to be unable to converse freely with your fellow men because of (a) language barrier is to be alone amongst a crowd’, as Tuck wrote later.
The men’s jobs were to repair and build German railroads. This involved carrying railway sleepers, digging cable trenches, and unloading trucks full of stones. Tuck wrote that ‘the commandant of the camp … Seemed to delight in petty and grosser acts of savagery and sadistic cruelty … The workmaster – the man who was in charge of and accompanied the working-party each and every day … (Was an) embodiment of everything that is evil, who, aided by the guards, saw that the work was carried out.’ One of the overseers ‘took pleasure in punishing prisoners on the slightest pretext’. The treatment of the men amounted to ‘brutal, premeditated torture … I (was) kicked and knocked down and beaten with a pick handle and flogged with the butt of a rifle, and on one occasion I can remember being weeks that I could hardly walk through having been beaten across the kidneys, but chased to work just the same.’
Frank Tuck described his life at Neuoffingen camp as a place where the men were woken by a whistle at 5.30am. Their beds were straw-filled palisades, one light blanket and one light cover, summer or winter, with no stoves to keep them warm. In the depths of winter they would return to the dormitory twelve hours later and place their sodden clothes on the bed, hoping that they might dry a little before morning. ‘The cold was so intense in winter that your clothes touching your skin … were almost unbearable. The term ‘frozen stiff’ had a literal meaning here. I have been … so perished and blue with cold I could not move … All men, however self-possessed or strong-willed, soon underwent some degree of mental and physical deterioration … There were constant beatings and punitive measures.’ Tuck also wrote: ‘If you were too weak to do at least what the Germans considered to be the minimum amount of work, you were battered and tortured in many ways to the point when you could no longer stand up; and at that time, you were moved to the cells in Augsburg prison to die alone and without medical attention. This happened to one of my English colleagues [Herbert Smith].’
It is thanks to the testimony of Frank Tuck that we know how and where Herbert Smith died. In a Foreign Office file containing his compensation claim for Nazi persecution exists a letter written in 1945 by Tuck to the British Red Cross society. In it he narrates Smith’s death:
A British policeman named Smith, a Welshman by birth, was tortured and left to die at Augsburg Prison in April 1943. The details of Smith’s treatment could probably be better told verbally. In common with all of us, Smith was badly shod and his feet were raw and bleeding. He was deprived of food and clothes when it was terribly cold, pronged with a fork, made to carry heavy sleepers, constantly tormented, beaten with a shovel and pick-axe in the stomach, This last ‘pick in the stomach’ treatment produced some kind of stomach or kidney disorder which confined him to bed; he was at the camp in this condition for some time on restricted food (water) and even this he could not keep down. He was made to get out of bed and walk to the doctor with a man on each side of him, too weak to walk alone. He was periodically carried from his bed whilst in fever and placed under a cold shower bath. This treatment was to cool down his temperature. He was constantly tormented by the Camp Commander. Later he was taken to Augsburg [Prison] and left to die in a cell and refused treatment by the doctor there. I have as a witness a French Aviation man who was a prisoner with him when he died and to whom Smith confided on his death bed.
Within Frank Tuck’s vast personal archive exists a signed testimony, written in French, by the man who witnessed Smith’s death. This, translated, reads as follows:
Landsberg, 5 May 1945
Having been a prisoner in the camp of Neuoffingen since 17 August 1942, I am capable of testifying against the brutal savagery of the commandant of the camp, Sellemeir [sic, Franz Sellmeir], and the chief of the site, Weissapt [sic, Weisshaupt], warden of the prisoners of Kaisheim, with regards to my French and English comrades.
Here are some examples. One of the principal victims was comrade Albert Schmid [sic, Herbert Smith], English, who was beaten to the point where he had to stay in bed the following day. He was also hit in his bed by the commandant. He had nothing to eat for two days and the days that followed he had only a little clear soup and no bread. He was hit in his bed and could hardly speak and in his last days he stopped caring about anything. We couldn’t give him any help because if we gave him something, our two hands were chained to a post, without food, standing up all night. One of my comrades was deprived of bread for 8 days for giving food to an English comrade, Jack Harper, who was also a martyr of the barbarous Germans, so was George Ozard who was tied to a tree in full winter at -20 degrees all day, in the snow and without food. He was so tied for a full night after having received a cold shower and without getting dry. I cite these deeds as the principal acts of brutality among all the others that we have endured. Several books could tell all. I think that the most severe justice must be given to these German brutes and I thank you in advance.
Lasue Rey (???)
Seen and confirmed by my comrades:
The records of Augsburg Prison confirm that Smith died on 5 April 1943. Today he is buried in the military cemetery in Augsburg Westfriedhof, in Block 11, Row 1, Grave 3. In Augsburg Westfriedhof, a memorial stone is inscribed with the words ‘Here are resting in foreign soil he soldiers and bombing victims of the First and Second World War from 12 nations. May peace be with them.’ This inscription makes no mention of the fact that the graves contain political victims who were killed by the Nazis.
Because Herbert Smith was deported for his acts, his wife and children were deported (with the wives and children of other Guernsey policemen) in February 1943, first to Compiègne-Royallieu Internment and Transit Camp and, later, to Biberach civilian internment camp. They were in Compiègne at the time of Smith’s death. The news caused trauma to the family for the rest of their lives.
In 1964, Herbert Smith’s wife successfully applied for compensation for the death of her husband. The testimonies provided to the Foreign Office by Frank Tuck and Jack Harper were instrumental in providing the proof needed for compensation.
Like the other Guernsey policemen, the name of Herbert Smith was never cleared. To this day, the judgements against them made by the Royal Court in Guernsey still stand, long after their deaths
Bailey, K.G.1979 . Dachau. Guernsey: CI Marine 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.
Frank Tuck Nazi persecution compensation claim, The National Archives ref: TNA FO 950/962.
Smith, Herbert Nazi persecution compensation claim, The National Archives ref: TNA FO 950/1161.
International Tracing Service files for Herbert Smith, Wiener Library, refs: 70490220, 112092393, 53750546.
The private archive of Frank Tuck, courtesy of his family.