By Gilly Carr
James Edward Houillebecq was born on 24 February 1927 in St Saviour, Jersey. His name is known to us as one of the ‘Jersey 21’ whose names are inscribed on the Lighthouse Memorial in St Helier, which commemorates those who did not return from their deportation.
Houillebecq lived with his sister, Nancy, and parents James Houillebecq senior and Annemarie Houillebecq née Smith and was working as an apprentice making clogs in August 1941, when he was aged just 14. James Houillebecq comes to our attention during the occupation because in May 1944, in the later testimony of his father, he ‘stole arms and ammunition’. According to the memoirs of JH L’Amy, a Jerseyman who made detailed notes on some of Jersey’s political prisoners, shortly after James Houillebecq had left De La Salle College, he and several of his friends
… were conscripted for forced labour by the Germans on the grounds that they had not undertaken work of value to the community since leaving school, There was no way out of it so they determined to do all they could to sabotage the German war effort … they banded themselves together and … they stole and hid large quantities of arms and ammunition including a machine gun, in the hope that they would be able to give assistance to an Allied invasion force.
The Feldgendarmerie (German military police) searched the Houillebecq property and discovered the stolen items buried in the garden. Research by Paul Sanders has revealed that the whole family was arrested in May 1944, separated, put into solitary confinement, and interrogated by the Geheime Feldpolizei. They were released after several weeks and were able to bring food and clean clothes to the prison before James junior was deported.
As Paul Sanders observes, the nature of offence, the absence of trial proceedings, the lack of court records and other documentary evidence, and the circumstances of his disappearance all seem to conspire to suggest that James, like Clarence Claude and Peter Painter, became an NN prisoner. The NN or Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) decree was aimed at deterring resisters, whereby prisoners were held incommunicado and cut off from any contact with the outside world, including their families and friends. Their whereabouts were kept secret, and they were also separated from other prisoners who might share news with them, carry messages to the outside world, or testify to their presence. Their next of kin were not allowed to be informed about their fate or place of death, and NN prisoners were not allowed any medical treatment. The NN decree was officially classified as a war crime at the Nuremberg Trials.
Houillebecq’s case, however, has both similarities and dissimilarities to that of the Painters’. Clarence Painter – despite his good character and lack of previous convictions – was deported with his 19 year old son, Peter, even though Peter was responsible for hiding a WWI souvenir pistol in his wardrobe. In 17 year old Houillebecq’s case, his father – with two previous convictions by the troop court, for larceny on 4 February 1942 and infraction of the street traffic order on 2 August 1942 – was given a mere two-week sentence for ‘unauthorised possession of arms’. His prison sentence lasted from 24 June to 7 July, at a time when the Germans were speedily trying to remove prisoners from the Island before the deportation route to France was severed by the Allied invasion. The decision to deport Clarence Painter but to let off James Houillebecq senior with a very brief sentence makes very little sense. If the Germans received information that proved without a doubt that the offence was the fault only of James Houillebecq junior, then why was his father given a sentence at all?
His father later testified that his son was imprisoned in Jersey jail from May 1944 to August 1944 and then deported to Germany. As records in Jersey Archives show that he left Jersey prison on 7 July, the August date is too late. We know that Houillebecq was transferred from Compiègne-Royallieu Transit and Internment Camp on transport I.247 on 15 July 1944. This indicates that he left the Island between these two dates. In preparation for The Ultimate Sacrifice, Paul Sanders was able to interview James’ sister Nancy, who testified that James was taken to Fresnes Prison (although there is no indication of when or how far into his sentence this was). It seems probable, if we include this prison, that he left Jersey promptly on or after 7 July 1944 and was in Fresnes briefly, then Compiegne for a short period before his deportation.
In Fresnes Houillebecq befriended another British prisoner whose family lived in France. They were taken to Neuengamme Concentration Camp together and James’ friend, who survived the war, was able to tell James’ family that he had seen him entering the camp hospital. The family never found out more as the young man ceased all communication with them, probably because he was too traumatised.
James Houillebecq died on 20 January 1945 in Neuengamme Concentration Camp. The cause of death was officially listed as ‘blood poisoning’, but the Nazis were notorious for writing false causes of death on death certificate of prisoners who died from a variety of maltreatment including starvation, exposure, and execution, so his true cause of death may never be known. He was cremated and his ashes scattered.
In 1964, now living in Essex, his father applied for compensation for the Nazi persecution suffered by his son. James Houillebecq senior was now a widower. His wife’s health had deteriorated rapidly and she died shortly after the occupation after learning of the death of her son.
L’Amy, J.H. nd. The German Occupation of Jersey (unpublished memoirs). Société Jersiaise Library ref. OCC 942 L’AM.
Sanders, P. 2004. The Ultimate Sacrifice. Jersey: Jersey Heritage Trust.
International Tracing Service, The Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide, refs. 108518281, 251118929, 25118927, 25118923, 3646339, 3446458-3446461, 25118926, 25118925, 25118920 – 25118922.
Court records for James Houillebecq (senior), Jersey Archives refs. D/Z/H6/3/26, D/Z/H6/4/7 and D/Z/H6/7/89.
Nazi Persecution compensation claim, James Houillebecq, TNA FO 950/1630.
Entry for James Houillebecq, Fondation pour La Memoire de la Déportation, http://www.bddm.org/liv/details.php?id=I.247.#HOUILLEBECQ