By Gilly Carr
John Charles Coutanche was born on 20 July 1920 in Cape Town, South Africa, to a Jersey father and English mother born in South Africa. The family relocated back to Jersey when John Coutanche was five years old.
At the time of registration of Islanders in January 1941, Coutanche was 20 years old and working as a stone dresser and monumental mason in a quarry in L’Etacq. He married Delphina Coutanche née Le Marquand in October 1941 and had a son, Richard, born in July 1942.
Coutanche comes to our attention because, on 22 December 1942, he was convicted by the Court of the Field Command 515 to three months’ imprisonment for receiving stolen goods. In his later testimony, he stated that he was ‘charged with obtaining German cigarettes’. He wrote later that all the men who worked with him quarry had bought the cigarettes, but that the person who sold them to the men had informed upon him and two other quarry men.
The five men were deported on 12 January 1942. Also deported that day, and represented on this website, were John Woods, Frederick Vasse, and Henry Addicott. John Coutanche later wrote that all of these men had purchased German cigarettes. The group of men were sent to Caen Prison.
John Coutanche arrived in Caen on 13 January 1942 and shared a cell with at least some of the men he was deported with; his son later said that he shared a cell with ‘Mossy’ O’Connell. Coutanche was released on 26 March 1942 and returned to Jersey.
This was not the end of Coutanche’s period of captivity. As somebody born outside the island, he was deported with his wife and two-month old son on 29 September 1942 to Wurzach Civilian Internment Camp via Biberach Camp with hundreds of other islanders. John Coutanche’s son Richard still has his first and second birthday cards which he received in the camp.
Coutanche wrote about his experiences on three later occasions. In March 1965, he wrote to the Foreign Office to apply for compensation as a victim of Nazi persecution. He wrote that:
‘I suffered from starvation; I was confined with a number of other prisoners. I had to sleep fully clothed owing to the cold … I am suffering from a permanent disability as a result of my imprisonment. I have not been able to work for many years and I have been told by doctors that I will never work again. The nature of my disability is spondylitis ankylopoetica [inflammation of joints in the spine; a form of arthritis], which I believe was caused by the conditions under which I lived in prison. I had very little food and suffered from the cold … during the whole of the time I was imprisoned in France.’
He did not receive any compensation; those deported to France only were considered ineligible.
In 1998 Coutanche wrote a statement to Joe Miere, curator of the Jersey Underground Hospital and guardian of memory of political prisoners, to say that ‘conditions in the prison were very bad … I came back in a very poor state of health’.
In his memoirs, written towards the end of his life, Coutanche wrote that he was deported to Caen in a cargo boat:
‘… we all laid down in the front of the boat to try to find shelter. By the time we reached France we were so cold that we struggled to feel our fingers. We were then marched from the boat to a prison in Granville, left there for the night, with French guards in charge of us. I was able to speak French so I was able to tell them who we were and why we were there and explained how hungry we were as it had been a long time since we had eaten and asked if they could get us some food. They asked us to wait until midnight when all was quiet. After midnight they let us out of the cells and allowed us to sit with them around the office table. They went to a restaurant and brought back a large fried mackerel each and a huge bowl of macaroni. They kept us with them until 5 o’clock in the morning and put us back in the cells before the Germans came to collect us. We were taken to the train station where we boarded a train to Caen. We were put into a prison van and taken to the prison, Maison d’Arret, where we were put into a big cell with eleven other prisoners that were in there because of the Germans, which made nineteen in all. The cell was number 2. Conditions were terrible. Our toilet was a tub in the corner of the room. We were given one small cup of substitute coffee for breakfast, two small cups of soup a day, which was no more than hot water with two slices of bread. We were lucky if we found a small piece of cabbage in the soup. It was the depth of winter and I had one blanket and a mattress filled with pampas grass. It was so cold I slept fully clothed with my overcoat and boots on for the whole time I was there. We were unable to have a proper wash, and I used my drinking water to wash and shave. We were allowed out one hundred at a time for 15 minutes per day to wash and there were three stone basins in the yard but never made it that far because we had to go back inside. … After the three months was up … I was too ill to work and my doctor told me that I was suffering from malnutrition gout.’ —Extract from The Memories and Life of John Coutanche, p.17.
John Coutanche died on 11 April 2006, aged 85.
Gilly Carr would like to thank Richard Coutanche for his interview on 24 September 2014.
John Coutanche’s Occupation registration card, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/1/256 and 257.
John Coutanche’s Occupation registration form, Jersey Archives ref. Dep/4/451 – 452.
John Coutanche’s record, political prisoner register, Jersey Archives ref. D/AG/B7/7.
John Coutanche’s court records, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/3/6.
John Coutanche’s records from Caen Prison, Calvados Archives, Caen, ref. 1664 w 34.
Letter from John Coutanche to Joe Miere, Jersey Archives ref. L/C/24/D3/1.
The Memories and Life of John Charles Coutanche, unpublished memoirs of John Coutanche, in private ownership.