By Gilly Carr
Norman Dexter was born on 1 July 1907. During the Occupation he lived with his wife, Beattie, and lived on King’s Road in St Peter Port, Guernsey. At the time that he comes to our attention, he was 36 years old and working as a printer or monotype operator for the Guernsey Press Company.
On 1 September 1943 he was tried by military tribunal for ‘non-delivery of a radio set’ and given a sentence of one year and six months. Dexter’s account of this in his own words comes from his 1964 compensation testimony:
In August 1943, following information being laid before the Germans by an informer(s) I was caught by the Nazis for being in possession of a wireless-set, the same having previously been called in to help them in their efforts to suppress English news being circulated among Islanders who were loyal to the British Crown. My wife and myself were both imprisoned by the Germans in the local jail, but my wife was allowed to go home that night after a full day during which there was much arguing and re-writing of statements in which I took all the blame for having the wireless-set in the house and listening to it. At my ‘trial’ I was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, not counting the 3 weeks or so that I had done locally …
On 21 September 1943 he arrived in Fort d’Hautville Prison in Dijon, having been escorted to the prison by the Feldgendarmerie from the Channel Islands, as was common for deported Islanders.
To discover Dexter’s trajectory through German prisons, we have three sources of evidence available to us: his compensation testimony of 1964; the prison records available from the International Tracing Service and from French archives; and, most insightful of all, the memoirs of his friend Gerald Domaille, whose prison trajectory echoed his own and who accompanied Dexter and Walter Lainé in many of their joint travails in Germany.
On 19 December 1943, Dexter left Fort d’Hautville and was transferred to Saarbrücken Prison in Germany. Unfortunately, none of the Islanders who experienced Saarbrücken wrote about it, but Dexter later composed a long poem which made a reference to the prison:
Then to Saarbrücken, three weeks was the spell,
After which all agreed ‘twas far worse than hell
We’d nothing to do and nothing to read
Except search for lice which Dijon did breed,
With two meals in the dark and two in a bed
We cared not whether we lived or were dead.
Dexter stayed in this prison until 6 January 1944 when, with Clifford Cohu of Jersey, he was transported to Frankfurt am Main Preungesheim Prison, arriving on 7 January 1944. Six other Islanders had made the same journey the previous day. Dexter describes the journey as one where he was ‘escorted, handcuffed, by three members of the dreaded SS.’
Dexter described Frankfurt thus in his compensation testimony:
In Frankfurt I was in a prison for political offenders against the Reich, manned by soldiers, some partially disabled, and all under the supervision of the Gestapo. I had to work for 11 hours a day and most of the time was spent in solitary confinement in my own cell where we were forced to stay during air-raids which were very frequent. The prison officers and staff had air-raid shelters in the yards, exclusively for themselves. Food, which was gradually reduced, consisted usually of a small round of bread morning and evening and a not very large dish of soup at midday. Frequently, Summer or Winter, we were made to stand completely nude in our cells while our clothes and cells were searched by the prison chiefs. I witnessed the carrying from their cells of several prisoners who could endure it no more and had committed suicide.
Channel Islanders in Frankfurt Preungesheim Prison were able to snatch brief moments of contact. Frank Falla, who was also in the same prison, described contact as possible only when taking their daily 15-minute exercise in the prison yard. ‘If we could not slyly whisper a few words to each other, we exchanged V – or thumbs up – signs’. Dexter commented that ‘I came into contact, however brief, with many Channel Islanders who had offended the Germans.’
Dexter testified that he left Frankfurt in early March 1945, an event which Gerald Domaille put at 21 March, noting that the two men were together. While Domaille had the advantage of having a whole memoir (written in 2001) in which to retrace the journey in his head, Dexter wrote only a two-page testimony for compensation (written in 1964) and was briefer. While Domaille named the two prisons in which they were next held before arriving at Straubing, Dexter did not. Domaille wrote that the two men were transported to Bamberg Prison in Bavaria in sealed cattle trucks, a journey which lasted for four days. On arrival at the prison, he recorded meeting Walter Lainé and Sidney Ashcroft. Following this they were all sent to Bamberg Military Riding School before being transported to Straubing Prison. Dexter’s testimony is not so dissimilar in its details, but places the order of the stay at the two prisons in Bamberg the other way round:
On leaving Frankfurt early in March 1945 following the advances of the Allies, and when the Americans [had] reached Mainz [and] were nearly on top of us, we were taken and transported firstly in open trucks, jammed together like sardines on an indescribable journey. Later we were turned out of the trucks and travelling on foot were forced marched all day for several weeks. There were several thousand of us, stretching about three miles along the road. On one occasion when fear among the Nazis was at its height, we were taken into a large low building which looked like a disused soldiers’ training camp [Bamberg Military Riding School?] and all of us were ordered to kneel down facing the wall with the SS parading in the centre flourishing their rifles …
Dexter testified that they were in Bamberg Military Riding School for a single night; for Domaille it was nine nights.
Our march continued the next day and we went four days without food of any kind and later at another camp where we halted, 14 prisoners died and their bodies had to be hidden behind the buildings’ black-outs until the prisoners themselves were eventually allowed to take out the bodies and bury them, though, God knows, they hardly had enough strength to dig the graves. Lice, exposure, sore feet, dysentery and other illnesses took their toll. Many were trying to escape the column, as were others who reached the stage when they just could not carry on.
It is unclear whether Domaille or Dexter were correct about the mode of arriving at Straubing, although Lainé, like Domaille, recalled that they were transported by train to Straubing Prison as the line reached into the prison grounds. We can probably say that Dexter’s memory of arriving at Straubing on foot was probably a muddled recollection of his post-Straubing forced march. In any case, the stay at Straubing was approximately 3 April to 23 April 1945.
After a stay of over two weeks at Straubing we were on the march again, this time destined for Dachau. During this journey I was reunited with Lainé and Domaille from Frankfurt Prison and we were able to help each other with moral and often physical support. Eventually at a little place called Moosberg we, as well as many others, broke away from the rest of the prisoners and obtained permission at a farm to bed down for the night in a barn. We awoke the next morning to be told that the place had been taken over by the Americans. This turned out to be true, though at first we could not believe it, and from then onwards we were well treated but due to the starvation we had suffered we found it difficult to keep down the good food.
The three Guernseymen were liberated on 30 April and soon put on an American military truck, and then a train to Reims in France. They were then flown from Reims to London, arriving in the capital on 18 May. Dexter went to stay with relations in Margate, who looked after him until he returned to Guernsey on 9 July 1945.
In 1965, Norman Dexter successfully applied for compensation for Nazi persecution.
After Dexter passed away, his later years marred by dementia, his personal archive passed to a cousin. It comprised a pencil sketch of his cell in Guernsey prison and his communal cell at Fort d’Hauteville; it seems likely that they were posted to family back in Guernsey before he moved to Germany. His archive also contained a long poem composed in Frankfurt, describing the regime. Among the papers is the first letter he received from his relieved mother. Dexter also kept the draft of his compensation testimony and the correspondence from the Foreign Office confirming his compensation. There are also the first letters between him, Gerald Domaille and Walter Lainé, written after their separation on arriving in England. The letters are mostly factual, focusing only on the present and immediate future, without a word about their experiences. Their brevity and formality is betrayed by the warmth of the signatures at the end, which read ‘I remain your ‘partner in crime’, Gerald’ and ‘your sincere friend, Walter’.
The author would like to thank Gloria Deane for passing Norman Dexter’s personal archive on to her.
Norman Dexter, compensation claim for Nazi persecution, TNA FO 950/2064.
Norman Dexter records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide refs: 53786767, 108518145, 11298270.
Norman Dexter’s prisoner record from Frankfurt am Main-Preungesheim, copyright Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden (abgeküzt HHStAW), ref. 409/4/001.
Falla, F. 1967. The Ultimate Sacrifice. Leslie Frewin.