By Gilly Carr
WARNING: CONTAINS DISTRESSING DETAILS OF THE DEATH OF PERCY MILLER
Percy William Miller was born in Guernsey on 1 March 1883. He was married to wife Maud Harris, who was from Plympton in Devon. As a young man, Percy worked as the butler and chauffeur of Lord and Lady Seaton in Plymouth and, during this period, he and Maud had their only child, Eveline, born in 1905.
The young family later moved to London where Percy got a job with the Metropolitan Police, for whom he worked until his retirement. The links with Guernsey were obviously kept up because their daughter Eveline met and married Guernseyman Wilfred Le Maitre in 1936.
While on a trip to Guernsey to meet his grandson, Sidney, in 1939, war broke out and Percy and Maud decided to stay in Guernsey. They found a house in the Vale parish and Percy found work as a gardener. It was, perhaps, the right decision to move given that their house in Packington Street in Islington was bombed and destroyed. However, it seems that Percy’s luck was not due to hold for very long.
On 12 July 1943, Percy was convicted for ‘failing to deliver a wireless set’ to the authorities after radios were banned in June 1942, and given a 15 month sentence.
Our knowledge about Percy Miller’s places of detention comes from French and German prison archives and the International Tracing Service. Miller’s letters to his family indicate that he was deported from Guernsey to the Maison d’Arret in Dijon on 24 August 1943 via a night in Saint Malo Prison and a few days in Saint-Lô Prison.
Letters to his family note that, when he arrived in Saint-Lô, he was ‘taken to a room where there were 10 other prisoners and they opened their arms and christened me ‘Grand-Père’. We shared in everything they had, parcels from their homes, and we did very well there.’
The archives for the prison in Dijon show that Miller was there from 3 until 8 September 1943. In letters home to his family he described the prison regime thus: ‘the Warders were good to us but I had a very rough time. I was smothered with bug bites. I suppose I had 60 or 70 bumps on me, my chin came down an inch or more. I can tell you it was very painful. I have not been able to shave for four days so you can reckon I look pretty.’ On his arrival at Dijon, the French Red Cross visited the prisoners and gave them cheese, jam, sugar and biscuits; they visited fairly regularly. Miller was very pleased to receive the food as he noted that the Jersey prisoners were able to receive food parcels while he, as a Guernsey prisoner, was not. This was likely to be because of the closer distance (and thus less risky passage) between Jersey and France.
On 8 September he arrived at Fort d’Hautville Prison, also in Dijon, where he, like other new prisoners, he was sent for a chest X-ray. The doctor found some spots on his lungs, the ‘after-result of the pneumonia and pleurisy I had’, according to a letter sent to his family. He anticipated a hospital visit after this X-ray result, but we do not know whether he was sent there.
After this he was sent to Saarbrucken Prison on 19 December 1943. Records from the International Tracing Service indicate that Miller was one of six Channel Islanders placed on a transport from Saarbrucken on 5 January 1944 to Frankfurt am Main Preungesheim Prison, where he arrived on 6 January 1944 – his final destination.
The archives in Hesse, Germany, contain a file of Miller’s Frankfurt records. This file contains two almost identical handwritten letters from Miller dated 6 February 1944 and 11 February 1944. We can only assume that these were never sent but were kept instead by the prison authorities. The letters were sent jointly to his wife Maud, daughter Eveline, son-in-law Will, and grandson Sidney. They show that Miller’s thoughts were constantly with his family, their welfare, and local news. He also wrote:
A couple of days after our arrival here, we were interviewed by one of the officials of the prison who took particulars about us so I told him that the Judge said when sentencing us that if we went to France or Germany to serve our sentence, we would get remission of sentence, and I ask him if that was so. He said ‘yes, you will get remission’, so that is something to look forward to …
Dear Eveline, get mum to write an appeal for some remission for me, the grounds of my age, stomach pain through operation, haemorrhages. The grounds for her, age, heart attacks, and I am her only support … send it to the Chief of M[ilitary] Forces in Jersey and they will forward it on to Paris. The chaps here from J[ersey] are doing it, they were told to when half their sentence was served, so why not me?
However, his hoped-for remission failed to materialise. He also asked his family to send him ‘a piece of soap ration … a small comb and about an ounce of tobacco; put some thin potato skins in … I haven’t had a smoke since 10.12.43.’ His specific requests give us an insight into the problems faced by prisoners unable to keep clean. Miller also referred to ‘working in his cell’ alone all day, which helped to pass the time. We can thus infer that Miller was compelled to carry out forced labour.
When Frank Falla arrived in Frankfurt in June 1944 – a month before Miller’s death – he was able to describe his encounters with Miller in his book The Silent War, written in 1967. Here he wrote that while he was digging a hole in the prison yard to build an air-raid shelter for the guards and warders, he was:
… able to have short chats with an emaciated Guernsey prisoner … Percy Miller, as he marched round the yard on exercise. He had been ‘shopped’ as a radio listener. The Germans swooped on his house and poor Miller was caught red-handed and sentenced. He died in Frankfurt … just a month before he was due to be freed after serving his time. When he discovered I was a Guernseyman, all Percy Miller wanted to know was how his favourite local amateur soccer side, Vauxbelets, was getting on and were they still top of the league? On this I was able to reassure him – and it seemed that he couldn’t have been much happier had I opened the main prison gates to free him.
Percy Miller died 16 July 1944, just a month and a half short of his release date, although at this stage in the war it is likely that he would not have been sent back to the Channel Islands but instead to another prison or concentration camp.
In 1964, Eveline Le Maitre, Miller’s daughter, filed a compensation claim for her father’s death; Maud Miller, Percy’s wife, had died four years earlier. In it Eveline wrote that two of the Channel Islanders who had been in Frankfurt Prison throughout the whole of his imprisonment (and survived) –
… can testify to the inhuman treatment he was subjected to and the suffering he went through before, finally, in July 1944 after he had been subjected to special punishment, two weeks bread and water in a special cell for attempting to pass a note to another prisoner, he was driven mad by his sufferings and torture and died in his cell on 16 July 1944 … Mr Falla informs me that the late Canon Clifford Cohu who was imprisoned with my father at the time and later transferred to Naumburg-on-Saale after which he died, had begged the Germans to be allowed to officiate at the funeral of Channel Islanders and other British subjects when they died in prison. He asked, too, that he be allowed to bury my father, but, as in other cases, was refused this simple right.
Norman Dexter, who also filed a compensation claim, added more details.
He was put into a cell composed only of bars and a small wooden bench as a bed. He was given a diet of bread and water for two weeks, and already starving and suffering malnutrition, this proved too much for him to bear and he died a raving lunatic. I heard him raving for several days from my cell which was some distance from his.
Percy Miller’s prison file in the archives in Hesse add disturbing extra details about Miller’s last days. A report of 12 July signed by the head guard stated that ‘The prisoner Miller William CI 26 has, for the last few days, been smearing his cell and fixtures with excrement and urine. He has been throwing all of the objects [in the cell] randomly in a jumble. Above all, at nights he has been very agitated and loud. M. has been taken at 9 o’clock today by O.W.[?] Becker, G.A. [?] Löllmann and myself to the pacification cell.’ Next to this on the right, the chief guard had written a note to the Government Medical Advisor asking ‘Is M. responsible?’ The reply was ‘not responsible’. There are two interpretations of this. The first would seem to be that the guards are asking whether Miller was responsible for his actions (i.e. whether he had lost his sanity), to which the medical advisor replied that he was not. The second interpretation is more sinister. Frank Falla was very clear about the prison regime at Frankfurt: the beating-up of prisoners was commonplace, especially when they were noisy. ‘Three or four [guards] would go into the cell and beat hell out of the hapless victims until their yells echoed through the whole prison.’ It seems likely, therefore, that Percy Miller was beaten up when he was making a noise; the prison report of 12 July may have been asking whether ‘M’, perhaps a guard who had gone too far with a beating, was responsible for Miller’s current physical state.
His death certificate said that he died of ‘weakness of the heart muscles together with dropsy and hardening of the arteries’ – unlikely to be the real or only cause of death.
Percy Miller was buried in the Hauptfriedhof (the main cemetery) in Frankfurt. He lies there still.
Falla, F. (1967). The Silent War. Leslie Frewin.
Eveline Le Maitre Nazi persecution compensation claim, The National Archives ref: TNA FO 950/2066.
Norman Dexter Nazi persecution compensation claim, The National Archives ref: TNA FO 950/2064.
International Tracing Service files for Percy Miller, Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide.
Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or ,1568 W 58, 60, répertoires de la prison de Dijon records for Percy Miller.
Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or, Régistre d’écrou Prison d’Hauteville, records for Percy Miller, ref: 1490W.
Records for Percy Miller, Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, HHStAW Abt. 409/4, Nr. 4885.