By Gilly Carr
The story of Peter Hassall’s wartime experience was described by himself in his detailed memoir, finished in 1991, entitled Night and Fog Prisoners or The Unknown Prisoners. The full document is available in PDF on this website.
Peter was born in Jersey on 22 November 1926. During the occupation he felt shamed by his parents’ willingness to become involved with German soldiers, especially those of the German Harbour Police to whom they showed friendship and welcome in their photographic shop. His mother also dealt heavily on the black market with the connivance of the occupiers.
Because of the shame he felt, Peter decided to escape from the island with two teenage friends, Dennis Audrain and Maurice Gould, on the night of 3 May 1942, carrying hundreds of photos of German war materiel which he had duplicated from photos that Germans brought into his father’s shop. He also photographed and plotted the position of gun emplacements on a map, and put these in a photo album.
They set off in a boat which capsized. Dennis, who could not swim, drowned, despite Peter’s best efforts to rescue him. Maurice and Peter managed to return to shore and were met by the German Harbour Police, who had been tipped off by Peter’s mother. They were arrested and taken to the military wing of Gloucester Street prison in Jersey, where they underwent three days of harsh interrogations.
Peter and Maurice became the first Channel Islanders to be categorized as NN (Nacht und Nebel) prisoners. The NN decree was meant to intimidate local populations into submission by denying friends and families of seized persons any knowledge of their whereabouts or their fate. The prisoners were secretly transported to Germany and vanished without a trace.
In mid-May 1942, Peter and Maurice were taken to Fresnes prison on the outskirts of Paris. They were interrogated and tortured at the Rue des Saussaies, Gestapo HQ in Paris, and were then deported by the Gestapo to Germany. On 12 June, 1942, with fifty other French NN prisoners, Peter and Maurice were sent to a German prison in Trier, where they were held overnight. The next day, they were taken to the train station of Reinsfeld, in the Mosel Valley, from which they were marched to a small concentration camp – SS Sonderlager (Special Camp) Hinzert where, for the next six weeks, they were continuously tortured and beaten. They were strenuously worked for twelve hours a day on very low rations. Maurice was singled out for bad treatment, which severely weakened him.
On 24, July 1942, Peter and Maurice, together with one hundred other men under 20, were transported to the maximum security penitentiary of Wittlich, where they were put to work in a basket factory. The beatings from Hinzert, starvation diet and damp conditions in the basket factory fatally weakened Maurice, who succumbed to tuberculosis and died on 1 October 1943.
Peter remained in Wittlich, with the complicity of the German doctor and prison Director, until the Gestapo in Trier sent a written order to transport him to Breslau in March 1944. He travelled across Germany in cattle cars and spent nights in German prisons before arriving in Breslau, where he stayed until his trial of 1 June 1944, before a Special Tribunal. He faced five charges, the most serious being that of espionage. During the trial the judges produced Peter’s photograph album of German war materiel. Peter was found guilty and he was given a four year prison term.
After his trial, Peter returned to Breslau prison and, on 26 July 1944, he was taken, on foot, to Schweidnitz Prison in Silesia (now Świdnica in Poland), 40 miles distant, to work for the German industrial firm Siemens making tools and dies in a workshop which operated within the prison itself. As the Red Army drew near in January 1945, the men were put on a forced march to the prison of Hirschberg (now Jelenia Góra in Poland), thirty miles west of Schweidnitz. They slept in open fields in the winter snow. They were finally incarcerated in the prison of Hirschberg where they had nothing to do except watch each other die of TB. On 9 May 1945 they were given back their own clothes and simply set free. By this stage, 19 year old Peter weighed just 80 pounds (under 6 stone). After tangling with the Red Army, he travelled to Eilenburg, hoping to find the Americans, but was again captured by the Soviets and taken to Torgau and put in a former Nazi concentration camp filled with Soviet POWs. He escaped by hiding in a Russian military truck which took him back to the town of Eilenburg, where a Soviet/United States prisoner of war exchange point was set up. Peter escaped to safety, was interrogated by the Americans, then driven to Halle in north-east Germany. He was flown to Brussels, interrogated by British Field Security and flown to London, where he was interrogated once again. Peter was eventually able to return to Jersey, although he left the island for good in 1954.
In January 1997, aged 71, Peter kept his vow to Maurice Gould and was able to repatriate his body to Jersey, where he was buried in the Allied War Cemetery of Howard Davis Park in a special ceremony. In the same year, Peter Hassall finished his memoirs.