By Gilly Carr
Robert Henry Bell Baker (or Robert Bell, as he was referred to in archival records) was born in Stratham, Scotland on 22 November 1914 and came to Jersey around 1932. He lived in St Helier and worked as a gardener during the Occupation. He was 25 years old when the Occupation began. Although his registration card noted that he had been born in 1914, written in Bell’s own handwriting, his prison records in Jersey and France record the year of his birth as 1915 instead.
Archival documents from Jersey Archives reveal that Bell was sentenced on 7 January 1942 to 9 months’ imprisonment for receiving stolen property; he was by that date living at 41 Broad Street in St Helier. As Ronald Staples, living at the same address, was convicted of ‘serious larceny’, it seems probable that the two men worked together. This was not the first time that Bell had been in trouble with the law. A post-war letter of 22 April 1947 indicates that on 15 April 1941, Bell had been sentenced by the Royal Court of Jersey to three months imprisonment for theft of two bicycles and so already had a previous conviction at the time of his later arrest.
According to Jersey’s political prisoner log book, on 5 February 1942 Robert Bell was deported. On 6 February he arrived in Caen Prison, where he stayed until 15 July 1942, when he was transferred to Fort d’Hauteville Prison in Dijon. An entry into the records for Fort d’Hauteville Prison indicates that he arrived there on 16 July 1942, and like most prisoners in Hauteville, possibly passed through nearby Dijon Prison on arrival and departure. Although his prison term was supposed to have ended on 15 October 1942, he was released on 13 November 1942 and transferred to Saint-Denis Internment Camp.
In the mid-1960s, Bell wrote two different compensation claims. One is brief, inarticulate and in his own handwriting and the other appears to have been written by someone else and is more detailed and presumably dictated by Bell. In the first, he stated that he was deported to Caen prison, then to a ‘big fortress’ in Dijon, then to St Denis, and finally to Laufen internment camp.
In the version of his testimony written by somebody else, Bell stated that he was:
Sentenced … for receiving stolen German foodstuffs. Some time in February 1942 I was taken to France and put in Dijon security fortress, where I served eleven appalling months. With due respect I would like to set down in writing the humiliating and barbaric conditions in which I lived. For breakfast I had four ounces of black bread and one cup of acorn coffee. For dinner I had one pint of cabbage water. This was my staple diet for eleven months.
When I arrived at Dijon I was a healthy nine stone with a good set of hair and good teeth; at the end of these eleven appalling months I was a broken man in all but spirit; I was practically bald and left with very few good teeth. The times that I had a decent wash or shave I can count on one hand, and my weight had dropped to four and a half stone … At the end of my sentence I was taken to St Denis Internment camp where I stayed for eighteen months. In St Denis I was put in hospital where I stayed for nine months … I recovered a bit of my former strength. From St Denis I was sent to Laufen internment camp in Austria where I stayed until liberated by the Americans on May 4th, 1945.
Robert Bell did not receive compensation.
Jersey occupation registration documents, Jersey Archives ref St_H_4_7651 to 7653.
Jersey political prisoner log book, Jersey Archives ref. D/AG/B7/1.
Robert Bell’s prison sentence record sheet, Jersey Archives ref. D/Z/H6/3/17.
Prison register for Fort d’Hauteville, Dijon, ref. 1490W.
Caen Service Historique de la Défence, Prison register for Caen Prison, ref. SHD-27P44/01.
The National Archives Nazi Persecution compensation claim ref TNA 950/4782