By Gilly Carr
Sidney Ashcroft was born on 2 June 1921 to Charlotte and James Ashcroft, who married in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in 1915. James had fought in the First World War and he was often in trouble with the law after this date. He had difficulty in holding down a job and so the family lived in poverty. Sidney’s two sisters (Margery and Hilda) died in infancy and were buried in paupers’ graves in St Helen’s, Lancashire, in James’ home town.
James deserted the family and Charlotte and Sidney moved to Guernsey in the early 1930s after Charlotte got a job as a house keeper. During the Occupation they worked in the vineries (greenhouses), helping to grow food. Aged 20, Sidney decided to steal some food from a German kitchen. This can be seen as an act of defiance, helping to reclaim a little of the food that was being taken from Guernsey people. It could, alternatively, be seen as the action of a hungry man, trying to provide for him and his mother. Sidney was challenged by two German soldiers, and the family story is that Charlotte, who probably tried to intervene, was pushed by them. The soldier or soldiers struck Sidney, who returned the blow(s). For this offence, Sidney was brought to the prison on 1 May and convicted by court martial on 14 May 1942 to 2 years and 9 months hard labour. His offence was registered as ‘serious theft and resistance to officials’. It is likely that his sentence was severe because this was not his first offence. Prison records show that he had been brought to the prison by local officials on 28 January 1942 and released on 8 April 1942; the charge was two counts of breaking and entering, for which he was given a 12 week sentence of hard labour. As Alfred Baker (among others) was taken to the prison for the same crime on the same date, it is likely that the two men worked together. That Sidney re-offended within a short period of time shows how desperate his family circumstances had become in his absence.
Sidney was sent first to Jersey prison, then deported to France on 1 June 1942, the day before his 21st birthday, and two weeks after his conviction. He was sent first to Caen Prison from 1 June 1942 to 2 June 1942, and then was sent via Fresnes Prison to Fort de Villeneuve Saint-Georges Prison in Paris, where his arrival date was stamped 3 July 1942. He left Villeneuve on 15 March 1943. After this he was in Bernau Prison from 16 March 1943 to 4 September 1943; Diez Prison, where records show he was present from January to May 1944, but perhaps for as long as 9 months, and where he carried out forced labour in an optics factory; Limburg in February 1945; and a police prison, probably Frankfurt Klapperfeld Police Prison, from February 1945.
In his memoirs, Gerald Domaille testifies that Sidney left Frankfurt with him on 21 March 1945 and that they were in a cattle truck for four days travelling to Bamberg Prison, where they stayed a few days. From there they were transported to Bamberg Military Riding School for nine days. On approximately 2 April they travelled together to Straubing prison on an open truck.
Domaille wrote in his memoirs:
… With us was Sidney … he was sitting on the seat blue with the cold and extremely thin.
In his compensation testimony, Domaille wrote:
Those who tried to escape from the truck were shot at and wounded or killed. I would estimate that there were about two thousand prisoners in our contingent, but numbers decreasing as the journey progressed. Near the Austrian border we were herded into sealed trucks once more. This time we could only stand up we were so crowded. Anybody that fell could not get up and were trampled underfoot. When we were let out we found ourselves inside the prison courtyard.
In the various prison records where Sidney’s name appears, so does that of other Guernseymen, such as James Quick at Amberg and Kingston George Bailey at Bernau. Archival records also suggest that Sidney was imprisoned in Ebrach Prison, but it is unknown when. In his own memoirs, Bailey discusses his friendship with Ashcroft at Bernau, where they worked in the peat-fields and where they were beaten regularly. He described Sidney as a ‘tall thin lad’ who was ‘very patriotic’ and ‘very argumentative and always ready to back his arguments up with his fists if necessary’.
It was at Straubing prison where Ashcroft was last seen on 23 April 1945 by two Guernseymen, Walter Lainé and Norman Dexter, who wrote to the War Office in October 1945 after Sidney failed to return to Guernsey. Walter wrote:
When last seen, Sidney was scantily clothed in torn dark-grey flannels and a sports coat. On the morning of 24 April 1945 about 4,800 prisoners were lined up in the prison yard and the director of the prison picked out the worst cases of illness, and the most wretched-looking and weak persons. Sidney Ashcroft was put with them. Although his condition was poor, had he been given the same food as we had to eat – what little he could have eaten as his throat was troubling him – he would have lived at least a week … Should he be dead then it is possible that he was murdered in some brutal manner such as being gassed or shot.
Two key documents survive: a grave reference for Sidney in the cemetery of St Michael in Straubing, and an autopsy report, which suggested that Sidney had lived for another three weeks after he was last seen, before dying of TB of the lungs and throat. Those three weeks were spent in the prison hospital; Sidney had not been sent to another camp.
In September 2015, a short BBC documentary was made on Sidney Ashcroft’s story, and screened on 2 November that year. In this documentary, Chris Roberts (a relative of Sidney’s) and the author went to Straubing to find Sidney’s last resting place. A graveyard for prisoners was located in the cemetery of St Michael, although no markers indicated the presence of individual bodies. A plaque was laid in Sidney’s memory on the site where his body had been placed. It read ‘Sidney Ashcroft, Guernsey political prisoner, 2.6.21 – 15.5.45.’ After the documentary was completed, a local Anglican priest said some prayers for the repose of Sidney’s soul.
‘Death in Bavaria Hospital’, nd. Guernsey Evening Post.
Sidney Ashcroft’s occupation registration forms, Island Archives, Guernsey.
Sidney Ashcroft’s sentence records, Island Archives, Guernsey, ref. CC 14-05/125
Sidney Ashcroft’s death certificate, Ancestry.co.uk
Sidney Ashcroft records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library refs. 11769092/0/1, 11538657/0/1, 70445602/0/1, 70237524/0/1.
Cemetery record book, Straubing cemetery, Ashcroft listed as number 45.
Gerald Domaille, compensation claim for Nazi persecution, TNA FO 950/2067.
Gerald Domaille’s memoirs, in private ownership.
BBC Inside Out South West, November 2015 (special episode)
Dr Gilly Carr goes in search of the last resting place of Sidney Ashcroft with a relative of Ashcroft's. Together they lay a plaque in his memory.