By Gilly Carr
Walter Lainé’s story begins in 1943, when he was not yet married, 25 years old, and working as a kitchen worker in Beaucamp, Guernsey; he was employed by the German authorities, as were many other Islanders at this time.
Lainé was arrested in early June 1943 and placed in Guernsey prison on 24 June 1943 for a total of four weeks. He was tried by military tribunal of Feldkommandantur 515, a trial which took place in the Royal Court of Guernsey on 12 July 1943. He was sentenced to one year and three months’ imprisonment for ‘failing to deliver a wireless set’; such radio offences were among the most common – but also the most serious – in the Channel Islands after radios were confiscated in June 1942. In his later compensation testimony, Lainé added that he had also conveyed the BBC news to others, but this is not mentioned in his charge sheet. Lainé’s daughter was later able to add that her father was a strong-willed and defiant man, and that at his trial he told the Germans that they would never win the war.
Our knowledge of what happened to Walter Lainé comes from several sources: his compensation testimony written in 1964; the memoirs of those he met in prison, such as Frank Falla and especially Gerald Domaille; records from the International Tracing Service; and records from French prisons.
We do not know precisely when Lainé was deported, but the first located prison records which show his presence are those from Dijon Prison, where he was held from 3 to 8 September 1943. We might note that Percy Miller of Guernsey was also at this prison at these exact dates, and letters to his family show that he was deported from Guernsey on 24 August 1943 and spent a night in Saint-Malo Prison and a few days in Saint-Lô Prison before he arrived in Dijon. Walter Lainé stated that he was deported with Miller and therefore we can assume that he, too, was also briefly in these prisons before arriving in Dijon.
Lainé was then transferred to Fort d’Hautville Prison, also in Dijon, on 8 September 1943, staying here until 19 December. Of this prison he later wrote that ‘here we had French guards and a German chief and this was the beginning of my period on starvation diet.’
On 19 December 1943 he was deported to Saarbrücken Prison. Although Lainé stayed here for just three weeks, he co-existed in the prison with a number of other Channel Islanders. This we know because his transfer from Saarbrücken to Frankfurt am Main-Preungesheim Prison on 5 January 1944 took place with George Fox, Percy Miller, Frederick Page, Clifford Querée, and Joseph Tierney. Of these six men, only Lainé was to survive the war. On 7 January 1944, the Islanders arrived in Frankfurt. Their presence must have been of great comfort to each other as they shared the long journey further into Germany.
Of Frankfurt Preungesheim, Lainé wrote that
… I served most of my sentence under SS guards. I was in solitary confinement, except when working in a shed in one of the prison yards and here I worked on nuts and bolts which were used for the construction and repair of German tanks. I don’t think International Law permits a prisoner of the Germans doing this work, but I had no choice but to do it, along with two other Guernseymen, Norman Dexter and Gerald Domaille.
Channel Islanders in Frankfurt Preungesheim were able to be in contact in a variety of ways. Frank Falla, who was also in the same prison, described contact as possible only when taking the 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’. Lainé, who had arrived before his friend Gerald Domaille, was able to make contact with him on his first day in the prison. When the men assembled in the morning with the other prisoners, Domaille later wrote that , ‘… there were whispers of Francais? Francais? As soon as I said ‘Non, Anglais from Guernsey’, two voices came across to me saying ‘we are English also, from Guernsey.’ They were called Walter [Lainé] and Norman [Dexter] and they proved to be wonderful friends the whole of the time in Germany.’
On completing his sentence – scheduled for 25 October 1944 – Lainé was not released. A document in his prison file dated 25 October 1944 shows a request from a prison official in Preungesheim to the Gestapo in Frankfurt not to let Lainé out after his sentence was served. It states that ‘he cannot be allowed out as a free worker in Germany’ and requests that he be put into ‘protective custody’, meaning that his sentence was to last indefinitely (see file Laine/hhstaw/409/4/3850/019.) Lainé later expressed the opinion in his compensation testimony that he was not released at this point because he did not ‘volunteer to work in the factories as a worker of liberty.’
A letter from Preungesheim Prison to the Gestapo dated 30 October 1944 states that from that day, Preungesheim considered Lainé to be a ‘protective custody’ prisoner and requested his transfer to Gestapo custody as soon as possible. A response to the letter, written by the Gestapo and dated 4 November, confirmed that Lainé could be transferred to Frankfurt am Main Klapperfeld Police Prison right away. Lainé testified that he was taken to the prison on 25 October 1944, although International Red Cross records suggest that this transfer took place 11 November instead. Although Lainé’s own clothes were returned to him, he was given
… so little food that I could not live on it. Fortunately the Allies’ advance into Germany forced the Nazis to take all of us out of prison on a forced march into the interior of Germany and it was while on this that I met up with my two friends from Frankfurt, Dexter and Domaille. When we reached Straubing I was put in prison again and there I met another young Guernseyman, Sydney Ashcroft …
Lainé did not record when he reached Straubing prison, although Domaille, Dexter and Ashcroft arrived on 3 April 1945, which is also likely to have been Lainé’s arrival date, especially as Ashcroft was also transported from Frankfurt Klapperfeld to Straubing. Of their arrival in the prison, Domaille later wrote:
This prison was administered by the military and SS. Upon arrival we were herded into the prison shower aided by beatings with pieces of wood, the target being the kidneys. Food was very short here.
On 23 April 1945 (or 24 April according to Lainé), he, Dexter and Domaille were, with many hundreds of other prisoners, put on a forced march of about a week in duration in the direction of Dachau concentration camp. Sidney Ashcroft was taken away to Straubing Prison hospital; Lainé was the last person to see him alive. As he wrote to the war office in 1945,
On the morning of 24th April 1945 about 4,800 civil political and criminal prisoners were lined up in the prison yard and the director of the prison picked out the worst cases of illness, weak, or the most wretched-looking persons. Sydney 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, as far as I can judge he would have lived at least a week.
Of his forced march with his friends, Lainé wrote in his compensation testimony:
On our forced march across Germany many of those on it died through starvation, malnutrition or utter exhaustion, and if they fell by the wayside they were just left there to die. Fortunately, I survived, though I was in very bad shape.
Gerald Domaille wrote more extensively about the forced march with Dexter and Lainé in his memoirs:
We slept out in fields in the pouring rain. … Food was one meal per day, dry bread with a well watered down apology for jam. Villagers put out baths of fresh water for us to drink, some even gave us food but to be caught by the guards meant that anything could happen to one. If caught, the result was to be knocked senseless or killed with a rifle butt. We were told that stragglers would be shot; quite a number were.
In his memoirs, Domaille gave an insight into the value of his friends:
We drifted further behind. Walter stopped and leaned against the hedge. The moment he was in that position another prisoner attacked him and tried to take off his shoes. The warder chased him away and told us to help Walter with us. Walter pleaded with us to leave him there, he said that he could not manage another step. The warder reminded us that if we left him there he would be shot. It was with a great effort that we got Walter to his feet, one each side of him, and plodded on.
… if we had not kept together, none of us would have survived. When I was hit on the right ankle by a soldier with the butt of his rifle, Walter and Norman were a great help to me. My ankle was swollen to such a degree that I could only just walk. During that period we were issued with a bowl of so-called soup, neither Norman nor Walter could get it for me, I had to get it myself so with one of them each side of me I managed.
The three Guernseymen managed to escape from the forced march near Freising, but they were still behind enemy lines. While hiding in a farmer’s hayloft, American soldiers walked in – the advancing American army meant that they were effectively freed.
The three Guernseymen were soon put on an American military truck, and then a train to Rheims in France. They were then flown from Rheims to London, where Lainé then travelled to Andover to stay with his evacuated mother and sisters, who looked after him until it was possible to travel back to Guernsey later that summer. One of his sisters later told Lainé’s daughter that he was almost unrecognisable when he arrived in Andover; he was very thin and had no hair and they had to be very careful about feeding him up as he was unable to eat properly for a while.
In 1964, Lainé successfully applied for compensation for Nazi persecution.
Lainé’s daughter was later able to testify that the fate of Sidney Ashcroft continued to weigh heavily on her father’s mind as he was the last person to see Sidney alive. He went to see Sidney’s mother after the war to tell her about her son, which he found very hard.
Lainé was also able to tell his children of the kinds of ill-treatment that he witnessed in prison – information that he did not write down in his testimony. Walter Lainé died on 14 September 1985 aged 67 of stomach cancer. Before he died, he remarked to his daughter that he had been starved three times in his life: as a child when he didn’t have enough food; when he was a prisoner; and when he had stomach cancer and had to have most of his stomach removed. Lainé’s daughter believes that these earlier periods of starvation directly caused her father’s death.
Walter Lainé’s record, Fort d’Hautville Prison, Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or 1409W, 1-13, Régistre d’écrou Prison d’Hauteville
Walter Lainé’s record, Maison d’Arret, Dijon, Archives départementales de la Côte-d’Or, 1568 W 58, 60, Répertoires de la Prison de Dijon
Walter Lainé, compensation claim for Nazi persecution, TNA FO 950/2024.
Gerald Domaille’s memoirs, in private ownership.
Walter Lainé records, International Tracing Service, Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide refs: 11298273, 11548017, 31362084, 108518076.
Walter Lainé’s prisoner record from Frankfurt am Main-Preungesheim, copyright Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden (HHStAW), refs. 409/4/3850/001 – 409/4/3850/026.
Falla, F. 1967. The Ultimate Sacrifice. Leslie Frewin.
Falla, F. 1945. ‘Channel Islanders in Nazi Camp’, Jersey Evening Post, 4 July 1945.