By Gilly Carr
William John Burton was born in Guernsey on 29 October 1895. He served in the Royal Artillery as a bombardier during WWI, where he had served in Belgium and France. He left the army on 28 March 1919 and joined the police force in March 1924. Burton was working as a police constable at the time of the occupation of the island and lived, initially, with his wife, Lily, before they separated. From his occupation registration form we learn that he had a son, Reginald, who was a signalman in the Royal Artillery and was out of the island, fighting.
Burton, along with many of his fellow policemen, was to get involved in a case which would cause ripples for decades to come. From the earliest post-war days, these men of military age consistently argued that their actions were inspired by the BBC broadcasts of ‘Colonel Britton’, otherwise known as Douglas Ritchie. These broadcasts were transmitted on the European service to the occupied peoples of Europe but were not aimed at the Channel Islanders because of the precariousness of their situation as sitting ducks in small islands. These broadcasts gave instructions to civilians to sabotage and harass the occupiers in numerous non-military ways. For these young men denied the opportunity of fighting in the armed services, or the older men who had previously served in WWI, such broadcasts appealed greatly. Their role as policemen gave them opportunities for action denied to most other civilians, such as being out after curfew. However, their position was a double-edged sword. Policemen were also required to salute passing German officers, which they found hard to stomach.
We have three main sources of information from which to draw to learn more of Burton’s story: Bill Bell’s interviews with the policemen later in their lives; Burton’s admittedly brief compensation for Nazi persecution testimony; and the memoirs of his police colleague, Kingston George Bailey, from which we can learn much about the experiences of the other policemen.
Bailey described how he and fellow ringleader, police constable Frank Tuck, decided, in the first winter of the occupation, to do all they could to annoy the Germans. From March 1941 they compiled a dossier on their activities, cut telephone wires, put sand in the petrol tanks of German cars, and painted V for victory signs around the island.
By the following winter, the civilian population was suffering from food shortages while, at the same time, the Germans stockpiled food in stores throughout St Peter Port. Bailey and Tuck broke into these stores by night and took tinned food to redistribute to those in need. They brought a number of other policemen into their group such that, by February 1942, ‘the operation was … getting out of hand … practically the whole police force was now taking part and, as we were on different shifts, it was impossible to know what each man was doing.’ Civilian stores run by people trading with the Germans were also entered.
On 3 March 1942, Bailey and Tuck were caught red-handed by German soldiers lying in wait for them at one of the food stores. They and most of the other police were taken to Guernsey prison and their houses were searched. The men were taken to Grange Lodge in St Peter Port, the HQ of the Secret Field Police (Geheime Feldpolizei) for questioning. They were beaten and given decreasing rations over the period of interrogation. Burton later stated that the Germans offered to let him go if he would turn informer, but he refused. For this refusal, he received a blow to the mouth, knocking out five teeth. Later, during his interrogation by the Germans, he expressed pride at having fought the Germans in the First World War. For this, he was repeatedly struck on the side of the head. When he was about to physically defend himself, the men in the room pointed their pistols at him and then ‘bashed [him] all over the room until [he] fell exhausted on the floor’ (Bell 1995, 155).
Back in the prison, the men were kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to wash or change their clothes. Lack of sleep also took its toll. They were also presented with forged confessions during this period.
Sixteen of the policemen were then taken to Fort George in St Peter Port for four weeks, where they were able to recover from their beatings and receive food from family and friends so that they looked well for their trial.
On 24 April 1942 the men were tried by the Germans and, controversially, also by the local authorities in the Royal Court on 1 June 1942, on account of the civilian stores that had also been entered. This was to be a show trial. Burton was sentenced to three years hard labour for ‘serious theft in three cases and theft in one case.’ Unlike ten of the other policemen, he was acquitted by the Royal Court. After sentencing, the men were taken back to Fort George until their deportation on 13 June 1942, during which they were handcuffed to each other in pairs. They were taken first to Jersey Prison for the night, then on to a prison in Granville for a few hours, and then Caen Prison, all the while still in handcuffs.
They were in Caen from 16 June to 16 July 1942. For the first night they were put in dungeon cells in which straw mattresses, complete with wet blankets, were placed on the floor, in two inches of ‘what smelt like a cesspool’. After that they were placed in a room filled with 100 cubicles, each locked up at night, and each containing a bed. In his memoirs, Bailey wrote that ‘the cubicles and bed frames were full of bugs which were, indeed, as hungry as ourselves … The food was terrible, consisting mainly of cabbage soup, with about 3/4 of a pound of bread each day … Many of the prisoners suffered from a mild form of dysentery, probably caused by too much cabbage water.’
On the next stage of his journey, Burton was sent to Fort de Villeneuve Saint Georges Prison near Paris, where he was given prisoner number 3228. He arrived 16 July 1942. Lest there be any misapprehension that life in a French prison was easy, the following description by Burton’s colleague Fred Short of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges was as follows:
‘We slept 50 to a room on beds of straw. Vermin was at its height (lice, bugs, fleas) and the sanitation and washing facilities were practically nil. A galvanised dustbin with a wooden plank for use as a WC was issued to each room for sanitation purposes and was emptied twice daily (morning and night) so the smell in the room as you can imagine was terrible. Washing facilities consisted of four small taps running out of a wall where one had to cup one’s hands in order to gather enough water to swill your face. No baths or showers, so being impossible to wash one’s body. Razors were forbidden, there being no facilities whatsoever for haircutting and shaving so you can imagine what a sorry mess we all looked when we left this Prison Fort … Food consisted of a semi-starvation diet, with two small cups of watery soup daily with two slices of dry bread and one thin slice of meat or cheese fortnightly and finally for good measure the Nazi guards would raid and search the rooms on an average twice weekly (day or night) and each of us in turn would get a beating up by getting struck with their rifles and kicked.’
(Frederick Short, compensation testimony, TNA FO 950/1224)
Archival records show that, remarkably, given the length of his sentence, Burton, like his fellow policeman Frank Whare (who was sentenced to two years and six months hard labour), was not deported to Germany, but stayed in Villeneuve until its liberation by the Americans on 17 August 1944. There are few explanations for this relative good fortune. We might conjecture that Burton was not considered strong enough to be sent for forced labour in Germany; this theory is backed up by Burton’s later statement that he feigned illness and managed to stay in Villeneuve. This may also have been Whare’s method of escaping further transfer to Germany, perhaps more convincing in his case given that he had been in hospital.
Burton’s trajectory after liberation was not quite as straight-forward as that of other Channel Islanders released at this time, such as Geoffrey Delauney; i.e., he was not brought back to the UK directly. Rather, he later stated that ‘When I managed to escape from prison [in August 1944] I joined the French Maquis until the liberation of Paris. I then made my way to Granville and from there to Cherbourg, where I got in touch with the RAF who sent me to England’ (Bell 1995, 366). The period with the French maquis was probably not lengthy; the archival records of Villeneuve are very clear that Burton was liberated (rather than having escaped) on 17 August 1944, the same date as the other prisoners. Paris was liberated on 25 August, so Burton would have had an exciting week with the maquis before trying to get back to the UK – probably a similarly thrilling brief period in his life, made at a time when he would not have been in the best of health or nutrition.
As for Lily Burton, it seems that, unlike the wives of the other policemen, she was left unmolested in Guernsey and not deported to Compiègne Internment and Transit Camp in February 1943. This is likely to have been because the couple separated in December 1941. Despite this, Lily applied for compensation in 1965 on his behalf; Burton was no longer alive by this point. It seems likely, therefore, that the couple could have been reconciled after the war. The statement in the compensation claim made by Lily was brief, but she noted that he was ‘in very poor health while in prison.’ She also noted that he was in ‘chambre 5’ (room 5) in Villeneuve, perhaps indicating that they corresponded during his period of imprisonment and she was able to check old letters with his Villeneuve address at the top.
After the occupation, when William Burton returned to Guernsey, he was not reinstated as a policeman as no men convicted of stealing or receiving stolen goods could be employed in the police. He instead was given a job by a friend who was a grower. William Burton, like the other Guernsey policemen, never cleared his name and the judgements against him and the other policemen made by the Royal Court in Guernsey still stand to this day, long after his death.
Bailey, K.G.1979 . Dachau. Guernsey: CI Marine Ltd.
Bell, W.M. 1995. I Beg to Report. Guernsey: Guernsey Press Co. Ltd.
Sanders, P. 2014. ‘Economic resistance and sabotage’, pp. 277-306 in G. Carr, P. Sanders and L. Willmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation 1940-1945. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Lily Maud Burton, compensation claim for Nazi persecution on behalf of William Burton. TNA ref. FO 950/2993.
Prison records for William Burton, Fort de Villeneuve Saint Georges, Val de Marne Archives ref. 500W-3 and 500W-8.