Channel Islanders Imprisoned in Bernau Prison and Bernau Labour Camp:
By Roderick Miller
At least eight Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Bernau Prison (Strafgefängnis Bernau, Justizvollzugsanstalt Bernau, Haus 1) and Bernau Prison Labour Camp (Arbeitskommando Bernau, Justizvollzugsanstalt Bernau, Haus 9) in Bernau am Chiemsee in Bavaria, Germany, and the adjoining Bernau Prison Labour Camp near Rottau (Grassau). Prisoners were used as early as 1899 for excavating peat in Bernau, but Bernau Prison was not officially established until 1 December 1920. Originally consisting only of wooden barracks, the main administration building (Haus 1) was built in 1928. Forced labour crews of the prison (Arbeitskommando) lived alternately in barracks at the main prison location on Baumannstrasse in Bernau am Chiemsee, or in barracks near the peat train station north of Rottau (Grassau), about a kilometre east of the main prison.
Peat was excavated heavily after the First World War to make up for the lack of flammable materials in Germany. The harvesting of peat, requiring the digging of deep drainage ditches and the excavation by hand of 40-pound blocks of peat in very wet conditions, is known to be a particularly hard form of labour. Peat excavations were undertaken in the Bernau region at the Kendlmühlfilz Peat Works by the Bavarian Mining, Smelting and Salt Works Company (Bayerische Berg-, Hütten- und Salzwerke AG, or BHS) from 1927. In 1940, the BHS company sold the Peat Works to Bernau Prison.
Bernau Prison was only converted for housing criminals with longer sentences of three to five years in 1941 and political prisoners (‘Kriegstäter’) in mid-1942. From 1942 onwards, an increasing number of non-German prisoners were required to perform forced labour harvesting peat in Bernau. A Belgian report from the International Tracing Service states that around 300 prisoners was the average capacity of Bernau prison from 1942 to 1945, but other German sources quote capacities ranging from 400-500 to ‘several thousand’ prisoners. The Labour Camp in Rottau alone was comprised of 30 wooden barracks, with 20 men assigned to each barrack.
All but three of the Channel Islanders arrived in Bernau in May 1943 from Fort de Villeneuve in Paris. Alfred Howlett was already in Bernau on 24 April 1942, and stayed until being transferred to Landsberg Prison on 16 June 1943 for being ‘unfit for outdoor work’, doubtless due to poor treatment. William Quin had also been with the others in Villeneuve, but went to three other prisons before arriving in Bernau in October 1944. By the time Quin arrived in Bernau, most of the other islanders had long since been transferred from the prison to other prisons and concentration camps. William Cordrey arrived in Bernau from Hamelin Prison on 3 October 1944 before being transferred on to Kematen Forced Labour Camp.
Kingston Bailey wrote an entire 17-page chapter about his experiences in Bernau in his 1958 memoir Dachau: All the Horrors of Nazi Occupation. On arrival, the prisoners were completely shaved, bathed, and given clothing and ill-fitting leather boots. Bailey was allowed to send letters to his wife and daughter. The prisoners Bailey was with in Bernau were of all ages between 18 and 60 and mostly French, though he mentions the presence of Polish, Spanish, Italian and Russian prisoners in other work groups. Bailey was in the same work group as Sydney Ashcroft, who Bailey describes as having been ‘very patriotic and hated the Germans’. They both agreed to resist by working as slowly as possible and encouraged the other prisoners to do the same. Some prisoners, however, appeared to get special favours such as more food if they worked harder or were, as Bailey suspected, informants. The prisoners performed forced labour every day except for Sundays, for as long as there was available daylight. The work consisted of digging canals 16 feet deep and 20 feet wide in wet, heavy clay, and excavating 40-pound blocks of wet peat. Prisoners who attempted to escape were shot, as was the case with a 21-year old Polish prisoner described in Bailey’s account.
Thomas Gaudion wrote a summary of his time in Bernau:
Prisoners worked in groups of approx. 50 or 60, although Bailey was in the same building, we were in a different group at work, working on the ground in summer and making canals in winter. The guard in my group had a vicious dog, and besides beating the prisoners with his fists, boots and rifle butt, would set the dog on them. I suffered many of these atrocities. Being scantily clad (pants, jacket, shirt, boots, and rags for our feet), we suffered terribly with the cold. When winter came, snow was on the ground from Nov. to April, freezing hard every night. We were taken to work in the fields in all weathers with no extra clothing. Many times one was soaked through even before arriving on the work, but it made no difference, one had to carry on irrespective of the conditions. Clothing got soaked and dried on one’s back, sometimes frozen stiff. Many times I have been to the prison soaked through, after work in the fields. Arrived in our rooms, one had to undress, and wrap up in the only blanket to try and get warm. There was no heat in the rooms, the only heat was the pint of hot water with perhaps a cabbage leaf, or a few grains of corn in a bowl before going to bed. One had to get into bed immediately after drinking what was called soup, otherwise one couldn’t sleep at all with the cold. Next morning one had to be up at six o’clock and dressed in soaking wet clothes as there was no means of drying. In consequence of beatings, bad food, and conditions, many prisoners died. I was reduced to skin and bones, and so weak that I couldn’t get up when I fell down. I had to be assisted by my prison comrades, some who I am very sorry to say collapsed later and died. —Thomas Gaudion, 21 March 1965
By early 1944, all of the Channel Islanders had left Bernau, except for William Quin, who arrived in October 1944 and was liberated in May 1945 in Bernau by American troops. The XXI Corps of US 7th Army entered Bernau unopposed on 3 May 1945. The Vice-Mayor of Bernau left an account of his first encounter with a US officer on that day, a rare example of a German official commenting post-war about a prison in his jurisdiction:
I told the officer that we have a prison here with several thousand prisoners… I was asked if this prison was a concentration camp. I answered that it existed a long time before Hitler. I was asked how many prisoners had been shot, hanged, burnt, or drowned. I said that to my knowledge nothing like that had happened here and that it was a regular prison. I was asked where the prisoners were buried that had died in the prison. I answered: in the village cemetery. You can understand that the American officer didn’t want to believe it, when you recall that the troops who had just entered our town were the same that had liberated Dachau Concentration Camp. Suddenly he asked me why I was asking about the prison, and I told him the local people were afraid of robbery, murder and plundering. He patted me a few times on the shoulder and said, “You tell the people they don’t need to worry about that. The prisoners will not be freed and the guards will remain at the prison.” The officer went to the prison and gave some orders, inquired if there were enough weapons to keep the peace. As this was confirmed, he gave orders that no prisoners were to be released and made the prison director responsible for this order, as my source told me. The guards managed, through their energetic actions in deference to the orders of the American, to keep the understandably wild prisoners in the prison. They were released, insofar as they were political prisoners, some weeks later in an orderly fashion. Thus Bernau was spared from the seemingly inevitable plundering. —former Bernau Vice-Mayor Franz Xaver Jell, testimonial from 1946
Former Vice-Mayor Jell was apparently either unaware of — or preferred not to discuss — the prisoners who had been shot whilst trying to escape. The prisoners who died from maltreatment and disease may have been buried in the Bernau village cemetery, but there are no graves listed there on the German War Graves Commission database, meaning that either the bodies were disinterred and moved elsewhere, or more likely, the graves were never officially recognised as belonging to victims of the Nazi regime. It would also appear that some prisoners were freed earlier than ‘some weeks later’, as Thomas Gaudion left Bernau Prison on 6 May 1945, just 3 days after its liberation by American troops. According to the testimonial of Austrian prisoner Erwin Widschwenter, even the ‘criminal’ prisoners convicted of non-political crimes were eventually allowed to be freed by order of the Americans. Some prisoners classified as communists and homosexuals, however, were not freed and had to continue serving the remainder of their sentences in other prisons even after the war was over.
The identities and post-war fates of the guards and prison administrators ultimately responsible for the deaths of prisoners in their care are still unknown. The prison was used after the war by the American occupying forces to incarcerate suspected Nazi war criminals. Bernau Prison continues to operate today as a prison with work facilities, participation in which is voluntary and part of agricultural education courses. A proper stone building was built on the site of the Labour Camp in Rottau as living quarters for prisoners in 1967. There are no memorials in Bernau am Chiemsee to the prisoners who died in the prison as a result of maltreatment and poor living conditions.
All of the Channel Islanders imprisoned in Bernau Prison survived the war except for Sidney Ashcroft, who died at the age of 23 in Straubing, Germany, still in Nazi custody. The others wound up in prisons and concentration camps under even worse conditions than those in Bernau. Like most survivors, the remaining Channel Islanders probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Bailey, K. G.: Dachau: All the Horrors of Nazi Occupation, 1958. Reprinted May, 1979. C. I. Marine Ltd., Guernsey, C. I. Chapter 7, ‘Bernau’, pp. 65–82.
Bührmann-Peters, Frank: Ziviler Strafvollzug für die Wehrmacht. Militärgerichtlich Verurteilte in den Emslandlagern 1939–1945 (Dissertation, in German). Universität Osnabrück, 2002., p. 26 (footnotes)
Jell, Franz Xaver: Der Einmarsch der amerikanischen Truppen (“The Invasion of American Troops”) In: Gewerbeverein Bernau: Der Bernauer. Monatliche Information und Aktuelles aus Bernau. No. 5, May 2015 (in German), pp. 38-39. (Quote translated by Roderick Miller)
International Tracing Service Arolsen, Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, 1949-1951.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO 950/1353 (Bailey)
TNA FO 950/1373 (Gaudion)
TNA FO HNP 2766 (Quick)
TNA FO HNP/3608 (Quin)
TNA FO 950/1224 (Short)
Widschwenter, Erwin: Niemand könnte mich bekehren, anders zu werden, in Berliner VVN-BdA: Fragt uns, wir sind die letzten. Erinnerungen von Verfolgten des Nationalsozialismus und Menschen aus dem antifaschistischen Widerstand (in German), Berlin, no date, p. 10. Link.
Wiener Library, London: International Tracing Service Archives.