Channel Islanders imprisoned in Clairvaux Prison:
Alfred William Baker, Clement Wilfred Bourgaize, Gordon Brehaut, Harry Featherstone, Alfred William Howlett, Robert Le Feuvre, Philip James McCallen, Philip John Potier, Ronald Staples, Archibald Lloyd Tardif
By Roderick Miller
At least 10 Channel Islanders were incarcerated between 1942 and 1944 in Clairvaux Prison (La Maison centrale de Clairvaux), located in Ville-sous-la-Ferté in the department of Aube in north-central France. The prison was originally built as an abbey in the early 18th century, but was converted to a prison in 1804. It was taken over by German forces soon after the June 1940 occupation of France.
Alfred Baker, Gordon Brehaut, Harry Featherstone, Alfred Howlett, Philip McCallen, and Ronald Staples were transported from Troyes Hauts-Clos Prison to Clairvaux Prison on 8 August 1942. Staples was returned to Troyes on 3 March 1943 ‘at the disposition of the German authorities‘, but probably returned home to the Channel Islands soon thereafter as his sentence had been fully served. Baker and Howlett remained in Clairvaux until 17 May 1943, at which point the two men were transported to Karlsruhe Prison with a brief stopover in Freiburg Prison. Howlett left a post-war testimonial about his time in prisons, but did not mention Clairvaux at all in his report, testifying only to his time spent in prisons in Germany, where he ‘had no complaints with regards to… treatment or food.‘ Harry Featherstone transferred to Châlons-sur-Marne Prison on 31 August 1943, followed by Philip McCallen on 30 September 1943 and Gordon Brehaut on 22 December 1943. Robert Le Feuvre arrived in Clairvaux from Caen Prison on 1 September 1942 and remained until completing his sentence on 18 June 1943. Philip Potier was in Clairvaux for an unknown length of time and transferred to Fort de Villeneuve Prison on 1 March 1944. The other Channel Islanders appear to have spent little time in Clairvaux, with Clement Bourgaize’s having spent only ‘several weeks’ there.
Only Bourgaize commented on Clairvaux in his testimonial, stating ‘the food was very poor and the cells were infested with fleas.’ The French writer Pierre Daix wrote in his 1976 book J’ai cru au matin, ‘It was in Clairvaux that I first saw people die of starvation.’ Some political prisoners in Clairvaux who were Jewish would later be deported to Auschwitz. Between 24 September 1941 and 14 May 1942, 21 political prisoners were taken from the Clairvaux to a clearing by the nearby town of Ville-sous-la-Ferté and shot by the Germans as reprisal hostages.
The Channel Islanders would all go on to worse prisons in France and Germany, and though Clement Bourgaize and Archibald Tardif would see the liberation in the relatively comfortable confines of Saint-Denis Internment Camp, Alfred Baker had to experience surviving Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Alfred Howlett was fortunate enough to have had his sentence reduced and returned to Guernsey in January 1944. Philip Potier was let out of Fort de Villeneuve Prison on 30 April 1944 and apparently returned to the Channel Islands. Many of those who survived would suffer from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives.
Clairvaux Prison housed some notorious collaborators after the war, most notably fascist author Lucien Rebatet, whose post-war death sentence was later commuted to hard labour. Clairvaux continues to operate as a prison with space for 240 prisoners. There is a memorial plaque in a field outside the prison grounds and former walls of the abbey, commemorating the 21 Clairvaux political prisoners shot by the Nazis in 1941 and 1942.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Archives départementales de l’Aube in Troyes, France:
1039W14, Prison registry for Troyes Hauts-Clos Prison (Brehaut, Featherstone, Staples)
1360W362, Prison Registry for Clairvaux (Le Feuvre, McCallen, Staples)
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO), War Office (WO):
TNA FO 950/943 (Baker)
TNA FO HNP/1367 (Bourgaize)
TNA WO 311/11 (Howlett)
TNA FO HNP/2165 (Tardif)