Channel Islanders Imprisoned in Hamelin Prison:
By Roderick Miller
At least three Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Hamelin Prison (German: Zuchthaus Hameln, Strafanstalt Hameln) in Hamelin (German: Hameln), a city in the German state of Lower Saxony. Originally a jail for prisoners serving short-term sentences, it was converted into a penitentiary for longer sentences by the Nazis in 1935. By the start of the Second World War, the prison had been expanded to hold 650 prisoners, though by the end of the war the number of prisoner exceeded 1,350. 80% of the prison’s inmates were political prisoners by 1939, and by 1942 at least 20% of the prisoners were from Nazi-occupied West European countries. 853 men from the Benelux were imprisoned in Hamelin during the war, and 220 of them did not survive.
Prisoners in Hamelin were required to perform up to 72 hours of forced labour per week in the production of materials related to the Nazi war efforts, and after 15 July 1944 the prisoners’ work was solely in the production of armaments. Hamelin prisoner Hans Bielefeld described the conditions there near the end of the war in a memoir published in 1951:
Most of us are too apathetic to be able to think. We let them drive us, we have no spine left. Scabies and dropsy all around. The bodies of many are covered with open sores and rashes. Some can no longer control their bowel movements. Lack of medication. The hospital has insufficient means. Two sleeping rooms and a workroom are being used as a hospital. Food without salt is supposed to help, but the typhus bacteria are faster than the allied troops.
Fresh air is the only medicine that the hospital has to offer. And we are not much under the guards’ supervision. The icy winter wind whistles through our rags; it’s only bearably warm in the swine stall. Our lunch fodder is cooked there and warms us up. The barracks and the cells have been unheated for a long time now, the small amount of fuel must be used for cooking.
Our building is full to the point of exploding. Work commandos no longer go out. All single-person cells have three or four men in them. I am locked in an arrest cell with four young Frenchmen. We haven’t had clean laundry for weeks and the fleas and bedbugs are eating us alive. Every afternoon when we want out there is an air raid alarm. We are numb from the stench and filth and rubbish in our cell. A leaden lethargy is hanging over all of us. — Hans Bielefeld
Channel Islanders William Cordrey, Charles Machon and William Quin were transferred from Rheinbach Prison to Hamelin on 16 September 1944. Cordrey was transferred to Bernau just two weeks later. Charles Machon died in Hamelin on 26 October in the prison hospital under conditions as described above, with the cause of death given as haemorrhage of a gastric ulcer. He was buried on 1 November 1944 in Am Wehl Cemetery in Hamelin, probably in a shared grave with no casket, as was standard practice with prisoners’ bodies in this graveyard. A later document from Rheinbach states that his body was removed to an unknown location in France in 1949, but documents from Hamelin confirm that Machon’s remains are still in the cemetery. The section of the cemetery where Machon is buried should have been officially protected as a war grave, but the graves were nevertheless levelled and the markers removed by the city of Hamelin in 1973. A memorial at entrance to the cemetery mentions the location of graves of Nazi victims, but the section (F I) where Machon is buried is as of date (2016) not marked on the memorial.
William Quin managed to write three letters during his captivity to his wife and young boy, who were interned in Biberach and Liebenau internments camps, where he told them that he could not go on living under such conditions and would rather be dead. Analysis of his condition by the 1960s in his compensation application state that his memory of the time spent in Nazi prisons was severely impaired, a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hamelin was liberated from the Nazis by US infantry troops on 7 April 1945 and came under British military rule. From 1945 to 1949, Hamelin Prison was the central location for the execution by hanging of 156 war criminals sentenced by the British Military Tribunals, as well as an additional 44 persons sentenced to death for other post-war crimes against the occupying powers. The prison was closed in 1955 and re-opened in 1958 as a detention centre for youth offenders. In 1986, the west and east wings of the former prison were razed and the remaining buildings placed under historic protection.
In 1992, the city of Hamelin sold the prison site to a private businessman for the honorary price of one German mark, and a year later the prison was re-opened as a hotel. There are no memorials at the Hotel Stadt Hamelin, the site of the former prison, to commemorate those who suffered and died there under the Nazi Regime, nor is there any information for the guests of the hotel denoting the fact that hundreds of convicted war criminals were hanged on the site.
In 2006, the city of Hamelin dedicated a plaque (see photograph above) to the victims of the prison on city property near the waterfront adjacent to the prison. The text, written by local historian Bernhard Gelderblom, reads:
In the area of the present-day park and hotel there was, until 1980, a penal institution. In the years of the Nazi dictatorship 1933 – 1945, political opponents of the Nazis were incarcerated, above all Social Democrats and communists, but also homosexuals and Jews. From 1942 to 1945, numerous resistance fighters from France, Belgium and the Netherlands were imprisoned in the former penitentiary.
The inhuman conditions of imprisonment in the penitentiary led to the deaths of over 300 victims during the Second World War. The evacuation of the penitentiary in the early days of April 1945 meant, for many other prisoners, a march to the death.
We are memorialising the victims in awareness of the injustices committed.
The city of Hamelin
William Quin survived the war, but like many of those who survived, 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.
Bielefeld, Hans: Durch das dunkelste Abendland. Vier Jahre hinter Schloss und Riegel, Wiesbaden 1951, p. 69 (in German).
Bestattungsregister Friedhof am Wehl v. 21.5.1938 – 17.3.1952, Best. 163 Nr. 67
ITS Archives, Wiener Library, London:
39507015-39507025, 76803474-76803477, 86365404-86365416 (Machon)
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO HNP/3608 (Quin)
Wiener Archives, London
(Machon) 39507015 – 39507025; 86365404 – 86365414.