Channel Islanders Imprisoned in Wittlich Young Offender Prison:
By Roderick Miller
At least five Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Wittlich, a city in the German state of Rhineland Palatinate. Wittlich Prison (Jugendstrafanstalt Wittlich, Gefängnis Wittlich) was opened in 1902, a building in a typical T-formation of prisons of that era, with a capacity for 708 prisoners of both genders. In 1912, the prison opened a section for young male offenders in the women’s section of the prison, the first such institution specifically for younger prisoners in Germany. By 1933, like all prisons in Nazi Germany, the prison was used to incarcerate convicted criminals as well as political prisoners. The Cologne Prison administration and Cologne Gestapo were responsible for the relegation of prisoners to Wittlich Prison, Siegburg Prison, and Rheinbach Prison.
Wittlich Prison was used to incarcerate up to a thousand Nacht und Nebel (‘Night and Fog’, or NN) prisoners. These NN prisoners were used as hostages and their whereabouts kept secret as a means of controlling the civilian populations in Nazi-occupied territories. At the post-war Nuremburg Trials, the Nacht und Nebel program was declared to be a crime against humanity. Most of the Gestapo prisoners in Wittlich in 1944 were from Nazi-occupied Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — and among them two Channel Islanders.
15 year-old Peter Hassall and 18 year-old Maurice Gould, both of them NN prisoners, were transported by truck from Hinzert Concentration Camp to Wittlich Prison on 24 July 1942. The younger prisoners were separated from the adult prisoners and given prison uniforms. Hassall was surprised at the relative cleanliness of the prison, but he and Gould were in a terrible physical state after enduring Hinzert:
We were ordered to strip off our civilian clothes, and were given large sheets of brown paper and string with which to pack them. We had been in civilian clothes for less than three hours — it was time to give up the precious, comforting items again. Naked and divested of our rumpled civilian clothes, we must have looked like a savage group of criminals. Our heads were shaved and many of the older men had several days’ growth of beard. What was worse, we looked like a bunch of skeletons. The warders were aghast when they looked us over, however, they said nothing and asked no questions. Many of us, like Maurice, still bore bruises from recent beatings, some of which had been administered just a few short hours ago… — Peter Hassall, 1997
Gould and Hassall were placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to speak to one another until much later, although they were able to occasionally communicate via other prisoners with whom they came into contact. Hassall writes that the prison had a strict regimen but that they received fair food rations — though not enough to make up for the weight they had lost — compared to their meagre fare at Hinzert, and Wittlich included none of the random brutal beatings which they had regularly received at the concentration camp. Hassall had weighed 140 pounds at the time of his arrest, and at his first check up in Wittlich discovered that he had lost 33 pounds during his 5 weeks’ imprisonment in Hinzert.
The young prisoners were required to perform forced labour from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day mending German Army uniforms, some of which had apparently been washed and sent for mending after their bearers had been killed or wounded, as the uniforms bore marks of bullet and shrapnel holes. They also were put to work repairing reed baskets that were used by the German military to transport cannon shells. They were allowed a 30-minute exercise period in the prison yard every day. Gould and Hassall were given books to read by a sympathetically inclined prison physician, Dr. Hans de Saint Paul: English for Gould (who only spoke English) and French, English and German texts for Hassall, who was multi-lingual.
By early winter 1942, Gould began to show symptoms of the tuberculosis (TB) he had probably contracted in Hinzert, such as coughing up blood, fevers, and loss of appetite. By November 1942, he was placed in the prison hospital and no longer required to perform forced labour. Hassall was able finally to speak to Gould in the tuberculosis ward. Hassall states that Gould was
… a mere shadow of his former self. He did not have an ounce of fat on his body; his chest bones protruded through his shirt, and his leg, in which there was a huge phlegmon the size of a tennis ball, looked like a matchstick. I doubted that he weighed ninety pounds — he was totally skeletal… —Peter Hassall, 1997
By mid-1944 the prison population had increased to the point of severe overcrowding, placing the prisoners at extreme risk for contracting a number of communicable diseases. Hassall dared to put the spittle of an infected TB patient on the edge of his mouth prior to a test for the disease, and with this trick was himself diagnosed as positive and placed in the prison TB ward. He was active there providing assistance to ill prisoners such as emptying bowls of phlegm and other hygienic chores, as well as sweeping and cleaning the ward. In October 1943, Hassall
…heard choking sounds coming from Maurice’s bed. When I got to his bed, he sat upright and reached out for me. I held his hands, then pulled him to my chest, where I hugged and cradled his head on my shoulder. I begged him not to leave me alone, but he looked at me and weakly whispered, ‘Remember Peter, tell my Grandfather what happened, and, please don’t leave me here!’ and with those words Maurice Gould died in my arms, and as he died, the prison clock clanged twice. It was 10:30 a.m., 1 October 1943, and my dear friend and companion was gone. – Peter Hassall, 1997
The causes of Maurice Gould’s death were given on his death certificate as ‘lung and intestinal tuberculosis’. He was given a proper burial service in the ‘foreigners’ cemetery’ in Wittlich, which Hassall was allowed to attend, all with the permission of Wittlich Prison director Hans Bithorn, whom Hassall characterised as a ‘decent person, caught up in the Nazi web.’ Despite efforts on the part of the prison administration to prevent Hassall from having to face trial, he was transported on 23 March 1944 to Breslau Prison.
In Mannheim, the prison where I was being held was badly damaged by an RAF raid. I was transferred to a camp at Wittlich on the river Mosel where I worked in a hard labour group in a plywood factory. — Brian O’Meara, July 1965.
Conditions at Wittlich Prison had apparently got worse, in part due to the ever worsening conditions in Germany as the end of the war grew nearer, but perhaps also in part to a constant change of prison personnel. Prison director Hans Bithorn, who had according to eyewitness testimonials had been sympathetically inclined towards the young prisoners, had been replaced at the end of 1943 by an official named Glauning, who was himself replaced in October 1944 by Chief Inspector (Oberinspektor) Heinrich Wagner. Hassall’s biography makes no mention of youth offenders being forced to perform ‘hard labour’ during his incarceration there.
Islanders Sidney Green and George Nicholls were imprisoned in Wittlich from mid-June to mid-September 1944, but no testimonials of their experiences there are known. Green was then transported to Rollwald Penal Camp and Nicholls went on to Rendsburg Prison. On 16 March 1945, O’Meara was transferred from Wittlich to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Wittlich was heavily damaged by allied bombing raids on 1 and 8 January 1945 and the city occupied by US troops on 10 March 1945. At which point and in what manner which of the prisoners in Wittlich Prison were liberated is unclear — recent German academic works on this topic specifically mention the lack of available information.  Wittlich Prison was used by the French occupation forces as a prison for Nazi war criminals. By 1948 the prison was again under German administration, with Heinrich Wagner, the prison director in 1944-1945, again directing the prison until 1961.
All of the Islanders save Gould survived the war but, like many of those who survived, probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives. Peter Hassall published a 166-page autobiography of his prison experiences as an NN prisoner in 1997 (see ‘Sources’ below) with an extensive description of his time in Wittlich. At Hassall’s behest, the remains of Maurice Gould were moved from Wittlich and reinterred in the Commonwealth War Cemetery Howard Davis Park in Saint Helier, Jersey. Hassall died in 1998 and O’Meara in 2004.
There is no memorial at Wittlich Prison for the political prisoners who suffered and died there during the Nazi Regime.
 See inter alia Herbers (in Sources below), p. 438.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Hassall, Peter D.: Night and Fog Prisoners, self-published testimonial, Canada, 1997, pp. Available as a PDF online.
Haase, Lena: ‘Verurteilt um zu Verschwinden. Nacht und Nebel-Häftlinge in der Großregion Trier (1942-1944)’, in Kurtrierisches Jahrbuch, Stadtbibliothek Trier (editors), Trier 2016.
Hassall, Peter D.: Night and Fog Prisoners, self-published testimonial, Canada, 1997, pp. 107-126.
Herbers, Matthias: Organisationen im Krieg: Die Justizverwaltung im Oberlandesgerichtsbezirk Köln 1939-1945, Mohr Siebeck, 2012.
Schmit, Franz-Josef: Beiträge zur Geschichte und Kultur der Stadt Wittlich, Kulturamt der Stadt Wittlich, 2016.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO 950/4466 (O’Meara)
International Tracing Service records held at the Wiener Library for the study of Holocaust and Genocide, London