The Organisation Todt in Jersey during the Occupation years 1940 - 1945
Written by a Jerseyman decorated by the Russian government for his heroism in aiding escaped slave workers at great risk to his own life
The Organisation Todt operated throughout occupied Europe and within Germany itself. The workers have been loosely referred to as ‘slave worker’ which is not strictly true as some were volunteers. Many were forcibly recruited but were paid and not generally ill-treated. The real slave workers were citizens of the Soviet Union, mostly from the Ukraine. In the philosophy of the National Socialist Party the Germans were the master race and other European peoples were in various descending orders down to all peoples of the Slav races who were ‘untermenschen’ (sub-human).
The conscripted work force was made up of political dissidents from various parts of Europe, in particular Holland plus many hundreds of Spaniards who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and then had taken refuge in France. They were virtually handed over as a gift to the O.T. by the collaborationist French Vichy government.
The first foreign recruited labour began to arrive in 1941 working in fortifications at Noirmont. The real waves came in the summer of 1942 with the peak of building activity being in 1943. Early in 1944 the majority were moved to other defensive works in France but some were in Jersey until the end. These were all returned to their own countries by August 1945 except for a handful of Dutch and Spaniards who had been given permission to marry local girls.
All except the Russians were paid in Reichmarks which was a currency valid only in occupied territories, not even valid in Germany itself where the national currency, the Deutschmark, was used. They had reasonable, if cramped, living conditions in camps and were free to leave their camps outside of working hours.
The treatment of the Russians, on the contrary, was truly terrible. On paper, their rations were adequate, something doubtlessly worked out by a nutritionist in the Food Ministry in Berlin as being the minimum necessary to get a day’s work out of a young man. This food would certainly have been withdrawn from stores but did not reach the bowls of the ‘sub-human’ Russians. It was progressively siphoned off by O.T. employees and guards at all points, from source to the camp kitchens, for sale on the black market.
Not surprisingly, many of the prisoners attempted to escape. But where? It was not that difficult to get out of a camp at night but there was no hope of being able to cross the sea to France, leave alone to England. There were frequent warning to civilians of the penalties for aiding these workers in any way, even of giving them food. Most were civilians, in some cases boys as young as fifteen picked up in the street on their way home from school but others had been in the armed services and were prisoners of war.
In spite of the warnings a large number of Jersey people did help them, some with no more than a meal, but many took them into their homes, kitted them out with clothes, gave them hospitality, a bed. This was highly dangerous and more so in rural areas where a stranger going in and out of a house was more likely to be noticed than in a flat in a block in the town where life is impersonal. It was wiser to move a man on after a few weeks before neighbours began to talk. Although only about 25 such escapees emerged from the woodwork on Liberation Day, most of them had had several homes so that several hundred Jersey people must have been involved in hiding them. Even sixty years after the events the writer is frequently amazed to hear that this friend or that had uncles and aunts who had a Russian prisoner for a month or so. One is even rumoured to have played one winter in the St Martin’s parish football team.
The penalty for being discovered was several months in prison or even worse. One such prisoner was a St Ouen’s widow, a Mrs Louisa Gould, whose prison sentence had to be served on the Continent. This was in 1944 when the Allies were already in Normandy. She was moved east into Germany, finished up in the notorious concentration camp at Ravensbrück where, unable to keep up the workload and suffering from oedema, she was killed in January 1945. Her brother, Harold le Druillenec, was the only British living inmate when Belsen was liberated in April of that year.
At the time, of course, names of those involved in hiding prisoners were never disclosed. The compiler of these notes did not personally hide any Russian escapees but sought homes for those needing to be moved. Only Christian names of those involved were used and even those were false ones. This meant that no list existed at the time. It should have been compiled later but was not thought of until, by then, it was too late because those who know had died.
The motivation by some was solely a means to defiance of the Germans, by a small number Communist sympathy but for most it was common humanity, an overwhelming need to try to help victims of brutality. It was more than one’s conscience could do to ignore it. To my knowledge, at least three prisoners were sheltered by conscientious objectors who would not have lifted a revolver to save their own lives or anyone else’s but were prepared to risk death to help someone in need. Would the congregation of the Ebenezer Methodist Chapel have guessed that the organ was being pumped by a young Russian escapee hidden behind the wooden screen? Would the German's farm inspectors have guessed that the young lad at St John who showed them the stables, speaking only Jersey-French, was another lad on the run? Or would the Germans at the Havre des Pas pool who gave cigarettes to the Jerseyman who dived so spectacularly from the 30 foot board have realised that he was a captain in the Soviet Army.
They were unusual times!