Bob Le Sueur interview about Occupation years
Interview conducted in August 2001 as part of the filming of In Toni’s Footsteps and used with permission of the Occupation Archive website .
The interviewee is Bob Le Sueur, a Jersey resident who lived through the German Occupation. At the time of the invasion he was a young man starting a career in insurance sales. He was heavily involved in the housing and moving of escaped Russian labourers who were brought into the island by Organisation Todt to build the vast network of defensive fortifications that covered the islands.
Bob: My name is Bob Le Sueur, a very Jersey name! During the Occupation I was very young, I was 19 when the Occupation began and I was working in the local office of an insurance company.
Interviewer: Can you expain a little bit about how business was affected by the Occupation
Bob: Well it had to adapt. People attempted to carry on- there is a kind of deep sense of force of habit and routine when times are very difficult and I’ve seen this in other parts of the world when travelling, when there’s been a crisis of some sort. They pretend that everything is normal, they feel safer trying as far as they can to go along with their usual routine and that happened here (Jersey).
Interviewer: Something we were told in an earlier interview was interesting. The interviewee suggested that this attempt to act normally changed significantly after the deportations of the Islanders began. Was this how you saw it?
Bob: There was a change in attitude after September in 1942. It had been, well one would never say it was a pleasurable Occupation, but it was endurable. Things were getting worse, rations were steadily getting lower, the Russian workers came in and there was great uncertainty as at that time. No-one could predict which way the war was going but certainly after the deportations there was a totally different mindset. From that time on there was an attitude of burning hate and an attitude by everybody to be as awkward as possible from that moment on, which hadn’t existed to such a degree before.
Even on the day the first deportees were leaving on a little boat going out through the harbour mouth, people were grouped up on the hill. The people going out started singing “There’ll always be an England” which was then picked up by the group on the hill. Now that sort of thing hadn’t happened before- this was open defiance. There was a minor riot, young boys were striking German officers no less and were put in prison for it- that sort of thing. That defiance was caused by tremendous anger and afterwards although that anger was perhaps more subdued, it was always there.
Interviewer: The decision to deport people seems to be a very odd one at that point of the war when the islands were so firmly in their control. How did the German administration respond to the acts of defiance?
Bob: They responded in the only way they possibly could. We learned later on that this move had been strongly opposed by the German administration for some time because they knew perfectly well that it was going to make life more difficult for them afterwards. They were not responsible for the decision- the orders had come from Paris and were in fact from the Fuehrer himself. Yes obviously for them it made things much more difficult for them on an individual basis and they didn’t therefore want it.
Hiding slave workers
Interviewer: Please can you now tell us about how you were involved in trying to hide the Russian slave workers who were brought into the island by Organisation Todt?
Bob: Yes, I became involved… it was something that evolved into my life rather than a sudden change or decision.I was working in insurance and used to travel around to houses to collect premiums and doing this I got to know a truly remarkable widow who used to live in the north west of the island. She had a young man living in the house who was introduced as being French. However I knew from the way he spoke French that he did not speak it as a Frenchman would. I said nothing but I suspected.
The next time I called at the house she admitted to me that he was Russian. She had two sons who were both in the armed forces. The elder son who was a graduate of Oxford University… both very bright, both had scholarships to Oxford. The eldest graduated in 1929, enrolled in the Navy and very quickly became an officer. One day she got a Red Cross message- Red Cross messages were 25 words maximum- and this message told her that her eldest son Richard had been lost at sea in the Mediterranean.
Two or three weeks after that a neighbouring farmer came to her door with this Russian… he too was a remarkable man. He was trying to place escaped prisoners with local families. Her words to me that I shall never forget were “I had to do something for another mother’s son”. She, for her pains, finally ended up in a gas chamber at Innsbrook-Reichenau but that’s another story…
Eventually there came a time when he had to be moved and she was arrested a few days later. By that time I knew of other Russians who were being hidden and somehow was part of this small group helping them. You didn’t know anybody else’s names, there was no organisation- you couldn’t talk about these things, that was far too dangerous and all the prisoners would have to be moved after a time. I mean imagine if in this house you had one hidden, the neighbours would see. They would see this strange person going in and out and would say, “well, who can that be?” So the moment the neighbours began to get curious- well they wouldn’t go running to the Germans- they could just talk loosely so the workers had to be constantly moved.
Interviewer: Can you tell us more about the workers themselves?
Bob: Well they had been brought from Russia in appaling conditions, in cattle trucks across Europe, the journey taking perhaps 2 weeks. In many cases they were simply picked up in the street. I knew a boy of 15 who had been going home from school in Kiev, I think many of them came from the Ukraine, which was at that time part of the Soviet Union. He was on his way home from school wearing his school cap, carrying his school books and with his friends. They were suddenly aware that there were German trucks at the top of the street, and German trucks behind them. Able-bodied men were being thrown into the trucks. Quick thinking men sashed into buildings, possibly got out of the back but these boys were simply picked up, taken straight to the railway station, put in a cattle truck- so many of them that there wasn’t even room for them to sit or squat- and came across Europe. I leave you to imagine the sanitary conditions in those cattle trucks in the height of summer.
Interviewer: What was their main task when they arrived in the Islands?
Bob: Building fortifications for the quasi-civilian German organisation under a Doctor Todt, called Organisation Todt. The Russians were regarded by the Nazis as ‘untermenchun’, meaning ‘low people’. They were immensely racist, as racist or worse than the very worst kind of Afrikaan in South Africa during Apartheid, not only against coloured people but against Slavs for some reason, and particularly if they came from Russia.
Interviewer: Can you now tell me something about their living conditions when they reached the Islands?
Bob: Well they were working very long hours. They were not paid of course. They were not allowed out of their camps. Others groups were- there were a lot of Spanish Republicans. They were paid in the rather worthless Reichmarks but these could be used in the islands, but the Russians were not paid at all. They were also very badly fed.
The badly fed was not actually the German government’s policy. I got to know very well a Spaniard, who was a lawyer in his civilian life in Spain, and because he was educated he was working in an office. He told me that on paper the rations that the Russians were supposed to be getting were really quite good. It was all worked out by a specialist dietitian in Berlin who had calculated the requirements to get a good day’s work out of a man.
The trouble was Nazi Germany, like I think all dictatorships, was quite incredibly corrupt. This was a surprise to me. I knew that Nazi Germany was brutal, even before the war. We knew how they were treating Jews. They weren’t sending them to death camps at that point but they were denying them certain ordinary civil rights. People at that point thought “Yes but they get things done” and they’re building autobahns and suchlike“ but in fact it was very corrupt.
Dictatorships are not efficient! So what was happening was that these rations were getting piched along the transit route and in the islands by guards who were then selling them on the black market. That’s why they were just getting watery soup, resulting in a high death rate for quite a long time until the German Red Cross intervened and their conditions were improved. At that point some of the more infamous camp commandants in Jersey were replaced. It seems even the most inefficient and brutal of regimes doesn’t want to see its labour just dying off like that!
Interviewer: Was it the conditions that led to many of the workers trying to escape?
Bob: Well, they were obviously unhappy being forced to help out with building fortifications anyway in order to help the German war effort, but I think that the appalling conditions was a very strong reason why many of them sought to escape yes.
Interviewer: With conditions being that bad there must have been an awareness of this amongst the islanders.
Bob: Oh yes, I mean we had very small bread rations and so on ourselves but people would share these when possible. They would go to near the work sites and attempt to throw them the odd piece of bread. My God, if you were caught you were imprisoned immediately for it! A couple I knew, my dentist and his wife, they were passing food to the Russians one day on a building site, got seen arrested and were deported. They spent the rest of the war imprisoned. They were not sent to interment camps but were sentenced and imprisoned and sent to prisons on the continent. Both survived the war, miraculously
Interviewer: Were there any instances where German soldiers were sharing their rations with prisoners?
Bob: No I don’t, it must have happened but I didn’t see it myself. Well one thing, there is a photograph that Michael Ginns (head of the Channel Islands Occupation Society) has showing a group of Russian workers, some of them only boys, and a German soldier had written on the back ”A group of Russian workers. Poor fellows.“, which shows that there was an awareness or maybe sympathy to their plight but I don’t think any soldier would have dared stick their neck out by actively helping them.
Interviewer: What were the risks involved in helping the workers escape?
Bob: Well quite considerable, I told you earlier about the old lady who ended up in a gas chamber, although that was I think extreme. Normally that would not have happened. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison initially, but if you had a sentence of more than a certain length of time, you didn’t do it in the islands but were sent to France. But after the Allies landed Normandy, the whole system collapsed and prisoners were moved around from one place to another and many got lost in the system.
Interviewer: How would you make sure that these forced labourers were kept hidden?
Bob: Well there’s no real easy answer to that! It varied from person to person. One particular chap who I got to know very well was being hidden in a flat in St Helier (Jersey’s main town), which was much better cover than being in a detached house in the country. Blocks of flats tend to be very impersonal. You might see a name on a bellpush at the front door but people in flats scarely know each other. I think this happens everywhere. You would get much less contact than say a lane like I live in, where I know all my neighbours and they know me, and they probably know things about me I don’t even know they know! This can be too much. A block of flats is much more private.
Anyway, this fellow had acquired a long rain coat, a hat with a trilby brim and a pair of spectacles with plain glass and he would walk out in this gear in the height of summer. I always thought this was dangerous because everybody would look at him and think ”Who is this fellow dressed like that in summer“- he looked like a failed Chicago gangster- but he was never caught!
Interviewer: How much fear did you have that you would be caught?
Bob: (pauses) Well I’m not sure I really thought about it. You took every precaution you could possibly take and one learned never to tell anybody anything unless that person had to know. You never dropped a name- you never said ”He’s present with some people called Smith and they are living at the top of such and such hill and they think that the milkman suspects that someone is staying there etc“ You would never say anything like that.
Interviewer: Were there any occasions when you came close to being caught?
Bob: No, not as far as I know. There were amusing incidents though. The Russian who was living in this block of flats… we had parties. We had parties for all sorts of reasons. You’d take along your own food, which would generally be miserable little cakes made from oatmeal and the liquor tended to be calvados, which is distilled cider. Calvados on empty stomachs tends to make a party go!
Anyway, it was a warm September evening and the windows were up. Suddenly this Russian got down on his haunches, folded his arms and started thrusting his legs in and out and singing at the top of his voice, doing a Cossack dance to a Russian song. I can still remember the reflex action of people turning round and slamming shut the windows as there was a platoon of Germans marching in the street outside! (laughs)
Interviewer: Were any of the escaped Russians recaptured? Did any of them escape from the islands?
Bob: Some were captured. None escaped to France, which a number of people were doing in the last few months of the Occupation, young men got over with the intention of joining up with the Allies.
I did know of one case where a Russian was desperate to go with one group and they refused him as had they been caught with an escaped POW in their midst they could have been shot. Under international law, he would have been re-imprisoned, they could have been shot.
Those who survived to the Liberation, may of them came to a very sticky fate. They were not welcomed back with open arms by their government. They had been in touch with people in the West and they were therefore very suspect. Many of them ended up in a Gulag and probably died there.
One man I knew was kept under KGB surveillance for 20 years until he was able to convince them that his story was genuine! The Russians had a very simple rule for people in the armed forces: there are no prisoners of war. They did not subscribe to the international Red Cross. You keep one bullet for yourself and if you don’t well God help you, because we won’t! So there was no international neutral supervision of POW camps in which Russian prisoners were kept, unlike other nations, which was one of the reasons they were so appalling badly treated. The thing is most of the people who were here were not even military prisoners but just people who had been picked up in the street.
Interviewer: Can you tell us more about the parties that you had with the Russians?
Bob: There were a few, often they would be all night parties as the curfew was at nine o’clock and your only transport was a bicycle- all of which late in the Occupation had hosepipe tyres- so when the festivities were over you would bed down on mattresses or on the floor for the night.
We had parties for all sorts of reasons: birthdays, gatherings. We had parties on very special occasions such as the last day of gas or the last day of electricity. Of course this made sense as it was the last time you’d be able to warm anything up or the last time you’d have any light unless you were lucky enough to still own a guttering candle.
I know in the last few months in my parents home a light was a medicine bottle filled with diesel oil- where the oil had come from I don’t know, it must have been a German source, which would have been bartered for an egg, which would have been bartered for something else until it reached us- using a boot lace for a wick. If you walked too quickly across the room it went out. My father would get very mad if that happened as we were down to our last box of matches. Its very difficult to imagine a situation these days a time when you cannot replace anything unless you have something spare that could barter.
I digress. Well, two friends of mine were young men who were both conscientious objectors- they would never have picked up a rifle to kill a man but they were both idealistic and willing to save lives. They were hiding this Russian and initially sharing their rations with him, until I managed to get hold of an ID card through a friend of mine who worked at the food station. A photo of the Russian was was very skilfully inserted into this card and with this he was able to get a ration card from that point on. This was the same person who did the Cossack dance at the party that September afternoon.
Interviewer: Did the Germans know that private parties were going on and were they OK with letting this happen?
Bob: Oh yes they would never have interfered with them. There was a great deal of entertainment self-organised. I think there always has been a certain amount of talent within the Islands which found expression in concerts- some were not so good, some excellent- and in plays.
The opera house in Jersey would have one week for German films and one week for local plays. They were always full. As everyone was riding round on these hosepipe tyres the performances had to finish early to give people time to get home before curfew but they were always a sell out. It was an extraordinary lively period of creativity for the local community- we were rarely bored, people always thought of ways to try and entertain themselves. The plays had to be submitted to the censors who sometimes, excellent though their English might have been, failed to spot certain things which could have double meanings.
Interviewer: Moving on, you mentioned before this interview a story of some Germans who got stranded off the shore and were unable to be rescued. Please can you tell us more?
Bob: This was a sadly ironic case that happened off the south east coast of Jersey about a little less than a mile off shore called Seymour Tower.
This was manned by three Germans who would be relieved after 2 or 3 days and they would walk back at low tide. Shortly after the D-Day landings in France, the Germans put an absolute stop on any fishing boats being launched as they were worried that the fishermen would simply try and escape to the stretch of coast opposite Jersey which had been liberated by the Americans. his was towards the end of July 1944. These 3 men, either they were relieved late or they set off late and they got stranded. They wet up on a high rock- its a very dangerous area, the tide swirls up and can reach heights of over 13 metres. They were seen on top of this rock wearing their jackboots- jackboots are not ideal for swimming in.
Some fishermen saw them. Now the Germans may have been their enemies but these fishermen could not stand to see these men drowned in cold blood and they wanted to launch their boats to go and rescue them. There was a young German officer who would not allow them to do so- he refused to make the decision without first clearing it with a superior officer, whom he could not contact fast enough. In a situation like that you cannot afford to dither and they drowned.
The people of that area although they had been bombed- in fact one of the fishermen who wanted to go and rescue them had had his parents killed in an air raid just before the Germans arrived- despite this he still wanted to go and rescue these men but wasn’t able to.
Interviewer: Was it a common thing that the islanders could differentiate between Germans as enemies and Germans as people?
Bob: By and large no. Well people who had contact with Germans, whose work involved working with Germans, occasionally they would say ”Oh he’s a decent chap really“. I think most of us, well in the line of work I was doing I had very minimal contact with the Germans. I did get to know one very well- his name was Karl Grier because he was a hairdresser, Austrian, who had come to Jersey in the 1920s.
He was probably the top ladies’ hairdresser in the island. Well within 2 to 3 weeks of the Occupation, they offered him a choice- join up or serve as an interpreter. Well of course, he chose the latter. Eventually he was drafted regardless even though he was in his early 40s. I remember seeing him in the street. I took both of his hands in mine as he was in tears as he didn’t think he’d ever see his wife and children again. He never did see his wife as she later died of TB.
That man was the island chess champion, he was lead violinist in the symphony orchestra, he was completely integrated. Now I think that many people, even if they had known him before, would have found it very difficult to talk to him after that. I couldn’t bring myself to snub him like that and I didn’t care who was looking. But there were many people who felt even if they had known German people before could not bring themselves to talk to them at that time. A lady I knew had an incident that in retrospect is quite amusing. She like many young girls of the upper or upper-middle classes had been sent to finishing school in Germany in the 1930s. Her German was fluent.
She was taken on by the States of Jersey as an official interpreter. She described how one day walking across the central square of St Helier she met Baron Von Heldorf, who was one of the top German brass. He invited her to dinner. She said to him ”In other circumstances Baron, I would have been delighted but you have to understand that wearing that uniform when I have a brother in the British army, it would be quite impossible.“ He said nothing to this but took her hand to kiss it and she said how she stood there frozen looking to either side thinking ”Who is seeing this?“ as she was worried about her reputation.
There were these little incidents, little crises of how to behave because this man may have not been a Nazi, someone who in better times social climbers would have given their eyeteeth to be invited to dinner by! (laughs)
Interviewer: You were saying earlier there as a German soldier who had been given orders to destroy a very important map.
Bob: Yes this is another incident that I remember hearing about long after the war. In the last few days before the Liberation, when it became obvious that we were about to be liberated, this soldier had plans of all the minefields around the coast. His instruction was, which had come down from the commandant who was a rabid Nazi, a very extreme and unpleasant one, to destroy all plans of these minefields. Tis man was horrified at this idea. He felt that millions of people had died during the conflict and he thought it was crazy that with the war about to end that there could be more deaths as people walked onto these mines. He also felt, and he was right, that the clearing of these mines was something that would be done by German prisoners of war. So instead of destroying these plans he hid them. In his billet where wallpaper was coming away from the wall he hid them.
The Liberation came a few days later and he was then desperate to hand these plans over to someone responsible but the first few Ally soldiers he met- his english wasn’t so good- didn’t understand him and told him to go to hell. He got increasingly desperate, finally in time he was able to make contact and hand them over. Nearly all the mines were cleared without a single casualty. The Germans made meticulous records of this sort of thing, which explains why the Commandant wanted them destroyed.
Interviewer: What about the story of the soldiers who were stranded on a tower after the war ended?
Bob: I told you earlier about the soldiers who were drowned at Seymour Tower- well there is another tower about a mile out from my house called Ichou tower. They were not relieved and were getting very fed up. They were getting very hungry eating shellfish and running short of water. Finally they decided to come back even though they had not been instructed to do so. They met an old lady who was gathering winkles and ended up surrendering to her. Its a nice story but it may not be true. I think there was something similar about some soldiers on the Minquiers Reef about 15 miles south of Jersey, which territorially is part of Jersey, who didn’t know the war had ended but I’m not the man to ask about that.
Interviewer: ave you any final stories or comments that you’d like to add before we leave?
Bob: The island has been much criticised by people who were not here for what they think of as collaboration. How do you define collaboration? Can I give an extreme example.
Within 48hrs of the Germans arrival a whole load of orders were published around the islands by the occupying force. One of these was that as of midnight on that day, one would use the right hand road instad of the left. I suppose some purists not on the island would have insisted that we should have carried on driving on the left. Now I don’t know of the most loyal subject of His Majesty King George VI who would have risked riding on a bicycle down the left hand side of the road when possibly confronted by a tank. Were we collaborating by submitting to that law?
There was no manual issued by the British government on how to deal when living inside an occupied territory. Just do the best you can was all they told the inhabitants.
Now the Jewish position I would like to mention as they were much criticised as a notice appeared in the Jersey Post saying that all Jews should register with the Aliens Office, a precursor to the Immigration Office. It was the poor unhappy man who was in charge of that office who had to sign that order. Now I was horrified, I thought they were going too far. I didn’t know the inside story- it was this woman who was being employed as an interpreter who told me. They had got this instruction from the Field Commandant that they wanted a list of Jews and they were told:
”We don’t have a list of Jews, we don’t go around asking people their religious persuasion“. They replied ”Oh but you must know of Jews“.
“Well, they would have known a few but the Jersey Jewish population would have known what was happening in Germany before the war and if they had any sense, they were told this, would have got out before the Islands were invaded. As far as we know they all did, we don’t know of any still here“
So the reply from the feldkommandantur was that in that case there was no reason not to print the notice as they had nothing to worry about. They were told that this was an order from Paris, which would have meant straight from Berlin. The local administration knew well that if they were too difficult with the Germans in the local feldkommandantur they would be replaced by ones who would be much more difficult to deal with such as the SS. They really didn’t think that there were any Jews left in the island and if there were they assumed that they would be sensible enough to ignore it.
However, some didn’t. They were told ”What are you doing here? We haven’t seen you, get away“. But their response was that it was an order- most people are law-abiding, they were worried that if it was found out that they would lose their property and so they registered. Nothing happened to the Jersey Jews who registered ultimately. There was one who was Romanian and was deported after Romania entered the war in 1941 but he survived. But there was nothing that the Jersey administration could do to prevent the Germans from being deported if they wanted that to happen.
There were three women who were deported from Guernsey, but again there was nothing they could have done to prevent this. They held German passports and therefore had no-one who could step in on their behalf.
You can see how seeing a notice like that horrified people, it horrified me, even though none of us knew the whole story. I think that the local authorities did an extraordinary job. Letters have been found to the feldkommandantur saying ”Dear Sir“ and ”Yours faithfully“ which is seen as dreadful collaboration. Well that is how letters are written! Is that collaboration? Would it have been better if they started ”You bastard“, would that have helped anyone?
Interviewer: So you are saying that historical documents should be taken in their context.
Bob: Yes, definitely.
Don’t get me wrong- there was collaboration. There were people who acted as agents for recruiting labour, who used their trucks to help carry building supplies- people who profited from helping the Occupation force. That kind of thing.
There was one German for every three islanders, so you never could have had armed resistance like you did in France and I think one person in 20 actually went to prison, now that was men women and children. I’m sure for every person who went to prison there were probably 10 who didn’t so everyone was crossing the Germans somehow. It was just a case of not being caught.