19/04/2024
Norwich, GB 7 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

BOB LE SUEUR, aged 102

 

UNDER OCCUPATION

Born in Jersey in 1921, when Bob left school he went to work for the Pearl Insurance Company in St. Helier, as a salesman.

He travelled around the island by bike and got to know many people. By 1940, he was acting manager of the branch.

He was an avowed pacifist. When the Second World War broke out, Bob had decided to join the St. John’s Ambulance service. He contacted them on the mainland and they agreed to accept him. But he missed his boat out of Jersey, little knowing it was the last boat to leave the island.

In July 1940, the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be occupied. The British did nothing to prevent the invasion. The islanders felt abandoned. Bob was just 19 at the time.

At the moment of the invasion, Bob was swimming in the sea. A German plane flew over the island and started dropping bombs all around him.

He got out of the sea and rushed home to where he lived with his parents. Another German plane flew down the high street where he was, strafing the street with machine gun bullets. It was so close that he could see the pilot’s face. Bob dived under a bush for safety.

Hitler wanted a line of defenses built across Western Europe which was known as the ‘Atlantic Wall’, and Jersey was part of it. In reality, the island was of little strategic importance.

The Nazis issued a proclamation laying out their rules to the population of the Channel Islands. This included forcing people to drive on the right. Some refused. The very first day, an old man was cycling on the left. He came face to face with a German tank. Both refused to budge. A shouting match ensued. Bob witnessed this.

The Germans needed interpreters. The main ladies’ hairdresser on Jersey was Karl Grier, an Austrian who had emigrated to the island in the 1920s. He was given a choice. Become an interpreter or be enlisted into the German army (he was in his late forties).

Bob was there when Grier made his choice, and Karl sobbed uncontrollably. Bob held his hand as he said, “I will never see my family again”. In a way, Grier was proved right. When the Nazis finally allowed him to go back to his home, his wife had died of TB.

Another forced interpreter was an elegant lady who had been to a finishing school in Germany and was fluent in the language. The Nazis asked her for a list of Jews on the island. She retorted, “We don’t judge people by their religious persuasion on this island.”  No Jewish people were deported from Jersey during the occupation.

Initially the invading Nazis were not overly harsh. Some islanders still took badly to being occupied. The Jersey chess champion was German and some people refused to talk to him. Bob said he wasn’t going to be involved in such nonsense.

But then two things happened that changed the whole atmosphere on the islands.

Firstly, orders came from Hitler himself that the screw had to be tightened. Things were instantly much worse.

Secondly, the Germans imported slave labour onto the island to help them construct the Atlantic Wall. They brought 6,000 Russian prisoners and 2,000 Spanish Republicans captured in their civil war.

The man behind the building project was Dr. Fritz Todh, a leading Nazi architect. The whole programme was known as the ‘Organisation Todh’.

Dr Fritz Todh (courtesy Warfare History Network)

The islanders were shocked at the brutality that was shown to these prisoners as they were marched at gunpoint from their ships to a prison camp. It was made clear to the locals that if they helped the prisoners, they would be severely punished.

This didn’t deter everybody. A clergyman listened clandestinely to the BBC news on his radio. He would then cycle around the island shouting, “Good news”, passing information to everybody. He was arrested and deported.

A female Salvation Army officer preached throughout the island about the immorality of slavery. She too was arrested and deported.

Both the clergyman and the Salvation Army officer died in captivity.

The local dentist and his wife were so appalled with the prison camps that they threw bread over the wire. They too were deported but both luckily survived the war.

Rations were extremely low, made worse later in the war when Prime Minister Churchill insisted on a naval blockade to try to starve the Germans into submission. He was warned he would be starving the islanders as well but decided to go ahead with the blockade anyway.

Islanders were reduced to eating raw vegetables and fish. Bob had one bar of cooking chocolate which sat on a shelf, given to him as a thank you for donating blood at the local hospital. He resisted eating it, deciding to save it for a special occasion.

He was still cycling around the island doing his insurance work and was such a familiar face that the Nazis never stopped and questioned him. But with time, his bike tyres became shredded. There were no replacements, so he used hosepipe instead.

By now Bob was increasingly getting involved in resistance, in the forging of papers and ration books. He was able to deliver the finished articles around the island.

One day, he visited shopkeeper Louisa Gould. She had two sons who were fighting the war in the Royal Navy. She had just learned that her younger boy had been drowned at sea.

Bob went to give her his condolences but was amazed to find a Frenchman living in her house and serving in her shop. Bob was fluent in French but felt her lodger didn’t speak like a true Frenchman. When he questioned Louisa, she admitted he was an escaped Russian slave labourer named Feodor Buriy (otherwise known as ‘Russian Bill’).

Louisa said to Bob, “I had to do something for another mother’s son.”

Consequently, Bob became more actively involved with the resistance. He began to organize and co-ordinate the movement of 8 or 9 escaped Russian prisoners from house to house.

He had just moved ‘Russian Bill’ out of Louisa’s house when she was arrested. Somebody had informed on her. She was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was executed 18 months later.

Despite the obvious threat, Bob continued his work. “I was very secretive about everything, so I was never caught.” He was so careful that he never told anybody what he was doing – not his parents, not his friends.

 It was very difficult for the Nazis to catch anybody in the resistance because it wasn’t a proper organization and nothing was strategically planned. It was done on an ad hoc, individual basis.

Bob said he was not part of the resistance to help win the war, “But I did it because, by God, they needed help.”

On New Year’s Eve, Bob had a party with some of the Russian escapees. They shared his saved bar of chocolate. He realised they were safe as the Nazis were too busy partying as well.

Bob subsequently had a penchant for chocolate for the rest of his life. Chocolate Buttons were his particular favourite.

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In the middle of the invasion, three German soldiers got trapped on the shore by a high tide. A Jersey fishing boat took to sea and, at great risk to themselves, saved the soldiers. Years later when asked why the fishermen had saved their enemies, Bob simply replied, “Humanity.”

In 1945, the German occupation of the Channel Islands came to an end. Liberation Day was the 9th May 1945. The first Bob knew of it was when Spitfires flew over St. Helier. Like everybody else, he thought they were the Luftwaffe, and dived for cover.

Then he cycled down to the port with his friends. They passed a manned German gun placement and just as they went past, Bob’s front tyre exploded and he was thrown to the ground. All the German gunners swiveled their guns around to face Bob. He thought he would be killed at the moment of liberation.

Then a young German gunner stood up and waved and smiled. Bob thought he should shake his hand but was afraid of being accused of collaboration, so he just walked off – “To my eternal shame.” To his dying day it was his biggest regret that he didn’t shake the German’s hand.

It is estimated that one in twenty of every islander had been deported and imprisoned by the Nazis. During the whole occupation only 200 islanders had managed to escape to the British mainland.

On the islands, just a few of the 8,000 slave labourers had managed to escape their prison camps. None of them made it off the islands, but all were successfully hidden by islanders like Bob.

As the Nazis withdrew, their Commandant insisted that all the beaches be mined. One German soldier kept a map of where the mines had been placed and handed it to an islander. Consequently, all mines were detonated without a single loss of life.

The Channel Islands had to return to normal life. Although there had been collaboration, it was decided to move forward. There was not a single prosecution for helping the occupiers.

The Russian slave labourers were returned to the Soviet Union. To Bob’s horror, many of them were immediately sent to Gulags (Russian prison camps).

Bob himself gave up insurance and qualified as a languages teacher. He spent the rest of his working career teaching at Hautlieu high school, at St. Savier in Jersey.

He was always a great advocate of democracy and human rights. He took a Kenyan refugee into his home, 20 years ago, and the man stayed there for a long while.

Bob was a supporter of the Gurkha Welfare Trust and a member of the ‘Societe Jersaise’.

In retirement, Bob loved to travel and meet people. He said, “At every stage of the journey I was meeting people and I came to the conclusion that the world is overflowing with wonderful people and there are more positive people than negative ones.”

He wrote an autobiography entitled ‘Growing Up Fast: An Ordinary Man’s Extraordinary Life in Occupied Jersey’.

He became the expert on life on the islands during the war and advised historians and television and radio programmes.

ITV made a documentary about him called ‘Hero, Liberator, Gentleman’.

In 2006, Bob’s words about the occupation were engraved in stone and placed on York Street, St. Helier – to ensure later generations understood what people went through in the war.

In 2007, the island commissioned a portrait of him and it is hung in the Jersey Museum and Art Gallery.

In 2013, Bob was awarded the MBE. He had previously been decorated by the Soviet Union, who gave him a gold watch. He went on to get the French ‘Chevalier’ award.

He was utterly appalled by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in February 2022. He immediately (aged 101) decided to walk 5,000 steps in an attempt to raise money to help Ukrainian refugees. He walked around his garden every day for a month.

“My thoughts on the war are dreadful sadness for the people of Ukraine. I am one of the few still alive that lived as an adult through the occupation, so I remember what it was like.”

Although he was proud of what he had done, Bob refused to think of himself as a hero. His close friend, Chris Stone, a presenter at BBC Radio Jersey, said, “He was far too self-effacing to ever consider what he did during the occupation was brave.”

Chris Stone added, “If you described him as a hero, he would fix you with an icy stare and tell you that he was absolutely not a hero, he was just doing what he could to help people who were in need and did so carefully enough not to be caught.”

RIP – Resistance Island People

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