This is the story of Richard Brook Sutcliffe a doctor and surgeon who lived through the occupation of Guernsey in the Channel Islands 1940 to 1945. He was known as Brook to his friends. The interview conducted by Conrad Wood for the Imperial War Museum provides a great insight into many aspects of the occupation of Guernsey 1940-45. If you want to listen to the interview it is here
This post comes with a warning that some of what he describes may be upsetting to some as he details some unpleasant things he witnessed. No individuals are named in the more unpleasant parts for obvious reasons.
He came to visit the Island in 1937 and was so taken with the place that he accepted the offer of becoming a partner in a local doctors practice.
A friend of mine, who was a surgeon, Simpson Smith, who was also a great friend of Dr. Montague, who was also in practice in Guernsey and he was looking for a partner.
He came to ask me whether I would consider coming over as they wanted somebody over here to join him. I came over here to have a look round and I was so much taken with it that I came over here and settled in practice with my wife and then three small children, which being in 1937, was just two years before we were occupied.
He recalls little of the evacuation of the Island other than his wife and three children travelling to England. His other recollection is interesting is the quandary that doctors living in the Islands faced at the time of evacuation.
It was difficult then to decide how many doctors we would need in the island, because that would depend upon entirely upon the number of people we had left in the island.
So we formed a committee, which consisted of Dr. Kerry, who was at that time a very highly respected one of our practitioners in Guernsey, Dr. Montague who was my senior partner and myself, and when anybody wish to leave the island, then they had to appear in front of that committee.
We would decide whether or not they could leave the island. Unfortunately, I’m not going to mention any names here, but unfortunately, despite the wishes of the committee, with regard to certain doctors, three of them left without our permission.
Unlike the doctors he doesn’t recall any of the nurses leaving the Island. I will be blogging about a nurses experience at a later date.
All the the people in charge of the nursing home and the hospital they all congregated into the country hospital which we then converted into what was known as emergency hospital and remained there of course.
During the height of the war they did a wonderful job of work. The person in charge of it was matron Hall who was the person in charge of the Victoria Hospital and of course we had the sisters who were in charge of the maternity hospital they ran that and I can’t speak too highly of the word they did. Absolutely wonderful.
When recalling the bombing of St Peter Port on 28th June 1940 he doesn’t recall much of the raid itself more the aftermath.
The only thing I remember is the noise that went on and the fact that we were at the hospital to receive the casualties.
We had people with abdominal wounds. We had people with legs, badly injured. We had every type of injury that you would expect. Somewhere between 30 and 35 of them.
Dr. Gibson, who was in the other surgeon in the Island and myself ran a theatre there and we did the majority of the operations during that night. We started the 10 o’clock at night and we finished at 10 o’clock the next morning, but we did have a small break for breakfast.
Two days after the raid he saw the Germans for the first time. They drove down the Grange as he was talking to his neighbour and friend outside of his house.
Jack Martel who was a lawyer over here a great friend of mine lived nearly opposite me. I lived in the Grange then in house which is now Kleinwort Benson and we were standing outside when the Germans drove past.
They’d just landed and they drove past in the police car, an old Wolseley. Jack said to me “Well Brook, they are here at last now” and I said “they are here at last Jack” and later on he said to me, do you know after we were liberated, he said to me “Brook do you remember the occasion when we were standing outside your house and the Germans came down and I said to you “well they are here at last and you said to me something. Do you remember what it was?” I said no.
“You said to me well, I suppose Jack there’ll be here for anything up to five years. Which was exactly the time they were here.” I mean they weren’t here for a short time. We knew that I mean to take that length of time to get rid of them.
The house that he lived in and referred to as now being Kleinwort Benson has subsequently become the headquarters for Healthspan. The building has been extended to make office space and is on the Grange which is the main road into St Peter Port.
During the occupation he witnessed some awful things. One of his first interactions with them, other than seeing in the street, was being called to a patient who had been robbed and raped.
Well, the first impression I had of them was went in my meeting with the Major Müller who was then in charge of the the German forces when they arrived and I think I was one of the very few civilians who ever came in contact with him.
That was due to the fact that there was a patient of mine there were two sisters who run ran a sort of preparatory school in the island. They were both around about the age of 70. I had an emergency call to go to see them because one of them had been raped. They’d both been robbed and one of them been raped by a German soldier.
When I arrived, Mr. Sherwill was there, who was I think the Procureur. He later became the Bailiff Sir Ambrose Sherwill, who was sent away during the war to one of the camps in in Germany. Wonderful Bailiff, he was a wonderful man. When they knew that this person had been raped, of course a Major Müller was sent for and when he was told that this woman had been raped, he was absolutely livid. I’ve never seen a man so angry in my life. And he immediately summoned the whole of the forces to parade, he discovered the man with the missing revolver.
The following morning, I was sent for by the Germans, they collected me at my house, under armed escort with Mr. Sherwill, we were driven to the airport, where we were placed in a cottage on the perimeter of the airport to await the court martial.
We were then taken into the court martial and we gave our evidence. We were told that they would then return to tell us the verdict and we were then taken back to the cottage.
We were then taken back to the the court martial and we were told that he had been found guilty and he would be shot and would we like to see him shot. We told them we’d no desire to see anybody shot and to the best of my knowledge, he was then taken out onto the airport and shot.
Müller was feared by his men and eventually shipped off to the eastern front, captured by the Russians and held in a POW camp until 19552.
It would seem that the doctor is correct that his sort of attack wasn’t that common as recalled in a post war report on policing.
It was very unusual to hear a soldier whistle after a woman in the street and during the whole period we only had two cases of rape – one occurred within the first week of the Occupation, and he was sentenced to death, the other some years later. We reported the facts to the German Police. The man was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He appealed and the sentence was changed to 8 years.Policing During The Occupation – Albert Peter Lamy
He notes that initially that health was pretty good and explains it as being because of the lack of alcohol and cigarettes. His reference to lack of alcohol and cigarettes is taken to be a reference to a restricted availability rather than none being available at all. Islanders improvised when tobacco became scare and either started growing it themselves or drying other leaves to use a substitute.
Whilst many accounts focus on what some called the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944/45 after the Normandy landings in June 1944 it is important to note that the lack of food had a serious impact some two years before this.
The interviewer asks about a picture he has been shown of a patient.
I have in front of me one of your photographs from the occupation of a patient’s lying in hospital and the patient really looks like somebody from the Belsen concentration camp and you’ve put on the back that this person was admitted on the 13th of May 1942.Conrad Wood
So the starvation started as early as that, there were starvation cases well before the islands were cut off by the Normandy invasions?
He responds that they were very short of food and that it was the elderly that suffered the most. They were dropping like flies. The patient referred to in the photograph weighed just six stone five. In kilos that is just 40.5!
There’s nothing to do nothing at all. We had no food to give them. They were beyond doing anything.
I suppose under modern conditions where you had everything that you could give them that’s a very different kettle of fish. But then don’t forget we were we were isolated with nothing at all. We no antibiotics we had nothing.
We had to improvise, as I said, the present medical profession would think we were prehistoric. We managed it’s surprising what you can do you know what you got to do it.
He goes on to explain that this was an Island wide problem and that the lack of food was enough for a patient to die.
Particularly the old people, those people who couldn’t get anything on the black market or anything like that you see. They’re very independent you know. The Guernseyman is a very independent sort of person.
I have mentioned the fiercely independent nature and stubbornness and hence why to this day we are still known as “Guernsey Donkeys”.
It wasn’t just the Islanders that were suffering malnutrition during the occupation. Especially during the later stages the Germans were also suffering.
If you had a dog or a cat and you let it out at night it never came back in the morning because the Germans got hold of it killed it and ate it.
That’s the stage they were at. People had to put their cattle in at night for the fear of the Germans would go out and kill them and slaughter them. They were in a pretty poor state as well.
It got to the stage where the Germans were having to send out soldiers to guard locals crops and livestock. You can read more about the impact of the ‘Hunger Winter’ on my previous blog post of A German Soldier’s experience here.
Dr Sutcliffe wrote in April 1944 about the need to balance meat production, milk production, the health of the population, and future sales of cattle post war.
To sacrifice the general public in order to maintain a high standard of Island cattle for presumed post-war sale is nothing short of criminal …
Desirable as it may be to maintain a good Island stock, I consider it more desirable to maintain the population, and I am sure that this view would be shared by the many people who have been evacuated. They would rather come back to be greeted by a healthy relative than by a large and healthy herd of Guernsey cows.
Charles Cruickshank notes in his book that Admiral Hüffmeier, who succeeded von Schmettow as Commander-in-Chief of the Islands in February 1945, saw the dairy herds as the saviours of the Wehrmacht. Hüffmeier was determined to hold out for the Führer. He famously said to the Bailiff of Jersey Coutanche that he would hold out until “You and I are eating grass”.
He had no doubt that the garrison could hold out longer if the production of milk, butter, and cheese was kept up; and he was therefore against the slaughter of cattle to provide even the troops with a meat ration.The German Occupation of the Channel Islands
He proposed in the interests of the garrison that the civilian milk ration in Jersey should be converted from full to skimmed milk; but Coutanche5 successfully resisted this move.
When asked to explain the impact of the International Red Cross ship SS Vega delivering food during the last six months of the occupation he provides a very good explanation of how important it was.
Terrific. Terrific. It saved the island there’s no doubt about it. The Red Cross saved the island and I’ve got it on my film.
You’ve got film at the war museum of the Vega arriving and I remember that that time writing a letter to the to the local press saying how grateful we must be to the to the Vega for coming in at that stage and saving literally saving the island. I suggested at that time that every time that the Vega came in or whatever Red Cross ship it was that came in that the island should give, the Islanders who got a parcel, should give 10 pounds for every parcel.
They gave to the Red Cross and that would have given an enormous amount of money to the Red Cross people for literally coming and saving the lives of the islanders. I don’t know what they collected. I have no idea.
He recalls that he tried to limit his interactions with the Germans but he like many Islanders had Germans billeted in his house. One day they told him to get out of the house as they were taking it over. Now normally they would have official papers for this but these two didn’t. He therefore took matters into his own hands to get one up on them!
I had two officers put into my house and they behaved reasonably well, I suppose. One morning they came to me and said you must get out we are taking your house over. Now. At that time we had a billeting officer I’m trying to think of his name now major.
Anyway, it was usual. If the Germans took over a house, they would present you with official documents. They were very keen on official documents. You probably know the Germans were and when they came to me and said you must get out of the house. They didn’t present me with any official documents and I said well this is being done by themselves. They’re not doing this officially.
So I rang up a great friend of mine who was in removal man, Mr. Gould and I told him what was happening and he said, ‘right I will be around first thing in the morning’ and he turned up with his truck and we took everything out of the house.
I had an Aga cooker. and I rang up Huelins who were then the agents and I told Huelins and they said ‘We’ll be around doctor”. They came and they dismantled my Aga took the whole thing out and they put it in, down in my surgery in New Street, the house which was vacant and had been occupied by Dr. Montague.
So I moved in there and when the Germans got back that night they found nothing in the house. I had a very irate telephone call from them saying ‘you were removed the cooker and the curtains and everything else’. I said well, I understand you have a billeting officer Major Langer. If you get in touch with him, if he gives me orders to return things I will do so. I heard nothing more after that. I concluded they had done it off their own bat and I got away with it.
This type of behaviour by the Germans was not uncommon and there are many references to this behaviour.
We were surrounded by Germans and if they decided they wanted to they would come in and look around the house in case there was anything they wanted, because there were days when if they decided for example they wanted blankets, they would roll up to your house with a van, ring the bell and say right we are confiscating blankets and they’d strip your house of blankets.Dorothy Hurrel-Langlois
When it comes to the impossibility of armed resistance he sums it up nicely. Although in respect of his thoughts on the Guernsey Underground News Service and Frank Falla I don’t agree with but that is his view point.
There’s no point in it actually and I mean, as I said, in France, you could blow a bridge up and be 50 miles away within an hour or two, but there really was no point.
I think people did silly things in a way we had I think a fellow called Falla who ran an underground newsreader thing, which I think was really quite unnecessary because so many people had crystal sets and sets they’re listened into and he was eventually caught doing this and then he was sent away to Germany to one of the one of the camps.
But news got round and then of course, we had the RAF drop leaflets here. I got the whole lot of them and I think they’re now in possession of the Imperial War Museum. News got round fairly quickly you know.
His views on propaganda produced is in line with all of the other sources that I have read. Very little impact.
When asked about collaboration he at first speaks about it but then says he doesn’t want to bring it up further.
Well, you’re bound to get a certain amount I think, personally, I think the amount of collaboration that went on in Guernsey was minimal. I know a lot of it has been made in this film they’ve had ‘The Swastika over the Channel Islands’, particularly in Jersey. I don’t think it’s done Jersey any good.
I can’t speak for Jersey. I know there were a number of babies, German babies born. It is more than likely I delivered some of them. But you’re bound to get that I mean what would it have been like?
Dammit look at the Americans in England. You’re bound to get that going on in an occupied territory. Look at France look at the whole of the occupied territories in Europe and compare them with the Channel Islands. This is bound to happen and I think to bring it up now is, I’ve no time for it, I’m sorry.
When asked about the experience as a whole he provides an interesting and thought provoking explanation.
I don’t know I suppose. A period of experience I think. In wartime one has to put up with many things that one doesn’t want.
My dear wife who’s now left me (she died before he was interviewed) was over in England with my three young children and I when I look back on it, she was bombed from here to there.
I think that apart from starvation, she’s probably had over a much worse time than I had. In wartime one’s got to put up with the certain things you’ve got to put up with and consider yourself lucky if you get through them. Fortunately, my wife and three children they got through them I got through it but that is war.
His take on the behaviour on the Germans and the occupation as a whole is in my opinion a fair statement given the lack of the more extreme aspects of the occupied European countries.
Could have been a lot worse. They suffered at the end you know, they (the Germans) were starving in the end.
Upon Liberation he used a Ciné-Kodak camera and colour film he had hidden to film the liberation which is above or you can watch the whole film here and the colour footage starts at 5:29.
After the war he continued to serve the Island for many years in a variety of roles. In particular he was instrumental in the development and extensions to the Hospital that still serves the Island today. You can read about this in his Obituary below.
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A massive thank you to those that also pointed me in the direction of information for this blog.