Escape from Jersey
This record of former Bailiff Sir Peter Crill’s escape from Jersey in 1944, made on reaching England, was first published in the 1985 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise when he was president of La Société
Having toyed with the idea for several weeks after D-day, the first definite steps were taken on a Saturday in September when I approached Roy Mourant and asked him to join me in making an escape from the island. At first we thought of going in a canoe but, with the equinoctial gales approaching, we thought it wiser to try to obtain a larger boat. We contacted some fishermen, one in particular who, though not willing to come with us, gave us much useful data about the tides, etc.
We hoped, if able to get a large enough boat, to take an escaped Russian officer with us. We were unable to do this so we decided to attempt to smuggle my boat from the harbour. By now another member of our party had been recruited, John Floyd, and, during the lunch hour of a Saturday in October, Noel and Porter's furniture removal van, a charcoal-driven pantechnicon, picked us up and we drove to the docks.
The boat was in store at Norman Limited, 23 Commercial Buildings, having been there since August 1942, when a German Order forced me to bring her to town. I had had the option to store her or leave her on the quay so, rather than risk her being stolen or damaged, I had had her moved into the store. This building had a very narrow entrance so that it was impossible to back the van inside completely. However, waiting until no-one was in sight, the driver backed up against the wall covering the doorway on one side. Roy, John and the store foreman were waiting inside with the boat and as soon as the tailboard came down they swung her in, jumped in themselves and shut up the board again.
Our bicycles, left in various places because we had not wanted to be seen cycling to the docks together, were collected and we drove off through the town, arriving at Cape House in Pontorson Lane without mishap. The boat was unloaded into the garage with only one small boy as witness. The first fence had been jumped.
Many repairs were necessary before the boat could be counted upon as seaworthy and these took up the better part of the next three weeks. A boatbuilder was engaged as we could not rely upon the results of our own amateur carpentry to withstand the strain of the crossing. The boat was a 12-foot sailing dinghy with a centre-board. The bows were decked over, the keel strengthened, a new piece put on to the transom to hold the outboard motor and various other small alterations made. A five-inch piece of cedar was used for washboards as far as the first thwart, an addition to the freeboard which we found very useful. The motor was a I½ hp Elto Handitwin, 3000 rpm, and able to push the boat along at about 3½ knots.
The boat, repaired and soaked, was ready by 26 October but, owing to the regular occurrence of storms and turbulent seas, we were unable to leave until the end of the week of 5 November. In the meantime we had held many conferences, planned our course, our place of departure and our food supplies for the journey.
In choosing a point of departure we had three things to consider: the number of German guards, the offshore rocks, and the coastal currents in relation to tide times. We agreed to leave at high water and Bel Air at Fauvic was chosen finally as the ideal position. There were no guards for one hundred yards on either side, the sea was accessible at all states of the tide and there were very few rocks offshore. We had decided to go in company with E Le Masurier's boat and at ten o'clock on the morning of Saturday 11 November it was agreed to leave that night.
A favourable weather forecast had been obtained by one of Le Masurier's friends from a friendly German at the Harbour Office and the seas had abated enough for small boats. We had made a final check of our equipment and supplies a few days before:
For the boat
Anchor; 70 fathom rope; mast; sail; two pair rowlocks; three oars; rudder and tiller; flares; baler; bucket; burgee and stays; three life jackest; four gallons petrol; motor
70 fathom rope Ten Ibs each of personal kit; 3lb bread each; Jam and honey; Corned beef; Condensed milk; Three eggs; Two thermos hot coffee; brandy; biscuits; apples; iodine and bandages
In the morning we had arranged with some difficulty to have Noel and Porter's lorry and we spent the rest of the day making our final personal preparations and saying our goodbyes. At six o'clock there was no lorry. After rushing into town I found that it was at Saint John but a last minute phone call brought it to Cape House at 7 pm and we loaded up and reached Bel Air at 7.15. The other boat with Le Masurier, Le Sueur and N Rumball had been transported that afternoon and hidden in a shed. Both boats reached the water's edge without mishap and at 8.05 pm we pushed off.
At first all went well and we crept out in company, our boat leading; the phosphorescent effect as the oars dipped in and out was most queer. At 9.15 we decided to start our motors. Our course had been east-south-east since leaving the coast and that was to be our general direction all the way. One difficulty was to see the compass without showing too much light and, as we were leading, we had to give the course for the other boat. John Floyd was in the bows and by shading the compass with his coat he used a torch and called out the course as we went along.
Unfortunately the gyrating compass brought on an attack of mal de mer, but he managed to carry on between bouts. Both boats forged ahead until Le Masurier's stopped. We circled around and they asked for a tow as their jets had become choked (a poor excuse at the beginning of a trip!). We stopped and drew near and the rope was made fast, but some water must have got into our leads when the swell between the boats lopped over our side because we could not restart the engine.
After several attempts we had to separate and hoist our sails. Le Masurier's boat, having a bigger sail spread, quickly left us. We continued on our course for about an hour when a most frightening accident happened. I was steering at the time and the stem sheet slipped out of my hand (the sail was only a small lug without a boom). I called out to John to grab it, which he did, but as he leaned over the gunwale the boat tipped and the compass fell into the water, which by now was swilling around in the bottom of the boat. Although the compass was encased in a box, it must have fallen face downward and water had got inside, making it useless.
I took the compass hoping to tap the glass with a spanner and drain out the water but, as the spanner touched the glass, the movement of the boat caused me to put more pressure behind the blow than I had intended. The glass splintered entirely and not only was the water drained out but the agate bearing of the compass card was forced out and the compass itself rendered useless. Although we had brought spares for many things (plugs, ropes, etc.) we had relied on the one compass!
We were still too close inshore to attempt to anchor for the night, so we had to steer by the wind direction. Luckily it was blowing from the north-west and so it was fairly easy to keep a south-easterly course.
In about an hour it came on to blow so much that the seas became too rough for further sailing. We tried to repair the compass with a match head but this failed and although we got the motor going again, we found ourselves going around in circles since we were making our own wind. So we decided to anchor. I got the mast and sail stowed and went into the bows to unship the anchor and rope. The rope was a new length of grass rope seventy fathoms long and strong enough for the purpose.
But we had made one more mistake: we had not uncoiled it before leaving. The result may be imagined. Seventy fathoms of tangled knots which we all had an attempt at unravelling. The only light we had was from a small hand torch and it proved an impossible task. Indeed, the heaving of the rope as the boat rose and fell to each wave caused each one of us to abandon the effort and seek the side once more. Eventually with no compass, the sea too rough to sail and the anchor rope in such a mess we did the only possible thing.
A boat if left to herself will always ride the sea better than under way. So we let her drift while we covered ourselves over with canvas sheets and tried to get some sleep, John and Roy in the bows, half under the decking, and myself across the rear thwarts. At this time we were all so miserably seasick that we had lost all interest in our fate. We were wet through and the night passed in a semi-frozen coma in which we dimly realised that time was slipping away and that we were being taken slowly in the direction of the French coast, for we were now in the main tidal stream setting north-east from the south-west.
If we had still been in the local coastal currents we should have been taken round the north of the island, if not all the way round, and finally probably ashore. Occasionally one of us roused himself and baled out the surplus water, although at no time was there less than four inches over the skin boards.
When it was light enough Roy cleaned the plugs and got the engine started again. The sun rose and we steered slightly north of it (had it been a misty morning I doubt whether we would have reached the coast at all and it would have meant at least another night at sea). The sun went behind a cloud but left a red glow to guide us. We saw several birds and this cheered us.
Eventually, just as the glow was fading from the sky and our hopes sinking, we sighted a tower on the horizon. This acted as a mark until the coast spread itself dimly behind it. We were a little afraid that the land might not be France, and were expecting any moment to see a patrol boat approaching. About two miles from the shore the motor stopped. This time it proved impossible to start it again and we had to begin to row.
As we had eaten quite a hearty breakfast we did not mind at first. It was only when we saw that the houses were receding instead of getting larger that we began to realise what had happened. The current had taken us practically to the shore in the night; our nearest point to it must have been reached at about 5 am when the tidal direction began to swing us away again. At the present moment it must have been heading almost due south-west reaching west.
The tide was falling and it would be about four hours before it began to make again in the right direction on the flood. It seemed that the anchor rope would have to be untangled after all. However Roy had one more go at the motor and it started and kept going this time. We drew near the beach and, after coasting up and down for a short time to find a suitable place, we landed at 1.05 pm. The trip had taken seventeen hours.
Leaving John Floyd in charge of the boat, Roy and I went up the beach to the nearest house to see whether there was a harbour nearby to moor the boat. We found we had landed at Coutainville, a small town about six miles north of Coutances. Thus the current had carried us several miles southward, probably having swung us in to the coast earlier on in the morning!
We went to the nearest inn and had a room put at our disposal. With the help of the villagers the boat was dragged clear of the high-water mark and all the gear was left at the house which we had first approached. The three of us then went to the inn and, after a hot wash and changing into borrowed clothing (not a dry thing was left in the boat), a hot meal was served. We sat by a blazing fire until eight o'clock with all the villagers asking us questions: we then went to bed and slept for twelve hours.
On the following day we gave ourselves up to a patrol of Americans in a jeep. They were very surprised and asked us not to say that we had given ourselves up but that they had picked us up on beach patrol as they were supposed to be on the look-out for any people attempting to land. We had seen them in the distance when we were about one mile from the shore but supposed they were part of some manoeuvres. Also a military policeman off duty had advised us to report at GIC 44 Coutances on the next day.
However the patrol took us to Barneville where we underwent a preliminary interrogation by a colonel. We asked several times about our kit but each time were told that it would be sent for later. An armed escort took us to Cherbourg where, after having our identities established, we were housed in the billets of the Intelligence Headquaters G2 US Army. On the next day we were subjected to a careful interrogation by a colonel of the Intelligence and then handed over to the Commander in charge of an RAF embarcation unit at Cherbourg for transport to England.
We were further questioned by him and it was arranged that one of us should go to Coutainville to fetch our kit the next day. I won the toss with Roy and on the following day, 15 November, I went down to the little village by jeep. On the way and on the return journey I had the opportunity for seeing the great damage caused during the battles of the Cherbourg Peninsula. Hayes du Puits, Perrier, Valognes - I saw the ruins of all these villages. This was the first real war damage that I had seen and this prepared me to a certain extent for seeing the effects of the blitzes on London.
We reached the vllage about noon and had a meal. I gathered all our kit; the innkeeper and the housewife of the other cottage had seen that our wet clothing was washed and dried. I also had the good luck to sell the boat and all the equipment for 12,000 francs and we returned to Cherbourg at five o'clock. On Thursday at lunchtime four of the boys who had left the night before us arrived, to be followed on Friday by two more, one from the boat which had set off with us, the other from the first boat completing the Thursday arrival party. Finally on Saturday the other two arrived making eleven Jersey escapees at the depot. They were:
- 1st boat, 10 November - K W Parris, M G Price, G Le Couteur, E Prain, F Le Sueur
- 2nd boat, 11 November - R G Mourant, F J Floyd, P L Crill
- 3rd boat, 11 November - E L Masurier, Max Le Sueur, Norman Rumball
We received news while there that several other escapees had passed through the town. Some of these were known to us personally.
Although we had access to the canteen room of the men and were allowed to roam around the town as often as we liked, we became rather bored after two or three days. All of us were issued with two rations of cigarettes and chocolate and we slept and messed with the men. It was a good experience which palled after a time. Cherbourg is a dirty town. We amused ourselves by seeing French and American films and visiting the American Red Cross Club for doughnuts and coffee.
The rich food affected each one of us in turn and that week the canteen sold several tins of Andrews Liver Salts. Roy, John and myself were introduced by a Royal Engineers sergeant to three French FFI women who told some foul stories about alleged German atrocities. It is worth noting that in each village atrocity stories were circulated about the behaviour of the Germans in the neighbouring villages. Yet it appears that in those villages there had been no such happenings, although of course they said they had occurred in the first village. It seems too that the same contradictory statements were used between town and country.
We were supposed to go to England with the Wing-Commander on the Cherbourg to Southampton Ferry. One ferry came and went during the night, whilst a second one which arrived was a Dover Ferry. We were told that, as Cherbourg was an American base, very few English boats put in there, fewer still since the fall of Dieppe and Le Havre. Eventually we left Cherbourg on the Hampton Ferry at nine o'clock on Wednesday 22 November in company with some Indian troops. These men had been taken prisoner at Tobruk and transported through Italy to Bordeaux.
When the Maquis liberated the town in the late summer they joined this band and fought the Germans under the command of the Maquis leaders. They were now being taken to England to rejoin their regiments. We had been in Cherbourg for nine days, the longest stay of any Channel Islanders.
We arrived at Southampton at six o'clock after a fresh passage and were taken to a hostel where we were to sleep the night. Following supper we were interrogated by the security people who took from us several papers and letters, and by the immigration officer who gave us our landing visas and passes. The next day we travelled to London in the afternoon and slept at Rochester Row Rest Centre. At ten o'clock on Friday we were interviewed by the War Office and in the afternoon some of us separated to go to our various relations. Later in the afternoon others took advantage of the generosity of the Channel Islands Refugee Committee and went to be fitted out with clothes and footwear. We hope to keep in touch with each other through the committee.