Thursday, 7 July 2011

The accidental death of a patriot? Unrecorded Occupation resistance and tragic death of Captain Benjamin W. Bennett (1889 - 1941)


Bob Bennett is convinced his father, Captain Benjamin W. Bennett, was deliberately killed by German forces in Guernsey for an act of defiance in refusing to take on board his ship the MV Spinel a number of soldiers at Granville. 

Bob Bennett lives in St Helier No1 District and I met him canvassing. I found his story fascinating for a number of reasons. I let him recount his story here without judgment. All his life he has sought recognition for an act of resistance by his father and subsequent tragic death, which Bob is convinced are intimately linked.






Captain Benjamin W. Bennett (1889 -1941)

Captain Benjamin W. Bennett was born at Cheapside, St. Helier in 1889. His father was a coachman and ran livery stables.

“Ben” was not too keen on working with horses and ran away from home to serve on a Newfoundland trader at an early age and remained a mariner all his life.

At 20 in 1909, he was a sailor on the “Progress” of Sunderland which he seemed to intermix with service as mate on a couple of ketches for Renouf & Co of Jersey until 1914.

He moved around the coast of Britain working on sailing vessels or steamers as seaman, mate, master or AB as necessary. During the First World War he served on “trooping” ships such as the “Karnak” of Liverpool or SS “Buccaneer” of West Hartlepool, ferrying men and equipment across to Cherbourg and other ports.

He always received good references such as  “a most trustworthy officer…always sober and most attentive to his duty,” from his employers.

Antarctic rescue mission - Ernest Shackleton

His service on Scott’s former “Discovery” ship occurred during four months of the summer/autumn of 1916. By then the historic ship was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company but was released in order to rescue Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic team from Elephant Island. In fact, the Chileans beat them to it but “Ben” had seen some Southern oceans, been paid £40 (less deductions) and had been part of an internationally famous episode.

He passed as a Jersey Pilot for local waters in 1928 and continued serving on various commercial vessels until the Second World War.

From 1926 to 1932 he commanded Florence, Lady Trent’s motor yacht “Aphrodite.” His wage then was £4 per week in 1929 plus assistance with his railway fare “to and from Gorey.”

During the Occupation, in November 1940, he became Captain of the M.V. “Spinel.”
She was a small coaster, Scottish built in 1937 for Robertson’s shipping line of Glasgow, that had been sunk by German bombers at Dunkirk during the early days of evacuation. Raised and patched-up by the Germans she was offered to the Jersey States as a supply vessel to service the needs of the civil population.

"Bob" Bennett the Cabin Boy

Robert – sometimes “Bob” or “Ben” – his eldest son, joined the crew of about a dozen men as cabin boy. He was then sixteen. Now eighty-eight (in 2011) he features in the video interviews here.

As “Bob” explains, his father Captain Benjamin was killed at Guernsey on Saturday 22 February 1941 whilst trying to re-join the “Spinel” in harbour, on a low-tide. He is convinced that his father was deliberately killed as a result of refusing to transport German troops from Granville to Jersey and he describes that incident here.

“Bob” never attended his father’s funeral because the “Spinel” was ordered to Alderney but over 100 mourners did at St. James Church, St. Helier, including representatives from the German forces, the Guernsey and Jersey administrations, mariners, pilots etc. He was 52 years of age and interred alongside his father at Almorah cemetery.

John Leale, the President of the Guernsey Controlling Committee wrote to Captain Bennett’s widow – “Bob’s” distraught mother – a brief letter on 24 February 1941 expressing the very deep sympathy of the Committee and the Bailiff etc. He added “I hope it will be some consolation to you to realise that your husband met his death while doing his duty as a man should.”

Deportation

Upon return to Jersey, in spite of words of caution from his family, “Bob” continued to repeat his allegations against the Germans. Friendly Germans also warned him he was becoming an object of official attention. It was not long before he was arrested by the German political Police and interrogated.

In February 1943 “Bob” was shipped out of Jersey along with 27 or so other Jersey “naughty boys” and others from Guernsey and Sark for detention in Poland. It would be nearly three years before he was able to return to Jersey, but that is a tale for another day.

Now, “Bob” Bennett only wants deserved recognition for his father, as many others have received, for doing his duty and giving his life, during the Occupation of the Channel Islands.

                                     Benjamin W. Bennett in the uniform of the Merchant Navy


                                                          Benjamin W. Bennett (seated)
                                                         Motor Cargo Vessal "Spinel"


Thanks to the The Loftsman for information about MV Spinel

14 comments:

  1. This is a fascinating account, and well worthy of preservation. It is exactly this sort of first-hand evidence that brings history alive - not just the actual event in 1941, but also the connection to Florence Boot, and the Newfoundland cod trade

    I would seriously suggest that this, and the research that has been done (I note the small discrepancies between it and Bob's account) is something that the Jersey Archive should be very interested in.

    It also points up one unexamined point in the open question of the status of Jersey's public record and archives. Two extant issues at the archive are the cataloguing backlog and the limited opening hours: a third is that current staffing largely prevents the Archive from going out and soliciting material like this - with the result that it it lost forever.

    One final point: you say that Bob was deported in 1943. Was he imprisoned off-island, or was he interned? (I know of at least one internee - Maurice Hill - who was interned at Laufen and taken off at Jersey that time, primarily for making trouble when the first batch of internees were shipped out the previous autumn)

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  2. Bob was deported and imprisoned in Kreuzburg, Upper Silesia. His experience of arrest and deportation will hopefully form part of a future blog.

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  3. I look forward to it.

    I think that Bob and Maurice were in the same transport, because the German designator for teh camp at Kreuzburg was Ilag 8-Z - and Ilag is short for Internierungslager, internment camp. Most Channel Islanders went to Biberach, Wurzach or Laufen, but as I recall a few did end up elsewhere.

    I'll be in the Archive on Tuesday: as I recall there is a copy of Michael Ginns' book on internments (with lists of who went were) and I will check the details.

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  4. Bob's identity disc in the camp was marked: "Ilag Z V111 O/S 1508"

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  5. Spot on, then. And in a way it confirms the veracity of Bob's account - because as I understand it both Maurice and Bob would not have been tried formally. Those who were tried before a court either ended up imprisoned in Gloucester Street or were sent to concentration camps (one famous example of the latter being Clifford Cohu).

    This was a kind of extra-judicial way of removing troublemakers - as would be "unfortunate accidental deaths".

    As well as the Archive, the other people who ought to be interested are the Channel Island Occupation Society. The CIOS's collection is kept in the Archive: the main collection reference is L/D/25 and the specific reference for deportation and internment materials is, as far as I can see, L/D/25/E1. From the CIOS archivist's own listings there appears to be nothing about people at Kreuzburg, so Bob's memories could well be unique.

    CIOS's committe members are listed here, should you wish to talk to them.

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  6. Thanks for this interesting story Nick, although i have to point out that there is no "s" at the end in loftsman.

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  7. Spelling error corrected. Thanks to Loftsman for the invaluable information on the M.V. Spinel.

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  8. It's amazing how much Jersey history is out there still in people's heads.
    I was at the Robin Hood pub recently and spoke to a regular there who had interesting details of the early 19th century "bread riots". He said that the cellars of the pub had been used to detain some of those arrested by the authorites.
    We forget that Jersey does have a working class history and that it is not all about Crown Officers and the official party line.
    Some of those arrested were transported - but nobody is taught about this in Jersey schools and there are no monuments to these heroes either.
    Captain Bennet is in a long tradition of Jersey people who did brave things but are unrecognised or recorded.
    Why should this be? Tom Gruchy asks

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  9. Nick,

    Maurice Hill and Bob were not in the same transport.

    I have the two volumes of "Islanders Departed" (Roger E. Harris) and they came from Thesaurus bookshop in St. Helier a good many years ago.

    They must have been owned by a former (Jersey) internee as these lists are amended in pencil - names crossed through, a few added and a fair number of first names amended also, together with some unintelligible writing. There appear to be random totals as additions as well. Whoever he was he unfortunately did not sign either volume with his own name. He obviously felt strongly enough about the subject to have had his editions bound in hard-back, retaining the original paperback covers, from 1980, inside.

    Page 209

    Deported to Germany, on 25th February, 1943, and now Interned In Ilag V111

    3rd name on this list: 1508 Bennett Robert (J)

    35 names recorded - 27 from Jersey, 5 Guernsey, 3 Sark

    Page 207/208

    List of Persons Deported From the Channel Islands To Ilag V11, Laufen, OBB, Germany, on 13th February, 1943

    There is definitely no Bennett on this listing. There is: Hill - Maurice (J) not personal number is given.

    The total in pencil is given as, 40 Jersey, 57 Guernsey, 3 Sark. So, a total of 100 Channel Islanders were in this departure.

    February 1943 from Guernsey to Oflag 55 (VD) Germany.

    Bennett - Mabel Alexandra
    Bennett - Percy Walter

    Supplementary List to Ilag V11, from Guernsey

    Bennett - William Clegg

    December 1942 from Jersey to Oflag 55 (VD) Germany

    Bennett - Alfred
    Bennett - Herbert
    Bennett - Vera
    Bennett - Audrey, Maurice

    I can find only one entry for Maurice Hill from Jersey as I have typed above. I can't say I have got everything correct but it's pretty good I think. There are a lot of names - most, I am sure, completely forgotten about as so many would have drifted away from the Islands after they returned. Perhaps they would be surprised that we, a younger generation, were interested enough to be talking about them after all this time.

    Good luck!

    Tony

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  10. The information is arriving thick and fast now! The head portrait of Captain Ben. Bennett is obviously the missing one from his Franch ID card of 1918 which shows eleven entry stamps at Cherbourg, Then he was serving on the SS Buccaneer,
    Notably he was awarded Mercantile Marine medals for his first war service Tom Gruchy says.

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  11. Interestingly the small photograph of Capt Benjamin Bennett has marked on the rear in pink ink "Ilag VIII - Gepruft". Clearly Bob Bennet, his son, took the photo as a memento with him to the camp in Poland on deportation. The German censor has permitted him to retain the photograph and applied the stamp.

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  12. Ah! very interesting because whoever had my books does the following:

    Michael Stanley Anthony Craig" as written in pencil on page 207 corrects the entry on the following page which was, as published, "Craig-Stanley Arthur (J)."

    However, 1499 Pleasants - Eric (J) appears on the page 209 list along with "Bennett-Robert" as previously stated.

    It appears that my sub-editor really felt the need to record all the descrepancies.

    Tony

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  13. At last Jersey has a war hero... lets build a statue to Capt Bennett... We have waited a long time to have a local hero of the Occupation..

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