Dr Gilly Carr is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and a Fellow of St Catharine's College at the University of Cambridge. She is currently writing a book entitled 'Testimonies of Nazi Persecution from the Channel Islands' on Channel Islanders sent to Nazi prisons and concentration camps during the German Occupation.
Sidney Ashcroft had no known grave. I had long been haunted by his image in the German Occupation museum in Guernsey and often wondered what happened to him. In mid-September I was offered the opportunity to travel to Southern Germany with BBC Inside Out South West and a relative of Sidney's, in search of him.
The aim of the trip was to make a film for the BBC which followed the circumstances of Sidney's deportation and to uncover what we could about what happened to him afterwards, a trail which recently-located archival evidence from the Wiener Library in London suggested ended in Straubing prison. Most importantly, we wanted to locate Sidney's final resting place.
Sidney Ashcroft© Guernsey Archives
A handsome young man of 19 when the Germans arrived in the Channel Islands, Sidney got a job working in the greenhouses with his mother, Charlotte. Archival and family evidence suggests that Sidney stole some food from a German kitchen and hit a German soldier who pushed his mother, Charlotte. Perhaps she was trying to defend him after he was caught.
He was charged with 'serious theft and resistance to officials' in May 1942, just before his 21st birthday, and given a sentence of two years and nine months hard labour. He was sent first to Jersey prison, and deported to France two weeks after his conviction.
Evidence suggests that Sidney stole some food from a German kitchen and hit a German soldier who pushed his mother, Charlotte.
He was charged with 'serious theft and resistance to officials'
Because Sidney did not survive, I could reconstruct his journey through Germany's Nazi prisons only through archival sources in London and Germany. These tell us that Sidney passed through at least seven different Nazi prisons, the last of which was Straubing.
It was at Straubing prison where Walter Lainé, another Guernseyman incarcerated with Sidney, was the last person to see him alive, on 24 April 1945. He testified later that Sidney at that time was ill, dressed in torn clothes and, in Walter's estimation, had about a week left to live.
On that day, thousands of prisoners were assembled in the overcrowded prison yard. The prison governor went through the crowd selecting the weakest and most wretched-looking prisoners, who were led away, never to be seen by the other prisoners again.
Sidney was ill, dressed in torn clothes and, in Walter's estimation, had about a week left to live
Walter assumed that these men were subsequently shot or gassed. We learned during our trip to Straubing that Sidney and the others were actually taken to the prison hospital. The rest of the prisoners (including Walter) were taken on a forced march towards Dachau concentration camp the following day.
After an incredible 75km, which they covered in three days despite their starvation and ill-health, Walter escaped and survived. Surprisingly, there is no memorial on the gates of Straubing prison to commemorate the fact that thousands of men were forced towards Dachau concentration camp from that point, where they were brutalised and starved along the way.
Historical prison cell at Straubing prison© Gilly Carr
Meanwhile, in the prison hospital, Sidney survived another three weeks. His post-mortem certificate, which miraculously survives, says that he died of tuberculosis of the lungs and throat. We can probably believe this report as TB was extremely common among the prison population and Walter testified that Sidney had been having throat problems which had prevented him from eating.
Meanwhile, in the prison hospital, Sidney survived another three weeks. His post-mortem certificate, which miraculously survives, says that he died of tuberculosis of the lungs and throat.
In the cemetery of St Michael in Straubing is an area where prisoners (including some of those who died on the forced march), Wehrmacht soldiers, foreign soldiers (presumably prisoners of war), and local citizens who died in the bombing raids on Straubing, are buried. It is an empty lawn marked with a few small memorial stones at the edges. We learned that the dead prisoners were put in a mass grave.
A number of large holes had been dug in this area of the cemetery for them during the war, and five bodies were thrown in at a time, followed by a layer of sand and chalk, and then another layer of five bodies, and so on. No funeral rites took place. Sidney was one of these bodies, and this unceremonious disposal marked his treatment in death.
Priest in Straubing blessing mass grave© Gilly Carr
The authorities in Straubing allowed us to lay a memorial stone which read 'Sidney Ashcroft, Guernsey political prisoner, 2.6.21 – 15.5.45.' We also laid a heart-shaped wreath, and later a local Anglican priest said some prayers for the repose of Sidney's soul. Local people have since planted flowers around Sidney's memorial.
Sidney Ashcroft is one of over 200 people deported from the Channel Islands to Nazi prisons and concentration camps for acts of resistance. 29 never returned. Many have no known grave.
Memorial plaque for Sidney Ashcroft© Gilly Carr