Wartime Secrets Revealed
A long- buried contemporary report by a British officer reveals new evidence regarding the deaths of slaves on Alderney during World War II.
In what is said to be a major piece of sleuthing, historian and researcher Marcus Roberts has unearthed a copy of the long-buried “Pantcheff Report”.
Officials in London decided that the report must remain locked up until 2045. Roberts obtained a version of the report from the State Archive of th e Russian Federation (GARF) in Moscow. It was compiled immediately after the liberation of Alderney by young intelligence officer, Capt T.X.F. (“Bunny”) Pantcheff. Pantcheff came to live on Alderney, and became a local author, publishing a definitive book about Alderney’s wartime history, writing about about Willi Herold (the so-called ‘Hangman of Ems‘) as well as translating Russian fairy tales into English.
In the following article, first seeing the light of day by being published by the Alderney Press in its print edition on 7th May 2021, historian Marcus Roberts states, among other revelations, that the Pantcheff Report contains new evidence of mass graves,as well advancing possible reasons why the British Government quietly backed away from their public pledge to bring to justice those who committed war crimes in the Island.
AY News is now able to bring you, in Marcus Roberts’ own words, a summary of his findings.
In addition, the AY News team has today reached out to the UK’s National Archives and the Ministry of Defence to request official publication of the long-buried report under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.
The Pantcheff Report
by Marcus Roberts
For those not familiar with the story, immediately after the German surrender at Alderney, the British investigated claims of atrocities on the island, with an initial police investigation led by Major Sidney Cotton (seconded from the Sheffield Police) and Major Haddock (a member of the legal staff attached to the liberation force) and reported to the Judge Advocate-General’s Office (JAG) in London. They established that grounds for indicting at least 11 people, at which point the investigation was taken over by MI19 — a section of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence — and a young and then-inexperienced investigation team member, Captain Theodore “Bunny” Pantcheff, did a lot of the groundwork, collating reports and conducting hundreds of the interviews with prisoners.
A final report was submitted to JAG on 12 September, 1945, with Pantcheff identifying 19 men in British custody suitable for prosecution. However, the Foreign Office intervened and decided to not to act on JAG’s recommendations, except to pass on the dossier to the Russians. Thus, it was conveniently deemed to be an entirely Soviet matter given the large number of Russian workers brought to the island, and this became the official line. A letter of 14 May, 1947, from JAG states: “The case was handed over when the investigations were completed to the Russian Authorities for trial since the only victims were Russian.” This report, along with six other files relating directly to war-crimes, remains an official state secret under section 5(1) of the Public Records Act 1958. None of the accused ever received British justice and efforts to open the files at the time of the War Crimes Bill in 1991 were rebuffed by the government.
I have now been fortunate to read a copy of the actual Pantcheff Report (from GARF), which is mostly an executive document pulling together the strands of the investigation carried out by British Intelligence and making a criminal case against key perpetrators and listing their names and locations.
The report makes the explicit conclusion that the crimes on Alderney were “systematically brutal and callous” and that there was a “long-standing policy of maintaining inhumane conditions, under-nourishment, ill-treatment and over-work” and that the key cause of death was, “starvation assisted by the physical ill-treatment and over-work”. The report explains how the Organisation Todt (OT), which imported non-Jewish slave workers, and the SS, which ran the Lager Sylt concentration camp, were responsible for the starvation and killing of prisoners and that the abuse was coordinated within a tight command groups of five main individuals. In addition, orders were received from higher in the chain of command (we know that Himmler couriered direct orders to the SS camp in at least one instance).
Furthermore, the starvation of prisoners was strictly enforced by the island’s commanders at every opportunity, and German soldiers were sent to prison for even giving scraps of garbage to prisoners. The report also describes a culture of beatings for the smallest infringements, or for no good reason at all. Additionally, it reports a regime of random shootings of prisoners at work sites and the in the camps spread around the island.
This is of importance as we now have implicit official recognition that a key intention of the Nazis on Alderney was the mass deaths of prisoners through the Nazi policy of “extermination by labour”. Certain islanders I have encountered have always denied this narrative (and that there was no concentration camp on Alderney) and this can no longer be sustained.
The investigators clearly saw a comparison between events Alderney and the Belsen concentration camp, which was liberated by British forces and was regarded as the epitome of death through organised starvation.
THE ARITHMETIC OF DEATH
Pantcheff is also explicit about the arithmetic of death on the island. He concludes that there were at least 337 deaths, as repeated in his later book, but with the important explicit admission that “it cannot definitely be stated that the total figure of 337 graves necessarily represents the total number of foreigners dead on the island”. In fact, the report contains numerous witness statements giving much higher death rates and reports of fatalities. If the numbers quoted from individual witnesses in this report (omitting the many others examples in the public files, but not repeated in the report) are counted up, this gives over 3,000 deaths in this report alone. Meanwhile, specific examples indicate that some cohorts of prisoners saw a 90% mortality rate, and supports my view, and that of others, that the numbers of deaths on Alderney meant that a majority of prisoners did not survive the experience.
A key witness is a Briton, George Pope, who, with his family, stayed on the island throughout the occupation and who made claims to the national press immediately after the surrender, including “killings and mass burials of Russians and Jews on Alderney”. He stated in the Pantcheff Report that of 2,000 Ukrainians in an early group of prisoners only 222 were still alive just over a year later. He also reported the deaths and mass burials of 300-400 Jews from a single dysentery outbreak between July to September, 1943, the largest single report of Jewish deaths on Alderney.
These claims are supported by other witnesses, but Pope’s testimony was clearly problematic for the investigators and is only present in an oddly redacted form in the report. Perhaps behind the mistrust is that Pope held the island commander, Major Karl Hoffmann, responsible for the death of his infant son in the dysentery outbreak, with the Germans refusing to give his son medicine. In addition, his very public narrative was no doubt thorny because it set an agenda. Also, the investigators resented the fact that he conducted his own mini-investigation and collected German documents before finally talking to the British authorities. His claims in the press also went against the official reductive narrative being favoured by the British, who were increasingly seeing the Russians, who had taken over much of Germany and Eastern Europe as the Cold War began, becoming foes rather than friends.
Meanwhile, another witness, only known by his last name of O’Hurley, states in the report there were 1,500 Jews on the island (and 2,000 Russians) and several witnesses describe terrible treatment and starvation. The French Jews in the segregated Jewish section at the Norderney camp, “were treated extremely badly, and were robbed and beaten regularly” and at Helgoland camp another witness described the Nazis as having “set the dog on some Jews who went by. … I saw from a distance that they were being bitten, but didn’t know if they were wounded, but I heard them cry out”. A further witness said the OT favoured attacking Jews and that “He once saw a Jew hit over the head with a pick andle such that he was unable to get up”.
The report also contains previously unpublished references to extensive Jewish burials, with Pantcheff and other investigators having specifically asked prisoners and other witnesses about the existence of “mass graves”.
Numerous witnesses attested to their presence and the British also carried out excavations to look for mass burials,with Pantcheff stating that four or five graves were opened on Longis Common while he was present and contained “one skeleton each”. Importantly, though, the report does not refute the existence of the mass graves in a report that otherwise refutes facts not found to be supported.
MASS GRAVES ON LONGIS COMMON
Two witnesses, with the last names of Preukschat and Zietlow, described the burial process at the slave labour cemetery at Longis: “In the beginning the bodies were simply loaded completely naked onto lorries and at the burial place they were dragged down from the lorries with dung forks and thrown into the mass graves”. This report also indicates the configuration of these graves were different to the smaller ones with crosses found at the surrender and exhumed in the early 1960s.
Pope’s allegation about mass Jewish deaths from dysentery also states that they were buried in multiple mass graves. “Many died, and graves containing more than one body was dug. Each grave contained 5 – 10 bodies and was left open until full”. His evidence therefore indicates that between 30 and 80 Jewish mass graves were dug in in one or more locations. This description does not match the known pattern of burials at the “official” cemetery at Longis, where up to three prisoners tended to be buried in each grave, but these graves are likely to be somewhere in the vicinity, as they tally with the general account of larger grave-pits at Longis in Preukschat’s and Zietlow’s accounts.
In addition, it must be taken into account that there was little spare space for burials outside of the extensive defences and mine fields.
Another factor in the Longis grave area was when investigator Captain Kent noted in his report a large mound in the middle of the cemetery (which can be seen in aerial photos) and wondered if it was an old firing point from the British firing range. This mound was clearly removed by the British and demonstrates that the British substantially altered the appearance of the cemetery. Kent also notes that all of the grave mounds in the cemetery appeared fresh as none had sunk, which supports my analysis that the “official” graves may have only been filled shortly before the surrender as older graves are likely to have subsided as the thoracic cavities and soft tissue of prisoners decomposed and collapsed.
My contention that the Germans may have cremated some of the dead is given partial support by a Russian soldier named Iritshenko. The man, who was a collaborator in the German army, and reported that he thought that the dead at Sylt were cremated, but was forced to “correct” his statement the next day to say he knew of no crematorium building on the island. While clearly there was no crematorium building on the island, the statement does not preclude the use of cremation pits or trenches commonly used in concentration camps.
Furthermore, witness statements make it clear that the “Russian Cemetery” on Longis Common was far more extensive than the “official” cemetery site at the end of the war. A German with the last name Richter, who was in charge of the cemetery before the surrender, is stated to have removed crosses and ploughed over and levelled graves after D-Day, saying he was told the cemetery was “too big” and confirming that the cemetery was larger and included an extension. Meanwhile, one of the Spanish witnesses said 1,100 Russian victims were buried on Longis Common, suggesting a cemetery at least three times the official size. This accords with my briefing to officials from FAB Link that the cemetery was far more extensive than its official boundary and that there were clearly additional out-lying mass burials as referred to by witnesses as well as potential cremated remains.
BRITISH AUTHORITIES TURN A BLIND EYE
So, are there any state secrets still worth maintaining in this report? The only part actually marked as “secret” is the short report on the concentration camp, Lager Sylt, abstracted from another unpublished report, implying that the authorities regarded this as highly sensitive. “Secret” was the second tier of official secrecy meaning material would cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if it were publicly available.
Behind the classification is the Foreign Office decision, documented in the public files, that there would be no war crimes trials on British soil involving the Russians, apparently due to the chill in relations between Russia and itsWorld War II Allies in advance of the Cold War. The British deduced that the Russians were unlikely to pursue such trials, as the USSR regarded most of the Russian prisoners not as survivors, but traitors, so this would effectively permanently sweep the problem under the carpet. It is also likely that the authorities thought that the revelation of the presence of another “Belsen” and an SS concentration camp on British soil, and larger numbers of Jewish deathsmight be too much for the war-wearied British population.
In addition, it is likely that the British would have wished to avoid further questions as to why the Channel Islands were seemingly abandoned to Nazi barbarity, as well as questions about the extent to which the Germans (as in France and Holland) had penetrated the structures of island government and society on Guernsey and co-opted the police and civil authorities to help them.
The ruse of saying that there were only Russian victims, effectively denied the other Jewish, Muslim, European and African victims justice. It meant that the British government went directly back on its war-time promise to “pursue all war-crimes against Jews”.
On 17 December, 1942 Anthony Eden stated in the House of Commons, that official Government policy was that, while they would not rescue Jews, they would, when the war was over, ensure that, “those responsible for crimes shall not escape retribution” and that retribution would apply to “all persons who can be held responsible for these crimes, whether they are the ringleaders or the actual perpetrators of the outrages”.
The British government clearly went back on this promise as far as war-crimes against Jews on British soil were concerned, even white-washing them out of the narrative and this may well be one of the reasons for the shameful official secrecy concerning Alderney
Revealing the Pantcheff Report only shows how many more secrets are still potentially under embargo. This must comprise all of the raw investigation materials and notes of the investigators. The report records that Pantcheff screened 1,500 prisoners on Guernsey, 1,200 on Jersey, and 500 on Alderney. These key working notes are not publicly accessible, nor indeed of the other investigators such as Major Haddock, or Captain Kent and the results of their investigations and excavations. A master report on SS concentration Camp Sylt is also alluded to but not publicly accessible, as well as the presumed results of investigations into secret V1 tunnel installations.
Finally, the Pantcheff Report renews the concerns that laying the proposed FAB Link cable could damage or destroy Jewish and Russian grave, on and around Longis Common, especially as there is new evidence for multiple mass graves in the vicinity. It further highlights and strengthens the argument for an official Holocaust Memorial on Alderney, as it is not just be a question of memory, but as a tacit admission to a miscarriage of justice by the British authorities in their failure to prosecute Holocaust crimes on British soil.
The Pantcheff Report also gives a compelling answer as to the best site for the memorial — from the former Jewish prisoners themselves.
When Captain Kent visited the “Russian Cemetery” he noted that, “on the west side immediately after entering, there was an area of rough grass about 5 yards by 17 yards, where weeds were flourishing together with a few garden flowers. Richter explained that this was part of the ground cultivate by the Jewish workers in memory of their friends who are buried immediately adjacent.’ This must be the site of an official Holocaust Memorial.
Marcus Roberts is Founder and Director of JTrails, the official U.K. Jewish heritage trail, part of the European Route of Jewish Heritage.
He is an official contributor to the United States Holocaust Museum and also made a documentary film, “Les Chemin des Juifs”, on the experience of slave labour in northwest France. He is currently a research associate at Oxford University’s Jewish Country House Project and in this capacity is working with the Holocaust Education Trust on developing teacher training on the impact of the Holocaust on Britain.