Francis William Killer
The Occupation Years
Two years into his tenure at St Mark's, life suddenly changed very dramatically when Jersey was occupied by the Nazis. Killer found himself treading a fine line, the more so because the eldest of his four children (Frank) acquired the reputation of a troublemaker. There were riots in the autumn of 1942 when the Nazis deported several hundred people to internment camps in Germany: the 15 year old Frank Killer was arrested and interrogated after he punched a German soldier in the melee. But others fared worse: the Rector of the neighbouring parish of St Saviour, Clifford Cohu, was caught in possession of a radio, and died in a German concentration camp.
It would have been easy, given the circumstances, to make accommodation to the occupation authorities. But Francis Killer did not: part of it perhaps was his memory of his service for King and country with the Sherwood Foresters and the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War, but a larger part was his commitment to the gospel message. Yvonne Le Riche, a member of the congregation during those years, remembers Killer as a fine preacher whose message packed the church twice every Sunday. It was Killer who finally saw the abolition of pew rents in 1941, and it was he who conducted the church's centenary celebrations in 1944.
But the last year of the war was by far the worst in Jersey. D-Day brought liberation to France, but Jersey was cut off from German supply lines. Food ran desperately short and the military became increasingly edgy. Records in the Jersey Archive show that both Francis and Frank were arrested and tried by the German authorities in the last year of the war. Frank was arrested in September 1944 for attempting to escape from Jersey with three other young men (Peter Curwood, Hugh La Cloche and Arthur Marett). It was his second offence, and as such he was sentenced to a year in jail - but he escaped from the prison in Gloucester Street and spent the last part of the war on the run from the authorities.Francis was arrested for listening to prohibited enemy broadcasts and was sentenced on 17th February 1945 to 4 months in jail - to be served after the war had ended.
Christmas came. Dr Dixie Dingle of Virginia (then a 15-year old boy known as Bryan Dingle) takes up the story:
These are some of my ghosts of Christmas Eve Past, a time of peace and love, but the times had changed. It was Christmas Eve 1944, snow had fallen snow on snow, it was so cold and we were all so hungry, verging on starvation. (...) The winter was harsh, the coldest in many a year (so they say), a cold that went straight through to the bones, coupled with hunger made it worse.
However, it was the season of hope and joy, and our church, St. Mark's Church, was preparing for the Christmas Eve Carol Service. The choir had worked very hard, had many difficulties having no electricity to supply heat or even the organ. I was the leading chorister in the church and altar boy, and in the choir we had 30 other faithful members. It was a great choir. The choir was immensely proud of all its achievements. Choir practice commenced at 7:00 in the evening and finished at 8:30. Curfew was at 10 pm. Anyone caught outside their homes after that time would be shot on sight.
The church was about three-quarters of a mile from my home. It always seemed to be dark when I left my home. We had no flashlights, so I would carry the stump of a lighted candle in a jam jar with a string tied around the neck of the jar to use as a handle. The moon was almost full, and I can hear the crunch of my feet on ice and snow, and see the powdered snow falling from the trees, and feel the wind that chilled me to the bone as I walked down this particular long winding hill called La Pouquelaye. There were long shadows, I well remember, shadows of trees cast by the moon, and they seemed like old men from ancient times. They were really scary. The warm light from my candle reassured me that I would be safe. I would also whistle or hum or sing songs or hymns on my way to choir practice. I was hungry and cold, and this made me walk faster. A German patrol passed by, and they looked at me as I had a light in my hand, but they did not stop me. I was scared as there was a strict blackout and any form of light was forbidden. I arrived at my church, and choir practice started with hymns and Christmas carols and finally our anthem. A special carol service was being held on Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. A curfew was extended to 12 midnight, courtesy of the mighty conquerors.
After choir practice, I would run home as the shadows on the hill seemed to dart out at me. I also knew that if I did not hurry, my candle would extinguish, and that certainly scared me more. Again, the feeling of the deep winter, with frosty wind making moan, earth did stand as hard as iron and water like a stone. At last, I arrived at my home, No. 45 Clos Du Paradis, where it was warm and full of love and welcome from my dear mother and father and my brothers and sister. The snow continued and the cold persisted. I wished we had more food. We were all so skinny. My father and mother gave most of their food to us five children. I knew they were very hungry, but they never complained. Come Christmas Eve, St. Mark's Church was filled to overflowing. The crunch of German boots could be distinctly heard as they climbed the stairway to the upper level of the church, and some had occupied the back row of the church. Surprisingly, they left their sidearms in the narthex of the church. There was no heat, or very little light, but the church felt warm and comforting as though God had opened his arms to all present. The star on top of the tree, indeed, we had one big tree, had cause to be proud, for it seemed there was a large halo around it that seemed to emanate more light to fill the church with one candle - this was our own star of Bethlehem. The Christmas tree was decorated with homemade decorations made by both children and adults. Messages of hope for loved ones far away fighting against the Nazis, those who had been killed in action, those who were in the local prison and those who had been sent to camps away from the island. The light reflected from these decorations made the tree come alive, and it appeared to sparkle almost like a celestial fire. Even now I can see and feel and hear these ghosts with sadness and with joy. Sadness because of the cruelty of war and man's inhumanity to man, and joy to remember that it seemed we were closer to God, and he had not forgotten us. The organ bellows had to be pumped by hand as there was no electricity. We took it in turns, two choir boys at a time positioned beside the organ so that the congregation could not see us, but we could see the organist. Using the long lever attached to the bellows needed good coordination, for a late pump at the bellows would render the most awful wailing noise as sufficient air endeavored to reach the organ pipes in a crescendo. Sometimes we did this on purpose creating much amusement with terrible sounds, but tonight was different. This was Christmas Eve, the eve of the birth of the Saviour Jesus Christ.
I well remember asking the minister about the rights and wrongs of the war and he simply told me with sincerity that God was on our side, even at my age of 13, I did believe that; but I did wonder what Jesus Christ would have answered.
Our minister, the Rev. Francis Killer, was a good man. At the beginning of the war, he was a portly gentleman, but as the occupation went on, he lost so much weight his neck became so thin, it seemed as though his head would disappear down his white collar like a tortoise. This also applied to our dear Dean of Jersey, the Very Rev. Le Marinel. They did great works, they practiced what they preached, they were good outstanding Christians who were loved and respected.
I rang the five-to-ten bell telling everybody they had five minutes before the service would start. I knew this, for I was ringing this huge bell which I had grown to love, its deep sound summoning everybody to church. The service started and prayers were said, and I remember the four Christmas carols, the first being "In the Bleak Midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone." I can feel it now. The snow had fallen, we were so cold that most of us in the choir had to wear mittens to keep our hands warm. Of course, the hunger made the cold feel much worse. I remember "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and looking at the tree, our Star of Bethlehem, was still there - and seemed to brighten as the service progressed. "Joy to the World, The Saviour's Come" was the great favourite as was "The Holly and the Ivy."
The congregation and the German soldiers all joined in with these carols - these same soldiers who had killed many of our people. The final carol was "Silent Night, Holy Night." (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht). This was very special. It started quietly with great reverence and, as if by magic, it reached a crescendo as though the singing was done by angels accompanied by a majestic pipe organ - but this was the blend of voices from the congregation, the choir, and the German soldiers. Somehow it seemed as though God had worked this miracle. This was indeed a celestial sound like no other sound I had heard before or since that special Christmas Eve.
Many openly wept. We prayed and prayed that the war would end, and our hunger and despair would end.
Just when things appeared to be hopeless, the Swedish ship Vega arrived laden with Canadian Red Cross parcels. This was early in 1945. Our prayers had been answered; we were saved from starvation. The Ship of Hope docked in the little harbour of St. Helier, Jersey.
Shortly afterwards in May 1945, we were liberated from German occupation.
The Liberation Hymn
Killer celebrated the Liberation by writing a hymn, set to the fine (and German!) hymn tune Lasst uns erfreuen:
The sword is sheathed - the battle done, The conflict past - the peace is won; Alleluia, Alleluia; Raise high your songs of Victory, Shout for the Lord hath made us free, Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia.
Fair Islands of the Channel Sea Greet well this dawn of Liberty; Alleluia, Alleluia; Peal forth sweet bells that all may hear Your joyful message ringing clear. Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia.
Gone is the foeman's hatred rife, Gone those dark days of mental strife, Alleluia, Alleluia; This is our day of glad release, And restoration to full peace. Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia.
For hands unfettered we rejoice, In freedom's speech we raise our voice, Alleluia, Alleluia; Let Jersey's hills and valleys ring With songs of peace re-echoing. Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia, Alleluia; Alleluia.
Francis Killer remained a further five years at St Mark's before taking up an appointment as vicar of St Ambrose, Bournemouth. He died in post there in 1955 at the age of 60. His son Frank Killer grew up to be a respected surgeon (though he changed his name to Keiller, on the basis that a surgeon called Killer would not be popular!) firstly in the RAF and later in Australia. His memoirs of the war, Prison without Bars, are available at local and Internet bookshops.
- The Jersey Archive OPAC
- Miltary service records at Ancestry.co.uk
- The webmaster of St Cyprian's church, Nottingham
- Prison Without Bars: Living in Jersey under the German Occupation, 1940-45 by Frank Keiller, Seaflower Books
- Iain Keiller and Yvonne Le Riche, for their help in producing this account.