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The heroine of Operation Basalt


The record of people who lived under German Nazi occupation is a mixed one.  Some resisted, some collaborated. This was true both on the continent and in the one part of Britain which fell under Hitler's rule, the Channel Islands. On the tiny island of Sark, on the night of 3-4 October 1942, Mrs Frances Noel Pittard, a 40-year-old widow, found herself having to make a choice.

A dozen crack British commandos had landed on the island and had spent several hours roaming around searching for German soldiers they could capture and return to England for questioning. They were having no luck. Their primary target turned out to be an empty building. Their secondary target, known as La Jaspellerie, overlooked the sea.  It too seemed empty, but after breaking into the building the men discovered this was not the case.  Mrs Pittard had been awakened by the sound of breaking glass, and came down in her night-clothes. 

Seeing the blackened faces of the raiders, her first reaction was to assume that they were fire-fighters. “Is the house on fire?” she asked.

Once it became clear that the men were British soldiers, Mrs Pittard was keen to assist. She offered them tea, showed them local maps, and told them where they could find Germans nearby. She even offered to escort them, but they declined her help. She gave them recent newspapers, which would later reveal to the British government and public some of the war crimes taking place in the Channel Islands. They took samples of her food, for analysis. Realising that her life would be at risk, they offered her a place on their motor torpedo boat back to England that night, but Mrs Pittard refused.

Following the raid, during which several Germans were killed and one captured, suspicion fell on Mrs Pittard as one who may have helped the commandos with information. She was arrested and jailed for a time on the neighbouring island of Guernsey. After a few months, she returned to Sark – but only for a brief visit. She was then deported, together with many other islanders, to a detention camp in Germany.

With the war's end, some writers suspected the Mrs Pittard had fallen victim to German vengeance. One wrote that she may never come back … but [her] bravery will live on. Another, the mother of the legendary Danish-born commando Anders Lassen, wrote four years after the war that ‘not a word had been heard of her since. She is one of this war's many martyrs...’

But in fact she survived the camp in Germany, and returned to Sark, living there until her death in 1969. Her modest grave can be found there today, by St Peter's Church, just next to the graves of the Dame and Seigneur of Sark.

By Eric Lee

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