The story of a Jewish-British prisoner of war whose comrades protected him from Nazi guards during World War II has come to light in a biography written by his son.
Cpl. Alec Jay served in the British rearguard during the Siege of Calais in May 1940, as retreating soldiers defended an ever-shrinking pocket of allied troops along the French coast and sought to buy time for the evacuations to Britain at Dunkirk, 30 miles away.
Jay, 20, was a rifleman in the Queen Victoria’s Rifles battalion, and he and his comrades managed to hold out for four days, winning the British forces invaluable time to escape the overrun continent.
“There were about 3,000 of us, against two and a half German divisions, 25,000 men plus the most sophisticated weaponry,” he later wrote. “How did we do so well? Truthfully I do not know.”
But the troops eventually ran out of ammo and were forced to surrender. They were captured and set off on a three-week march to Germany. Jay eventually ended up at the Stalag VIII-B camp in Lamsdorf, eastern Germany.
The prisoners were worked hard at the camp, but for Jay, life as a POW was particularly fraught. He had buried his religious identifiers before surrendering, and had declared himself as a member of the Church of England to his captors, but the danger that he would be discovered as a Jew ever hung over his head.
This eventually came to pass, apparently after he was betrayed by an anti-Semitic British soldier. An SS officer approached the prisoners and called out: “Where is Alec the Jew? Where is the hook-nosed bastard?”
But before Jay could come forward, his friends surrounded him in a protective circle, booing and hissing at the Germans as the latter trained their weapons on them.
One sergeant responded: “I don’t care whether Alec is a Jew. He is in British uniform and there is no way you are going to take him away from us. If you try, you will have to shoot us all.”
The standoff was then broken by Jay himself, who noted to the SS officer the value of his language skills, which had enabled him in the past to act as a mediator between prisoners and guards.
The Germans eventually backed down, and Jay was allowed to remain with his friends.
The story is recounted in the book “Facing Fearful Odds,” by Alec’s son John Jay, available from Pen & Sword Books on August 30.
John found his father’s partial memoirs following his parents’ deaths.
Alec made several failed attempts to escape, but finally managed it in March 1945, as the Soviet army advanced westward and the camp was evacuated by the retreating Germans.
He wound up with Czech partisans, and fought with them through the end of the war,
He eventually returned home to his family and went back to his work from before the war, as a stock broker in London. But the war had taken a heavy toll on Jay, and he suffered from post-trauma for the rest of his days, becoming hard and often callous.
“His jangled nerves simply couldn’t cope with normal life,” John told the Daily Mail. “He was obsessed with the fact that five years of his life had disappeared… He was overwhelmed by all the subhuman cruelty he had not only witnessed, but taken part in” during his time in combat.
“Unquenchable anger was his biggest demon. Hatred of ‘the Huns’ had kept him going during his captivity, yet it served little purpose in peacetime, poisoning his relationships with family, friends and colleagues.”
He attempted at one point to write a memoir, but managed only a partial account, which he kept to himself.
John said he did not truly know his dad until after his death in 1993 and the discovery of his writings, which led him to launch an investigation into his father’s life and experiences.
“Writing this book has brought me much closer to my father and helped me understand why he was so troubled in later life,” he told the Mail.