3rd October 2005

Bailiff and occupation escapee Peter Crill dies

Peter Crill was bailiff of Jersey between 1986 and 1991. However, that was just one chapter in a diverse and textured life. Born in 1925, he was 19 when, in November 1944, he escaped from occupied Jersey in a dinghy and made it safely to France across rough seas.

He was called to the Jersey bar in 1949 and, two years later, became deputy of St Clement. In 1960, he was elected a senator, but stepped down upon his appointment as solicitor general in 1962. He was promoted to attorney general before the end of the decade and it was in this role that he guided the prosecution of Edward Paisnel, the so-called Beast of Jersey.

In 2000, Crill, as chair of the Jersey Arts Trust, was co-president of the Opera House Restoration Appeal with actor Judi Dench. He had demonstrated an interest in acting and the theatre throughout his life.

Escape from occupied Jersey

Crill wrote the story of his daring escape from Jersey for the 1985 issue of the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise. He and his accomplices had originally intended to take an escaped Russian officer with them, which proved impossible, and they had had to hide their boat from the German forces in the weeks before their escape to prevent it being either confiscated or damaged.

But the boat had been in a poor condition and several weeks of discreet repairs were required to get in into a state where a sea crossing could be attempted. It needed a new keel, decking on the bow, a mount for an outboard motor capable of moving the craft at 3.5 knots, and more. At the same time, Crill and his friends needed to decide where they should set off from, and settled on Bel Air at Fauvie as it was around 100 yards to the closest guards post in either direction.

They packed the boat with supplies, including eggs, honey, jam, corned beef, brandy, apples and 3lb of bread per person and set off just after eight o’clock on the evening of 5 November 1944. Crill and his crew were accompanied by a second boat, which broke down not long after leaving shore. Crill’s crew turned back to help, but their motor failed, too, and they were forced to resort to the wind and sail. This turned out to be the least of their problems, though: they were just about to be struck by a more serious disaster.

Crill described what happened next in the Annual Bulletin, explaining, “I was steering at the time and the stern sheet slipped out of my hand (the sail was only a small lug without a boom). I called out to John to grab it which he did but as he leaned over the gunwale the boat tipped and the compass fell into the water which by now was swilling around in the bottom of the boat. Although the compass was encased in a box it must have fallen face downward and water had got inside, making it useless. I took the compass hoping to tap the glass with a spanner and drain out the water but, as the spanner touched the glass, the movement of the boat caused me to put more pressure behind the blow than I had intended. The glass splintered entirely and not only was the water drained out but the agate bearing of the compass card was forced out and the compass itself rendered useless.”

A long and potentially hopeless journey

There was no spare compass and they couldn’t risk stopping, so they had no choice but to push on, using the direction of the wind as their primary navigation tool. Eventually, lost and feeling thoroughly seasick, they had to admit semi-defeat, and let the boat drift wherever it chose.

As the sun rose the following morning, they got the engine running again. The sun also gave them a reference by which they could navigate, and this helped them find the coast of France. They made land at Coutainville exactly 17 hours after casting off from Jersey.

Peter Crill died, aged 81, having suffered from motor neurone disease.


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