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German boots on British soil

The Channel Islands in WWII

The former German artillery observation tower of Battery Moltke on Jersey (Photo: www.cios.org.je)

Off the coast of Normandy, on the far side of the Cotentin Peninsula, lies an archipelago called the Channel Islands, comprising the two bailiwicks Jersey and Guernsey; and the smaller islands of Alderney and Sark, along with numerous barely inhabited or uninhabited islets. With cultural and historical ties to early medieval Normandy, even today, the Queen is locally referred to as “the Duke (sic) of Normandy”. The islands are peculiar Crown Dependencies: areas which are part of neither the United Kingdom nor the Overseas British Territories, but for which the British crown is responsible. They are characterized by a unique mix of English, French and Norman culture. The Channel Islands also played an interesting part in U.S. history. During the English Civil War (1642 - 1651) King Charles II of England, in return for having found exile in Jersey in the 1640s and having been proclaimed king in 1649 there, gave a large chunk of the American colonies to Sir George Carteret, Bailiff and governor of Jersey, and Lord Berkeley of Stratton. The new colony was named Province of New Jersey after the Bailiwick of Jersey. In 1787, it became a state of the United States. During World War II, the Channel Islands was the only part of the British Isles to be conquered by Nazi Germany.

Mount Orgueil Castle on Jersey (Photo: visitchannelislands.com)
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The fate of the islands was sealed when Germany defeated France in June 1940. Shortly before the surrender of the French, similarly to the “little ships” at Dunkirk, yachts from the islands helped the evacuation of Allied forces from Saint-Malo to Britain. Hitler considered the capture of the islands vitally important, both as a propaganda victory over England and as a way of preventing the British from launching attacks against occupied France from there. In contrast, Churchill, initially opposing the demilitarization, was convinced by the government that the islands were impossible to defend and lacked any strategic value and ordered the military and the Lieutenant Governors removed, leaving the local Bailiffs (essentially chief justices) in charge.

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The Channel Islands are located on the west side of the Cotentin Peninsula (Photo: Google)

When the Battle of France was lost, the British government, confused about what to do, provided ships for an evacuation and declared the islands “open towns”. 17,000 of 42,000 people were evacuated from Guernsey; 6,600 of 50,000 from Jersey. Alderney was abandoned by all but some half a dozen residents. Sark was a special case, being at the time the last surviving bastion of genuine feudalism in Britain. The Dame of Sark, an eccentric widow named Sibyl Hathaway ruling as de facto benevolent dictator, was adamant on staying and inspired most of the locals to do the same. Since the Germans were not informed about the demilitarization, on June 28, 1940, they conducted so-called armed reconnaissance and bombed Jersey and Guernsey, killing 44 civilians. Seeing that resistance was light, a small German plane landed with a lone pilot on Guernsey on June 30 to establish that there are no defenders. This assured the Germans that there is no need for the full implementation of Operation Grünpfeil (“Green Arrow”), the invasion of the islands. Thus, the peaceful occupation was mainly carried out via a couple of German planes flying from one island to the other. By July 4, all islands surrendered. Initially, the islands were occupied by the 216th Infantry Division to be replaced by the 319th Infantry Division from April 30, 1941. The German garrison was around 27,000 men strong.

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German officers with a captured British flag at the abandoned airstrip on Guernsey (Photo: historyanswers.co.uk)

When Germany defeated France and the British forces were evacuated from the continent, there was no point in fortifying the islands since the likeliness of the Allied return was very low. It seemed that it was Germany’s turn to cross the English Channel and invade Britain under Operation Seelöwe (“Sealion”). In order to secure the amphibious invasion, the Germans had to gain air superiority and defeat the Royal Air Force. At the end of October 1940, the aerial war against Great Britain, the ‘Battle of Britain’, turned out to be a fiasco for Germany and had to prepare defensive positions since they were also preparing to invade the Soviet Union in the east next summer. Hitler was so convinced of the islands’ strategic value that while the Atlantic Wall ran from the Spanish border to Norway, almost 20% of all the resources spent on the Atlantic Wall were used to upgrade the defenses of the islands. They were fortified with numerous bunkers, forts, anti-tank walls and artillery positions, sometimes with the extension of the numerous medieval fortifications. Tens of thousands of mines were laid.

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A 19th century tower reused as part of the German Fort Hommet on Guernsey (Photo: visitguernsey.com)

The German occupation took a civilized face at first, though restrictions were quick to arrive. A curfew and ID cards were introduced; cars, boats and radios confiscated; restrictions placed on fishing, changing shop prices and patriotic songs. The time zone was changed to the same as Germany and right-hand traffic was declared. On Sark, the head of the local feudal government, Dame Sibyl Hathaway, who spoke German very well, maintained a friendly but formal relation with German officers, many of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds themselves. She expected (and got) them to visit her on business rather than the other way around and to bow and kiss her hand before being seated.

Sibyl Hathaway, Dame of Sark (Photo: Wikipedia)

With one German soldier for every 2-3 locals, a violent uprising was out of the question, but people found stealthy ways to express their resistance. “V for victory” signs were painted on buildings and a stonemason fashioned a letter V in the paving of a square due for repairs. The Guernsey Underground News Sheet (“GUNS”) sprung up: rather than staying hidden, it was frequently posted in public places and thrown into German officers’ cars – at least until a local collaborator betrayed the authors.

The letter V worked into the paving of Royal Square on Jersey by a defiant mason (Photo: Wikipedia)

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Bank notes issued during the occupation were designed by local artist Edmund Blampied, who incorporated a large X in the design, which turned into a V when the note was folded. Reverend Clifford Cohu included BBC news in his sermons until his arrest. A postal worker on Jersey steamed open letters addressed to the German commandant and destroyed the ones from collaborators. Lucille Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe, two lesbian French Jewish artists, produced pamphlets of anti-German poetry, smuggling them into soldiers’ pockets and cigarette packets. They were captured and condemned to death but the Jersey bailiff managed to commute the sentence to prison. Resistors and common criminals were regularly dealt prison sentences, which they often had to serve in German prisons or concentration camps, several of them dying there.
 
As time passed, the situation gradually got worse. There were very few Jews on the islands, most of them had been already evacuated, and only fewer still were seriously affected by anti-Semitic measures, predominantly because the local authorities tried to sabotage the implementation of the measures against the Jews. In 1942, 2,300 British citizens born elsewhere, however, were deported to internment camps in Germany as retaliation for the British deportation of 800 German civilians from Persia (present-day Iran). This even turned into large-scale demonstrations since it went against the earlier, relatively correct conduct of the Germans.

After resistance members painted swastikas on collaborators’ houses, the Germans responded by painting it on several hundred other homes, this one included (Photo: BBC)

The British conducted a series of commando raids on the islands. Many of them were unsuccessful because of cancellation due to bad weather or the capture of the commandos by the Germans. Some resulted in the retaliation against the locals. Even Churchill admitted that the raids on the islands were “silly fiascos” and that they did not help Islanders at all. The small-scale raid aimed to take prisoners on the island of Sark, named Operation Basalt, had wide-ranging consequences since it was said to have been one of the main reasons for the secret introduction of the infamous Kommandobefehl (“Commando Order”) of October 18, 1942. According to the order, all German forces were to execute Allied commandos without trial upon capture.
 
The defenses of the islands were built in large part by forced laborers housed in work and concentration camps operated by the German paramilitary engineering organization, Organisation Todt and the SS. Four camps, two work camps and two concentration camps on abandoned Alderney, were built to house the more than 6,000 workers, most of whom were Russians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and Spanish. As in other camps, Jews were exposed to extremely inhumane treatment. According to Spanish survivor, John Dalmau “they had reached such a degree of starvation that it was a pastime for the Germans to throw them pieces of carrot and see the pitiful wrecks fighting for it. Cases of cannibalism were reported to me…Some of the octopuses and congers (caught while fishing) we gave to the Jews who ate them raw”. Over 700 of the inmates died of work or on transport ships taking them to or from the island. One of these tragic incidents occurred when the ship Minotaur, carrying 468 workers from Alderney, was hit by Canadian torpedo boats near Saint-Malo on July 5, 1944. Around 250 of the passengers were killed by the explosions or drowned. Some locals sheltered escaped laborers. Louisa Gould, a local who lost her son in the war took in one such escapee in order to do an act of kindness “for another mother's son.” She was reported by her neighbor and she was sent to a concentration camp along with her husband, where she perished.

Russian slave workers in one of the camps on Alderney (Photo: theislandwiki.org)

For most of the war, the Germans allowed, even helped, locals to visit occupied France for supplies. After D-Day, however, this was no longer a possibility and both civilians and occupiers faced severe food shortages, especially during the winter of 1944-45. Even the Germans started stealing small animals to cook. Many Islanders were saved from starvation only by the arrival of the first shipment of Red Cross food parcels, medical supplies, salt, soap and cigarettes from neutral Portugal on board of the SS Vega on December 27, 1944. The Germans, as occupying force, were responsible for feeding the civilian population, so they allowed the supply of food via the International Committee of the Red Cross. The last shipment arrived after the liberation on May 31, 1945. Liberating the islands was not a priority for the Allies because of the strong fortifications so they simply bypassed it. Two months after D-Day, Germany offered to release all civilians from the islands except military-age males. The British rejected the offer and Churchill wrote a memo saying “Let ‘em starve. They can rot at their leisure”.

The SS Vega Red Cross ship unloading its relief cargo (Photo: bailiwickexpress.com)

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One could think that, close to the end of the war, little cogs of the German war machine far away from Germany would be quite unlikely to be capable of surprising the Allied. The Germans proved them wrong. In December 1944, German prisoners of war managed to escape from the Allied POW camp in the port-town of Granville lying on the western shores of the Cotentin Peninsula. They fled to the Channel Islands. Based on the information received from the escapees, the commander of the garrison (Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Kanalinseln in German), Vizeadmiral Friedrich Hüffmeier, had an idea to boost morale through obtaining supplies (mainly coal) and freeing more German prisoners from Allied imprisonment. Thus, in the infamous Granville Raid the Germans attacked the commune with a small naval raiding force on March 8-9, 1944, destroying or damaging several Allied ships, killing or taking hostage American and British soldiers, and taking supplies back with them. Seeing the success of the raid, the Germans planned another attack in early April on radar installations, this time on the north-western tip of the Cotentin at Cape de la Hague close to Cherbourg. The operation ended up in a failure and the German team was captured. Further operations were halted from here.

German prisoners of war taken to Britain after the surrender (Photo: theislandswiki.org)

On May 8, 1945, at 10:00 a.m. the German authorities informed the locals that the war was over, and they released all Allied prisoners of war. Churchill made a radio broadcast at 3:00 p.m. the same day announcing the end of hostilities. Most of the islands were liberated without a shot on May 9-10 immediately after VE Day. 275 German soldiers stranded on Sark were officially placed in Dame Hathaway’s care until they could be retrieved on May 17. The liberating British soldiers were greeted by cheering Islanders.

An enthusiastic citizen’s welcome to the liberating troops on Guernsey (Photo: IWM)

The matter of collaboration and coexistence with the Germans was a controversial subject and remains a sensitive matter today. While some individuals certainly collaborated or fraternized (young ladies getting too cozy with soldiers were derogatively nicknamed “Jerrybags”), the population at large didn’t have any means of resisting the occupation and peaceful coexistence was the best they could hope for. The Bailiffs of Jersey and Guernsey received both criticism for their role in providing the Germans with a list of Jews and praise protecting the locals in whatever meager ways they could. Regardless of the opinion of contemporaries and of posterity, a month after liberation the islands were visited by the King and the Queen on occasion of the Crown’s oldest holdings, predating even the Norman conquest of Britain, returning into the fold. It took months for the Royal Engineers to collect and dispose of the German ordnance left on the islands. Many of the gun barrels were simply pushed off the cliffs, some of which have now been restored and are on display in gun emplacements.

A nicely restored French WWI 155mm K 418 (f) gun at Batterie Moltke (Photo: Facebook, CIOS Jersey)

In 2018, in a spirit of reconciliation and friendship, German and British soldiers renovated the German war cemetery together in Guernsey, the resting place of 111 German soldiers who died during the occupation. This was the first time since WWII that German soldiers paraded in uniform on the Channel Islands.
 
The latest motion picture closely related to the occupation of the Channel Islands was the 2018 romantic-drama film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, distributed internationally by Netflix. It is based on the 2008 novel of the same name, written by American authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The book is a compilation of letters sent from one character to the other about the story of the imaginary society that served as cover for residents breaking the curfew during the occupation.

The poster of the movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today, the Channel Islands are a popular tourist destination. Beyond the gastronomic delights and medieval attractions, one can visit many of the WWII-related sites and museums (war tunnels, gun batteries, German naval signals HQ, an underground hospital and occupation museum, etc.). One of the former artillery observation towers serves as a well-equipped unique accommodation for tourists nowadays. It is run by the state-supported independent organization Jersey Heritage which is also responsible for museums, historical sites, etc. The Jersey and Guernsey branches of the non-profit Channel Islands Occupation Society (CIOS) are also doing research, educational work and renovating sites with dedication and enthusiasm.

A former German artillery observation tower used as accommodation for travelers today (Photo: jerseyheritage.org)

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