On this day, 30th June 1940, the German occupation of the Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Herm and Sark) began. There is a lot of high feeling and controversy surrounding this period in the Islands’ history. First, there is a misconception that there was very little suffering, since Hitler liked the British and hoped to be able to take the country over with as little violence as possible; therefore, it was in his interest to show other British citizens that they had nothing to fear from life under Germany. Second, some people feel the Channel Islands folk submitted too easily to German rule, and this has led to a lot of blame being assigned, resulting in a great reluctance by those on the Islands to discuss this period at all. So what really went on there?
In fact, there would have been little point in resistance by residents to the takeover, since the British government had already resigned itself to losing the Islands, which Churchill considered of no strategic importance. On June 15th, a day after Paris surrendered, the government announced that they would not be defended when the inevitable invasion came. However, they didn’t tell the Germans this; consequently the Islands were bombed and 44 people died. Many islanders vacated homes, businesses and schools and headed for the harbour with everything they could carry. Jewish residents and children were given priority for evacuation; however, German Jews were given no such chance, as mainland Britain would not accept them. 30,000 of the ordinary population of 104,000 departed- half of Guernsey, a fifth of Jersey and almost the entire population of Alderney, who left half-eaten meals on the tables and pet dogs and cats running the streets.
Guernsey was occupied on the evening of 30th June, Jersey at 6am on 1st July, Alderney 2nd July and Sark on the 4th. There was no attempt to resist, since no troops were left, most men of fighting age were already off contributing to the war effort, and besides, Hitler was obsessed with getting this foothold on British soil. He devoted far greater resources to the invasion than could possibly have been needed, and reinforced the territory in a similarly lavish manner against recapture. The Islands would remain under German rule for the next five years, and islanders who stayed did so in fairly harsh conditions. There were curfews, private use of cars was banned, food was very scarce, village and towns were renamed, clocks were set to central European time. Hollywood and British films were banned, and worst of all, so was the use of radios. This meant that the only news the islanders were able to get for the duration of the war was German propaganda feeds. Islanders who tried to escape often drowned or were sent to concentration camps, and most never returned.
John Nettles’ 2012 book, ‘Jewels and Jackboots: Hitler’s British Channel Islands’ was, he said, not well received by some islanders, as he suggested that certain acts by the council put residents directly in harm’s way. For example, the drawing up of the list of birthplaces of residents, which led to thousands of Jewish residents (around 2% of the total remaining population) being rounded up and sent to concentration and death camps. Some felt the criticism was unfair, as there was little scope to disagree with armed soldiers, and besides, the council didn’t know what the list would be used for.
Nettles does mention heroes of the resistance too, including Louisa Gould, whose son was lost in the war. Determined to help out ‘another mother’s son’, she took in an escaped Russian prisoner of war. Louisa was betrayed by a neighbour two years later, and although the Russian escaped, she and her brother, Harold Le Druillenec, were respectively sent to Ravensbruck and Bergen Belsen. Harold was the only British survivor when his camp was liberated, but Louisa died in captivity. A happier story was that of Albert Bedane, who successfully hid three Russian men and a Jewish woman until the German surrender.
The darkest part of the Channel Islands story took place on Alderney, the ‘Island of Silence’. It hosted the only concentration camp on British soil, as well as three forced labour camps. Since the resident population had already fled, no eyewitnesses saw the Germans arrive. Years later, Commandant Oberst Schwalm, the officer in charge of Alderney, burned the camps to the ground and destroyed all records of what had gone on there before the surrender came. However, in May 1945 Major T.X.H. ‘Bunny’ Pantcheff, the Military Intelligence Officer sent to unravel the story of Alderney, questioned the whole of the German garrison based there and all the remaining prisoners and civilian labourers, some 3,000 witnesses. His account of what occurred there in the war years, ‘Alderney: Fortress Island’, is a chilling read. After the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 brought the US into the war, Hitler ordered the building of the Atlantikwall, a barrier to defend the coastline of Europe. The Channel Islands were effectively turned into a fortress.
Organisation Todt, an engineering company originally set up in 1933 to construct Germany’s highways and later used to build the West Wall Defences, was given the job of building the necessary heavy cement and steel reinforcements. To help them, a forced labour pool of over 4,000 men was ferried in. Lager Sylt, the concentration camp, was populated by Jewish labourers and had the harshest conditions. Lager Norderney was also a forced labour camp, mainly populated by Russian POWs, while those at Lager Borkum and Lager Helgoland were in theory volunteers and treated marginally better- in the case of Borkum, mainly German technicians and volunteers from European countries, while Lager hosted mainly Russian organisation workers. The ‘options’ given to these volunteers were not such that they really had any choice in coming.
Wherever labourers were based, conditions were not good. A normal day was 12 hours of heavy manual work, 7 days a week, with a lunch break of 10-40 minutes and a half-day holiday one Sunday a month. Workers were meant to receive a nominal payment, but to the concern of the fairer German officers, few, if any, did. Clothing was not provided on the whole, and many were forced to work for years in the very clothes they were wearing when engaged or conscribed, which sometimes meant working in light summer garments in the dead of winter (dead workers were immediately stripped and relieved of all possessions by their comrades). There was no real medical care to speak of, and beatings were liberal and arbitrary, with fists, feet, sticks, hoses or other weapons- often given for no reason other than racial hatred. Worst of all was the lack of food. The book reports that breakfast was a ½ litre of coffee substitute, lunch a half litre of thin vegetable soup, and dinner the same again with 1kg of bread shared between 5 or 6. Little wonder that health and strength of even the fittest soon failed, and many died. The odd German officer tried to help by sneaking food to the weakest prisoners, and if caught punishments were either extremely harsh or nominal, depending on which commander found them out.
In March 1943 conditions at Lager Sylt worsened, as the SS Construction Brigade 1 took over control of the camp. The workers were given no civil rights, they wore the concentration camp striped pajama-like uniform, and were known only by number. Patches declared their crime: red for political prisoners, green habitual criminals, pink homosexuals, purple conscientious objectors, ‘SU’ in red for Russian POWs. Rations were reduced further, with some being diverted to the SS Canteen and sold to officers as ‘extras’. Meanwhile, the work grew ever-harder, and deaths more plentiful. Some workers received privileges if they would take the job of disciplining their campmates, and the job was taken away if they weren’t sufficiently brutal. Sylt was never a death camp per se, but it is thought that over 700 people died on Alderney, not through extermination, but starvation and beatings.
T.X.H Pantcheff, having spoken to the largest possible number of witnesses on the spot, is well placed to say what really happened, and who is to blame. He says this: ‘There must be blame for those unnecessary deaths, but let it be based on informed judgement and some attempt, however imperfect, to be just. There were individual Germans on Alderney who may deserve that judgement, just as there were others who do not. And there will no doubt have been others too, in Cherbourg, in St.Malo, in Paris, and indeed in Berlin, who share a responsibility they cannot escape. Finally, let us not forget those unfortunates in the worst case of all, who having survived one inhumanity may have returned home to another, not welcomed, their wounds not healed nor their life restored, but blamed by their rulers for working with the German enemy and consequently condemned as traitors.’ His view seems to be that, in situations where there is so much darkness, the only way to cope and move on is to look for any specks of light, and value them where they can be found.