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Monday, September 22, 2014

Channel Islands During World War II

Channel Islands German occupation worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Luftwaffe officer speaks with a British policeman in St Helier, the capital of the island of Jersey, during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. The islands were the only part of the British Isles to be invaded by the Germans - 1941

The Channel Islands were the only part of the United Kingdom to be occupied by German forces. The two main islands, Jersey and Guernsey, were bombed on June 28, 1940, and German troops began unopposed landings two days later.

Channel Islands German occupation worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Guernsey, Channel Islands, 1940: German troops marching along North Esplanade, St Peter Port.

The occupation was in fact harsher than was once suggested, and there is evidence of collaboration by the islands’ authorities in round-up and deportation of Jews. The whole situation is murky and there were probably many countervailing influences going on throughout the occupation.

Channel Islands German occupation worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German soldiers erecting a sign in English and German forbidding access to an airfield in the Channel Islands, March 1942 (b/w photo). The Germans used the local airfields during the Battle of Britain.

Books and studies have been written about the German occupation of the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm), and they all reach different conclusions: either the Germans were terrible and worked the islanders to death and deported people left and right, or the Germans and the islanders got along in very cozy fashion and there even was collaboration at times.

Channel Islands German occupation worldwartwo.filminspector.com
ME 109 Re-fuels in the Channel Islands, 1940

With the research inconclusive, there is no "right" answer. There were about 2,000 or so deportations to Germany, and deportations were a fact of life throughout Occupied Europe. Anywhere the Germans were in charge, there were deportations. Some islanders indeed were used to build fortifications, just like everywhere else on both sides, and it no doubt was not enjoyable work.

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The Orders of the Commandant

The best indication of how things were can be found in the Orders of the Commandant, 2 July 1940. These were issued immediately after the Germans arrived, which was the time to "lay down the law" and gain control. Reading through them (above) shows absolutely nothing arbitrary or capricious, and in fact they are exceedingly mild compared to rules elsewhere in Occupied Europe, especially zones so close to the enemy.

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Guernsey / Jersey, Deutsche Soldaten (Dey, Federal Archives)

There was imposition of a six-hour curfew; islanders had to turn in their weapons (but could keep souvenir rifles); people could not use cars (probably not that many on the island in that day and age anyway, and no petrol to speak of during the war) or boats without permission; nobody was allowed on the airfields being used by the Luftwaffe; and so on and so forth.

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Junkers Ju 88 A-1, KG 51 "Edelweiss" Channel Islands 1940.

The normal rules applied, which is to say that if you acted stupidly, you would get shot, and that sometimes happened. If you tried to communicate with England by surreptitious means, for instance, as one guy did with a carrier pigeon, you were shot immediately as a spy, just like everywhere else. Yes, it was probably his hobby and he did it before the Germans came and thereafter as well, but that was just a plain dumb thing to do. People sending secret messages to the enemy are shot, and everybody knows that. There was a war on. The Allies shot spies, too, and often quite quickly.

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Full military honours were granted by the Luftwaffe at the funerals of R.A.F Sergeants Butlin and Holden, who were shot down over Jersey. It is thought this was to try and pacify the local population, and likely it was. However, Germans in World War I had done this quite often without trying to pacify anyone, and the Channel Islands, being under no threat, had the luxury of being gracious to downed enemy fighting men. The ceremony probably meant more to the locals than they might have cared to admit.

To pin it down any further requires conjecture, and we are great at conjecture. The answer may lie in the "Sherlock Holmes" deduction, to wit: look for what isn't there, the dog that didn't bark. In this case, while we hear about absolutely normal occupation-style things going on like curfews, we do not hear tales of: epic brutality and pogroms; firing squads and people forced from their homes en masse; excessive restraints on islanders' movements; mining of peoples' fields so that they starved; and so on and so forth. The point is that the occupying Germans, given the constraints of the fact that they were operating within the Third Reich, appear to have had a live-and-let live attitude toward the islanders. If you had to live under German rule anywhere in Europe, the Channel Islands sound like a top choice. Not that that means it was pleasurable, for it most certainly was not. But it was Winston Churchill who abandoned them as he felt the islands indefensible.

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Guernsey Island residents receiving Red Cross food parcels during German occupation.

Let me emphasize that it was not idyllic, because it couldn't have been. However, the locals got their care packages, the Germans lived in perhaps the easiest billet in the entire Wehrmacht; a hotel and some other buildings were taken over but the locals otherwise were allowed to live where they had been living, and so forth. The handover back over to the British went extremely smoothly, with no snipers or last stands or things that happened almost everywhere else. The Germans left the islands pretty much intact when they surrendered at the end of the war, they did not bomb the harbour at the last minute out of spite, and so forth. It does not sound as if the locals carry a lasting grudge against the Germans, as they do to this day in, say, Crete. It was a bad situation handled about as well as opposing sides can handle one.

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Here, German soldiers relax on Jersey in 1940. During the occupation, islanders were deported to an internment camp in Germany. Others were forced to work under in grueling conditions to build tunnels that were later used as an underground hospital. German-built bunkers are still visible along the island's coast.

Different things happened on different islands. Alderney is the third largest of the Channel Islands and is the closest to France, which is clearly visible only 8 miles away. Unlike its neighbours, as the Germans swept ever closer during WWII, virtually the whole population of Alderney opted to leave, which was a wise choice. The island was the only one effectively turned into a forced labour camp; an estimated 6000 men endured terrible conditions, hundreds died. The fortifications, many of which remain and which are sobering sights on all the islands, have a particular resonance here. Alderney was probably the worst of the occupation in the Channel islands. Perhaps the Germans chose it for the camps due to its lack of inhabitants, so they would disturb as few residents as possible and make occupation easier.

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German soldiers in Jersey. The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during the war and in 1942-43 more than 2,000 residents were deported to Germany.

Otherwise, in some ways, the story of the occupation sounds almost farcical. For instance, the locals have turned a stonemason's covertly putting a (disconnected) "V" into some stonework into some kind of a "great sign of unnoticed rebellion." That sounds extremely petty, and a wise German commander would, if he bothered to notice at all, have just left it like that purposefully to make the locals a tad less resentful. Regardless, locals putting "V's" in places to show their dissatisfaction with occupation (perfectly understandable) happened throughout the Third Reich, and it was not a major issue in the Channel Islands. German authorities shot hundreds if not thousands of Italian prisoners of war for practically no reason in the Greek Islands, so tweaking the German nose around the same time in the Channel Islands put a lot of innocent people in peril just to make a meaningless gesture. If you're going to play with human lives, play with your own, not those of other people. The islanders got away with their little tantrums because the Germans couldn't have cared less; if instead the Germans rounded up a few dozen people and shot them, it might not have seemed so wonderful and rebellious in hindsight.

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Part of the great German swastika war. Everybody had a good laugh and nobody was shot.

Likewise, some other locals painted some swastikas on the homes of neighbors they suspected of "collaborating." This was annoying and disruptive and cost the victims (scarce) money to re-paint their houses. We would call that pointless "vandalism" now, and that is how the German occupiers appeared to take it. The Germans, rather than trying to be nasty and making a big deal of it, simply got out their own paint buckets and painted swastikas on everyone else's house, too. Really, it was tit-for-tat, and people weren't rounded up by the scores and shot for minor letting-off-of-steam as might have happened in the East. It was the kind of petty nonsense that everybody recognizes as such, and there were few lasting hard feelings. In Poland or Czechoslovakia, the authorities would likely have blown up a few houses or towns and maybe shot a few dozen people to get their point across. How things were handled in the Channel Islands almost has the makings of a lame sitcom television series at times, and that is due to a very, very lenient German command. Certainly there are some who don't like to portray it as such now, but that was the reality. It could have been far harsher.

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German soldiers visiting Channel Islands' tourist attractions during the occupation, March 1942 (b/w photo)

As a general matter, Hitler considered the Channel Islands a dangerous potential landing stage for an English invasion of mainland France, as they sat just 20 miles off the French coast. Thus, he made sure to fortify them after occupying them, somewhat pointlessly, but apparently it made him feel better. If you look at Hitler's decisions throughout the war, he had a "thing" about islands and invariably over-garrisoned them. He did that in Norway, Greece (he even pointlessly re-occupied some Greek islands in late 1943) and anywhere else that might "slip away." Winston Churchill, however, believed all along that the islands held no strategic importance for Britain and decided to de-militarise them and leave them undefended from the outset. As it turned out, the British had no need to use the islands as a staging area, as England was much closer to France elsewhere than it was to the Channel Islands, and France was easily accessible via more direct routes. Putting English troops on the Channel Islands would have just made them targets of endless Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine attacks. With the British disinterested, the German garrison was left with little to do throughout the war beyond launching occasional airplanes, sending out some E-boat missions, and otherwise scanning the horizon for trouble that never came.

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Luftwaffe sentry on guard at RAF headquarters, Jersey, during the German occupation of the Channel Islands, 1940-'44.

As for the actual handover, there were German air raids on the islands (33 killed in Guernsey, 11 in Jersey, numbers vary by source) on 28 June. Demilitarisation of the islands was announced on that day's BBC 9 pm news. In advance of the German army invasion, in late June 1940, some 30,000 Channel Islanders in total (one third of the total population) evacuated pursuant to the suggestion of Lieut-Governor Major General J Harrison. The rest decided to stay and tough it out under occupation, mainly on Jersey and Guernsey. On 30 June, Luftwaffe personnel took control of Guernsey airfield. There they met the chief of police, who informed them that the islands were indeed undefended due to the fact that Churchill had abandoned them. There were no more bombings, and everybody went out to have a nice lunch. Major Albrecht Lanz, first Military Commander of Channel Islands, arrived in Guernsey the next day, 1 July 1940.

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A German staff car for the Island's commander. Notice the bobby helping out.

More German troops arrived later and their attention turned to the other islands. Jersey also surrendered on 1 July and German soldiers were swiftly stationed there, with Alderney on 2 July and Sark on 4 July. Islanders had to show their compliance with the occupation by flying white flags over their houses.

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Crowds cheer as the Channel Islands are liberated at Saint Peter Port in 1945

Sybil Hathaway, the Dame of Sark, received German officers on 2 July and treated them cordially, serving them a lobster dinner. The Germans returned the courtesy and assured her she had nothing to fear. The island's garrison of just ten men arrived on 4 July. It was all handled completely professionally, with diplomatic skill. Alderney, meanwhile, was almost completely empty, but was garrisoned by a company of troops. Herm, the smallest of the islands, was visited by German soldiers on 25 July, although they did not set up a permanent station there. It is hard to imagine a smoother, less annoying transition of territory between bitter foes.

Channel Islands German occupation worldwartwo.filminspector.com
During the German occupation of Jersey, a stonemason repairing the paving of the Royal Square incorporated a V for victory under the noses of the occupiers. This was later amended to refer to the Red Cross ship Vega. The addition of the date 1945 and a more recent frame has transformed it into a monument.

As noted above, a curfew was imposed between the hours of 11pm and 5am and ID cards had to be carried. The sale of spirits was banned. Later, wirelesses were banned and all British-born Islanders were deported to Germany. That last point no doubt raised a lot of hackles, but at least the long-term locals were not deported.

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The Channel Islands remain covered in German fortifications built in the Second World War. These are on Alderney.

There is no reason to whitewash the horror of Third Reich, and it made itself known in the Channel Islands, too. Inevitably, the Jewish situation came up, with the usual horrible behavior. A register of people and their origins was created by local authorities which was used to identify Jews. Signs were put in their shop windows identifying them as Jewish (presumably so that Wehrmacht soldiers would know not to shop there or something, because why would the locals suddenly care?), and some Jews were deported to concentration camps. Some or all Jews who were deported were killed. That was routine under German administration.

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Signs of the Holocaust: shops were marked as Jewish.

German racial policies were terrible, and the Channel Islands were no exception. Beyond that, the rules imposed appear similar to those of any occupying force. Cars were requisitioned and the Germans controlled the food grown by farmers and caught by fishermen. Anyone caught trying to escape to Britain was imprisoned or shot - if they didn't drown in the attempt. There certainly was no point trying to escape to France. Everyone had had the chance to leave before the Germans arrived anyway, so the urge to leave later couldn't have been too intense.

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German troops invade the Channel Islands. Nobody seems to care very much.

Four concentration camps were built on Alderney - the only ones on British territory - which is a completely separate story that deserves to be told. Alderney became the most heavily fortified of the islands, the fortresses built by slave labour, but work was done on all the islands. V for Victory signs were painted surreptitiously around the islands, underground newsletters were written, and guns and ammunition were stolen from German stores.

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The Germans installed light anti-aircraft batteries to protect the harbours and airports. on the Channel Islands.

There was some covert resistance that did not always end well. Some Islanders assisted their Jewish neighbours and fed slave labourers, others did not. A brother and sister, Louisa Gould and Harold Le Druillenec, harbored an escaped Russian slave laborer, but they were betrayed, with Louisa ultimately dying in prison. On Jersey, letters sent to the Commandant by informants were intercepted by the (English) Post Office and destroyed, a huge but understandable breach of postal ethics. Some who openly collaborated were attacked and shamed after liberation. This is the sort of stuff that happened everywhere else.

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Generalmajor Siegfried Heine's unconditional surrender, 07:15 on 9 May 1945. Heine had arrived on 4 September 1944. The German forces commander has his credentials checked by British Intelligence - sort of like at the DMV - prior to surrender of the Channel Islands. This is yet another farcical moment - the last - of the occupation.

The D-Day landings in June 1944 cut food supply lines from France. Stocks on hand dwindled, and Islanders began to suffer and starve. The electricity went out in January 1945. However, after negotiation with the Home Office, the Germans allowed the Red Cross' SS Vega to deliver food, saving many of the Islanders' lives. The Vega continued to bring food parcels even after the British liberated the islands on 9 May 1945.

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The German occupiers showed they held no deep-seated enmity for the Islanders by leaving peacefully, and thus the worst effects of the war to cities, such as fighting over buildings and bombings of enemy positions, were avoided. The turnover of power on 9 May 1945 went smoothly, and soon the islands went back to normal. There later were some investigations of conduct during the occupation, such as the Dame's lobster dinner, the creation of the island registry and so forth, but nothing came of them. It was all handled in a civilized fashion.

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There will always be opportunities to accuse people of collaboration or at least fraternization whenever there is an occupation. Fortunately, most of that was avoided in the Channel Islands, and there were few if any of the violent reprisals against collaborators and suspected fraternizers that took place throughout France. Many Islanders seemed to get over the whole affair quickly, and resent attempts by some modern-day authors to paint the occupation in stark tones and point accusatory fingers at locals and affix moral failings in ordinary people, such as a lack of greater resistance. Many feel the whole "blame" exercise is pointless and predatory by opportunistic "historians" who really do no good with their attempts to stir the pot for their own profit.





2014

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