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Return to Guide Books pageFor other information on the Occupation and Liberation day, including personal anecdotes from people who lived through those times, see The German Occupation and Liberation Day
[from Introducing the Channel Islands by Henry Myhill (1964)]
It would be presumptuous in anyone who did not live I through the German Occupation of the Islands, to give anything more than a brief and objective commentary on the most unhappy five years that they have known. Equally, in one short chapter, it is impossible to condense all that has been published by those who did endure the Occupation (for example, Mr. L. P. Sinel of the staff of the Jersey Evening Post published soon after the Liberation his complete diary, written up at great personal risk day by day over the five weary years).
It is not only impossible, but unnecessary, for the full story has already been told, in a remarkable piece of research by Alan and Mary Wood. Their book Islands in Danger (published 1955) not only resumes all the published material, but examines the accounts given to the authors in conversations with almost all the major figures of the insular governments during the Occupation, and with innumerable other people whose supporting roles in the great drama, even if only in some small 'walk-on' part, help to build up the complete picture. For it is in fitting together the story of the islands as a whole, between 1940 and 19451 that the Woods have given definitive form to what would otherwise have remained separate histories, personal accounts, and lingering, ever more inaccurate folk memories.
The folk memories are still there, of course, and working overtime. The visitor who knows how to follow a conversation with naive interest, and without contradicting, will hear, especially from children, richly fantastic stories—real myths in the making—which link the German occupiers of twenty years ago with the builders of the Martello towers of a hundred and forty years earlier, and sometimes even with the Neolithic megalith builders of two and a half millennia before that. There are few sea-walls or fortifications which do not have their quota of 'Russian bodies', reputedly thrown into the still liquid concrete when the slave workers died on the work of construction.
In an even deeper sense, the Occupation was a traumatic experience, which will remain an ever-present reality of popular memory long after the generation which lived through it has passed away. In many Highland glens to this day, a mention of 'the War' is taken in the first place as referring to neither of the World Wars, nor even to the Boer War, nor to the Napoleonic Wars, but to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, in which the Highlands endured a particularly painful experience, and endured it alone. It is these two factors which mark also the experience of the Islands during the Second World War: they suffered a particularly severe disaster, and did so all by themselves. To say that many other European countries were occupied does not alter this fact of isolation. Those other countries went through a period of national tragedy and of national humiliation, but as complete nations; whereas the Islands, for the first time since 1066, were cut off from the power across the Channel to which they had always stood in special relationship, and which had for almost a thousand years protected them from whatever enemies might face them on the Continent on their horizon. For Alsace or South Schleswig to be 'reintegrated' into the Third Reich, was a lesser psychological disturbance than for the Channel Islands to be treated as part of the Manche department of Laval's France (as they were in the later part of the Occupation). And during the grim winter of 1944-5 they shared their isolated experience with no one.
It may be objected that although, for the Islands, the Occupation was a very special and deeply wounding tragedy, yet it was an insignificant incident in the vast holocaust within which it occurred. But the first person to disagree with such a view would have been the director-general of that holocaust: Adolf Hitler himself. The German commanders in the Islands, reasonable men for the most part, were able to haggle over the orders which reached them from their immediate superiors at St. Germain; but the directives which reached them in increasing numbers from Berlin had to be carried out without question (for example, the Order of September 1942, that all English residents and non-native males should be deported).
For the Islands were the only British territory ever occupied by the Germans, and were valued as such. Nor was the emphasis on their strategic importance misplaced, for when the Allied attack was eventually launched on the two thousand miles of the 'Atlantic Wall', the blow came only a few miles 'round the corner' of the Cotentin. During the last two years of the war, the Islands, with an occupying force of over thirty thousand, were the most highly garrisoned, and the most highly fortified area for their size in the world.
They were also amongst the loveliest resorts in the directly occupied Europe of Hitler's New Order. Southern France was only occupied in 1943; and for Germans who for years had been prevented by exchange control from leaving their land, whose coastline was the bleak North Sea, and the dull Baltic, the Islands must have seemed to belong to another world. It is not surprising that plans were made for their use after a German victory, as glorified holiday camps of the 'Strength through Joy' organisation.
Their importance is also shown by the number of people in France who seem to have visited the Islands in one capacity or another during the Occupation. I was astonished when the representative of Thomas Cook & Son at Hendaye, on the Spanish frontier, a Corsican whom I had known for some years, revealed one day in conversation that he had taken part, as a Free French commando, in the second Commando raid on Sark. In Paris, on another occasion, I inquired of a French friend how a rather smooth mutual acquaintance of ours came to speak such excellent English. 'He learnt it in Jersey during the war, when he was working there for the Germans', I was told. 'That was where he made his money, too. He managed to purchase several houses very cheaply; and he has now let them out, at a good post-war rent. '
Whilst bringing in personal experience, I must also say that friendships begun during the war with Islanders who were then refugees on the Mainland can form the best possible introduction to life on the Islands for subsequent immigrants.
This Occupation, of which so much remains, in the fortifications around the Islands' coasts, and in the minds both of the Islanders and of others widely scattered around the world, began on 30th June 1940, when four German planes touched down at Guernsey airport. At Jersey the following day, and at Alderney the day after, the first Germans to take possession came likewise by air. But Sark, then as now approachable only by sea, had to wait yet another day, until a landing party went over on July 3rd.
The second half of June 1940 had seen a parallel in the Islands to the desperate confusion of the same days on the Mainland. British policy early in June was to help the French to hold at least Brittany. For this purpose a British Expeditionary Force was actually landed at Saint-Malo, and only got out again just in time in a 'second Dunkirk', of which the heroes were Jersey little ships'.
Then for a few days the plan was to hold the Islands, even after the occupation of the adjacent coasts; and troops were landed with a view to defence. Demilitarisation—that is, no attempt at defence—was finally decided upon on June 19th. But it was not adequately advertised, with the result that on June 28th both major islands had to suffer, defenceless, an air attack which killed twenty-nine in Guernsey and nine in Jersey.
This air raid came as the culmination of ten terrible days of rumour and anxiety. Typical of the announcements, almost deliberately designed to induce panic, was that ships would be sent for those who wished to be evacuated to the Mainland— but with the warning that there might not be sufficient space for all who wished to travel. In the event, ships were sent in sufficient numbers; but the time given for departure preparations was never more than a few hours, and the agonising question had to be faced of whether or not to leave one's home for an uncertain future in a land which might itself soon be enduring German air attack, and Nazi conquest. For Hitler had predicted his triumphal entry into London for August 15th, and his time-table for Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, had been fulfilled to the day. The really wily evacuees, besides their two suitcases, wore two winter coats in the sunny June weather, and had good reason to bless their foresight during the five bleak winters that lay ahead.
The pattern of evacuation for the Islands not only reflected the differences between them, but helped to determine the character of their occupation, and the legacy of that occupation in the post-war world.
Alderney was totally evacuated. The Germans, as a result, had a clear field to do exactly what they wanted with the most strategically important island of all. So they not only changed the face of Alderney, but treated the slave workers whom they brought over to carry out their work with a brutality increased by isolation, and the absence of civilian observers. These workers, brought over by the Todt organisation, were responsible for most of the fortifications to be seen in all the Islands. One of them, a Catalan, who now lives in Guernsey, with a Guernsey wife, has told his story in Slave Worker in the Channel Islands by John Dalmau (it was he who placed the charge which exploded to sink the German vessel Schottland, which went down off Corbiere on 5th January 1943, with the loss of 230 lives). The inhabitants of Alderney, returning in the autumn of 1945, found themselves faced by chaos.
Only a score of English residents decided to leave Sark. The Dame herself, who had counselled staying put, remained very much in command throughout the Occupation, although the Seigneur, her American-born husband, was deported as a 'non-native' in 1943, and spent the last two years of the war in a German camp. Speaking German herself, she was able to establish a correct but business-like relationship with the commanders of the occupying forces. The small garrison stationed amongst the isolated community of patois-speaking Sarkese were hardly more 'foreign' than if their language had been English or French; and the two British commando raids of October 1942, and of October 1943, upset what had been a reasonable modus vivendi. The life of Sark was badly disturbed by the Occupation, but its continuity was never broken. There was no need for it to be taken up in 1945 as it had been left in 1940, as it had gone on, steadily though not merrily, all the time. Besides all the irritations, losses, and personal tragedies, Sark owes indirectly to the Occupation one great physical asset. This is the firm, efficiently railed road, reinforced where necessary with concrete, which has replaced the rather hair-raising path over La Coupee, joining Sark to Little Sark. This work was undertaken soon after the Liberation by German prisoners working under the supervision of a party of Royal Engineers.
Almost half the population of Guernsey (or just under 20,000 people) left the island. This included almost all the children of school age. Elizabeth College moved en bloc, masters and boys, and spent five years in a country house in the Peak District. The inside story of Elizabeth College during those years is a schoolboy yarn to beat all schoolboy yarns. It has been told by Michael Marshall in The Small Army (published 1957), which was so enthralling as to be serialised in play form by the B.B.C. It tells how in exile the boys built up their own unofficial organisation with a view to helping on the day of liberation. It harnessed more enthusiasm than Cadets or Home Guard inspired at any other school in the 1940s; and, as is customary with all healthy schoolboy organisations, it developed its schisms and its deviationists, so that at one stage pitched battles took place between rival groups, as well as with a neighbouring school. On the final return to Guernsey, the Small Army collected an arsenal of abandoned German weapons, which only official pleadings from the insular authorities brought them to surrender.
Morals may be drawn from the story of the Small Army, and applied to the Occupation and its after-effects in Guernsey as a whole. That so many people were prepared to leave seems to indicate apprehensions about the Occupation which, in the case of Guernsey, were justified in the event. It indicates also a closeness of feeling for England which Jersey has never shared to quite the same extent: a closeness of feeling which was increased by the long exile in England of so many Guemseymen. But although, by the factories of Birmingham, if not the waters of Babylon, they yearned, like the members of the Small Army, for their own little island, it must have seemed rather a small place, both physically and in scope for advancement, upon their return. For those who stayed, on the other hand, the disruption
of the educational system, and the thousands of empty houses, were added to the demoralising influence of any enemy occupation. The visitor to Guernsey still detects a certain unquiet, restless note, in the hundreds of tight blue jeans and black leather jackets, crowded into the centre of St. Peter Port at the week-ends; in the ton-up motor-cycles tearing round and round the island; in the eternal queue of cars which on a Sunday afternoon drive pointlessly along the causeway to Castle Cornet, round the pond at the end, and back again. The end of the Small Army came when it laid down its arms at the orders of the Chief of Police published in the Guernsey Press. But in a sense, the fight between the generations in Guernsey is still on. One young Guemseyman after another will tell you that 'nothing is done for the young people'. Some will go even further, and claim that the States, 'which are run by a lot of old Methodists', do everything that they can against the interests of the young. These claim that the 35 m.p.h. speed limit throughout the island is designed expressly to limit the activities of the teenage motor-cyclists—and this may well be true! There has been a revolt of the young everywhere since the mid-1950's, but in small, traditional communities it has generally been muted and only half aware of itself. The shrillness of Guernsey's teenage cry would seem to owe much to the extent by which her life was disturbed by the Occupation and evacuation.
Only ten thousand people, about a fifth of the population, left Jersey, and of these many were English residents. In many ways the Islands suffered a common experience, but its effect on Jersey seems to have been to drive her people further into themselves. Guernsey, as we have said, has always had a tendency to follow England's lead rather more; and the larger island has had not only the will, but the size, to stand more on her own. Since the war she has followed her own line even more. In so far as this line has been towards lower taxation, it has attracted a new generation of English residents. But these have far from swamped the Jerseymen, whom the Occupation has rendered a more admirably tightly knit community than ever. Relations between the civilian population and the occupying forces seem to have been on a more rigidly correct basis in Jersey than elsewhere, with less bloody-mindedness, but equally with less fraternisation. There were plenty of contacts, of course, and not all conversations were strictly formal. Mr. Alfred Le Gresley, Jersey's Food Controller (who by reporting to the Germans the 1939 figure of the population, and conveniently 'forgetting' about the ten thousand evacuees, managed to secure supplies for an extra ten thousand mouths whilst supplies from the Continent were still available), well remembers being summoned to the Commandant's office on the day of the announcement that Germany had declared war on the United States. 'I suppose that you have heard the news, Mr. Le Gresley. From today, we are fighting the Americans as well as the English. I know that you have lived many years in the States. Tell me what sort of a nation we have taken on.' 'You've taken on one hell of a lot,' said the Food Controller grimly, determined not to miss the opportunity of rubbing in his point. 'I know Detroit well; and I knew Henry Ford when he was first setting up his production line to turnout the Model T in thousands. Now there are dozens of automobile factories, and in six months from now it won't be cars which roll off the production lines at one a minute, or more, but tanks. Yes, I'm afraid that your leaders may have taken on rather more than they bargained for.' And as he spoke, the Commandant's expression grew ever glummer.
The German commanders in the Islands were for the most part at once reasonable and responsible. Some were men of substance, who, with a little prudence and foresight, could surely have transferred enough capital out of Germany, well before the war, to spend the 1940s comfortably sunning themselves in Estoril or Lugano, without even losing their German citizenship. They could then have returned to their fatherland when their assets there had once again appreciated after the post-war 'Economic Miracle'. It was, no doubt, mistaken ambitions and caste prejudices which caused them, instead, to spend the early 1940s grimly guarding outposts on the 'Atlantic Wall', and the later 1940s eking out their pensions—or even scraping by without pensions—in the shattered world of A.M.G.O.T. and Harry Lime. If so, the Channel Islands owe something to those mistaken ambitions, and that caste discipline, which made them just governors, if firm ones.
Again and again, those who lived through the Occupation will tell you that the Germans were perfectly satisfactory to deal with, provided that their orders were obeyed to the letter. But obedience is not easy for energetic adolescents, nor for adults of a certain devil-may-care temperament. 'I begged my aunt to surrender her wireless set, ' relates an old friend, whose anguish during those years still comes out in the tone of her voice. 'But she didn't seem to understand the position at all, and was determined to have her own way, Germans or no Germans.' It was this particular wireless set which was borrowed by Canon Cohu, the Rector of St. Saviour's; and its discovery hidden in his organ loft led to his deportation and tragic death in Spergau concentration camp. 'He was the nicest man you could ever hope to meet,' says my friend, 'but I wince now when I remember him coming down St. Saviour's Hill on his bicycle, and calling out to me the latest B.B.C. news at the top of his voice.'
Jersey's young people, whilst their Guernsey contemporaries were harmlessly organising the Small Army in England, found themselves up against the real thing. Some, like one of Jersey's most brilliant young advocates now practising, were able to make well-timed and cleverly planned escapes, taking useful information with them. There were others, however, whose schoolboy enthusiasm simply got themselves, and their parents too, into trouble, sometimes with tragic consequences.
What stand out most in all reminiscences are the shortages, and especially the food shortages. Fortunately Food Control was already in existence when the Occupation began, and fairly substantial stocks had been laid in. But any fresh supplies, over and above what the Islands could produce for themselves, had to come from the Continent: from new sources of supply where there was no goodwill based on past trade, at a time when Europe was itself facing shortages. A Purchasing Commission with both Jersey and Guernsey representatives was established in Granville, and their hard work and skilful negotiation resulted in several successful deals. The Germans, as always, were most correct, and never attempted to touch supplies bound for the Islands. But on one occasion Jersey's able agent in Granville (who has since been one of the big figures in the island's post-war financial development), found that at some point along the line supplies were disappearing. He informed the Food Controller, and Mr. Le Gresley set out for Paris, with the full blessing of the Germans, who provided him with every facility. He must be one of the few British subjects to have visited occupied Paris as a civilian, neither in disguise, nor as a prisoner; and he relates how in a restaurant full of Germans, he eventually got service by saying, 'Have you quite forgotten how glad you were to take our money before the war?' The trouble proved to be a French entrepreneur who was diverting Jersey supplies to the Black Market. He was punished, and supplies continued to flow through Granville (though with increasing difficulty) until 1944. But after Saint-Malo had fallen, and Allied tanks were beyond the Somme, the Islands stood isolated. In January 1945, even the few hours' supply per day of gas and electricity gave out, and it was only the five visits (of which the first was on 27th December 1944) of the Red Cross ship Vega, sailing from Lisbon with Canadian and New Zealand food parcels, which saved the Islanders from outright starvation.
Shortages were not confined to food. Fuel was in equally short supply, and a family, or sometimes a whole group of families, would 'buy a tree', where it stood in the ground, perhaps some miles out of town. One Sunday they would then march out, pushing their handcart and implements in front of them, and would spend the day felling their purchase, and grubbing out its last roots. Having divided the not always highly combustible spoils, they would then return home triumphant. It was the Germans who thinned the once dense woodlands of St. Peter's Valley, but they at least left a token basis (or later afforestation, and they prevented the felling of trees on public roads near St. Helier.
Handcarts were typical of the general retrogression in forms of transport. Bicycles which had cost under £5 new in 1940, were selling for over £50 second-hand, with hard tyres made of hosepipe, a year or two later. Cars were early commandeered —with reasonable compensation payments—by the Germans, and petrol was only allowed for a few essential services. As a result, a good cart-horse fetched over £500 For their own purposes, the Germans re-laid the railway line from St. Helier to Corbiere, and added a network of extensions which meandered all over the western parishes of Jersey. The rolling stock and locomotives which they imported from France brought back nostalgic memories of Trollope's England, and of the cow-catcher in America's Golden West.
Clothes and shoes were also supplied locally by various ingenious methods. The click of the clog was heard down the streets of St. Peter Port and of St. Helier, and the Summerland Knitting Company in Jersey took on extra workers, and processed all the raw material it could secure. Examples of these locally manufactured garments, together with other Occupation relics, make a fascinating collection in the Museum installed in the German fortifications of the Hougue Bie.
One question raised by the ability of the Islands to 'scrape by', in however amateurish a way, in the economic autarky into which they were plunged, is whether larger, less tightly knit communities, could have survived such total isolation in modern conditions. Eire in the Second World War, and Spain between 1939 and 1950 were two mainly agricultural states, which somehow creaked along, although their isolation in those years was far less than that of the Occupied Channel Islands. No one who travelled on the peat-burning train which took twelve hours to cover the hundred and fifty-odd miles between Ireland's two main cities of Cork and Dublin; and no one who saw the weird array of limping vehicles, of pre-1936 vintage, which provided the infrequent traffic on Spain's roads in 1951. can say that the Channel Islands, in infinitely more difficult conditions, were any less successful in maintaining the essential services of a civilised community.
This reflection raises a further question, which I have never seen asked anywhere else. Was the success of the Islands, in coping with an almost impossible situation, due in part to the fact that they were, each of them, already an independent state? In other words, would they have come through the Occupation as well as they did if certain agitators over the centuries had had their way, and the Germans had been greeted on arrival by a mere Lord-Lieutenant, or perhaps simply by the chairman of a county council? Instead, they were greeted in Jersey by Mr. Alexander (now Lord) Coutanche, Bailiff, President of the Superior Council, and (since the departure of the Lieutenant-Governor, General Harrison, on 21st June 1940) Civil Governor. And on Guernsey soil they were received by Major (now Sir Ambrose) Sherwill, H.M. Procureur, and President of the Controlling Committee. The Superior Council in Jersey, and the Controlling Committee in Guernsey, were 'cabinets' to whom the States in each island had delegated the wartime responsibility for day-to-day running of affairs. The Home Office had instructed the Lieutenant-Governors that on their recall, 'the Bailiff should discharge the duties of Lieutenant-Governor, which would be confined to civil duties, and that he should stay at his post and administer the government of the Island to the best of his abilities in the interests of the inhabitants, whether or not he is in a position to receive instructions from His Majesty's Government. The Crown Officers also should remain at their posts.' But for men who were already to all intents and purposes the rulers of small autonomous states, all that this really amounted to, was that they were to continue doing what they had always done.
And that was precisely what they did. It involved not only constant wariness in dealing with the Occupying authorities, but, more bitterly still, some misunderstandings with the civilian populations whom they were working hard to protect. (Sir Ambrose Sherwill was to suffer imprisonment for not informing the Germans of the presence on his island of spies—Guernsey-born men whom the British authorities had landed at night.)
The early commanders of the Occupying forces, as we have indicated, were reasonable men: prayers for the British Royal Family were even permitted to continue in the island churches. But in the closing stages of the war, after the failure of the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, and as Western and Russian armies approached the German heartland, extremists took over everywhere within the Third Reich. Count von Schmettow, the aristocratic nephew of the Western Front Generalissimo, von Runstedt, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Islands since September 1940, was replaced in February 1945 by the extreme Nazi, Rear-Admiral Huffmeier.
It was under his command that the Germans carried out their daring raid on Granville, on 8th March 1945- Although a small affair, it reminded the world, with the Bastogne counter-attack in the Ardennes, how much fighting spirit the German war-machine still held. Besides carrying out some destruction, and releasing some German prisoners, the raiders captured five American officers, and twenty other ranks. It must be remembered that these were the first English-speaking strangers to be seen in the Islands for five years; and certain young ladies, now leaders of Jersey society, may be excused, if, in Miranda-like wonder, they threw gifts—and perhaps kisses—across the barbed-wire enclosures to these handsome prisoners from the Brave New World.
The Islanders' leaders, in these last months, dreaded the possibility that Huffmeier might attempt to hold out in the Islands after a German capitulation. This would have involved an Allied bombardment, and the destruction of everything, and of everyone, whom they had worked so hard to save. Fortunately, they became aware of allies amongst the Germans themselves. There was resentment by soldiers at having a naval officer as Commander-in-Chief. There was fear and dislike of Nazism by men like Baron von Aufsess and Baron von Helldorf, who had never been party men. And troops who had been stationed for years on end in the Islands, felt more in common with the civilian populations, than with 'outsiders' like Huffmeier. It may well have been members of the Occupying forces who were responsible, when Jersey's Palace Hotel exploded in March 1944, with over thirty German casualties.
When capitulation came, however, the new Fuhrer, upon whom Hitler's mantle had fallen, was Admiral Doenitz; and Huffmeier seems to have been prepared to take surrender orders from his naval superior. Frightened by this time of his own troops, he sent Major-General Heine out to the British destroyers Bulldog and Beagle, which had anchored off Guernsey. In a cabin of the Bulldog, the instrument of the surrender of the Channel Islands was signed at 7.4.5 a.m. on Wednesday, 9th May 1945.
The British troops of 'Operation Nest Egg', as the act of liberation was called, wore shoulder badges bearing the arms of the Duke of Normandy. With German prisoners under their orders, they started the huge job of clearing up, converting 'anchored battleships' back into peaceful islands. The British Government paid off the £7,000,000 debts which had been run up by the States of Jersey and Guernsey, mainly in honouring the worthless paper reichsmarks which the Occupying authorities had forced them to accept in return for real goods and services. But it was only as one by one the reunions took place between friends and relatives who had been separated for five years, that the Channel Islanders realised that the German Occupation was really over.