Sunday, May 11, 2014

The German Occupation of the Channel Islands

by Mark Patton

From June 1940 until May 1945, the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm were the only parts of the British Isles to be occupied by German military forces.

A German marching band in St Peter-Port, Guernsey.
Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Possessions of the English Crown since the 13th Century (and of the Duchy of Normandy prior to that), the islands are geographically much closer to France than to England. After the fall of France in the opening months of the Second World War, the British Government decided that the defence of the islands would not be possible without an unacceptable loss of life. Most men of military age had already left the islands to join the British forces, and many of the island's Jewish residents chose also to leave. The authorities in Alderney encouraged everyone to evacuate, which most people did, whilst those in Sark encouraged people to stay). Many Jersey and Guernsey families, particularly those engaged in farming, preferred, in any case, to remain on their land.


German forces took control of the islands on 30th June 1940. In the months that followed, thousands of German troops were moved to the islands, ultimately outnumbering the islanders by a ratio of 2:1. German commanders took full advantage of the propaganda value of the occupation, releasing photographs and film footage of British policemen, in their distinctive uniforms, chatting casually with German soldiers. The islands were heavily fortified, however, with bunkers, observation towers, and heavy artillery as part of the "Atlantic Wall" defence preventing any possibility of an allied invasion on the western coast of Normandy or the northern coast of Brittany. Most of these were built by slave-workers, including Spanish republicans captured during the civil war, and Russians and Ukrainians taken on the eastern front.

German observation tower at Les Landes, Jersey.
Photo: Man vyi (image is in the Public Domain).


Slave labourers of Organisation Todt laying
railway tracks in Saint Helier, Jersey.
Image is in the Public Domain.

Within the civilian population, armed resistance was impossible. Many islanders did listen to BBC broadcasts on illegally held crystal wireless sets. Some risked their lives to help escaped slave-workers. One local woman, Louisa Gould, was caught sheltering a Soviet worker: she was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, where she died in the gas chamber. A further 570 people were deported to internment camps in Germany, of whom 31 died of various diseases. The islands' civilian authorities refused to cooperate with Nazi measures against Jews. 30-50 Jews remained on the islands, and they were neither forced to wear yellow stars nor sent to the concentration camps.

Curfew notice from Jersey.
Image is in the Public Domain.

Perhaps the most remarkable act of non-violent resistance was carried out by the surrealist artists, Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe. They presented themselves as sisters, but were, in fact, in a lesbian relationship. Cahun also identified herself as being Jewish. They published fliers and posters, which they circulated among the German troops, translating extracts from BBC reports into German, and giving details of German defeats and war crimes. They were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out: by this stage it was clear that Germany was losing the war, and senior officers feared to take any actions for which they themselves might be condemned.

The final months of the war brought great hardship both to the civilian population of the islands and to the German garrison. After D-Day, the islands were effectively cut off, and supplies of food and fuel ran very short. Almost all of the horses owned either by local farmers or by the occupying forces were slaughtered for their meat. Some islanders (around 200 in total) managed to escape in small boats and made for the French coast, where they offered their services to the British forces.

Liberation came on 9th May 1945. With Hitler dead and Berlin fallen, the German garrisons surrendered without a shot being fired. The 9th May, "Liberation Day," has been a public holiday on the islands ever since. The German troops were shipped as prisoners of war to camps on the British mainland, and were gradually repatriated over the following three years.

German and British Officers on board HMS Bulldog
prior to the signing of the surrender on 9th May 1945.


A British officer raises the union flag outside the
parliament building of Saint Peter-Port, Guernsey. 
Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).


The German occupation of the Channel Islands has provided the background to several historical novels, notable among which are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, and The Book of Lies, by Mary Horlock. I have been researching the topic for my forthcoming novel, Omphalos.



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Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. E-book editions can be purchased from the Crooked Cat Bookstore, and the paperback versions from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

7 comments:

  1. There's also the children's novel, We Couldn't Leave Dinah, by Mary Treadgold, written during the war, set on a fictional Channel Isand called Clerinel, and, more recently, A Brief History Of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper, set on another fictional island with a fictional royal family who live in a castle, but have to do most of the chores themselves, but the other two in the trilogy are set in England, where they have had to flee.

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  2. Another interesting article, thanks. You could add Rachel's Shoe to those books, Mark. It's by Peter Lihou. Worth a read, anyway.

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  3. Thanks, Sue & Nik, I haven't read those books yet!

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  4. Thanks for a very interesting post, Mark. If I may be so bold to suggest my 2nd novel, Wolfsangel, deals with the WW2 German Occupation of a rural French village, and is based on the tragic war crime of Oradour-sur-Glane.

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  5. Thanks for a very interesting article, Mark. If I may be so bold to suggest my novel, Wolfsangel, which deals with the WW2 German Occupation of a rural French village, and is based on the tragic war crime of Oradour-sur-Glane.

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  6. A great blog Mark, and Guernsey is very close to my heart due to my interviews with Guernsey evacuees who came to England during the war . If you want to read more about it, please see http://guernseyevacuees.wordpress.com/evacuation/

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  7. Thank you for a great article. One of my all time favorite books is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. My husband, who reads mostly westerns and survival style books, even enjoyed the book. And we learned so much about this area of the war that here in the United States, we never hear about.

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