FRIDAY marked the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day and the final capitulation of Nazi Germany. If the commemorations of this mighty achievement were more sombre and less extravagant than last year’s D-Day commemorations it remains the case that this is the last such anniversary at which some of those who participated in the liberation of continental Europe are likely to be fit enough to attend. It is, in this sense, a passing moment.
VE Day was not, however, quite the final act. That came the following day, on 10 May, 1945 when, for the first time in five years, British authority was re-asserted on the Channel Islands. These outposts – Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and Alderney – had been captured by German troops on 30 June and 1 July, 1940. Their wartime experiences, now a significant part of the islands’ tourist industry, were for many years shrouded in silence. The humiliations of occupation were as keenly, if largely more peacefully, felt on British sovereign territory as they were elsewhere. The islands’ wartime experience remains sobering, not least in as much as it prompts one to wonder how Britain might have coped had it, like so many other European countries, been occupied by Nazi Germany.
A Jersey schoolteacher remembered that, “We were ditched by the UK government. We felt stripped naked. After demilitarisation, we had no means of defending ourselves.”
The government’s decision to abandon the islands to their fate was amply sensible in military terms. They were of no significant strategic value and could not, in any case, have been defended except at unjustifiable cost. Still, the teacher recalled, it left the islanders feeling vulnerable and very much alone. “The local politicians were amateur, and they were frightened.”
Nearly 30,000 German soldiers occupied the islands; a remarkable and extravagant use of manpower considering the islands were populated by little more than 60,000 people during the war, many thousands having departed for the UK before the Germans’ arrival.
Such was the sensitivity of the occupation that Whitehall records of the islands’ wartime experiences were initially meant to remain classified for up to 100 years. Some papers were eventually released in 1992. Official records noted that “numbers of women including a surprising number of married women formerly considered respectable have carried on and lived with Germans. Illegitimate babies are common.”
We didn’t behave as the British should. Since the war we have felt like a woman must feel in a rape trial
If this mirrored the experience of other countries occupied by the Germans, so too did the disdain often felt for women believed to have “misconducted themselves” with German troops. On Guernsey a secret society, the Guernsey Underground Barbers club, was set up to punish women derided as “Jerrybags” on account of their liaisons with German soldiers. One informant complained: “The behaviour of a great number of women has been quite disgraceful.”
Government officials in London investigated the possibility of prosecuting islanders suspected of collaboration, only to conclude that such prosecutions would be contrary to the public interest. Even a tribunal of inquiry, it was decided, would be “undesirable”.
Organised resistance in any armed sense would have been futile and most probably counter-productive. But even passive resistance was discouraged. The bailiff of Guernsey complained that modest vandalism and minor acts of sabotage were “not only stupid but criminal”. By the end of 1944 the islands’ fuel supplies were almost exhausted and the Germans decreed that electricity be restricted to meeting the needs of the German army. The electricity company refused to comply with these instructions and from that point until liberation German troops had to operate the grid themselves. This was a rare example of civil disobedience, however.
By that stage of the war, the islands’ food supplies were running low. Shortages bit and the strains of occupation grew increasingly oppressive. Moreover, with the end of the war now in sight, thoughts inevitably turned to a post-war reckoning during which islanders would need to justify their actions and, in some instances, their careful complicity with the occupying troops.
Throughout the occupation, notes Madeleine Bunting, author of a history of the islands’ wartime experiences, officials “justified their actions on the grounds that they had to consider the greater good of the island populations, and that on a few occasions that required the sacrifice of individuals”. The moral dilemmas imposed by occupation could no more be escaped on Jersey than in France or any other territory occupied by the Germans even if the peculiar circumstances of the Channel Islands experience were different.
On Jersey, officials did try to minimise the impact of the Nazis’ anti-semitic decrees. They successfully resisted instructions to make the island’s tiny Jewish population wear gold stars, and Jewish-owned businesses were returned to their proprietors after the war. Such measures at deflection could only go so far, however. Individual Channel Islanders still suffered terribly. “Every day for a year and a half until I was deported to a German concentration camp, I lived in fear and terror”, recalled one Guernsey Jew, Elisabet Duquemin. “Every day I was frightened and did not know if they would take me away, or my baby daughter, or my husband”. All three would be deported; remarkably, each survived.
Yet for many islanders, life had to continue. It was important to maintain a pretence of normality, even in extraordinary times. That meant reaching some kind of an accommodation with the occupying forces. As one Jersey housewife recalled “You couldn’t stay enemies, living side by side for five years.”
Resistance might be heroic but what kind of resistance was possible?
In his memoirs, Ambrose Sherwin, president of Guernsey’s Controlling Committee, remembered his first conversation with the occupying German command: “Please tell Major Lanz that I, too, have been a soldier. I bitterly regret that I am one no longer. As there isn’t a rifle in the island, I realise I must obey orders. As a former soldier, I know how to do this.” Sherwin admitted that it “now sounds ludicrous…but what I hoped to do…was, to the fullest extent possible, to run their occupation for them”. This was necessary both to minimise disruption but also, vitally, to try and preserve some sense of dignity.
Preserving dignity and normality necessarily required significant self-abasement. Speaking to the Jersey parliament in August 1940, Sherwin asked that “this occupation be a model to the world” and expressed the hope that occupiers and occupied might each be able to say “we lived together with tolerance and mutual respect”.
That was a fiction, of course, but perhaps a necessary one. The occupation of the Channel Islands was used by German propagandists to persuade the mainland British they had less to fear from an invasion than they thought. The British government was appalled when, in a radio broadcast just as Britain braced itself for the Nazi onslaught, Sherwin praised the “exemplary” conduct of the occupying German troops. He would defend his actions by saying his intention was to reassure islanders’ relatives in Britain that their families left on the island were coping well. Nevertheless, the contrast with Churchill’s call that Britons would resist invasion by all means was acute and embarrassing.
The occupation of the Channel Islands was understood, by the Germans and the islanders alike, as “a model occupation”. It would, relative to most such experiences, be a civilised affair. One German soldier said: “We felt like holiday-makers”. Another observed: “We were playing at being at war.” Certainly, a berth on Jersey or Guernsey was as comfortable a posting as anywhere in the Nazi empire.
The islanders might pretend they were doing their best but the truth was never far from the surface. Thousands of English-born islanders were deported to Germany.
The shame of occupation is revealed in the testimony given by islanders. According to one Guernseyman: “Newspapers write about the Channel Islands’ occupation in the way they do because this was the only bit of the British Isles which was occupied, and we’re supposed to have reacted like the British would. But we didn’t behave as the British people should. Since the war we have felt like a woman must feel in a rape trial. People accuse her of having led the rapist on. But just as a woman might co-operate for fear of not surviving, so did we.”
Above all, however, the testimony of the islanders themselves reveals the despair they felt at their own palpable inadequacy. When the islands’ small Jewish population were compelled to register with the German authorities, Bob Le Sueur, a Jerseyman, recalled feeling “horrified”. He said: “I still feel it was bad but the Germans might have taken hostages had they refused.” Occasional small-scale commando raids on the islands certainly sparked reprisals. In retaliation for one such raid in early 1943, 200 islanders were deported to German labour camps.
The Guernsey authorities co-operated with German demands that the islanders identify and find the islands’ Jews. Eleven islanders were registered as Jews and at least five Jewish women were deported, three of whom would perish at Auschwitz. The dreadful truth, Bunting argues, is that “no official in either Guernsey or Jersey considered the welfare of a handful of Jews sufficiently important to jeopardise good relations with the Germans”. And since the three women who died at Auschwitz were German or Austrian citizens only relatively-recently arrived on the islands, it is possible their fate was deemed less important than might have been the case had they been island-born.
The greatest burden of occupation was not felt by the islanders, however. Instead it was borne by the thousands of foreign prisoners and citizens of other occupied countries shipped to the Channel Islands to work, essentially as slave labourers, on fortifying the islands. Hitler’s conviction the islands were strategically useful was entirely misplaced but the lure of occupying any kind of British territory proved intoxicating. Some estimates suggest as many as 40 per cent of these imported “workers” perished.
Sparsely-populated Alderney, in particular, became a slave island as thousands of mainly Russian, Polish and Ukrainian prisoners were put to work, ill-fed, susceptible to disease and brutally treated by their German captors. Alderney became a small example of the more general realities of continental occupation. Some islanders did what they could to help these slave labourers – leaving them food or clothing – despite the risks of reprisal.
Increasingly, the islanders felt forgotten and left to their fate. They could see the planes that flew on D-Day but any hopes the islands would soon be rescued were quickly dashed. Though Churchill had asked if they could be retaken, such an operation was deemed a foolish distraction from the much more urgent task of liberating continental Europe. The islands, running ever shorter of food and essential supplies, would have to wait. Liberation, and release, finally arrived 70 years ago this weekend.
The pains of occupation were, for a long-time, discreetly hidden away. It is only in the last quarter-century that a full accounting has been possible. In this respect too, the Channel Islands’ experience mirrors that of other occupied territories. Bunting argues that the islands’ wartime record remains important because “it punctures that British complacent assumption of a national immunity to this combination of amoral bureaucracy and anti-semitism”.
Other historians have taken a more charitable line. “They were told to fend for themselves and they did” said Hugh Trevor-Roper, who warned 20 years ago it would be unwise to use the islanders’ experience as a template for what a Nazi occupation of the British mainland might have been like. “No doubt there would have been collaborators in Britain but the circumstances are so different, I wouldn’t want to generalise.”
Even so, it remains the case that Britain’s “finest hour” in 1940 was the Channel Islands’ darkest hour. The history of their occupation is a sobering story of a hundred daily, petty, humiliations and a thousand squalid moral compromises to maintain – or seem to maintain – the pretence of normality. And, all these years later, it leaves an awkward question hanging, unanswered, in the air: what would you have done? «