28 May 2013

Britain's Channel Islands - occupation, resistance and collaboration in WW2

Ace Cultural Tours has a tour called THE CHANNEL ISLANDS: OCCUPATION & RESISTANCE in June 2013.  Once part of the Duchy of Normandy, the islands stayed loyal to King John after his defeat at the Battle of Rouen in 1204, survived French invasions in the 14th & C15th, and were of strategic importance during the Napoleonic wars”. And “The Channel Islands also harbour a darker but no less fascinating past, being the only part of the British Isles to have fallen under German occupation in WW2. Determ­in­ed to make the islands an impreg­nable fortress, the Germans expended 10% of the resour­ces for the entire Atlantic Wall on their fortification. Explore these remarkable preserved and chilling reminders of conflict, and pay attention to the nature of occupation, including resistance and, more painfully, collaboration and slavery.” Lectures and tours will cover the Channel Islands and their Defences, including the Jersey War Tunnels, Elizabeth Castle and Guernsey's German Occupat­ion Museum.

Map of the Channel Islands,
closer to France than to Britain

The Channel Islands are a group of self-governing crown dependencies in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. They comp­rise two separate self governing bailiwicks: Guernsey (capital St Peter Port) and Jersey (capital St Helier), and have a total popul­at­ion of c160,000. The islanders were full British citizens, but the islands themselves were not represented in the UK Parliament.

The British government understood that a German in­vas­ion of the mainland was possible but that an invasion of the channel islands was inevitable. The Germans needed to defend their territorial expansion into France from its western flank. And since defending the Channel Islands was thought to be impossible, the British Government had to make evacuation plans. In June 1940 Whitehall ordered the Chan­nel Is­lands to be demilitarised and sent enough ships went to the islands to allow all isl­ander child­ren to leave. Alas only 24,000 adults sailed to safety.

On 28th June 1940, German bombers on a mission over the Islands bombed Guernsey and Jersey’s harbours. Dozens of islanders were killed. Two days later German planes landed in Guernsey and met no resistance. Thus began the only occupation of the British Isles during wartime by Nazi Germany. The British Government's reaction to the German invasion was silent.

The Channel Islands were amongst the most heavily fortified, with tunnels and bunkers around the islands, esp­ec­ially the island of Alderney which is the closest to France. And light railways were built in Jersey and Guernsey to supply the Germans’ coastal fortif­ications. 66,000 landmines were laid in Jersey alone. Why did the Germans invest a fortune into four small, sparsely pop­ul­ated islands? Militarily the islands were in an ideal location, half way between Britain and France. But mainly because the Islands had huge prop­ag­anda value in Germany. Hit­ler viewed Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark as a jewel in his European empire.

Early in the occupation, the German troops were under strict orders to treat the islanders with respect and show Britain that Germany would be a good master. But that changed. The first few Nazi officers later grow into a fighting force of 28,000 German soldiers.

The majority of established Jewish resident in Jersey had left the island by mid June 1940, before the passport office permanently closed. A list of many of those who had left the island was com­piled by Clifford Orange, the Chief Aliens Officer, and was sent to the German authorities in Jan 1942. Perhaps only 18 Jews remained. German rulings began to appear that required all Jewish resid­ents to register as Jews and that all Jewish businesses should be publicly sign-posted as such. Jewish employ­ees had to be dismissed and replaced by non-Jewish employees.

German soldiers marching in the main shopping streets.
They had a very visible presence in Guernsey and Jersey in particular. 

Then the German authorities announced that all residents of the Channel Islands who were not born in the islands, AND those men who had served as officers in WW1, were to be deported. In the event 2,200 islanders were deported to camps in South West Germany.

The German forces consolidated. They brought in infantry, built com­munications and anti-aircraft defences, and started an air service with France. They closed telephone lin­es to the British main­land. The island news papers carried proclamations from the Com­mand­ant ordering a night curfew, handing-in of weapons, surrender of soldiers, suspension of petrol sales and the banning of boats.

The British Channel Island authorities coop­erated and largely administered much of the new legislation, handing overall control to the German authorities. Occupation money was issued in Guernsey to keep the economy going. German military forces used their own occupation money for payment of goods and services. The German authorities changed the Channel Island time zone to bring the islands into line with continental Europe, and the rule of the road was also changed to driving on the right.

There was little resistance movement in the Channel Islands as there was on main­land France, probably because of the small size and physical separation of the islands. In any case, much of the pop­ulation of military age, those most likely to join any resistance movement, had already left the islands and joined the British or French armed forces. But there was passive resis­tance!

In April 1942, the first Jewish deportation began from Guernsey. Four Jewish women were taken to Germany then exterminated in a Polish death camp. Anglican islanders with a Jewish grandparent were subjected to the Orders Pertaining to Measures Against the Jews. Who coll­aborated with the Germans in discovering who'd had Jewish antec­edents decades earlier? And why were these measures administered by the Bailiff and the Aliens Office, since the citizens in question were Anglicans in good standing?

The Channel Islands Military Museum is now in a former German bunker in Jersey, 
then part of their Atlantic Wall defences.

The Germans built four prison camps in Alderney, sub offices as it were of the Neuengamme concentration camp outside Hamburg. The Nazi Organisation Todt operated each sub-camp and used forced labour (Jewish and Christian) from Poland or Russia to build bunkers, gun emplacements, air raid shelters and concrete fortifications. The camps started Jan 1942 and eventually had a total inmate pop of 6,000 of whom 700 died.

During June 1944, the Allied Forces launched the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy. They bypassed the Channel Islands due to the heavy fortifications constructed by German Forces, as discus­sed above. However, the consequence of this was that German supply lines for food and other supplies through France were completely severed. The islanders and 28,000 German forces alike were on the point of starvation. Churchill still did nothing.

Only in December 1944 could the International Red Cross get a food ship to relieve the starving island­ers. Liberation finally came when an Allied task force arrived off St Peter Port, Guernsey in May 1945. Islanders were informed by the German authorities that the war was over and a declaration of unconditional surrender was soon signed. British forces landed in St Peter Port shortly afterwards, greeted by crowds of joyous but half starved islanders. They may have been British subjects but they were not defend­ed, fed or rescued by their own government during the entire war. 

The German officer in charge of Alderney's prison camps burned the camps to the ground and destroyed all rec­ords, just before the island was liberated by British forces. At Sylt Camp, only the gates remain with a 2008 plaque. Many of the other bunkers, batteries and tunnels were not destroyed by the retreating Germans and can still be seen. Some German fortifications have been preserved as museums, including the Underground Hospitals built in Jersey and Guernsey. Liberation Square in St Helier Jersey has a great liberat­ion sculpture. The German Occupat­ion War Museum in Guernsey is really worthwhile!

Fort Henry, Jersey
became part of the German defence complex

How much of the Island tragedy, ending of Jewish life and business, was due to neglect of Jewish islanders by the local British auth­or­ities? And could this have been a taste of what would happen in mainland Britain, if Germany had won the war? In The Jews Of The Channel Islands And The Rule Of Law 1940-1945, David Fraser notes that high ranking island government, police and bureauc­rats did not try to protect or hide their resident Jews. Following the liberation of 1945, allegations of collaboration with the occupying authorities were investigated but no-one was ever arrested and tried.

Readers might also like Dr Paul Sanders’ book, The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation 1940-5.


iancochrane said...

Enjoyed the read Hels.
Another piece of the jigsaw that I've known very little of.

I've no doubt events on the UK mainland would have gone down the same track if a successful invasion had taken place.

Cheers, ic

Pat said...

My aunt was evacuated from Jersey in 1940 when the ships arrived, thankfully. But when she talked after the war about the non-protection of the islands, she felt the British government had betrayed them.

Andrew said...

I knew some of the war history of the islands, but not the Jewish aspect. My partner's brother in law's sister lives in Jersey and I had no idea it was so close to France.

Hels said...


Four deadly prison camps were built on Alderney alone, aguably one of the smallest and least populated islands in the world.

So you can imaine what the Germans would have done to densely populated, rich and important Britain. Imagine the bunkers, gun emplacements, concrete forts, air force comands and ports that would have been taken over or built :(

Hels said...


I understand that the British goverment couldn't afford to fritter away their limited war resources defending small and remote islands. But residents of the four islands were British citizens like any others. To abandon them to German prison conditions and to starvation was the ultimate in betrayal *agreed*

Hels said...


The map is very telling, isn't it?

But how different was the British Government's plan to cut off the Channel Islands.. from The Brisbane Line that the Australian government would have implemented, had Japan invaded.

Everything from Brisbane to Adelaide would have been vigorously defended; everything north of Brisbane or west of Adelaide would have been sacrificed.

stephen said...

There was no Polish Concentration camps these were soley Nazi /German camps please ammend this untruth.

Anonymous said...

The term ' Polish death camp' is offensive and incorrect. The German Nazis established the 'death camps' on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

Anonymous said...

There were no "Polish" death camps, concentration camps, labor camps, extermination camps, etc. The camps were established and operated on territory the Germans invaded, occupied, and despoiled during World War Two. The first victims of the camps were Polish Christians. Please refrain from blaming the victims by using this history-distorting terminology.

Hels said...

stephen, Kuba and anonymous

I actually made a mistake. Three women, Auguste Spitz, Marianne Grunfield and Therese Steiner, were indeed murdered in Polish death camps as I quoted from the island records. But Louisa Gould, the fourth woman, was taken to Ravensbrück. So I apologise - she was murdered in a German death camp.

Only one of the four women had any connection with Poland. Marianne Grunfeld was born in Katowice, Poland in 1912 and was murdered in 1942 in Auschwitz.

Jan Niechwiadowicz said...

They were German death camps imposed on occupied Poland. Please stop lying. There have never been any Polish death camps.

((Titles at time of making statement))

Australian Press Board: After a series of protests from the Central Council of Polish Organizations in Australia, the Australian Press Board ruled on May 14, 1999 (in favor of the Central Council) that the expression "Polish death camps" could mislead Australian readers, is offensive to Poles, and therefore violates the principles of Australian journalism.

Senator Humphries (Australian Capital Territory): The article goes on to say that she discovered that her mother had perished in ‘a Polish concentration camp’. This is a perfect example of the journalistic misconceptions tormenting people of Polish origin. From the way the journalist has worded this sentence one could be forgiven for thinking that the Poles were running the concentration camps. Bearing these facts in mind, I can see how distressing it must be to Polish people all over the world when such terms as ‘Nazi Poland’, ‘Polish concentration camps’ and ‘Polish ghettos’ are used by newspaper columnists and TV commentators writing or reporting for the press. Sadly, such terminology is repeatedly used by journalists in this country.

Andrzej Jaroszyski (Polish ambassador to Australia): Any reference to "Polish concentration camps" is entirely inaccurate, deeply unjust and offensive to all Polish people//This is not a mere semantic matter. Historical integrity and accuracy hang in the balance.

Janusz Rygielski (President of Polish Community Council of Australia): The phrase, "Polish death camps" is very straightforward and is both factually and historically incorrect. Hundreds of thousands of Poles died in those camps, which were set up in Poland and run by the Germans after Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. This is historical fact which can not be rewritten or changed

David Marwell (director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage Museum in New York, which focuses on the Holocaust): Although the phrase `Polish Death Camp' may simply be shorthand to describe location, there are many who wrongly conflate the geography of the camps with those who ran them. When it comes to such important issues, absolute clarity and accuracy are essential.

Bernard Korbman (President Australia Society of Polish Jews and Their Descendants): This is not about semantics, it is not about political correctness, it is about historical accuracy, it is about recognising the tragic loss of life, displacement and suffering by Poles during World War II. It is about not belittling or destroying the integrity and dignity of an entire nation through falsehood and innuendo.

Hels said...


Thank you for that detailed response. I have cited my sources in detail and quoted their text without any editorialising of my own. My recommendation is for you to write to the Guernsey Occupation Museum, to Fraser and perhaps to Sanders.

Jan Niechwiadowicz said...

My comments regard your reply i.e. Three women, Auguste Spitz, Marianne Grunfield and Therese Steiner, were indeed murdered in Polish death camps as I quoted from the island records. The term is universal condemn and the United Nations even renamed Auschwitz to emphasis the Germans were responsible. Would you like more material? I have hundreds of pages of material on this issue.

Heather Cowper said...

I learned about the occupation of the channel islands when I visited Guernsey and found it fascinating - I somehow had the idea before I visited that the local population had lived under a rather benevolant regime which was far from the truth. I found the history of the slave workers imported from Eastern Europe was also quite chilling

Hels said...


I couldn't agree more. But to be fair, I think Guernsey has done a really good job on recreating World War Two history for its own citizens and for visitors.

Alderney, in particular, has not. So there is no way you would have known about the four prison camps with slave workers from the East. Nor the projects that the slave workers on Alderney had to do.

Anonymous said...

Hels, you were indeed mistaken about "three women...murdered in a Polish death camp". There was no such thing. Poland did not even exist as a nation during World War Two, so this terminology is untrue even as a geographic descriptor!

Anonymous said...

To Hels
Your excuse for not changing the text so as to not call a German concentration camp "Polish" is pretty lame and ridiculous, besides being offensive and insensitive to the families of the millions of ethnic Poles who were killed, forced into slave labor, tortured, taken away from their families, maimed, terrorized, burned, bludgeoned, turned into soap, starved, etc. during the brutal and inhuman occupation of Poland by Germany.
The camps were in German occupied Poland and were created by German Nazis in the name of "Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles" and "Lebensraum" for Germans!
If you MUST refer to Poland, Poles or Polish in association with these horrific places
in which Poles also suffered purely because of their ethnic background then you must clearly identify the victimization of the Poles, which , of course, you did not, AND/OR clearly identify the ethnic identification of those who designed, created and ran them, namely Germans, which you also did not do. Otherwise, leave Poland out of the article!
FYI. The proper reference to the camps would be one of the following:
- Museum/Memorial of the former GERMAN camp in PRESENT DAY Poland
- Museum/Memorial of the former GERMAN NAZI camp in PRESENT DAY Poland
- GERMAN camp in occupied Poland
- GERMAN Nazi camp in occupied Poland
- GERMAN camp in Nazi occupied Poland
- Nazi camp in GERMAN occupied Poland
- GERMAN Nazi camp in German occupied Poland

Hels said...


"these horrific places in which Poles also suffered purely because of their ethnic background then you must clearly identify the victimization of the Poles, which, of course, you did not.."

Despite the avalanche of letters re Poland, some interesting and others not, this post was about the Channel Islands and Britain. I won't publish any more anonymous letters or letters that don't deal with the British experience of the war.

Mandy Southgate said...

What a fascinating read Hels and I just had to share it with my friends, one of whom has recently moved to Guernsey. I am not surprised that many of the islanders felt betrayed. I realise impossible decisions had to be made but would Britain have accepted them leaving London out to dry like that?

Hels said...


I give two history papers each year at Limmud Oz conference, this year in Sydney. I cannot tell you how many people asked me about two papers that I gave within the last 4 years on - a] occupation, resistance and collaboration on the Channel Islands; and b] the Isle of Man internment camps. Amazing!


Victoria said...

This is cool!