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