German boots on British soil
Off the coast of Normandy, on the far side of the Cotentin Peninsula from the D-Day beaches, lies an archipelago called the Channel Islands. With cultural and historical ties to early Medieval Normandy, even today, the Queen is locally referred to as “the Duke (sic) of Normandy”, the islands are peculiar Crown Dependencies: areas which are part of neither the United Kingdom nor the Overseas British Territories, but for which the British crown is responsible. These islands, most notably Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, along with numerous barely inhabited or uninhabited islets, became the only part of the British Isles to be conquered by Nazi Germany.
The fate of the islands was a done deal when Germany invaded France. Hitler considered the capture of the islands vitally important, both as a propaganda victory over England and as a way of preventing the British from launching attacks against occupied France from there. In contrast, Churchill considered the place both impossible to defend and lacking in any strategic value and ordered the military and the lieutenant-governors removed, leaving the local bailiffs (essentially chief justices) in charge.
When the Battle of France was lost, the British government provided ships for an evacuation. 17,000 of 42,000 people were evacuated from Guernsey; 6,600 of 50,000 from Jersey. Alderney was abandoned by all but some half a dozen residents. Sark was a special case, being at the time the last surviving bastion of genuine feudalism in Britain (and possibly Europe). The Dame of Sark, an eccentric widow named Sibyl Hathaway ruling as de facto benevolent dictator, was adamant on staying and inspired most of the locals to do the same. The German invasion commenced on June 18, 1940 with a bombing of what they thought was still protected Jersey and Guernsey, killing over 40 civilians. Landings and a peaceful takeover happened over the next couple of days.
German occupation took a civilized face at first, though restrictions were quick to arrive. A curfew and ID cards were introduced; cars, boats and radios confiscated; restrictions placed on fishing, changing shop prices and patriotic songs. Less expectably, the time zone was changed to the same as Germany and right-hand traffic was declared. On Sark, Dame Hathaway maintained a friendly but formal relation with German officers, many of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds themselves. She expected (and got) them to visit her on business rather than the other way around and to bow and kiss her hand before being seated.
With one German soldier for every 2-3 locals, a violent uprising was out of the question, but people found stealthy ways to express their resistance. “V for victory” signs were painted on buildings and a stonemason fashioned a letter V in the paving of a square due for repairs. The Guernsey Underground News Sheet (“GUNS”) sprung up: rather than staying hidden, it was frequently posted in public places and thrown into German officers’ cars – at least until a local collaborator betrayed the authors.
Bank notes issued during the occupation were designed by local artist Edmund Blampied, who incorporated a large X in the design, which turned into a V when the note was folded. Reverend Clifford Cohu included BBC news in his sermons until his arrest. A postal worker on Jersey steamed open letters addressed to the German commandant and destroyed the ones from collaborators. Lucille Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe, two lesbian French Jewish artists, produced pamphlets of anti-German poetry, smuggling them into soldiers’ pockets and cigarette packets. They were captured and condemned to death but the Jersey bailiff managed to commute the sentence to prison. Resistors and common criminals were regularly dealt prison sentences, which they often had to serve in German prisons or concentration camps, several of them dying there.
As time passed, the situation gradually got worse. There were very few Jews on the islands and only fewer still were seriously affected by anti-Semitic measures. 2,300 British citizens born elsewhere, however, were deported to camps in Germany as retaliation for the British deportation of German civilians from Iran.
As part of the Atlantic Wall, the islands were fortified with numerous bunkers, forts and artillery positions. So convinced was Hitler of the islands’ strategic value that while the Atlantic Wall ran from the Spanish border to northern Norway, a full 10% of the concrete used to build it was sent to Guernsey alone. The defenses were built in large part by forced labor. Several concentration camps, four of them on abandoned Alderney, were built to house the more than 6,000 workers, most of whom were Jews, Eastern European and Russians. Over 700 of these men and women died of work or on transport ships. Some locals sheltered escaped laborers. Louisa Gould, a local who lost her son in the war took in one such escapee in order to do an act of kindness “for another mother’s son.” She was reported by her neighbor and she was sent to a concentration camp along with her husband, where she perished.
For most of the war, the Germans allowed, even helped, locals to visit occupied France for supplies. After the Allied invasion of France, however, this was no longer a possibility and both civilians and occupiers faced severe food shortages. Liberating the Channel Islands was not a priority for the Allies. Two months after D-Day, Germany offered to release all civilians from the islands except military-age males. The British rejected the offer and Churchill wrote a memo saying “Let ‘em starve. They can rot at their leisure” (though it’s not clear if he meant the Germans or the civilians.)
The islands were finally liberated without a shot on May 9-10, 1945, immediately after V-E Day. 275 German soldiers stranded on Sark were officially placed in Dame Hathaway’s care until they could be retrieved several days later.
The matter of collaboration and coexistence with the Germans was a controversial subject and remains a sensitive matter today. While some individuals certainly collaborated or fraternized (young ladies getting too cozy with soldiers were derogatively nicknamed “Jerrybags”), the population at large didn’t have any means of resisting the occupation and peaceful coexistence was the best they could hope for. The bailiffs of Jersey and Guernsey received both criticism for their role in providing the Germans with a list of Jews and praise protecting the locals in whatever meager ways they could. Regardless of the opinion of contemporaries and of posterity, a month after liberation the islands were visited by the King and the Queen on occasion of the Crown’s oldest holdings, predating even the Norman conquest of Britain, returning into the fold.
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