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Jersey, and the Channel Islands Occupation

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Jersey is a truly picturesque island, with varying degrees of scenery and landscape at each and every sharp corner you turn.  From the mysterious feel of Green Island to the majestic view of Corbiere Lighthouse as the power of the waves thrash against its surrounding rocks.  With the ever-present sound of the sea and wildlife all around, this island; the largest in the Channel Islands, is truly spoilt for beauty.


Moving inland, there is the familiar sight of the grazing herd of Jersey cows, with their big beautiful eyes without a care in the world, ready to supply and spoil the islanders and visitors alike as they indulge in their plentiful rich milk and of course the famous cream tea’s.  There is woodland, valleys, and the extraordinarily narrow green lanes which force you into a slower pace of life.  The farmer working the fields, the silver glint of his plough cutting through the rich and precious soil that will yield the next crop of the famous renowned Jersey Royal potatoes.


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As the sun sets and the hazy mist draws in, there are shadows lurking in the failing light, a ghost in the realm, with the darkened silhouettes of old fortifications all around a reminder that in this small Islands history there have been many darker days.


The Occupation Years


With War becoming an imminent threat drawing closer to the Island shores the lives of the islanders was about to drastically change, and in June 1940 people began fleeing the islands, including the last of the troops.  Some islanders choose to evacuate but many were simply not prepared to leave their much-loved island.


It had been decided that the Channel Islands would not be defended but this information had not filtered through to the German’s resulting in an attack on both Jersey and Guernsey ports on the 28th June 1940.  Lorries queued packed ready to export the islands well known produce (tomatoes in the case of Guernsey) were mistaken for military vehicles by the Luftwaffe.  The attack caused devastation and sadly resulted in the loss of innocent lives.


The German forces then arrived completely unchallenged, Guernsey being occupied on June 30th and Jersey on the 1st July 1940, the surrounding Channel Islands Sark and Alderney would also endure the same fate.  Herm also part of the Channel Islands was mainly left alone apart from being used as an area to shoot a propaganda film ‘The invasion of the Isle of Wight’.   This was because the arriving forces believed that the war would be very short, over in a matter of weeks.  In reality this would be the start of almost five long hard years of occupation which would put great strain on all the islanders, leaving permanent scars for many.


Changes to Island life


The Islands Government was left to be the go between the enemy occupiers and the islanders.   A difficult position which they had never been in before which undoubtedly must have led to mistakes.  A harsh and cold result of war always leads to opposing and differing opinions.  Decisions made which may have sometimes not always felt morally in line with protecting the islanders, but that is not for us to question unless we have personally lived through those times.  In contrast there are many stories where great lengths were taken at high risk by those left making the decisions which resulted in lives being saved.


Very difficult times, and to gain some form of understanding it is important to read through the history of time which can only be described by those present during those troubled years.  I found myself in the possession of a book written by such a man Joe Miere who writes honestly and expressively about those captive years.  The name of his book ‘Never to be forgotten’ completely drew me in as it is synonymous with my own father’s morals and beliefs which was our passion and driving force for creating articles such as this on our website.  I am a firm believer that an understanding of the past gives us a greater appreciation for our present.  I would therefore highly recommend that anyone interested in learning more about the occupation years of Jersey should read this book.


There were many contrasts in the way in which people actively choose to live through the occupation years.  Some befriended the enemy and arguably aligned their beliefs close to theirs, some even fell in love.


Others were determined to fight for their rights, and independence of their land which resulted in small pockets of resistance groups being formed, doing what they could to undermine and annoy the enemy.  


Such acts as the V for Victory campaign where the sign was captured across many aspects over the island.  The V sign inspired by Churchill, but a symbol far reaching encapsulated by many, irritating the captors but inspiring the captured bringing unity across many unexpected lands.  A Stonemason subtly incorporated a V sign in the paving stones of Royal Square, later to be changed to Red Cross Ship Vega which I will cover later but what turned out to be a life line for the islanders.


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There were several areas of society that would suffer the most; Jews, Freemasons and any group that had a presence of a uniform would come under question often resulting in great suffering.


Locals were persecuted for being in possession or listening to wireless radio sets.  Many persisted to defy the enemy hiding crystal radio sets wherever they could, distributing information however they could and even underground publications were secretly operating.


However, during occupation, some turned on each other, fight for survival perhaps, some may deem the ultimate betrayal.  Who really has the right to condemn another's life, maybe some did reflect upon their decisions later but it was a period of uncertainty, and as such hard for us to comment on now.


There were many that what were deemed political prisoners held at the Gloucester St Prison, and for others their fate would become even worse sent to concentration camps enduring unimaginable conditions.  Reading the stories of these conditions can only be described as harrowing, actually living through them most have been unbearable and those that did survive must have lived with it for the rest of their lives.  A scar that would never heal.


Forced labour camps


Hitler saw the invasion and occupation of the Channel Islands as a triumph a mini victory over the UK, a hold in which no way he wanted to release he wanted to make the islands "impregnable fortresses".


This resulted in forced labour arriving on the island.  Fritz Todt initiated what Hitler called Organisation Todt, a military engineering company using forced labour, later to administer construction of concentration camps.  Todt visited the Channel Islands in November 1941 supervising the first arrival of ‘Todt workers' eventually of whom there were around 1600.  This total was largely made up of Russians, Spaniards, French but also included many other nationalities that should not be forgotten.  Many were treated badly, lack of food, poor clothing in most cases not even footwear they were treated as slaves in a quest to build bunkers, gun emplacements, tunnels and engulf the island in a concrete shell.


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A large number of camps were built across the entire Channel Islands to house the workers and prisoners.   Alderney a smaller sister Island to Jersey had 4 camps ‘Lagers’ each camp being named after German Islands with Lager Sylt being the most notorious, a concentration camp the only one to have been held on British soil.  


It is impossible to know the number of lives lost within these brutal camps, especially when it was believed that some cemeteries had large open graves only filled in when they reached capacity.

There was no honour, no respect and certainly no dignity.


Many locals witnessed the brutality shown towards these prisoners; it was a desperate situation that would have many consequences in the local community.  In a state of starvation searching for food and just pure survival instincts some of these prisoners escaped, for some it ended in tragedy.


In some cases the escapees were so desperate and beyond reason that they committed offences even murder, for others they still had their mind and reasoning intact and simply wanted a safe haven, it is in these cases that some islanders took the ultimate risk to harbour them and try to give them a life beyond what they had previously experienced.


Many years ago, I visited the site of Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, a sobering experience giving some insight into isolation and a necessity to evade the enemy, we can only imagine how it must have felt, the pure fear of capture, knowing only too well the outcome that would ultimately bring.  This must have been the feeling for the islanders who took the risk to give the escapees a new life let alone around every corner that someone would report them to the Germans for doing so.  It must have been the feeling for the escapee as well, the true fear each and every day of being captured once again.


Ultimately this great strength in courage and character for all concerned resulted in many people being found out and perishing in concentration camps.  I am sure those that survived were ever grateful for the risk those brave people took.


War drawing to a close


June 1944 saw dramatic events in the development of the war with the D-Day landings in Normandy.  The heavy fortifications that had been employed in the Channel Islands were simply ignored and bypassed.  The result of the battles in France was that all food supplies to the islands would now be cut off.  This was a turning point and hardship to both the occupiers and the islanders would ensue.


Nearing the end of their reign on the islands, hunger, the remoteness and sheer desperation was beginning to prevail but of course that was the same for the islanders to.  One wonders if they felt left abandoned, in some areas they could see events happening across in Normandy.   In Sark particularly the blast of the bombs and devastation across the shores could be felt on the island and at times they must have wondered what would happen next.


Eventually as the situation deteriorated further the German government finally accepted most vital food and medical aid for the civilians on the island.  This is where the Swedish ship SS Vega would play its part.  The red cross ship was due to leave Lisbon 8th Dec 1944 destined for the islands it actually left on the 20th December.  It arrived in Guernsey 7 days later on the 27th and Jersey on the 31st December.


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Of course, none of the parcels and vital supplies were destined for the Germans, they unloaded everything knowing this and moral for them and sheer desperation surely would have been setting in, a feeling of complete demoralisation.


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The Vega was truly a saviour to the islanders and it was to make six more journeys carrying relief, hope and simply a lifeline.  The 6th and final visit would be after liberation.  After over four long and very hard years of occupation the islanders would finally have some hope.


On the 8th May 1945 the long-awaited news that war was finally over was announced to the Islanders by the occupiers.  Later that day Churchill made a speech advising that “our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today”.


It was on the 9th May when a very historical moment would take place on a destroyer vessel HMS Bulldog which had already made its mark during the course of the war being responsible for recovering the Engima machine and codes from a German submarine.  Something that proved to be so pivotal in the outcome of the war in itself.  


Now it was to etch itself further into the pages of history in St Peter’s Port Guernsey where onboard the German forces would finally surrender the Islands.  HMS Beagle carried out a similar role in its quest to liberate Jersey.


On the 10th May liberating soldiers arrived in Sark, and Alderney was liberated on 16th May not before the Germans had destroyed all POW camps documents and records.


Now the locals had nothing to hide, their bravery and heroic actions could be revealed without hiding in the shadows, looking over the shoulder wondering, waiting for a knock on the door, the house to be searched or those harbouring labourers to be found out.


Of course, many would not return to the Islands, paying the ultimate price, lost overseas in the notorious concentration camps, or lost at sea during the many escape attempts that took place from the Islands.   There was a sad ending for so many.


All of what had gone before would bring a liberation of two perspectives, the celebration, delight and freedom for many, but for those who had aligned themselves more with the occupiers a level of mistrust and isolation would undoubtedly have been directed at them.


It was not only the locals that had to readjust after the long years of occupation but the Island itself had also drastically changed.  The remains of the labour camps and tunnels all hiding their dark secrets, to the mass of fortifications, gun emplacements and the mines dangerously positioned in both the land and sea, it was clear that this Island would face a long period of recovery.  


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Island life today


With the long dark days behind them, the Island now still retains its beauty, albeit with the constant reminder etched on its landscape of those days gone by.


An Island steeped in history, which has evolved over the course of time, a complete contrast to those final few painful months when the Islanders and captures where starving.  Now as you travel around the Island, you sense the pride in its independence especially in its wonderful home fare, grown in the soil, fresh from the field, or straight from the sea.   With an abundance of farm shops, cafés and restaurants ever in abundance, the smell of food continually wafts through the air.  


As the generations move forward it is important that the past is never forgotten along with the sacrifices made of those gone before.  As you travel around not only take in the most breath-taking views but also take a moment to note the memorials scattered across the Island.  These are ever present as they should be, a reminder to us all of how lucky we are in the lives we lead today.


Click here to see some of the many memorials in Jersey.