Friday, 21 November 2014

Walking Through History - Nazi Occupation: Channel Islands

It seems they have made Tony Robinson stop scrabbling around in trenches (by this I mean archaeological digs - come on, he hasn't been Baldrick for over 20 years!) and go on a series of solo walks along routes of historical interest. This week he was on Guernsey and Jersey, learning about the German occupation during the Second World War.

The Channel Islands were occupied between 1940-1945. The Nazis invaded the islands believing they were merely a stepping stone to London. But the Germans got no further. However, the British didn't manage to get rid of them either. Churchill sent a group of 150 elite commandos by boat on a rescue mission to Guernsey, but it was a disaster - one boat crashed, two capsized and one ended up on Sark by mistake. Only 40 men actually arrived at their destination but then couldn't find any Germans. It was apparently the sort of "cunning plan" that Baldrick might have dreamt up.

The Germans built the Atlantic Wall from Norway to the South of France to protect their occupied territory from Allied attack from the west. The Channel Islands were part of this defence scheme. A million tons of concrete were used to build bunkers and sea walls along the beaches of the islands' west coasts, which still stand today. Some have been converted into cafes, some are museums, others simply stand empty and eerie. The whole scheme was never tested (since the Allies eventually came from Normandy in the east, although they never really had any intention of taking the islands back by force) so ended up being a very expensive white elephant. The German soldiers sat around bored in the bunkers and gun emplacements, waiting for a big event that never happened. Some of the younger ones craved to be sent to Russia instead to see more of the action. The older, more experienced soldiers probably realised they were on to a cushy number and should count their blessings and patiently sit out the war instead.

Sea wall at St Ouen's Bay

The Nazis did not treat the Channel Islanders badly, in the grand scheme of things. The Germans were allegedly on a bit of a charm offensive after they invaded, so that the British wouldn't mind as much when they turned up in Southampton. Generally, the Nazis let life on the Channel Islands continue as normal (allowing locals to pray for the Royal Family in church, for example) although the clocks were moved forward to German time and the pound was linked to the mark. The native islanders agreed to help the Germans build bridges and roads, but refused to help them build the sea defences. They could do this with justification, since the Hague Convention forbids the forcing of nationals to work against their own country. Though it seems quite surprising that the Hague Convention was adhered to.

To build the bunkers, gun emplacements and military railway, the Germans imported 16,000 forced and slave labourers. Forced labourers were paid: they came from Western Europe or were Spanish Republicans. The slaves were prisoners of war from Russia and the Ukraine. The Soviets were all treated horrendously. They were starved and beaten, and kept in 12 labour camps across the island. The islanders attempted to protest at the Germans' treatment of the Russians and intervene where they could. Some went so far as to shelter escapees, at great personal risk.

There was collaboration, as citizens denounced their neighbours. Some anonymous letters to the Nazis, warning them of illegal radios or underground activity, are displayed in the War Tunnels. While Tony Robinson comments on their sickening nature, the positive side of them shows that there was at least a Resistance movement in operation on the Islands.

After the D-Day landings, rather than going on to invade the Channel Islands, the Allies decided to try and starve the Germans out. Their aim was to avoid huge loss of civilian life in a large military operation. But unfortunately this "cunning plan" meant that the islanders starved too. They were already battling hunger as a result of food rationing (which limited dietary intake to around 1000 calories a day). The islanders were heavily reliant on substitute food (Tony is made to try some parsnip coffee), but eventually all supplies from outside were cut off. They couldn't fish the seas any more as the beaches were mined. Thankfully, on New Year's Eve on 1944, the Allies allowed the Red Cross to send food aid parcels in to help the islanders survive the winter. By the end of the war, food deprivation meant that Jersey schoolchildren were on average an inch shorter than they should have been for their age.

Eventually, in May 1945, the islands were liberated. Bob Le Sueur, who assisted Russian escapees during the Occupation, remembers suddenly bursting into tears. Uncontrollable sobs, at a time when "it was highly bad form to show any form of emotion in public". But the sight of another man crying nearby made him feel better. Who wouldn't have cried at the years of fear and hunger being over, and at their beautiful island finally being returned to them?

Tony Robinson is blown away by Jersey's stunning coastal scenery on his walk. He is there in the height of summer, the heather is in full bloom, and the sunshine is a bright and cheerful background to the darker, more macabre stories he is telling. The military railway has been replaced by an arboretum of palm, sycamore and oak trees. Yet he also describes a K418F field gun as "beautiful", which struck me as an odd turn of phrase for the machinery of war. And although Tony Robinson hasn't been Baldrick for over 20 years, I couldn't help at this point but have a flashback to Baldrick's poem, The German Guns ("Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!....").

But it is undoubtedly true that the beaches on Jersey are lovely, despite all the concrete. The sand is perfect for making sandcastles, and some of the beaches are overlooked by real castles, like Mont Orgueil at Gorey. The sea surrounding the island is an azure blue, and the cliffs covered in wild flowers. I'd wanted to go to Jersey ever since I was a child, when I spent Saturday nights watching too much Bergerac. (My mother had a massive crush on John Nettles.) We finally spent a fantastic week there a couple of years ago. The style of the houses, French street names, the vineyards and the narrow country lanes framed by foliage made us feel that we had gone more abroad than we had. Until we saw the large Waitrose down the road.

La Mare wine estate

We stayed in a self-catering holiday park called Les Ormes. Accommodation is stupidly expensive on Jersey and this was all that was left that we could afford by the time we got round to booking. The holiday park was situated right beside the airport runway, but on the whole this wasn't a problem. There were no night flights, no Jumbos fly into Jersey and for a toddler “plane-in-sky”s are a novelty. The lodges all had their own hot tub, which is a massive plus when you are being regimented by a two year old's early bedtime.
Les Ormes
Tony Robinson went to the War Tunnels during this programme, a kilometre of tunnels forming an underground hospital complex designed to treat the German wounded in any Allied attack. It was built by Soviet slaves working in challenging and dangerous conditions, though it was never quite finished. It's an impressive and chilling display, brought to life by video diaries and son-et-lumiere effects. I went alone while my husband took our daughter to a nearby park, where they stumbled across Bergerac's car. I was surprisingly jealous.
War Tunnels

Entrance to the underground hospital, Hohlgangsanlage 8

I was more affected by a small military museum in one of the bunkers at St Ouen's Bay. It didn't use fancy gimmicks to tell its story and its displays were cramped and higgledy piggledy. The museum was so disturbing because it was jam-packed with Nazi memorabilia: newspapers, crockery, uniforms, guns, flags. Even an Enigma machine. I had never seen this anywhere before. For obvious reasons, Germans don’t put it on show, and in most places where the Nazis invaded, anything they left behind was destroyed after the war by those who had suffered under their rule. It is telling that all these "souvenirs" survive in Jersey: life was better for the Islanders than in other occupied territories. There were footprints in the concrete on the bunker floor made by the jackboots of German soldiers going about their daily business. They sent a shiver down my spine.

MP2 gun emplacement - now a holiday home

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