20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK's Channel Islands
20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands

Shannon Quinn - February 16, 2019

In May of 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the British Channel Islands and claimed it as a new territory for the Third Reich. The stories of the thousands of people who lived through this occupation for five years are often forgotten to the rest of the world, but the memories still live on for the people who live in the Channel Islands today. The story of the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands is fascinating, because during those five years, there were pockets of resistance, new Nazi structures erected by slave labor, deportations to concentration camps, secret missions to try to undermine the Germans, forbidden romance, and so much more.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Before the occupation, people had built air raid shelters on the islands. Credit: TheIslandWiki

20. The Channel Islands Were Left Undefended

In 1940, Belgium and France had already fallen to the Third Reich. After the Blitzkrieg in London, the French and British governments evacuated the Channel Islands. They knew it was likely they would be taken over by the Germans. The British garrison had already left on June 15, 1940, because Churchill felt that it was far more important to have the troops, weapons, and supplies defending the mainland.

On June 28, the Germans bombed the islands. There were 44 civilian casualties, and 70 wounded. Just one ship was in the harbor shooting at the Germans, but it was manned by one brave civilian. When the air traffic controller at the Guernsey airport first spotted the German airplanes landing on the island, the Lieutenant calmly ordered for the British Union Jack flag to be taken down from its pole. Sir Alexander Coutanche, who was the Bailiff of Jersey at the time, politely came out to give them an official surrender. Then, he went home to his wife, and they had dinner together.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
A group of children getting ready to evacuate before the Nazis arrive. Credit: TheIslandWiki

19. Thousands Chose to Evacuate the Islands

When the British government announced that they were basically going to give up the Channel Islands to the Germans, they gave every citizen the option of leaving on ships. Many children were sent to England without their parents, while they stayed behind to watch over their houses. The vast majority of the remaining population were adults, but some people chose to keep their families together. In retrospect, it almost seems obvious that they should choose to leave. However, at the time, people truly debated their options. Some were afraid of the evacuation boats being shot by German submarines.

The ones who chose to stay behind called the people who left “cowards”, and said that it was their duty to protect their homes. Over 25,000 people chose to leave before the Germans got there, but tens of thousands of people stayed, despite knowing the potential danger they were putting themselves in. On the island of Jersey, 41,101 people remained (470 on Guernsey, 470 in Sark, and only 18 in Alderney.) They did not want to leave their homes, or they may not have had anywhere else to go on the mainland. Those who chose to stay would later regret it, because the Germans did not show any mercy. According to one survivor, the German planes flew over the beaches in Geurnesey and shot at a crowd of very young children, killing them all.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
People used secret crystal radios from watch parts, hiding pieces away in hollowed books. Credit: TheIslandWiki

18. Citizens Resisted As Often As They Could

At first, the German soldiers who took over the island were impressed with the immediate surrender, and they were totally satisfied that the British had accepted their fate and given up without a fight. They claimed that they would only leave behind ten soldiers, and the leaders of the Channel Islands breathed a collective sigh of relief, believing that life could continue as normal. Some people tried to escape the islands on rowboats, but many of them were killed attempting to leave.

The people who stayed behind were strong, and they did not want to give up their homes. They believed that it was their duty to fight the Nazis whenever they could. Two of the Nazi soldiers were murdered in their beds when they stayed at a hotel, and then the German doctor was killed when one of the civilians went in for a checkup. This changed everything. The Germans now believed that this peaceful surrender was simply a trap, and that they were trying to regain their control over the islands again. In response, they sent dozens of troops in order to try to keep the population under control. However, this did not stop more acts of defiance. For example, the Airport Controller on Jersey, Charles Rouche, ordered the grass to be cut to only 2 inches, which was not enough friction to land a plane, and it caused German planes to crash land. Anyone who was caught defying the Germans, however, were either executed on the spot, or sent to a concentration camp.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Germans in a room full of radios that were confiscated from British people’s homes. Credit: TheIslandWiki

17. The British Citizens Lived Under Strict Rules

Once the Nazis took over the Channel Islands, the British people were immediately made into second-class citizens, and they were forced to bow down to the German way of life. The Germans enforced a five o’clock curfew every evening for all British citizens, and all citizens were made to carry around identification papers. Police officers were forced into the demeaning job of becoming chauffeurs for the Nazi officers, even though they continued wearing their old uniforms. Germans were the only people allowed to drive a car, so vehicles were confiscated. This meant that the only way to get around was by bike or by foot. Bike tires would pop, and without any available replacements, people were forced to simply ride around on bikes without tires.

The children who remained on the islands were forced to have all of their classes taught in German, and all of the signs on the island were changed to the language as well. Clocks were changed to German time, and people were no longer allowed to use English Pounds, and they could only buy things in Reichsmarks. No one was allowed to go fishing, because the beach was now filled with so many land mines, no one could get anywhere near the ocean.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
A German marching band went through the streets in Geurnsey.. Credit: TheIslandWiki.org

16. German Propaganda Claimed That Life Continued as Normal

Germans cut off citizens’ ability to communicate with England, so they never heard any news or instructions from their government. They were very literally all alone in figuring out what to do. The newspaper on the Channel Islands was taken over, and the printing press was used to publish a paper in German for the men living on the islands, and they instructed the editor to print their propaganda. Their instructions for what to say were written in their broken English, so the editor decided that he would not make any corrections, and printed their propaganda word-for-word. This way, the English citizens would be able to tell from the broken English that this was propaganda, and they could not trust anything that was written in the paper.

Of course, the Nazis did not believe in freedom of speech. A group of journalists attempted to publish an underground newspaper called the “Guernsey Underground News Service” or GUNS for short. They listened to their radios to pick up on the news from England, and they published the truth in their own paper, and passed it around the islands. Unfortunately, these men were caught, and sent to concentration camps. Two of these men never returned home.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
One of the Nazi bunkers that is still standing in Alderney. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

15. The Island of Alderney Was Transformed Into a Concentration Camp

One of the smallest Channel islands, called Alderney, only had one small village of people living on it. Every single citizen unanimously agreed that they were going to evacuate and go to England. So, when the Germans arrived, they saw this completely empty island as the perfect opportunity to turn it into one large concentration camp. At first, people who resisted the Germans were sent to concentration camps in mainland Europe, but after the camp construction was complete, anyone who disobeyed the rules was sent to the Alderney, since it was close by.

No one was allowed to know what went on in Alderney, and even the Germans who worked there refused to speak about what they had seen after World War II was over. However, stories circulated quietly that prisoners were made to jump into the ocean to drown. Others were tortured and executed. When the war was over, thousands of human bones were found all over Alderney island, and divers found even more bodies in the water just off the shore.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Old women standing next to the Swastika spray painted on a wall. Credit: BBC

14. Swastikas Were Painted All Over The Islands

When the Nazi soldiers took over the Channel Islands, they couldn’t exactly decorate with the traditional flags, statues, and more. The war was in full swing, and while they planned to completely modify everything once Germany had secured their victory, decoration was not exactly a priority. So the Nazi soldiers settled for destroying any signs that the island was ever owned by Great Britain. They spray painting swastikas on the walls of buildings as a way to mark their territory. As time went on, the Germans would import signs and more symbols of the Third Reich, but much of that original graffiti remained for a long time.

Of course, once the occupation was over in 1945, many of the Nazi soldiers were forced to clean up a lot of the damage they had made on the island, but the British people did plenty of cleaning, too, and they were forced to do a lot of maintenance and repair on the buildings that had been seriously damaged during the occupation.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
These supplies from the Red Cross did not come until 1944. Credit: BBC

13. Citizens Lived on Substitute Foods and Nearly Died of Starvation

Before the Germans had occupied the islands, there was an order to cull all of the cows, so that the meat could be handed out to the citizens. Some of it was handed over to the Germans when they were ordered to, but much of it was kept secret by the butchers. This only helped for a short while, obviously, and soon, there was little to no meat on the islands at all. Sea mines were all around the coast, so citizens could not fish and get food the old-fashioned way. Normally, farmers on the Channel Islands sold corn seed to England, but they were forced to plant it again and ground it into corn flour. The Germans gave them ration cards, and they ate what were called “substitute foods”.

After D-Day, one would think that British people got a lot of help from England to get back to normal, but the unfortunate reality was that food rations actually became far worse for the islanders. Without the Germans bringing in their supplies, they were left with a winter of absolutely no food. Even though the Red Cross did their best to help, people were surviving on seaweed and parsnip tea. They had to send a letter to England for help, but it took a very long time for the Red Cross to finally show up with more food.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
The Red Cross ship pulling in to St. Peter’s Port. Credit: BBC

12. The Red Cross Saved Citizens From Certain Death

By the winter of 1944, the Germans were not giving enough food to the people occupying the islands. The crops had been taken over by the Nazis, so no one was able to hold on to any supplies for the winter. This meant that people were starving, and they desperately needed help. A man named Tom Jehan explained to the BBC that inside of his house, as well as both his entire front and back yard was turned into a garden. He tried to plan cabbages and whatever else he could manage to grow, and yet it was still not enough to supply him and his family enough food throughout the winter. Despite being prisoners of Germany, there was not enough to go around, and The Third Reich refused to pay for anything the British people needed.

In November of 1944, the military officials gave the Bailiff of Guernsey, Victor G. Carey, permission to contact the British Red Cross and ask for help. He wrote the following letter; Conditions rapidly deteriorating here. Will soon become impossible. We appreciate difficulties, but civilian population need urgent supplies of essentials. We urge immediate visit of Red Cross Representatives. All rations drastically reduced. Bread finishes December 15th. Sugar finishes January 6th. Fat production much below subsistence levels. Ration of mild reduced to one third of a point per head by the end of the year. Soap and other cleaners, stocks completely exhausted. Vegetables generally inadequate to supply civilian population, through the winter. German consumption heavy. Salt exhausted. Clothing and footwear stock almost exhausted. Fuel, gas and electricity finish end of year. Coal stocks exhausted. Wood fuel inadequate. Many essential medical supplies finished.”

The Germans allowed a Red Cross ship to come to the islands without threat of being gunned down by submarines. Just before Christmas in 1944, a ship called The S. S. Vega brought supplies from the Red Cross. They brought nearly all of the supplies on Carey’s list, as well as “luxuries” like large tins of coffee, milk, sweet corn, tea, and more. They say that without the help of the Red Cross, they surely would have died of starvation during the occupation.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Nazis when they took over the Jersey Airport, which is where the Commandos swarmed during Operation Ambassador. Credit: TheIslandWiki.org

11. Operation Ambassador Attempted to Infiltrate the Islands

In June of 1940, the Germans officially occupied the Channel Islands, and the British gave them up without a fight. Secretly, behind the scenes, Winston Churchill was planning to send some of his new secret agent commandos to the Channel Islands. The original plan was to raid the island, but after they learned that the Germans had already fortified the island, it made their plan a little more complicated. From the 14th to the 15th of July in 1940, men from the newly formed British Commandos planned an attack on the German airplanes in the Guernsey airport.

Lieutenant Hubert Nicolle was a Guernsey native who wanted to be one of the first commandos on the scene. They arrived in a submarine, and Nicolle was able to discover that there were only 469 German soldiers occupying the island. Even though multiple groups of commandos, there were a lot of mishaps that made their mission a total flop. One of the groups accidentally landed on the island of Sark, instead of Guernsey. At 12:30 AM, only 40 men were able to actually get onto the island of Guernsey, but they could not find any German soldiers at all. Many of the men had to swim back to the submarine in order to get back to their rendezvous point on time, but some of the soldiers were left behind, because they did not know how to swim. The raid was a total failure, because none of the goals were actually achieved. The Germans did not even know that it had happened until after the war was over.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Observation tower built by the Nazis during the occupation. Credit: WikimediaCommons

10. Adolf Hitler Wanted to Fortify The Channel Islands

Adolf Hitler was determined not to lose the Channel Islands, but it wasn’t so he could have a vacation home with beach-front property. He was extremely proud that he was able to get any British territory, especially since he wanted Germany to become the next worldwide empire. So he ordered the creation of concrete walls, bunkers, and barbed wire to line the coasts to ensure that no one could possibly liberate them so long as World War II was still going.

The citizens of the Channel Islands were considered to be prisoners of war. Hitler wanted to trade ten German prisoners for every one British citizen that had been captured in the Channel Islands. However, the United Kingdom did not want to negotiate with them, especially since they had already given everyone the opportunity to evacuate ahead of time. Some of the German soldiers actually believed that they had landed on the Isle of White, and that they were already living in England.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
These deportation notices were hung around the Channel Islands. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

9. Hitler Ordered Mass Deportations From the Channel Islands

Even though the population of the Channel Islands was a fraction of what it had been before, Adolf Hitler still believed that there were too many British people on his new islands, so he ordered that thousands of British women and children be deported to German internment camps. They were given black bread and potatoes to survive on, so the Red Cross tried to give them care packages with other supplies whenever possible. Some people were deported to prison camps in Europe. Teenage boys around the age of 16 were often targeted for deportation, because there was a large population of boys who chose not to evacuate, and they were also too young to go to war. Hitler believed they would end up potentially causing an issue for the Germans when they grew into men.

For years, records of what happened to many of the deported citizens were kept a secret. In 2010, a briefcase full of papers was found in the back of a wardrobe full of records of what happened to these people. People who were deported were never told where they had actually been taken. Many were in damp prison cells without very much sunlight, and they were forced to witness their friends and family members killed by the guillotine. The Nazis would take at least 25 people per week to behead them. According to these testimonies, they were near starvation, and denied all basic human rights.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Miriam Jay’s gravestone (left) and her at a party (right). Credit: BBC

8. Miriam Jay Was a Jewish Woman Who Hid In Plain Sight

Miriam Jay was a Jewish woman who live on the island of Guernsey, and she worked as a secretary for an insurance broker. When she was given the opportunity to leave the island, she refused, saying that she needed to continue working for her employer, even though she knew that the Nazis had a reputation for killing jews. Somehow, she managed to stay alive during the give years of occupation, even though other Jewish people were deported and sent to concentration camps.

According to the BBC, a German man named Advocate George Ridgway was living in Guernsey since 1935. When the Nazis took over, he went on to write the islands new Anti-Semitic policies. He was responsible for collecting the religious information from all of the island’s citizens, and sent at least three Jewish women to Auschwitz. Miriam Jay was his girlfriend, and the two lived together. Despite knowing that she was supposed to be deported to a concentration camp as well, he kept her identity a secret, and she managed to escape an untimely fate.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Russian prisoners who were forced into slave labor in the Channel Islands. Credit: TheIslandWiki

7. The Germans Brought Over 16,000 Slave and Forced Workers

The Germans wanted to build underground bunkers, hospitals, and concrete bunkers on the edges of cliffs, but they needed their men to defend the island, and they could not afford for their soldiers to do back-breaking construction work. So, they imported over 16,000 prisoners of war to do those jobs for them. Most of these laborers were from the Soviet Union.

Slaves from other concentration camps were brought in on ships. They were wearing rags, because they were never given a new change of clothes, and they were skin and bone from nearly starving to death. Even though British citizens could see them working on a daily basis, they were not allowed to give food or help these prisoners, because this was considered a sign of resistance. And the punishment for resistance was either getting shot on the spot, or being deported to a concentration camp. When the war was over, a memorial was erected to remember the lives of the slaves who had been lost on the Channel Islands, even if no one knew the names of these men.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Louisa Gould having fun with her two sons. Credit: TheIslandWiki

6. A Woman Named Louisa Gould Tried to Save One Of The Slaves

Louisa Gould was a shopkeeper who lived in the parish of St. Ouen, on the island of Jersey. She decided to stay during the occupation so that she could keep the store open for the citizens who were left behind. She secretly kept a radio in her home, so that she could hear the news from England, and she was a member of the Channel Islands Resistance Movement.

In 1942, she rescued a Russian slave who had escaped named Feodor Polycarpovitch Burriy. She successfully hid him in her shop until 1944, and told everyone that he was her friend named “Bill”. One of her neighbors ratted her out to the Nazis, and Burriy managed to escape before they could raid her home. Unfortunately, the Nazi officers found scraps of paper where Burriy was practicing his English. When Louisa Gould was caught, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She died in the gas chambers in 1945, mere months before World War II was over. But the story of her bravery and kindness towards a fellow human being were not forgotten. Her story is memorialized in museums around the world, and she was posthumously given the award of “Hero of the Holocaust”.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Two British women relaxing with a German soldier. Credit: TheIslandWiki

5. Women Who Associated With German Soldiers Were Ridiculed

While many of the British citizens wanted to ignore the Germans, it became clear that these were just normal guys. Many people knew that there was no way of knowing just how long the occupation would last. Some believed that it may be forever, and life needed to keep moving forward. It should be no surprise, then, that there were romantic relationships between English women and the German soldiers. Many of the young English men were fighting in the war, so there were plenty of single young women to go around. There was also a huge benefit to dating a German, since they had access to all of the best food and supplies.

Some women were with the enemy as a temporary fix for loneliness and hunger, while others genuinely fell in love. No matter what their reason may have been, these women were called traitors on both the islands and the mainland. They earned the nickname “Jerry Bags”. There was a rumor that as many as 800 women living in the Channel Islands were sleeping with German soldiers, but that number has been grossly exaggerated, and most believe that the number was closer to 200. Even years after the war was over, people still spoke negatively about these “Jerry Baggers”.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
Women with blonde-haired toddlers gathering food rations in the Channel Islands. Credit: TheIslandWiki.org

4. Hundreds of Children of Nazi Soldiers “Disappeared” from the Channel Islands

Since hundreds of women had relationships with Nazi soldiers, it should be no surprise that plenty of half-German children were born out of wedlock in the Channel Islands. There were 174 recorded births of Germany children, but some speculate that the true number of half-German births could have been as high as 700. Women were ashamed of their half-Nazi babies, and many of them would have at-home births to keep them off the record.

Women who were not married were not required to put the name of the father, so they simply left the birth certificate blank. Many of the children “disappeared” into orphanages, or sent away to live with other families. There were rumors that since the Third Reich wanted to create a perfect Aryan race, some of these children were taken into custody and brought over to Germany. Despite being ashamed of these illegitimate children, there are some women who managed to hold their heads high and raise their children as British citizens, despite the whispers going on behind their back.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
British officers Onboard the HMS Bulldog with Kapitänleutnant Zimmermann signing Germany’s surrender of the Channel Islands. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

3. In May 1945, The Islands Were Finally Liberated

In May of 1945, World War II was finally over, and Adolf Hitler was declared to be dead. British planes flew over the Channel islands, and people cheered, raising the “V for Victory” everywhere. Despite knowing that the war was truly over, an overzealous German Lieutenant Zimmerman refused to give up the islands on behalf of the Nazis. He tried to ask for an armistice, rather than a full surrender. But under threat of death, he finally handed over the control of the Channel Islands back to the United Kingdom.

The German soldiers who were left behind were forced to clean up the landmines on the beaches, to ensure that no British citizens were putting their own lives in danger to clean up the beaches. Finally, people could walk near the ocean, fish, and enjoy living in a vacation area once again. The King and Queen of England both visited the island to thank the people for staying strong, and they were met by cheering crowds. There was a parade, and people were extremely happy to finally be part of the United Kingdom again. For many people who survived the occupation, their lives were completely ruined, and would never be the same. Many people filed lawsuits against the German government, demanding compensation for their losses.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
The Nazi tunnels have been turned into a museum. Credit: JerseyWarTunnels.com

2. Today, Channel Island Citizens Want to Preserve The History of Occupation.

Even though the Nazi occupation was a dark time in the history of the Channel Islands, locals who stayed behind to defend their home are incredibly proud of the fact that they survived living with the enemy for five years. This is why they never tore down the Nazi bunkers, and chose to repurpose them, instead. Many of the structures above ground that were created by the Nazis have become restaurants and cafes, while others were preserved as museums. Today, it is possible to take a tour of the underground Nazi tunnels and bunkers. Even their incomplete underground hospital was left exactly was it was, complete with beds and uniforms hanging in the closet.

The modern-day Channel Islands Occupation Society has a huge group of historians and volunteers who work together to comb through old records and artifacts to discover any new information that may uncover. They are also passionate about sharing the stories of the occupation with students and tourists, hoping that they can pass down the history to every new generation.

20 Facts About the Nazi Occupation of the UK’s Channel Islands
This sign was put in front of a store after British people were liberated from the Germans. Credit: TheIslandWiki

1. The Channel Islands Occupation Is A Look Into An Alternate Universe

History buffs love to ponder the “what if” questions about the many different things that could have happened before, during, and after World War II, and authors like Philip K. Dick have made their living writing about alternate history. And since they struggled so much after Dunkirk and the London Blitz, it is understandable that British people breathed a huge sigh of relief that the Nazis did not actually manage to occupy England.

Today, the story of the occupation of the Channel Islands is still fascinating to a lot of British people, because it is an example of what would have actually happened to England if they had lost to the Germans. People don’t really have to imagine it, because they could see a real example of what really happened in real life. We can be thankful to know that it never actually became a reality.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Red Cross ship saved Channel Islanders from WW2 starvation. BBC. 2014.

The Guernsey Jew who hid from the Nazis in plain sight. Rob Byrne. BBC. 2017.

Defending Jerrybags. Colin Smith. Prospect Magazine. 1997.

The Bitter Years (Documentary). ITV Channel. YouTube.

The True Story of Louisa Gould. Jersey.com

Discover Jersey’s Occupation Story. Jersey.com

Occupation Life. BBC.

Guernsey files reveal how islanders defied Nazi occupation. Stephen Bates. The Guardian. 2010.

Alderney Camps. Wikipedia.

Walking through History: Nazi Occupation The Channel Islands. Channel 4. 2015.

How Jersey’s Nazi children disappeared. JoJo Moyes. The Independent. 1996.

Operation Ambassador. Wikipedia.

Cambridge Ideas – Forgotten Heroes. Cambridge University. 2010.

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