Our Dear Channel Islands

Linda Holt

  • The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule 1940-1945 by Madeleine Bunting
    HarperCollins, 354 pp, £20.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 00 255242 6
  • The Channel Islands: Occupation and Liberation 1940-1945 by Asa Briggs
    Batsford, 96 pp, £7.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 7134 7822 5

In 1968, when I was five, my parents moved to Jersey as tax exiles and bought a house in the west of the island. During the German Occupation it had been the site of a slave worker camp. Next door’s garden pond had formerly been the camp’s well, while just over the fence at the bottom of our garden there were grey concrete bunkers covered in brambles and bracken. As children we picked blackberries off them and speculated about what they might contain, but never found a way in. Like our parents, and like many native Channel Islanders, we didn’t give the recent past a second thought: the bunkers, gun emplacements and massive sea walls seemed to have always been there, like the beaches and granite cliffs they overlooked.

Drawing on ‘a wealth of newly released archival material’ and ‘nearly a hundred interviews with islanders and labour camp survivors’, Madeleine Bunting’s book aims to examine the Occupation as ‘a “laboratory” of Anglo-German relations’ and so show how the mainland British might have behaved under Nazism. What makes her account so engaging is the way she lodges it in the present. Noting the diffidence, evasiveness, even fury, she encountered among her informants, she is ‘very conscious that this history trespasses into some of the most painful, hidden parts of their lives’. Having attempted ‘an archaeological investigation into collective memory’, she concludes by challenging the islanders’ ‘failure to remember and acknowledge those who were sacrificed to the islands’ welfare’: that is, slave labourers, Jews and those who resisted or otherwise fell foul of the Germans.

In a pointed prelude to the testimonies of slave labourers, Bunting describes what these ‘nameless and faceless’ thousands left behind; and there, ‘now overgrown with brambles’ or ‘dotted with the brightly coloured towels of holidaymakers’, are my bunkers again. Apparently we had always believed that thousands of slave labourers had died as a result of German brutality, that countless bodies had been tipped into the liquid cement of the islands’ fortifications. Bunting’s 14 witnesses press home the harrowing details. Before long, I was wondering how many skeletons lay concealed in the bunkers at the bottom of my mother’s garden.

Intent at last on excavation, I went to Jersey. I discovered that from January 1942 Lager Udet, the Organisation Todt camp on the site of my childhood home, had housed Spaniards, and from August 1942, Russians and Poles, until the bulk of the OT were withdrawn from the island in the autumn of 1943. The Spaniards, who numbered about two thousand, were Republicans who had fled to France after Franco’s victory in 1939. Later, the Vichy Government had handed them over to the Germans. As conscripted labourers they received the same rates of pay as the volunteers recruited by the OT. They were free in the evenings and on Sundays to come and go as they pleased, to mingle with the local population and visit shops, cafés and public entertainments. Beatings were not part of the routine and they had access to medical treatment – the OT established hospitals, with ambulance services, in all three islands.

As Slavs, the Poles and ‘Russians’ (most of whom in fact came from the Ukraine) were deemed Untermenschen. They were slave workers: unpaid, badly fed and clothed and subject to beatings by OT overseers (there were no SS in Jersey or Guernsey). In all, about fifteen hundred Russians came to Jersey, where the initial death toll was so high that a Red Cross inspection was called for and their treatment improved. Aerial reconnaissance photographs taken in April 1943 show Lager Udet as consisting of 16 large barrack huts with a wired-off inner compound, which presumably contained the Russians – the latter were confined to their camps as a result of thefts of food and clothing from the local population. My bunkers were separate, built as air-raid shelters for the German troop billeted at Hotel La Moye across the road.

The corpses in the bunkers turned out to be imaginary: it would have been impossible to squeeze them through the three-dimensional mesh of steel reinforcing rods spaced at 15 cm intervals in the concrete. Similarly, stories of large numbers of bodies being flung into the sea or into mass graves are belied by the evidence. There are no reports of unidentified bodies being washed ashore. A Commission of Inquiry into alleged mass graves immediately after the war unearthed only drainage systems. And in all the building and landscaping that has gone on over the last thirty years the only skeleton to come to light belonged to a 17th-century donkey. And, in Jersey at least, a wealth of documentation and eyewitness reports testify to the fact that standard procedures were followed in collecting the bodies of OT workers, issuing death certificates and burying them at the Strangers’ Cemetery at Westmount.

This is not to belittle the sufferings of Nazism’s victims in Jersey. It is beyond doubt that individual acts of brutality, even murder, by OT overseers occurred; that working conditions could be perilous; and that the bodies of at least three workers were not retrieved from underneath the rockfalls in which they perished. It is also beyond doubt that in Alderney the inhumane conditions of the slave workers were of a different order from those in Jersey and Guernsey, and that war crimes were committed by officials of the OT as well as the SS, who arrived there in March 1943 with SS Baubrigade 1, a thousand-strong unit attached to the Neuengamme concentration camp.

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