Sunday, 7 July 2013

Jersey - Don't mention the War!

One of the first things that really jumped out at me about Jersey and the Channel Islands, when I started researching for this blog, is the fact that the Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Nazis during World War Two.  For Jersey and the other islands, the Nazi Occupation was a national trauma which has shaped the history of modern Jersey and left a legacy of museums, books and movies, which document and record the Occupation for future generations. 

What really happened?

Once a war has finished, it's sometimes difficult to know exactly what went on.  History is written by the victors and I'm pretty sure that people change their perception of what happened, how they felt etc. in relation to the ultimate outcome of the war itself.  In his book, Living with the Enemy: What really happened (1995), Roy McLaughlin makes a good attempt at unravelling the realities of the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands and looks at the perspective of the war from both the local point of view and that of the German soldiers stationed in the Channel Islands during that period.

Different reactions

It was interesting, for me, to see the different reactions of the four main Channel Islands, to the Nazi Occupation.  The entire population of Alderney was evacuated to England (except for two farmers who returned under Nazi rule) and the island became a de facto prison camp for slave workers from Eastern Europe and Spain.  By contrast, the inhabitants of Sark stayed put, under the formidable leadership of Dame Sibyl Hathaway, who seemed to treat the German occupiers as new house staff!  Guernsey also started down the road of evacuation, sending children back to England and Scotland, whereas most inhabitants of Jersey stayed on the island and tried to 'keep calm and carry on'. 

It's quite shocking to see photos of the Nazi flag flying in 1940's Jersey and I'm sure that the propaganda value of the Occupation was exploited to the full by the Nazi government. 

Abandonment v collaboration

British government poster from 1939
Needless to say, the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands was a very low point in UK-Jersey relations.  One on hand, the islanders felt 'abandoned' by their fellow Britons - on the other hand, many people in the UK wondered how the islanders could continue living under Nazi rule and questioned whether or not the islanders were 'collaborating' with the enemy.  In a bid to save the islands from destruction, they were demilitarised in June 1940, although the demilitarisation wasn't announced until after the first German bombing raids, which killed a total of 38 people on Jersey and Guernsey. 

It's clear that the British approach to the Channel Islands' Occupation was disorganised and inconsistent.  The War Office didn't consider the islands to be strategic to the defense of Britain and the lack of a coherent approach by the War Office and Home Office led to confusion and disarray.  Acting against official government policy, Churchill tried to rally a response to Occupation by sending spies to Guernsey, but this undermined the islanders position and worsened an already difficult relationship between the states of Guernsey and the occupiers. 

Jersey was eased into the Occupation years by the diplomacy of Alexander Coutanche, who established a fairly workable relationship with the occupiers.  Many British people failed to understand how there could be no resistance movement in Jersey and the other Channel Islands, as there was on mainland France and this was viewed with great suspicion, however, the islanders pointed out that there was nowhere for a resistance movement to hide or retreat to, on an island that is a mere 46 miles squared.

So how bad was the Occupation?

The Nazis had a relatively benevolent approach to the Channel Islands, particularly at the beginning of the Occupation, as they tried to win the hearts and minds of their new British subjects.  The main hardships of Occupation seem to have been more general ones, such as food shortages, which also affected people in mainland Britain and for logistical reasons, the Nazis confiscated the islanders' bicycles!  McLoughlin points to the following three main factors that represented the hardships that Occupation brought to the islands:

Nazi control tower on Jersey by mrwalker
1.  Banning the radio.  At the beginning, islanders were allowed to use their radios and even listen to BBC news but, as the war went on, the Nazis banned the use of radios - a crime punishable by transportation to Germany.  Somehow many islanders managed to hide radios and continue listening to updates from the BBC - it seems most people weren't caught doing this, unless a neighbour informed on them.

2. The arrival of foreign prisoners.  Whilst the islands weren't considered to be strategically important to the British, Hitler was determined to turn them into the most fortified place in the Atlantic!  The Nazis built grand-scale defences on Jersey and the other islands and imported labour, mostly slaves from Eastern Europe and Republican prisoners from Spain, to construct their Atlantic Wall fortifications. 

Whilst the islanders were mostly left in peace, to carry on with their normal lives, the slave-labourers were treated really badly and their treatment was witnessed by the islanders, who were as distressed as any normal human would be at the suffering of others.  Many islanders risked their lives and the lives of their families, by sheltering escaped Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish prisoners who'd fled the horrors of the labour camps.

3. The deportation of non-native inhabitants.  In reprisal for the British internment of German citizens in Iran, the Nazis announced, in 1942, that all non-native (ie. from the British mainland) inhabitants of the Channel Islands would be deported to Germany.  Perhaps more than anything else, this brought home the realities of the war to the islanders who, until that point, had had a fairly peaceful relationship with the Occupiers. 

Liberation and the legacy of the war

Liberation Square, St Helier by amandabhslater
The Channel Islanders felt abandoned again when, in June 1944, during the D-Day landings, the British and other Allied forces liberated Normandy, but didn't arrive in Jersey to liberate the Channel Islands from Nazi rule.  In fact, the Nazis remained in Jersey and the other islands until May 1945, when Germany was finally defeated and the Occupiers agreed to leave.  The winter of 1944/45 was a bitterly cold one and the islanders suffered many deprivations which might have been avoided had they been liberated earlier.  Again, the liberation of the Channel Islands didn't seem to be high on the list of priorities for the British government.

The end of war saw the return of those inhabitants who'd been evacuated in 1940.  McLoughlin describes the uneasy relationship between the returnees and those who had stayed behind.  Another legacy of the war was the number of children of German parentage that had been born to island women and this 'sexual colonisation' of Jersey reminded me of a similar topic I researched for my blog post about the war in Eritrea

The number and influence of informers in Jersey during the war is a controversial and divisive topic that hasn't been fully researched or investigated and remains, to a certain extent, an island taboo.

The Russians in Jersey

I like the way McLoughlin devotes a chapter at the end of his book to look at the Occupation from the eyes of the Occupiers and it's interesting to read how ordinary German soldiers were happy to be posted to the Channel Islands, as it was almost like a holiday from the front line and a refuge from British bombardment, common in Germany and elsewhere.   It would be quite interesting to also know what life on Jersey was like for the many Russians, Ukrainians and Poles who spent the war there.  It must have been truly bizarre to find themselves transported to this western outpost of Nazi Europe, many miles from their Eastern European homelands. 

Image credits:

The 1939 British government poster Keep Calm and Carry on is in the public domain. 

The image of the Nazi control tower was taken by flickr member mrwalker - you can see more of his photos on his Flickr account

The image of the sculpture on Liberation Square in St Helier is by flickr member amandabhslater - Amanda lives in St Helier and you can see more of her images on her photostream

Thanks to Mr Walker and Amanda for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

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