The Unique Wartime Experience of the Channel Islands During World War Two

Laura McMillen

Twentieth Century World War Two
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The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to fall under Nazi Occupation during World War Two.

After the German offensive raced through France, the British government concluded in June 1940 that the islands were indefensible; island officials were ordered to demilitarise and some citizens were evacuated to mainland Britain.

Profoundly impacted by almost 5 years of German Occupation, the islanders were liberated following the German surrender in May 1945. How did this liberation unfold and what did it mean for those who lived through it?

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German occupation

German troops landed in Guernsey on 30 June 1940. Deemed of little strategic importance by the British, the islands were not to be defended and in the preceding 10 days some 17,000 civilians had been evacuated, mostly to England.

For the remaining islanders – 41,101 in Jersey, 24,429 in Guernsey, 470 in Sark and just 18 in Alderney – the humiliations and deprivations of military occupation would characterise their wartime experience.

Island leaders and civil servants were asked to stay in their posts and a Controlling Committee chaired by Ambrose Sherwill oversaw the day to day running of the islands.

Civilian life under Nazi rule

Occupying forces imposed restrictions, including a nightly curfew and censorship of the press. European time and occupation currency were introduced.

On the orders of Adolf Hitler, the islands became an “impregnable fortress”. German Forces, Organisation Todt – the German civil military engineering group – and imported foreign workers built newly reinforced bunkers and adapted existing defences.

The Channel Islands contained a fifth of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ – a defensive line built from the Baltic to the Spanish Frontier.

As part of the Atlantic Wall, between 1940 and 1945 the occupying German forces and the Organisation Todt constructed fortifications round the coasts of the Channel Islands such as this observation tower at Battery Moltke.

Although islanders grew and produced what they could, including tobacco, salt and bramble and nettle tea, food shortages were severe. After an appeal in late 1944, a Red Cross ship named SS Vega made 5 trips to bring islanders desperately needed food supplies.

While there was no organised resistance, some brave citizens took part in individual acts of resistance, including hiding Jews and helping foreign forced and slave labourers of the Organisation Todt (OT), who had been imported by Germans for building projects.

Some citizens painted ‘V’ for Victory in public spaces, but Nazi reprisals were harsh. The highest profile resistance fighter caught by the Nazis was Ambrose Sherwill, President of the Controlling Committee in Guernsey. He was sent to Cherche-Midi prison in Paris for helping two British soldiers in the unsuccessful Operation Ambassador (July 1940).

In purported retaliation for the internment of German citizens in Persia by the British Government, Nazi forces deported and interned some 2,300 innocent civilians.

The fear and social disruption of occupation affected almost every area of civilian life.

Nazi surrender and the anticipation of liberation

Hitler’s suicide 30 April 1945 marked the final phase of Nazi Germany’s surrender. Liberation, expected for several weeks, was anxiously anticipated.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced Victory in Europe on 8 May 1945, the Channel Islands were to be freed the following day:

“Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight tonight. And our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today.”.

Barbara Journeaux, a young resident of Guernsey at the time of Liberation, recalls a swell of patriotic fervour as her father listened to Churchill’s speech. He took the piano from the infant’s classroom of the local school outside so that all the children could sing ‘God Save the King’ and ‘There will Always be an England’ as a flag was raised.

A scene on board HMS Bulldog during the first conference with Kapitänleutnant Zimmermann prior to the signing of the surrender document which liberated the Channel Islands on 9 May 1945

German commander, Admiral Hoffmeier, refused to surrender the Channel Islands until the early hours 9 May 1945. The surrender was completed by Major General Hiner and Captain Lieutenant Zimmerman aboard HMS Bulldog.

Jubilant scenes at St Peter Port seafront and harbour greeted the British Troops of the Special Task Force 135 on the morning of 9 May 1945.

German forces seized control of the Channel Islands on 30 June 1940. By-passed by the Allies as they pushed east they remained under Nazi rule for almost 5 years, until the end of World War Two. This is the story of the British men and women who lived under the German occupation.Watch Now

One contemporary account remembers oranges, stockings and sweets being thrown from the balcony of the Pomme d’Or Hotel as the islanders celebrated the arrival of the ‘Tommies’ and their supplies from mainland Britain.

While Guernsey and Jersey were freed on 9 May, Sark was not liberated until the following day and the German troops in Alderney did not surrender until 16 May 1945. The population of Alderney were not allowed to return until December that year, when the island had been cleaned up.

Although preparations had been made from early 1944 for Brigadier Alfred Ernest Snow’s Task Force 135 of 6,000 military and naval forces to liberate the Islands, there had been no rush to enact ‘Operation Nest Egg’. Germans in the islands were so cut-off they were effectively prisoners of war.

Ultimately, the liberation in May 1945 went ahead peacefully. There were no casualties during liberation, but a small number of British and German troop would lose their lives clearing mines in the subsequent clean up operation.

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Complex legacy of wartime occupation

After initial celebration, practical aspects of liberating the islands began in earnest. Food supplies were brought to the Islands and the landing craft used to deliver large amounts of supplies were then used to transport German POWs to UK.

1,000 German troops remained behind to help with clear up operation, removing land mines and dismantling large guns, which were then dumped at sea. In the summer months, batches of evacuees and deportees returned.

The assimilation of those who had left back into island life was not without complications. Many evacuees had been young children when they had left 5 years previously, they struggled to remember their relatives and many could no longer speak the local Patois language.

Food shortages had emaciated some residents and German fortifications dotted the landscape. Rationing continued, as in mainland Britain, until 1955. Some relationships were strained by differing experiences of and attitudes to the morality of occupation.

Despite the complex legacy left by almost 5 years under Nazi occupation, Liberation Day continues to be celebrated annually in the Channel Islands to celebrate the triumph of their freedom.

Statue in Liberation Square, Jersey, celebrating freedom from occupation.

Tags: VE Day Winston Churchill

Laura McMillen