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This edited article about World War Two originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 614 published on 20 October 1973.
When the war began in September, 1939, it seemed a long way from the romantic charm of the Channel Islands. The people there had the faith and the belief that Britain’s army, along with the French and Belgian armies, would stop the might of Germany in its tracks.
But only ten months later, the Germans stood triumphantly on the French eastern seaboard and, just eight miles away, they could see British territory – the small island of Alderney which represented a stepping stone to greater victory in England, or so they hoped.
They said – and they had nothing in the record which could deny them their confidence – that they would be marching on the mainland of England and on their way to London within six weeks.
For the people of the Channel Isles, the war swiftly, and positively, came to their own doorsteps and into their homes to make them prisoners of war for the next five years.
Like other occupied territories, it was one of the personal prizes of Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, for it was he who had issued the directive for their occupation as a strategically important possession, though until then they had been more famous for their cows, tomatoes, potatoes and, not least, scenic beauty.
Under Hitler’s direct orders, they were made into what were designed as impregnable fortressses. But the fortifications and the gigantic installations that were built in the Channel Islands were hardly used.
Walls of steel, gaunt towers, gun emplacements, seachlight batteries and machine-gun positions . . . they all came about by forced labour and some still stand today as terrible reminders of those dark days.
Guernsey and Jersey still possess phantom-like holes in areas round their coastlines, and battlements. Solid masses of steel and concrete remain like ghosts, undestroyed but neglected because to get rid of them would take explosions which would cause damage to other property. It is said in Alderney that to blast one fortification would break every window on the island and even then there would be no guarantee the offending building would crumble to an inoffensive heap.
Few people on the islands knew what to expect when the Germans came. Stories of terrible atrocities preceded them and so many islanders came to England for fear that the stories might be true. But in Sark, the fourth largest island, the people remained and their indomitable matriarchal leader, Mrs Sybil Hathaway, La Dame de Sark, stayed with them determined to show the Germans who was “boss.”
She had the advantage of being able to speak their language and, right from the moment of the invaders’ arrival, she was mistress of every situation that demanded authority and keen judgment. She was a remarkable woman who exercised firmness and diplomacy and the Germans respected her for her strength of character.
But unlike Sark, Alderney had no Grande Dame to rule it during the occupation. Almost everyone on the island (the nearest to England and France) had been evacuated and the Germans were left to sail into a deserted place.
Evacuation of the island was a bizarre affair with people driving down to the harbour at Braye to leave their cars for anyone who cared to take them. Half-finished meals littered the tables in many houses and one woman, fearing that she would be left behind in the rush, remarked that she hoped the Germans would wash up the dirty dishes she had left behind.
But perhaps the saddest sight of all was of those people who had pets and had to have them “put down.” In Jersey the situation was worse: queues of men, women and children took their cats and dogs to the Jersey Animals’ Shelter to be destroyed.
In Alderney, before the invasion, the cattle were set free or shot, but inevitably some cows were left and, because they needed milking, many were driven crazy with pain. They had to be shot and others were only just saved by the drawing-off of their thick and sour milk in small quantities.
But no matter how cruel the killing of animals might seem to have been, the evacuation left no room for them. The rule was: women and children first; then men of military age – followed by the rest. It was a case of “two suitcases to every person.”
Each island has its own charm and, though Jersey and Guernsey might be the most popular, Alderney has a special attraction.
Like its neighbours, its waters are as inviting as those of a Pacific atoll but much safer, and its beaches are fine and uncrowded. But the tranquility it possessed before the war was broken during the occupation.
If anyone does know what went on there during the war they are not saying much; perhaps it is because they want to forget that it was militarised by the Germans and that many men died there building the fortresses; perhaps it is because they hated the humiliation of being conquered; perhaps it is the thought of those pyjama-clad workers who had to work for the Germans or starve. Whatever the reason, they want to forget and from the evidence which still remains, no one can blame them.
The people of Jersey felt the impact of the German occupation immediately because, within a few days, general rationing was introduced. This became steadily more severe as time went on. Horse flesh soon became a luxury and the acute shortage of other foodstuffs caused sickness and death.
The Black Market (illegal trading) began to flourish. To buy a turkey for instance, you would need anything from £7 to £20. A pound of tea cost between £10 and £25 and tobacco reached the incredible price of £50 per pound (local grown). Eggs were 4s. 3d. (21p) each.
At these prices, those people who had the knack of laying their hands on goods were able to make small fortunes and because the purchase of property was the only form of investment open to them, they actually became wealthy land owners. Some men became known as Jersey Fagins, because they employed youths to steal for them; one sixteen-year-old boy actually had a bank balance of £800.
What added to the general discomfort of the islanders was a shortage of drugs and medical supplies to combat the increasing illnesses. Primarily because it was impossible to maintain a balanced diet, diphtheria reached epidemic proportions, tuberculosis became common, jaundice was severe and rheumatoid arthritis crippled many. It was not unnatural that the people of Jersey thought they had been forgotten by the British Government when they heard of food and supplies being sent to Greece, Italy and Russia.
Though the balance of power had later shifted in Europe, and the German forces were in retreat, the hardships suffered in the Channel Islands continued. All were made worse by one of the most severe winters on record. The islanders, in all their discomfort, must have wondered, even during those early months of 1945, when it was all going to end.
In January, they would have been relieved to know – as indeed would have everyone else – that there were only four-and-a-half months to go before liberation. But no one knew it then, and the days continued to remain as dark and bleak as the January nights.