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What was Life Like Under German Occupation of the British Channel Islands?

Once a forbidden subject, recent years have begun to bring details of a dark time to light.

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  • A bunker on St Ouen's Bay, Jersey, built during World War II.Photo Credit: Man vyi via Wikimedia Commons

Only one part of the British Isles was occupied during World War II. The Channel Islands, nearer to France than Britain but still British territory, were abandoned by the British military in June 1940 and remained under German occupation until May 1945. The island of Alderney was the site of four concentration camps, the only such camps on British soil.

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That the islands might be occupied was considered months before German troops arrived. They were indefensible in the dark days of 1940—British troops left before German forces even arrived. At first unaware the islands were undefended, the Luftwaffe bombed Jersey’s capital St. Peter Port on June 28, 1940, killing 44 civilians. Within a week, the islands were captured.

Only days earlier, some 17,000 islanders from Jersey, mainly children and their mothers, had been hurriedly evacuated using any available transport. They didn’t know they would be gone for the next several years. Some never returned at all. Having grown used to English life, they decided to stay. Thousands of young evacuees also enlisted or were drafted into the British military.

For those who remained, life became increasingly hard. Though less harsh than in other occupied territories, the occupiers immediately imposed dozens of new rules. Even minor acts of resistance were often harshly punished. The more brutal Nazi reprisals, like mass execution, were not inflicted, but their threat remained ever-present. 

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The single greatest challenge for most islanders was finding enough food and resources to sustain them. Until 1940, the islands had imported 80% of their food and most other resources. As time passed, rations were cut and basic supplies like flour, matches, tobacco and vegetables ran short or stopped entirely. Thousands of German troops and foreign workers only exacerbated shortages while supplies from mainland France steadily declined.

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  • An ID card issued to a Channel Islands resident during the occupation.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A black market flourished although islanders caught trading could be sent to prisons, labor camps, and even concentration camps. Any criminal behavior could earn deportation while Jews and suspected resisters expected little or no mercy. To the occupiers the worst offenses islanders could commit involved violence against occupying troops or hiding escaped prisoners and Jews. Despite knowing the risks, some islanders still did so.

There were no meaningful resistance groups like the French Maquis, and acts of sabotage, ambush, and assassination were effectively impossible. Resistance did happen, but many islanders and the island’s civilian authorities actively discouraged it and their reasoning was understandable. Islanders had nowhere to run or hide and nothing to fight with.

The islands were heavily occupied with two German soldiers for every islander, making rules easily enforced. The islands were also too small for violent resisters to hide without being quickly found. Their proximity to Occupied France made supplying weapons and equipment virtually impossible. 

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The civilian authorities also loathed the series of small Commando raids from mainland Britain. Far better, the authorities reasoned, to wait peacefully for liberation than risk brutal reprisals for no meaningful results. Until then they worked beside occupying troops, grudgingly accepting their presence.

Commando raid Operation Basalt caused particular problems, as did internment of German civilians in British-held Persia (present-day Iran). An infuriated Hitler ordered mass deportations with islanders interned or used as slave labor. Beginning in September 1942, some 2,300 islanders were deported and spread across over 120 prisons and camps in Occupied Europe. Basalt also inspired Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order’ mandating immediate execution for Allied special forces captured behind German lines. 

Resistance, such as it was, was mostly passive. Islanders avoided contact with occupiers as much as possible. Journalist Frank Falla and a few others ran the Guernsey Underground News Service (GUNS) until they were betrayed. 

Listening to foreign radio, especially the BBC, was forbidden and radios were routinely confiscated. Using homemade radios, Falla and his accomplices listened secretly, spreading news islanders were never meant to hear. Five GUNS members were deported. Only three survived—including Falla.

Closer to home, Alderney’s four prison camps serviced the fortification of the islands. Two were labor camps run by the Todt Organization. Conditions in the camps were bad and rations short. Some Todt Organzsation workers were paid while others were conscripted from France and other occupied areas. The other two were slave-labor camps, one under SS command that routinely worked prisoners to death. 

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  • Rozel Harbor, Jersey.

Starvation, beatings, summary executions, and industrial accidents were standard practice. Between 1942 and 1944, approximately 6,000 prisoners arrived. At least 700 died or were murdered before the camps closed in 1944. Their suffering put the islands among the most heavily fortified parts of the Atlantic Wall, but the fortifications they died to build saw little use. 

By winter of 1944, the islands were starving. With German and British consent, the Red Cross sent some 460,000 food parcels and basic provisions via neutral Portugal. Some deported islanders were lucky enough to receive Red Cross parcels and forwarded them whenever possible. 

The last nine months were undoubtedly the worst, as people starved and worked against their wills, but liberation finally came. Guernsey was retaken on May 9, 1945 by destroyer HMS Bulldog, famous for capturing an Enigma machine from submarine U-110 in 1941. Jersey and Sark were liberated on May 10 and Alderney on May 16. The Occupation was over, but its legacy lingered for decades.

Many islanders struggled to re-adjust. Children evacuated in 1940 often knew England better than the islands. Some returned to find their homes and possessions destroyed, requisitioned by the occupiers or looted. Many returning deportees suffered post-traumatic stress and other problems. Resisters often returned to find themselves and their efforts swept under the rug.

Only relatively recently has the full story of the Occupation begun to be told. Frank Falla lobbied hard for resisters to be acknowledged and deportees compensated with little official backing. Information about the resistance, collaboration, and Alderney’s camps were generally considered off-limits to outsiders.  

In recent years official attitudes have changed. Islanders themselves are also more willing to discuss it and researchers have uncovered previously-unseen archives, documents, and testimonies. There are also two museums acknowledging the Occupation and its legacy. No longer a taboo subject, it remains a sensitive one.