Jersey War Tunnels…

Perhaps one of the more famous, (if not the most famous), of Jersey’s World War Two German Occupation historical sites has, for many years now, been the awe-inspiring Underground Hospital tunnels up at St Lawrence… and after being renamed in recent years, Jersey War Tunnels, the forthcoming 2013 opening season marks its exciting re-launch as a newly updated & upgraded German Occupation attraction in the heart of this lovely British Channel Island…

Indeed it was my very first visit to this fantastic example of Nazi Germany’s Organisation Todt tunnel-engineering some 30-plus years ago that was to have such a marked effect on my own personal & professional life and led to my ensuing and all-encompassing interest in the story of the World War Two German Occupation of all of these unique British Channel Islands.

Indeed it certainly set me off on an incredibly fascinating professional & historical path that would still have me studying & writing on the islands’ German Occupation history almost a life-time on, so I certainly have an emotional attachment to these particular tunnels to be sure. It is also one of those quirks of fate that many years later I would once again become re-acquainted with them through that work… and in so doing I am also incredibly grateful to the wonderful organisation behind these evocative tunnels, (including Kathy & Sheila), for so kindly promoting & marketing my subsequent ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ TV documentary that emanated from my early experiences of these tunnels, for well over 20 years…

Originally constructed from 1941 onwards as a massive underground  air-raid shelter & ammunition store to protect both Wehrmacht personnel & the garrison’s military stocks & supplies against potential RAF attacks on these German-held islands, taking an incredible two & half years to build and designated Hohlgang 8, it was in late 1943 that German High Command in Berlin began to fear an all-out Allied assault on the nearby northern coastline of France and an order went out for Ho.8 to be converted into a casualty clearing station & emergency field hospital.

These stark and somewhat forbidding tunnels were subsequently fitted out with some 500 beds ready to receive the predicted wounded Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS evacuees from France and a fully functioning heating & air conditioning system, (including gas-proof doors), was installed, whilst a fully-equipped operating theatre was set-up… and all unfinished tunnels were sealed off.

When ‘Operation Overlord’ was finally launched in the summer of 1944 and Allied troops fought their way ashore onto the Normandy coastline on June 6th, injured German ground forces wounded in the vicious battles to defend their ‘Festung Europa’ were indeed transferred over to the Channel Islands for medical treatment. However it is a matter of conjecture as to whether Ho.8 was ever actually used ‘in anger’ as a medical hospital, but if were then it was for but a short period only, though even so, deep underground and away from daylight, it must have been a pretty unpleasant & depressing place for any soldiers who may have been sent there for an operation & subsequent recuperation from serious combat injuries.

What is known however is that after the surrender of the German garrison on 9 May 1945 these massive tunnels became the target for souvenir hunters and so much of the equipment left standing at Liberation was completely stripped away before the tunnels themselves began to fall into disrepair.

However as soon as 1946, Jersey States acquired the site with a view to opening it up as a museum and local Jerseyman Jim Sutherland became the Underground Hospital’s first curator, effectively setting up the island’s first tourist attraction, which he ran with great skill & enthusiasm on and off as a private venture for over 20 years. Later on in the 1960s, Daisy Hill Estates bought the attraction and Mr. Sutherland continued to oversee the museum as the curator up until his well-earned retirement at the ripe old age of 83.

Though now boasting white-washed walls and much brighter lighting, making it all look probably a good deal smarter and more welcoming than would have actually been the case back in 1944; nevertheless there was always ‘something’ about these tunnels that were very much a haunting and certainly magnetic draw for me.

Wandering down along around the many long concrete tunnels, looking into the various ‘wards’ and seeing the myriad medical dioramas whilst catching snippets of heart-rending songs from the Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS’s very own ’Force’s Favourite’ Lale Andersen wafting out of a German radio apparently in the Doctor’s Mess room was always gripping… and perhaps not even a little eerie?

Certainly deeply ingrained on my psyche forever was the German operating theatre with ‘surgeons’ fully gowned-up and working on a poor unfortunate German soldier on the operating table, whilst all around these still slightly shadowy tunnels could be heard the sound of oxygen pumps, scalpels being dropped into stainless steel bowls, surgeons & nurses quietly talking to each other and the occasional and most alarming moan of pain from a wounded Wehrmacht soldier..!

I will freely admit that until that first visit, I had never previously been in a German museum setting that so affected me as much as the teenager I was then and I’ve always maintained a true affection for this particular world-famous Channel Islands German Occupation attraction ever since I first saw it as a film location in the BBC’s ‘Bergerac’…

So this month, as the Jersey War Tunnels re-launches itself some 35 years or so after that first visit, I am keen to learn about what we may now see & hear from JWT…  and from early indications, (though I have yet to get back over back to Jersey to experience it all ‘in the flesh’ for myself), is that these magnificent tunnels have now been restored more than ever back to their  alternative role as a war-time German Garrison Underground Hospital and indeed back to a superb snap-shot of just how it would have looked in June & July 1944, as it readied itself for the transfer of those terribly injured soldiers from the fighting in France…

Created by an on-site team of five, led by Operations Manager Kathy Bechelet, I understand that two main new displays will now be opened up for the eager visitors for this 2013 season: the first being a cracking display devoted to the air-raid protection role of these incredible tunnels.

Kathy explains: “An air-raid shelter display was just crying out to be shown for Jersey was bombed during the Occupation and the islanders and the German garrison would have expected many such air-raids but most of the shelters on this island were out in the countryside. So we did a lot of research as we wanted to show our visitors just how horrible it would have been down in a shelter under attack… sometimes for many days at time! ”

Judging from the early reports reaching me, Kathy’s team have been very successful and such a living air-raid display has indeed been expertly incorporated into the museum. With the inclusion of yet more superb war-time effects, you can now sit in a ‘real’ shelter and experience and ‘feel’ the hair-raising horror of a 2 minute heavy aerial bombardment down onto the tunnels. This must really be quite something, judging from that old ghostly effect from those previous operating theatre sound-effects, (and indeed all audio-effects and now German military music so skillfully employed), used to have on my fevered imagination down in these enormous German concrete tunnels deep in the bowels of the Jersey countryside..!

However most happily for me, appears to be the fact that great care, attention & enthusiasm has also been lovingly administered to the ‘real attraction’ of these tunnels, (in my eyes!): the military hospital re-creations themselves, as it would appear that, for a number of years Jersey War Tunnels have been sitting on a rare, but stored, collection of original WW-II German medical equipment, enough to also kit out a fully functioning ward to display alongside the operating theatre and here Kathy takes up the story again:

“We have had many visitors coming through the operating theatre and asking where the wards were… but we no longer had a proper ward displayed as such, however with all of that equipment we still had in reserve, we thought we should restore a complete ward to one of the tunnels. So we have taken out about three-quarters of those stored items and put them on display in the new ward to give a real idea of what life would have been like down here in 1944 after the wounded German soldiers had been brought across from France. We wanted to bring the tunnels back to life and my feeling with our stored collection was: if we’ve got it, don’t lock it away, but put it on display for the public to see…

“We are effectively trying to re-live & re-tell the story of the German Occupation, especially for the children, though if you give them something to read, they probably won’t… but give them stuff to look at, especially if it’s gory, and they’ll be interested! If you don’t show the younger generation these things they just forget… but we are not trying to glamorize things, just tell a story..!”

From personal experience I tell you that if the exciting, new-look Jersey War Tunnels does indeed have all of the self-same stunning effect on the imaginations of that younger generation of island visitors in the same manner that the old set-up did on me, then Kathy and her team will be highly successful as, for me, The German Underground Hospital was always once seen, never forgottenI’ve still even got my old but prized 30-year old souvenir mug here in the office to prove it..!

The further good news is that, as more budgets become available to Jersey War Tunnels and its creative team, so more & more of these very exciting displays will also come on stream as this rare WW-II attraction continues to expand the depth & breadth of all of the exhibitions for its visitors…

But for the ‘here & now’ perhaps one of the more surprising aspects to this exciting re-launch, (and something of a logistical triumph for Condor Ferries that shipped it over to Jersey from Portsmouth), is the unveiling of a life-sized German Sturmgeschütz iii Ausg.G self-propelled assault gun going by the name of ‘Hedwig’!

Commissioned by JWT and lovingly crafted over here on the mainland in Sussex by an expert team of armourers led by John Webster, weighing in at some 16 tons, measuring nearly 18’ in length and having a superbly accurate & highly effective camo paint job, this Stug is believed to be the most accurate & detailed copy of such a German combat fighting vehicle ever built… and most surely Jersey War Tunnel’s new star attraction!

Certainly from the press photos I have see thus far, it looks a real beauty and though for me, it is the 1944-planned ‘alternative’ medical history of these enormous German tunnels that continues to feeds my historical imagination, anything else that that helps underline the powerful feelings of Jersey’s World War Two Occupation that you get upon first entering these incredible German tunnels, such as this Stug, is more than ok in my book..!

So I hope that when I eventually get another chance to fly back over to Jersey and once again go down into these incredibly atmospheric German tunnels of Hohlgang.8 for myself and see the incredible time & effort going into the ‘new’ Jersey War Tunnels exhibitions, that I will feel that same excited tingle running up & down my spine that I felt on my very first visit over 30 years ago…  I can’t wait..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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