Guernsey’s German Underground Museum…

Only one thing saddens me as a producer when I look back to the blissfully happy days I spent in the Bailiwick producing my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’and that is, too late in the day to change the shooting schedules, I happened upon Guernsey’s other fantastic German Occupation Museum.  Owned by brothers Peter & Paul Balshaw and located down at La Valette in the capital St Peter Port, this superb museum it is sited deep inside some imposing German concrete tunnels carved out of the hillside overlooking the beautiful harbour, with the old open-air swimming pools set in the rocks just below it and the stunning Castle Cornet shimmering away in the distance.

However happily for me, (courtesy of my later work as a consultant for the Guernsey Tourist Board’s initiative ‘Fortress Guernsey’), I was able to rectify that error just a little by helping to additionally publicise this fabulous museum through both my writing & broadcasting and being able to tour-guide a number of interested journalists & other documentary film-makers around these incredible tunnels and the stunning personal collection of German military & Guernsey civilian artefacts that the two brothers have imaginatively put on public display.

This award-winning museum covers many aspects of the Bailwicks’ military past including both the First & Second World Wars and the engaging story of Guernsey’s Militia… and all uniquely placed within a series of air-conditioned tunnels originally built by the Germans as a fuel storage facility for U-Boots visiting the Bailiwick during the years of 1940 to 1945..

The Third Reich had a ‘real thing’ about tunnelling and in the Channel Islands this task was given over to the para-military Organisation Todt, (effectively the Nazi’s fortifications building company staffed by highly-qualified German technicians), where, using ‘Forced Labour’ taken from the occupied territories to work in these beautiful islands, they had something of a field-day with 41 such tunnels being started in Guernsey alone..!

However across the islands as a whole it is the German Underground Hospital in Jersey, (now referred to somewhat less enigmatically as ‘Jersey War Tunnels’),  that is probably the most well known of these subterranean structures, though that was originally built as an ammunition tunnel and only became an active military hospital after the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6th 1944. At this point many German troops wounded in the fighting in France were evacuated to Jersey for treatment in these newly-converted tunnels… though spending many weeks underground cannot have been a totally welcome proposition for those badly knocked about Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS soldiers!

However Guernsey’s tunnels at La Valette are typical of the O.T. engineering that was undertaken across the Channel Islands during the occupation and were initially conceived as an underground dump from which, (protected from RAF attack above), fuel would then be pumped down to the Kriegsmarine’s submarines at their moorings in the bay below. However this particular tunnel complex was never completed as the necessary building supplies from France were cut off shortly after D-Day, though the Germans did try hard to get it finished using what meagre supplies they still had to hand…

Meanwhile the OT architects designed the tunnel bays in such a way that if any of the tanks were ruptured or sprang a leak, (accidentally or through sabotage), all of the fuel could be securely contained in a protective pool beneath each tank and then be allowed to safely drain away through the specific ducts which were installed. At this point it’s worth noting that when the tunnel was eventually converted into the modern museum it is now, the local Guernsey Fire Brigade had to pump some 1,500 gallons of water in a constant stream through one of the drains… which handled it just as originally designed!

Just two years after war’s end, today’s underground museum was just a nebulous idea for many years hence… but that day eventually came in 1986 when, after a feasibility study showed it was financially possible, discussions opened with the States of Guernsey’s Board of Administration and then States’ Engineers looked into the tunnel’s structural safety. Finally, after a year of too-ing & fro-ing between various island governmental departments, the go-ahead was given and work on the tunnel’s conversion started in December of the following year

Beginning with an excavation of two tunnel entrances, (one to provide a main entrance and the second to provide an emergency exit), an  extension to the existing tunnel lining was then added as protection from falling debris from the cliff above, steps & vehicle ramps were  built and a connecting tunnel between the fuel tank bays was completed so future visitors could see an unfinished tunnel in complete safety.

Meanwhile local ‘subbies’ re-wired the tunnels, installed air-conditioning, fitted smoke detectors, emergency lights, security & fire alarms and also spray-painted the whole interior; plus the one remaining fuel tank had to be pumped clean of its remaining 500 gallons of fuel and refilled with water as a bulwark against any explosive gases building up over time…

Unfortunately for the budget, the existing supports underneath the tank were found to be unsafe and so new block-work walls had to be constructed then, to prevent further rusting, the tank had to be de-scaled and sprayed with a rust-preventative primer… only then could museum glass cabinets be constructed & wired-in and myriad tailor’s dummies dressed and displayed.

Signs explaining the tunnel’s original usage were also produced, missing uniform items sourced & displayed and restoration of other occupation exhibits undertaken… but finally the whole wonderful collection reached ‘museum standard’ and ready for public presentation and so, in the Summer of 1988, the doors were thrown open to the island’s enthusiastic visitors.

When I finally discovered this exciting museum for myself, my jaw figuratively hit the floor as I took in Peter & Pauls’ amazing handiwork and the realisation that this fabulous scene should really have been featured in my documentary. I certainly experienced a real tingling sensation as I stepped down into these huge concrete tunnels as originally designed by the island’s German occupiers and built by imported forced labourers in conditions of such hardship..!

The fact that this ultra-professional display of living history was underground really added to the surreal film-set atmosphere and gives everything a great deal more poignancy & focus than might otherwise have been the case. Now walking through these enormous tunnels today with echoes of the same military music from our Tomahawk Films Archive that Guernsey’s German occupiers would also have heard over 70 years ago, all adds to that slightly eerie feeling of having taken a step back in time..!

It was quite a feat of German engineering to create this U-Boot & Luftwaffe refuelling tunnel in the early 1940s, but I think that is nothing compared to the marvel of design & reconstruction that went into the La Valette Hohlgang by Peter & Paul Balshaw and their builders… as such this underground military museum is nothing short of superb and must be included on your Guernsey visitor itinerary… you’ll certainly kick yourself if you don’t!!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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