The World of Battle Re-enactment…

A recent report from somewhere ‘up north’, where a local council, (no doubt Labour- controlled as they are always seemingly politically-correct, utterly hidebound by their own prejudices and love to get upset on behalf of other groups..who aren’t usually in the least bit upset themselves!), had announced that nobody dressed in German uniforms would be allowed to attend a local recreation of a World War Two event. Excuse me?

So apart from making me wonder who these loons were and how it was that they could hold down an important council job whilst being so ignorant of WW-II history, (in that they apparently had no idea who the Allies were fighting in Europe between the years 1939 and 1945..Noddy perhaps?), it led me onto thinking about how far battle re-enactors have actually come in the 27-odd years that I have been running The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive here in the UK..

Since I last appeared in a war-time television drama series myself with a very 1939 ‘four-penny all off’ hair-cut, I have noticed, merely as an innocent by-stander watching from the wings these days, just how far the standard of latter day war-time re-enactment has come, both from the male and particularly the female perspective. The amazing progression has been to such an extent that these wonderful re-enactors are now, to my eyes, all but full-time professionals in their approach to this work… No longer are the recreations I’ve witnessed made up of little fat blokes with decidedly non-military hair-cuts running around like a group of little Cub Scouts full of e-Numbers on a excited day out, but are 9 times out of 10 well honed, well drilled and well disciplined groups of individuals determined to ‘get it right’ and do justice to those that went (and, tragically, often fell) before them..

As such it is therefore no wonder that TV & Motion-picture producers now actively seek out these wonderful enthusiastic hobbyists who, (with all their often expensively acquired uniforms & accoutrements), so accurately portray their historical counterparts as a result of which they bring nothing but an authentic historical touch to the expensive & important filming at hand.. Brad Pitt’s new Hollywood movie ‘Fury’ being just the latest example of their dedication.

I almost wish I was young enough to be involved once again now that such battle re-creations are very a highly skilled, polished, (and as I say) almost professional undertaking… so how these blinkered little ‘Town Hall Hitlers’ can object, (and in so doing exhibit exactly the ignorant & almost fascistic little prejudices that they purport to hate), is totally beyond me… but perhaps best for my blood pressure that I don’t venture any further down that particular path of thought..!

However on a happier note… members of our smashing group of Tomahawk Films‘ customers occasionally drop us an e-mail and recently Leon, did just that and wrote to generously talk about his enjoyment of our output and in one of his missives he very kindly attached a couple of photos of him and his colleagues in battle re-enactment mode and I was incredibly impressed and asked him if I could include them in this Blog about re-enactment and he kindly agreed and replied:

“I actually took part in a special re-enactment at Cornet Castle, Guernsey and we re-enacted the German surrender which features in your documentary. I’ve include 2 photos, one is of us at Cornet Castle representing flak troops…plus a photo as what we normally represent, Fallschirmjäger…at Mapledurham where they filmed ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, you may recognise the water wheel” (pictured at top).

I hope those of you who kindly read my musings here in these Tomahawk Blogs (and manage to stay awake through the experience), will be as impressed as I was… in fact talking of the Occupation, if you do follow these Blogs you will know that in addition to being the producer of ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, (my 50’ TV documentary on the German occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey & Alderney between 1940 and 1945), I also spent a very happy 5 years as the Media Consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board, helping them promote their story of the German occupation, riding shotgun on other producer’s films to make sure the story told was the correct one, (as liberties were often taken, especially in terms of the subject of the imported foreign slave labourers used by the German occupying forces), and generally being their Occupation Story spokesman on both Television & Radio…

As a part of this happy work it was my job to help promote Guernsey’s two superb Occupation museums, the wonderful underground U-boot refuelling tunnel museum in St Peter Port owned by Peter & Paul Balshaw and Richard Heaume MBE’s stunning museum collection at Forest, plus his case-mate bunker out on the West Coast and Pleinmont Tower out on the Pleinmont headland… The reason that I mention the case-mate bunker is that during my tenure as Guernsey Tourism’s Media Consultant, a superb German battle re-enactment group representing the former Wehrmacht Pioniere Btl 146 from nearby us here in Hampshire (led by Lee Attwells) actually came over to Guernsey and spent an authentic weekend living in Richard’s casemate bunker.

Fully dressed in the correct uniforms of the time, they lived as former Naval Marineartillerie troops, and I’m indebted to them for these superb photos which I hope they won’t mind me re-posting here… I’m not sure if their Pioniere Btl 146 alter-egos have ever been back to Guernsey, but it certainly looked good ‘back in the day’

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Jersey’s German Occupation Museum…

Whilst the German Underground Hospital up at St Lawrence is the island’s most famous Occupation attraction, there is actually another superb military museum in private hands which you must definitely visit when you are next on Jersey, especially if, like me, you also have a great interest in that island’s German Occupation during the Second World War…

Owned by Jerseyman Damien Horn, and located down on the long St Ouen’s coast road, this wonderful museum is sited in an absolutely fabulous 10.5cm casemate bunker that was originally built by German Organisation Todt engineers and Forced Labour drawn from the occupied territories across Europe and was set right into the concrete sea wall, which in turn was a part of the massive defences that formed part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defences.

This particular bunker was primarily constructed for beach defence and housed a 10.5cm First World War Schneider carriage-mounted artillery piece, which the Germans had captured in France during their rapid Blitzkrieg and bought to Jersey to add to the fortification weaponry. It was crewed by a German naval Marine-artillerie unit of 12 men; 8 permanently on duty whilst 4 were rostered off, and when on duty they actually lived in the bunker, known as Resistance Nest Lewis Tower, (after a nearby Victorian Martello tower), and when off-duty were billeted in a locally commandeered house.

The museum was officially opened on 29th of May 1989 by the Constable of the Parish, Arthur Queree, after three months of concentrated rubbish clearance to clear the way into the bunker. Following an internal paint-job, the repair of electrics and the building of cabinets to display initially two collections, Damien’s incredible German Occupation artefacts and a British collection owned by his former partner in the museum venture, the Museum was up and running…

Now in sole ownership of St Ouen’s Bunker and full to overflowing with wonderful & exciting Occupation artefacts, like many youngsters born on these beautiful British Channel Islands, Damien was aware of the vast numbers of concrete German fortifications dotted around this relatively small island, (measuring just 9 miles by 5), from an early age.

Also like many of those youngsters before him, Damien set out to track down and uncover the one ‘over-looked & undiscovered bunker’ that would still contain, he hoped, an Aladdin’s Cave full of German steel helmets and hidden Luger pistols and so forth, but again like those previous keen ‘bunker-hunters’ he too was unlucky in his search for the collector’s ‘Holy Grail’

However, undeterred, he resorted to asking anybody & everybody on Jersey if they had any Occupation treasures still tucked away in an attic or an outside shed somewhere… and helped by the fact of his father knowing most of the locals, he soon found himself the lucky recipient of a number of wonderful items donated to his growing collection, including several German steel helmets, three radio sets…and an example of the famous and fabled Enigma de-coding machine…

As his growing collection of items had a direct connection to the German Occupation of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark & Herm, so he became more and more interested in the personal paperwork of the soldiers actually stationed in the islands’ garrisons, such as their Soldbuchs & Wehrpasses, along with highly personal  and very illuminating photo albums. From such documents and photos Damien found it a really engrossing past-time through which he could trace a Wehrmacht soldier’s war-time progress across Europe and then find out where and when he actually served in the Channel Islands…

Today Damien boasts a varied and exciting German helmet collection (now a fairly scare item of kit unlike 30 years ago when they were still pretty much everywhere), and also a German firearms collection which, being a member of his local gun club, can still be used; so it is not unusual to see a Luger or a Walther P38 pistol being fired on the club’s butts. He is also the owner of both a licensed M.P. 40 machine-pistol and a heavy M.G. 34, (a type of which would have been fired from the entrance slit of his St Ouen bunker to deter any attackers), and these two distinctly-Germanic infantry weapons can also be seen and heard) on Jersey’s firing range periodically.

Of great personal interest to me are some of the musical instruments and accoutrements used by the German army & air-force bandsmen stationed in Jersey during the Occupation and Damien graciously agreed to appear in my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945 showing his superb example of a Luftwaffe Tuba that was left behind at the surrender of the German garrison in May 1945.

But tearing myself away from Damien’s captivating bunker, some 15 years ago he also acquired the rusting wreck of a Stoewer R200s radio car, (the last German vehicle left over from the Jersey Occupation), which was shipped to Jersey sometime in 1940 by the German occupying forces. Though there is no known history or photographic evidence of the car during the war, the first known photographs of it were taken shortly after the surrender in May 1945 when, along with another Stoewer and other German garrison vehicles, it was parked up at Springfield Stadium in St.Helier and was sold at auction on the 2nd of November 1945 for the princely sum of £50.

Immediately after the auction the German military registration plates were removed as per the auctioneer’s instructions and it was driven home by its new owner Mr Langlois of the St Brelade camp-site where it was totally de-militarised The front & rear blackout/convoy lights were removed along with the rifle clips and the shovel rackets were also taken off. The 3rd rear seat was also taken out to turn it into a pick-up truck and it became a very useful run-around on the camp-site for a number of years where it helped ferry visitors luggage around the site.

Sometime in the 1950′s it was acquired by Harrington’s Garage in St Brelade and used  as a tow-truck but when it finally gave up the ghost it was simply dumped at the side of the garage. Many locals interested in the German occupation story tried to buy this rusting old field-car, but to no avail. However in April 1990 after many years of it sitting unprotected in the open air, Mr. Harrington decided to give it to Damien.

Restoration began in early 1991, and most of the original fittings that had been removed were actually found after many hours of searching in the old sheds and out-buildings of the shortly-to-be-demolished campsite; even the jack that had been thrown into a hedge in the mid 1940s!

Luckily for Damien the engine from the second Stoewer at the 1945 auction sale had also somehow found its way to Harrington’s Garage and was still sitting under his old work bench and this was also acquired for the spare parts that it would be able to provide. Meanwhile parts that were missing from the car which could not be found locally on Jersey were eventually tracked down in various countries on the continent including, Germany, France and Norway.

Tragically the car was almost totally wrecked from the years standing outside in the open air, but every part was sandblasted, painted & reassembled and all the mechanics were gone over with a fine tooth-comb and repairs made where necessary and as many of the original car parts had been kept, happily they could repaired, rather than have all new parts made.

Many hundreds of hours’ work went into the rebuilding of this last fabulous German-made survivor of the Occupation and happily the majority of the work was completed in time for it to take part in the 1995 50th Anniversary Liberation Cavalcade, where it rightly won the trophy for ‘Best Restoration’.

Since then work on the Stoewer has continued and now it is in almost exactly the same condition as it was when it first came over to Jersey in 1940, complete with restored military radios and antenna and, as a member of Jersey’s Military Vehicle Club, it can now be seen out and about on the island’s roads, with Damien at the wheel and son Sebastian in the passenger seat.

But returning to the bunker, you only have to enter this beautifully restored case-mate full of so many exciting items of militaria on display to see what a wonderful job Damien and his team have done. It must surely be every collector’s dream to own such an original German bunker that was fully crewed and full serviced during the war and to now have it to house your own personal collection of Occupation artefacts and open to an amazed public..!

As a former collector myself, I don’t think it gets any better than this…and on the several occasions I have had the pleasure of visiting Damien’s bunker collection I have always been excited & captivated from the moment I passed through the outer door to see everything seemingly where it should be where. Even though the post-war scrap drives in the 1950s saw many such bunkers completely stripped of their heavy metal doors and the inner workings & furnishings, Damien has scoured Jersey to find original replacement doors & gas lock equipment and so forth so that his restoration of this German bunker is complete & original and he should be extremely proud of what he has achieved.

To this end, with Jersey’s Underground Hospital now focussing more on its hospital wards & air-raid shelter, I think I am right in saying that Damien Horn’s bunker is now the only dedicated Occupation Museum displaying all aspects of German & civilian artefacts and though many Jersey visitors will naturally & rightly make a bee-line to the re-named Jersey War Tunnels, I also urge all visiting collectors & enthusiasts to also head for Damien’s Bunker at St Ouen as well… you most certainly won’t regret it!

In fact Damien tells me that he has also recently acquired some of the Underground Hospital’s surplus Occupation items…  however one of his newest and most exciting new additions is an actual German light Flak 38 anti-aircraft gun along with all the different tools and accessories that would have been needed to fire and maintain this distinctive gun. Again showing great ingenuity, Damien has now recreated an anti-aircraft position similar to the many examples which the German Occupiers had built around the Island to defend the larger gun positions from air attack.

Personally for me, a welcome visit to Damien’s incredible bunker is always one of those rare treats when visiting Jersey and Tomahawk Films are therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, absolutely delighted that his stunning museum continues to be the only outlet on this pretty channel island that is both playing and selling our collection of Third Reich music to visitors; so effectively allowing this stirring Nazi-era military & civilian music to actually ‘come home’ and be played in the islands’ myriad bunkers and mess-rooms, exactly as it would have done during the war-time German Occupation years of 1940 and 1945!

Damien’s restored German case-mate right down on the shore-line at St Ouen is also a very important outlet for our ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ DVD, telling the story of the German garrison in the Islands between 1940 and 1945… and I couldn’t think of a more perfect Jersey setting for my German Occupation television documentary..!

 Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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

Festung Alderney 1940-45…

For many years just hearing the mere mention of the island of Alderney was enough to send a slight shiver down my spine….. as a young Third Reich history student I had always regarded this tiny Channel Island, lying just off the French coast, to be a cold, bleak outcrop of rock jutting out from an inhospitable sea – the perfect setting for the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil during the Second World War. My fevered imagination had played out all sorts of awful scenes on that far flung ‘island of terror’, the stuff of nightmares in fact!  But the reality in broad daylight could not have been further from my idea of the truth..!

The most northerly of the small group of British Islands, and measuring just 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles at its widest, Alderney lies eight miles off the French Cotentin peninsula and, home to a small population of just over 2,000, is a place of truly outstanding, desolate beauty! This surprising revelation hit me in the late 1980s when I was doing the groundwork for my 50′ tv documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ and had just set foot on the island for the very first time after a 15 minute flight from nearby Guernsey, a mere 24 miles away.

With the early Autumn sun glinting off a deep-blue, wave-flecked English Channel, my tiny 16-seater aircraft had banked sharply on its final approach to give me an impressive panoramic view of this incredible little island and my first sight of some of the concrete fortifications of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’  that were abandoned and left to nature after the German garrison surrendered without a shot being fired in May 1945.

Since that first introduction to the ancient and historic Bailiwick of Guernsey’s tiny sister island, I have come to fall deeply in love with Alderney’s untouched, tranquil beauty and to understand and appreciate the sheer variety of its myriad fortifications that have protected this vulnerable outpost down through the centuries.

The Germans were not the first to fortify this island – in fact the most prolific examples of defensive positions were actually built in Victorian & pre-Victorian times: stunning stone forts that have been studied in depth by island residents Dr Trevor Davenport & Colin Partridge. Both experts on the German defences, these two academics have faithfully documented Alderney’s stunning range of fortifications from the period 1940-45, back to the mid 1770s and their publications on these incredible edifices makes for fascinating reading.

For the committed WW-II German ‘bunker hunter’ or Victorian fortifications ‘buff’  then the real beauty of Alderney is that, apart from being a mere 40 minutes flying time from the UK mainland, you don’t actually need a car when you arrive. St Anne, the islands’ pretty little town, can actually be reached on foot from the tiny airstrip in about 15 minutes, whilst the island itself with its high cliffs in the south-west and its flat sandy beaches up at the north-east, is very much walkable in much less than a day.

The wide, open spaces also mean that the majority of the fortifications, both German & Victorian, are readily accessible to view and some to clamber over, with the right clothing and a torch. In fact some twenty-three years or so on from my original film, I never tire of rambling round Alderney, taking in the Victorian forts of Ile de Raz, Tourgis & Clonque and the impressive German anti-tank wall at Longis Bay, the enormous gun emplacements of the marine-artillery gun emplacements at Annes Batterie and the haunting and evocative MP3 naval direction-finding tower dominating the sky-line at Mannez.

Unlike the remainder of the Channel Islands, Alderney was cleared of its local population after the relatively bloodless occupation of this British territory in the summer of 1940. This civilian evacuation was the prelude to the impending fortification, resulting in Alderney joining with the other islands to eventually become the most heavily fortified part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ and a natural extension of the Fuehrer’s grand plan for ‘Festung Europa’ (Fortress Europe).

In 1938 the ‘Organisation Todt’ (set up under Dr Fritz Todt to oversee the production of Hitler’s massive autobahn construction programme), was tasked with fortifying Germany’s western border. Between 1938 and the outbreak of war in 1939, this para-military body built over 400 miles of defences comprising 14,000 individual concrete bunkers & emplacements along the so-called ‘West Wall’.

Following the invasion of France and the Battle of Britain, Hitler decided in December 1941 to fortify the entire coastline from Denmark down to France’s border with Spain, and it was the O.T. that was put in charge of this massive ‘Atlantic Wall’  building programme. By mid-1943 this enormous body, bolstered by forced-labour from the occupied countries across Europe, had grown to over half a million strong.

In the wake of the occupation of the Channel Islands in that beautiful summer of 1940 Alderney, along with Guernsey,Jersey and to a lesser degree Sark, were initially fortified to a limited degree by army combat engineers. However, following Hitler’s fortification decree of 1941, it was realised that that the army would not be able to cope on its own, so the Organisation Todt moved in with the role of permanently fortifying the islands and providing the coastal defences capable of providing cover for German shipping routes along the western coast of France, from St Malo to the Cotentin peninsula. Flak Artillery was provided by the Luftwaffe whilst coastal defence was to be undertaken by army & marine-artillery units under the control of the Kriegsmarine.

Whilst the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey retained much of their local population, despite a fairly high level of pre-German occupation evacuation to mainland Britain, on Alderney from 1941 onwards the civilian population was all but replaced by the constant inward flow of German manpower, plus the military hardware and building material required to turn this small island into a fortress. Aided by the construction of a huge jetty down in the harbour, (originally destined for use as part of an artificial harbour for ‘Operation Sealion’ – the aborted invasion of mainland Britain), the original military garrison of 450 assorted personnel in 1941 was to eventually grow to over 3,000 by 1944, whilst the German labourers of the OT, boosted by forced-labourers from as far afield as Russia, would bring the total war-time occupation force on Alderney to some 7,000.

Most Wehrmacht personnel were either billeted in St Anne or alternated between hutted accommodation constructed around their flak coastal batteries or underground in their heavily reinforced, wood-lined concrete crew-quarters that made up a part of the complex maze of bunkers & slit-trenches surrounding each fortified position.  However in early 1942 a priority was given to house the influx of German O.T. workers & forced-labourers which resulted in four specific camps being constructed within a six-month period by a volunteer force of French workmen who arrived on the island in January 1942.

Each was named after a North Sea island: ‘Helgoland’ at Platte Saline, ‘Nordeney’ at Saye Bay, ‘Borkum’ at the Haize and ‘Sylt’ on edge of the grass air-strip, (disabled to deter Allied landings), and ‘Lager Sylt’’  which was eventually handed over to 1.SS Bau-Brigade. This SS Construction Unit took charge of the Russian forced labourers previously under O.T. control so becoming the only SS-run concentration camp on British soil.

Unfortunately many salacious and fanciful stories concerning the fate of these Russian workers at the hands of their SS guards have magnified themselves over the years, whilst the real truth regarding the terrible conditions that some of those wretched workers endured under such SS rule has been shrouded in mystery, compounded by a lack of surviving witnesses and the fact that the SS destroyed the camp before the German occupation came to an end in 1945.

What is known is that by 1943 all four camps housed between 3 & 4 thousand volunteer & forced-labourers and at least 330 of these workers died or were killed during the fortifying process, including many of the Russians who were subsequently buried in make-shift graves on Longis Common. Following the German surrender in May 1945, ‘Bunny’ Pantcheff, a British officer in military intelligence, (and a former peace-time visitor to Alderney), was sent to the island to conduct a full enquiry into any German ‘mis-deeds’ and his compelling summary was later turned into a small paperback book entitled Alderney Fortress Island’ in 1981.

As the long shadows of history now fall gently across this breathtakingly beautiful Channel Island, the welcome visitor, armed with a map from the small tourist office in town, will find it possible to locate many of the German and Victorian fortifications that still dominate the scenery – even the former gate-posts to SS-Lager Sylt stand alone & forlorn by the side of the now tarmac airstrip, as an accusing testament to what awful deeds may have taken place within the camp perimeter those many years ago.

Standing looking at these innocent gate-posts today or indeed standing atop some of the huge coastal bunkers or amidst the  massive gun emplacements up on the cliffs I must admit that even in such beautiful location as this, a slight tingle still runs up my spine as I take in the haunting atmosphere and think back over 70 years to Adolf Hitler’s forces occupying this small, but heavily fortified outpost of the British Empire and wonder… what if mainland Britain had actually been next..?

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The Nazi Occupation of Jersey 1940-1945…

Like many of my generation I suspect, the earliest awareness I had of the very beautiful British Channel Islands was from watching the always superb, Jersey-located, ‘Bergerac’  that was a regular staple of our television viewing back in the 1980s, (and which still holds up as a gripping police detective series in its many outings on the various history satellite channels today… but oh boy, in that pre-mobile phone, pre-computer era, doesn’t everybody now look so young?).

As with a lot of folk back, then I merely assumed that all of the Channel Islands were one single entity, not realising at the time that the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (containing the 7 islands of Guernsey, Alderney, Herm, Sark, Jethou, Lihou & Brecqhou), were actually one governmental or administrative grouping, whilst the Bailiwick of Jersey stood aaprt from the others as a completely seperate island, complete with its own parliament, laws & bank-notes and so forth; a slighty strange anomaly the roots of which can be traced back to when both Bailiwick’s, (the word meaning the ‘area over which a Bailiff has jurisdiction‘), were on opposing sides during the English Civil War.

Originally part of the Duchy of Normandy back in the 10th century, the Channel Islands were constantly fought over by England & France in many ensuing mediaeval wars, during which their ownership changed hands on more than one occasion: indeed pre-1945 the majority of all Channel Islanders spoke French, or more accurately, a fascinating local Patois that it is still possible to catch being spoken in certain parts of the two larger islands today.

But it was during the English Civil War that the distinct fault lines began to appear within the islands as the population of Guernsey’s sympathies lay firmly with the Parliamentarians whilst nearby Jersey remained staunchly Royalist… and it is these deep-set divisions that still appear to underpin  inter-island relationships albeit today it is, happily, more of a friendly rivalry between the two Bailiwicks which, as Crown Dependencies, are a part of the British Isles, though not part of the United Kingdom or the EU… (lucky them!)

However during the Second World War, the story of their German Occupation was more or less the same and both Bailiwicks went through identical untold hardships, had huge German garrisons stationed there between 1940 & 1945 .Furthermore both had their landscapes dramatically transformed forever thanks to the massive German ‘Organisation Todt’ fortification building programme that turned these most beautiful & hitherto peaceful islands into the most heavily fortified part of Adolf Hitler’s massive ‘Atlantic Wall’.

So when faced with documenting these islands in my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ and having only the limited budgets available, decisions had to be made as to which islands I would, or could, actually focus on… and despite having a number of friends and valued Tomahawk Films’ customers on Jersey, (a most beautiful island in its own right), tough financial decisions finally came down to my eventually shooting on Guernsey & Alderney.

Though I am relieved that this ultimately proved to be the right financial decision for Tomahawk, with my film, (I’m proud to say), now a very well received & highly respected documentary, it nevetheless always niggled me a little in that I could not give over as much of the story to Jersey’s specific experiences as I would have liked, in terms of physically filming there.

Nevertheless Jersey is very much a part of my story and I am therefore ever grateful for a wonderful comment later made by Michael Ginns MBE, Hon. Secretary of Jersey’s Occupation Society, who generously & most kindly opined of my documentary: “Congratulations on a very neat production: first class and much more honest & factual than some of the rubbish we’ve had to endure on television lately..!”

However in order that I might try to correct the possible ‘shooting imbalance’ of my film,  some years later I directly approached Jersey’s Tourist Board, showed them my documentary and asked if I could produce something similar for them but which had much more of a direct ‘Jersey focus’ to it?

Sadly I was met with a something of a rebuff… so did not pursue that idea any further as my documentary was continuing to sell in huge numbers in Jersey, not least through the fabulous German Underground Hospital, (now renamed Jersey War Tunnels), at St Andrews and the superb private museum down on the coast at St Ouen, owned & run by Damien Horn. So I felt that there was perhaps enough sales evidence to convince me that I had roughly got the story right for all of the differing Channel Islands and their incredible shared war-time German occupation history.

But it was still a real delight when I was approached by David Williams who called Tomahawk Films to say that he was putting together a film called ‘Stars on the Landscape’.  In it he would be taking a highly detailed look at the surviving German fortifications on Jersey that volunteer CIOS members were working very hard to lovingly restore and open up to their islands’ many visitors each summer season and could he use some of the period music from our Tomahawk Films’ WW-II German Archive for his sound-track..?

We were indeed able to supply him with some tracks from our biggest selling Third Reich/Nazi-era CD ‘The Military Music of Adolf’s Hitler Leibstandarte-SS’ but then a  thought occurred to me: around this time Tomahawk was in the process of going from video to DVD and ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ was going to be permanently transferred to this new format, but at 50’ long I thought this was a bit short for this new format that always seemed to be around 90’ and required additional extras such director’s cuts and ‘behind-the-scenes’ formats etc.

So I suggested to David that if  I also offered to record the voice-over for ‘Stars on the Lanscape’, in addition to supplying the Musikkorps SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ music tracks for his sound-track, could Tomahawk obtain the rights to his wonderful film and effectively offer it as a second ‘bonus film’ on our newly transferred to DVD ‘Channel Islands Occupied’?

Happily he agreed and so Tomahawk Films re-edited our production to offer ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ as 90’ double-documentary release featuring my programme looking, primarily, at the German occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey & Alderney, whilst David’s superb film documented the incredible post-war fortifications that Jersey still boasts… thereby offering that much more comprehensive, historical balance across all of the islands that I had so striven for earlier.

Judging from the terrific and most welcome feedback we are still getting from our myriad Tomahawk Films’ customers around the globe, (along with myriad visitors to the Channel Islands kindly still buying our DVD year in, year out when over on holiday), this was indeed the correct production decision..!

I am now really much happier that ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ combined with David’s ‘bunker-hunting’ production of ’Stars on the Landscape’ now gives ‘equal billing’ to this important German Occupation story cross all islands…

So as they say in certain circles… job’s a good ‘un..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013