Fortress Guernsey – Autumn 2013…

My pal Dr Trevor Davenport, a renowned German & Victorian Channel Islands fortifications expert dwelling on my beloved walking island of Alderney, (most northernmost island of the 7 islands that make up the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and the one from which you can see the coast of France in the shape of the Cap de la Hague), often tweaks me about my ‘apparent’ lack of interest in German heavy fortifications whenever I am over on that sceptred isle… and our discussions (invariably) turn to the actual construction of such concrete beasts across all of the islands.

But my reply is, (almost in a whisper as such words are almost heresy to the committed ‘bunker hunter’), that my overall interests on this subject are more to do with the actual story of the German occupation of the British Channel Islands, (which I addressed in some detail in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied), from the personal perspective of its civilian population and the German occupying forces. As such I feel that I am more of a student of this particular aspect of this incredible Second World War story rather than being ‘purely’ a bunker hunter or ‘fortifications wallah’ myself..!

But I always add the caveat that I am indeed also interested in the Organisation Todt construction of these incredible German concrete towers & bunkers in the context of the Occupation, especially as a number of these highly specialised constructions can only be found in this part of Adolf Hitler’s mighty Atlantic Wall. But I am willing to admit that after several continuous hours of inspecting such impressive, (and often rare), fortifications I find my interest wandering and I want to get to grips with other aspects of the occupation. This usually means getting stuck in at Richard Heaume’s superb Occupation Museum up at Forest or the brilliant Military Museum deep underground down at La Valette in St Peter Port, where Peter & Paul Balshaw’s incredible private collection of both German Occupation artefacts and Guernsey Militia is also on public display.

However, when it comes to fortifications, (and this should please Dr Trev no end and get me back in his good books,) when happily back on Guernsey I always head straight for the beautiful Pleinmont headland down in the south-east corner of the island and the mouth-dropping Batterie Dollmann; not only is this the site of the superbly restored gun emplacement within the Dollmann Batterie itself by the lads of the Guernsey Armouries, but is also the site of the breath-taking & almost awe-inspiring L’Angle MP4 Naval (Kriegsmarine) Range & Direction Finding position high on the cliff tops, which originally boasted an important Freya radar located up on its roof throughout the German occupation…

This haunting construction, (redolent of the beautiful superstructures of the infamous Scharnhorst or Gneisenau battle cruisers of the Kriegsmarine’s High Seas Fleet), is complimented by its sister tower, the equally haunting MP3 tower just around the headland to the right, (now leased by Richard Heaume and open to the public on certain afternoons throughout April & October).

Dr Trev will be delighted to know that both of these incredible towers, (Marinepeilstanden und Messstellen to give them their correct German military monikers and which are a peculiar feature of the Channel Islands, for nowhere else do they appear on the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’) really do get my heart beating just that little bit faster whenever I am lucky enough to lay my eyes on them.

One of my favourites is Le Prevote on the island’s southern coast which was actually the first of these range-finding towers built early on in the occupation by Wehrmacht Fortress Engineers (before the Organisation Todt took over this construction work), and they based their design more on the many Victorian Martello Towers that dot the Bailiwick.

Former Deputy Director of Tourism major Evan Ozanne and myself at one point considered joining forces to buy this historic tower when it came on the open market some years back… needless to say this and the other main towers on Guernsey really capture my imagination, as does the superbly uncovered & fully restored gu-pit that sits squarely betwixt the two towers on Pleinmont’s headland.

It was on June 30th 1940 that the forces of the Third Reich invaded and took control the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (along with Jersey to the south and Alderney to the north), and it was to be an occupation of 5 long, hard years before the islands would once again be free.

However it was not until October 1941 that Hitler issued orders for the heavy fortification of these stunningly beautiful British islands; this was due in part to his fear of an Allied assault, for he wanted to ensure his massive propaganda coup on occupying a ‘little piece of Britain’ was secure, in addition to these islands being his planned stepping stone or launching pad to a full-blown invasion of Britain, just 80 miles to the North.

In fact, just as an aside, one of the tricks the locals used to play on the German occupying forces was to point north-east to Alderney just a couple of miles hence and tell them that was the Isle of Wight, which many German soldiers believed! The other trick that was perpetuated early on against the Germans, (or rather more of an omission in not telling the Kriegsmarine, as told in my documentary by the late Frank Stroobant), was just how high the tide came into St Peter Port.. and in contrast therefore, just how low it was on its ebb, so that initially Kriegsmarine minesweepers tied up at the harbour side were on a short hawser, thus when the tide went out these self same vessels were left, literally, hanging in the air… a rather jolly jape that caused great amusement amongst the locals, but which was soon punished by the occupying forces that had been made to look foolish… so it was not such a jolly jape after that!

However back to the fortifications of these wonderful islands and returning to my favourite area of Pleinmont where the Marine Coastal Artillery Batterie Generaloberst Dollmann covered a large area of the headland & where, in German military mapping parlance, it was designated the name ‘Westberg’. For as a part of the German occupation of the islands, all gun positions & fortifications were give German names as, in addition, were the island’s original 13 parishes.

In fact everything on the Occupation map of Guernsey was now given a permanent German moniker or military designation!.

So it was that Batterie Dollmann at Westberg was equipped with 4 WWI French 220 mm cannons that had been captured by the Germans during their attack on France and brought to Guernsey as a part of their fortifying process. In support of these large 22 kilometre range guns, 105mm field-guns, mortars, machine-gun pits & searchlights were deployed in defence of the headland; whilst criss-crossing this impressive coastal position were personnel shelters, ammunition stores & minefields to complete the picture of a very well defended stronghold..!

In the middle of all of this activity is an intriguing low, squat-like Command Post or Leistand that was originally built to a naval design, but then handed over to the army mid-way through construction and today, thanks to the lads of Guernsey Armouries, you can freely walk around the Batterie Dollmann gun-pit and explore the personnel slit trenches, bunkers & tunnels surrounding the site courtesy of their expert and dedicated restoration of this most important occupation site.

Indeed the gun barrel you see was recovered and sited onto a specially commissioned and re-built gun cradle using original blue prints from Krupps of Essen and the wheels, which for many years had been ‘gate guardians’ to a Boy Scout hut at St Sampson to the north of the island, were also acquired and re-matched to the cannon. So what you see today is a complete and accurate restoration of the original gun-pit over a number of years… a site which had lain filled-in by the Royal Artillery after the German garrison’s surrender in 1945, before the Guernsey Armouries got busy in recent years with their heavy excavators and uncovered the treasures you now see expertly restored and laid out before you now.

Likewise around the coast at about 800 yards or so is  the most impressive and highly evocative Pleinmont MP3 tower, standing almost on guard as it overlooks the famous Hanois Lighthouse , (which until recently was the last working example in British coastal waters). ‘Pleinmont’ as many of us simply refer to this most striking of all of the Bailiwick’s towers , has been lovingly cleaned and renovated by Richard Heaume. On certain levels he has also managed to restore original range finding equipment to several floors, (it being the case that each separate floor in these towers controlled their own separate heavy Marineartillerie gun batteries sited around the headland.)

However it is not just the Pleinmont headland that boasts a superb restoration of the island’s former original German gun positions and bunkers, for down at Fort Hommet, a striking promontory on Guernsey’s beautiful West Coast, more German bunkers and casemates have been, (and are in the process of being), restored to their former glory…

During the war the Germans renamed the Fort Hommet headland ‘Stutzpunkt Rotenstein’ and this particular area of the coast boasted some 12 fortifications all aimed at deterring Allied landings on the considerable amount of wide sandy beaches that this part of the island offers the tourist and sun-seekers of today…

Richard Heaume MBE opened up one of the casemates, which, with the assistance of his ‘trusty liegeman’ Ernie Gavey, (himself also an author of several superb books on Guernsey’s fortifications), is open to the public during the summer season. As you’d expect with Richard, he’s invested a lot of time & effort in recreating the many scenarios that you would expect to find in such a defensive gun position during the German occupation between 1940 and 1945.

This includes a superb crew room with bunk beds & mannequins recreating ‘down time’ of a Marineartillerie crew during the war. Indeed not so long ago, enthusiastic battle re-enactors came over from the mainland to spend a weekend living & sleeping in this bunker, (all in kit, which must have caused a slight storm amongst the locals). But not so unpleasant as you might think as the expertly crafted O.T. fortifications, with their wood-lined crew rooms, were known for being cool in summer and warm in winter.

Actually that reminds me, for the opening sequence of my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, we dressed our sound-man Simon ‘Woody’ Wood (he the later technical genuis responsible for superb studio production of Tomahawk’s Third Reich Musik CDs) up in one of Richard’s original greatcoats & helmet and stuck a rifle in his hand and had him stand-to in one of the coastal bunkers, in a moody silouette, as if on coastal look-out..!

As we had hoped, this turned out to be a most evocative opening shot for my documentary when later viewed in black & white; but after taking the shot the crew & I just could not prise him out of this original garb and after we ‘cut’, Woody marched determinedly around the headland for a jolly… only come to face to face with a poor lady innocently walking her dog… and the look on her face was a picture… oops, so sorry madam!

But back to the plot and less than a 100 yards away from Richard’s exciting case-mate, the lads of Festung Guernsey have also again been very busy on their own accord, with the uncovering and restoration of a 5cm Machinengranatwerfer M19 automatic mortar bunker. According to weapons expert and Festung Guernsey member Terry Gander, the M19 was designed as an anti-personnel weapon and the mortar itself was mounted in a steel cupola, level with the ground, with only the muzzle of the weapon visible and at full stretch it could fire 120 rounds a minute… enough to cause any invading force assaulting from the sea a major head-ache..and then some!

Only 4 of these M19 mortar bunkers were built in Guernsey during the German occupation and sadly after the war, all were extensively damaged by explosives during the great scrap drive of the 1950s when mainland companies came over to recover as much metal from the former German fortifications as they could, damaging or totally destroying many fortifications in the process.

Happily Festung Guernsey, as a part of their personal remit to uncover and restore as many of Guernsey’s German fortifications as they can, (at which news Dr Trev is doing hand-springs..me too in fact), began excavating this M19 bunker in March 2010 Sadly the crew-room proved to be shattered and a very large crack (resulting from the scrap men’s less than careful work), was seen to run from the turret room to the rear wall. However despite the bunker being flooded the rest of the bunker seemed to be in generally good order, so thanks to the ever-willing band of volunteers, this restoration of another of the island’s important German defensive positions has preserved it for future generations interested in this most incredible story of World War Two.

Likewise over my weekend I was pleased to visit Richard Heaume’s stunning German Occupation Museum at Forest to catch up with the man himself and to check that the 20′ version of my Channel Islands Occupied documentary was still playing OK in his small cinema (it was!) and to again wander around this superb museum and re-capture that first excited feeling I had some 30 years ago when first I happened upon it and share those feelings with my dad, who was certainly most appreciative of what he saw…

Likewise I was also able to get down to the Balshaw brothers superb museum at La Valette down in St Peter Port, (my first visit for some years) and though I sadly missed catching up with the lads, I was quite amazed to see their new frontage. Not so long ago you had to walk up a grass bank then down some steps into the opening of their former U-Boot refuelling tunnels that are set back in the cliff but now, after some obviously major excavations, you can walk right in from road level to this most extraordinary museum.

Once again it was fantastic to see so much of  the brothers own personal collection beautifully displayed in these very evocative tunnels and to be able to introduce my dad to to this terrific museum here on Guernsey with its very evocative location & setting down in these impressive German tunnels. What was supposed to be for a long weekend off to relax and show my father the sights & sounds of Guernsey actually turned into yet another part-working trip as I came across more stories, which I plan to pen in forthcoming Blogs, meantime I hope you will enjoy this further Guernsey German Occupation update. Visiting these beautiful islands for you, gentle reader, is such a tough job…but somebody has to do it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Guernsey’s German Bunker Finds..!

Thanks to the handy invention that is the BBC i-Player, I was able to catch up on this week’s latest edition of their superb travelogue series ‘Coast’, which once again took in the beautiful Channel Island of Guernsey, (which is always going to win my vote & eternal gratitude!).

Thus I was delighted to be able to access my latest Festung Guernsey update on-screen courtesy of the programme’s presenter, Nicholas Crane, accompanying islander and FG stalwart Paul Bourgaize as his merry band of volunteers, ( including Bob Froome and his locally-based heavy plant), set about uncovering a German 10-man personnel bunker which was being opened up on the northern coast by the island’s golf course at Les Amarreurs, for the very first time since it was sealed up after the surrender of the island’s German garrison in May 1945.

Fortunately for we ‘arm-chair viewers’ other FG members were also able to lead the cameraman down into another  German personnel bunker, the Half-way Pak casemate which the team had excavated as recently as 2010, in which we were shown a fabulous remaining, though rusty, fortress field telephone still on the wall by a clearly painted sign ‘Achtung Feind hört mit!’  (Warning, don’t let the enemy listen in!).

Elsewhere in the newly opened bunker with its still whitewashed walls we were further treated to evidence of former gun-crew crew members having once billeted there, courtesy of a snippet from a German newspaper proclaiming ‘Dem Führer beschworen’ (Confirmed by Oath to the Führer), that was, incredibly, still affixed over one internal doorway and clearly legible after all these years..!.

Including interviews with two islanders, one who stayed during the Occupation as a young boy whilst the other as a young girl was evacuated to Cheshire, (as so many were), this fascinating segment of Coast was nicely rounded off by Mr Crane’s interview with Fritz Kuhn. A former German artillery gunner, he is one of the many Guernsey-garrisoned soldiers who now regularly return to the Bailiwick to retrace their previous war-time steps and in some cases, are lucky enough to see the uncovering of their actual war-time bunkers and personnel shelters…

I must admit this was always a highlight for me when, following my television documentary Channel Islands Occupied I was retained as the media consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board and its fortifications initiative Fortress Guernsey, for such fantastic voluntary work by these incredible local enthusiasts, (often visited by such former German personnel), always provided me handsomely with much exciting and very welcome ammunition as I helped tell the story of the Bailiwick’s war-time German occupation to an increasingly fascinated outside world.

One such restoration project which, back then, was quietly on-going under the direction of  volunteer members of The Guernsey Armouries team was to renovate and restore an important gun-pit and its associated bunkers and slit-trenches left behind after the German garrison’s surrender in 1945.

On week-ends throughout several winters and during long, sunny evenings of summer and autumn, a local businessman Dave Malledent and his small but knowledgeable band of Guernseymen, (again alongside Bob Froome’s diggers), could be found labouring away up on the Pleinmont headland, clearing the scrub land and digging out some 500 tons of infill that had also hidden these impressive gun pits & trenches from public view since the 1950s.

Named after Generaloberst Dollmann, and based on the South West corner of the island, the Batterie Dollmann, sited between the hauntingly impressive fire control towers of Pleinmont and L’Angle, this battery was originally home to four 22cm K532 (f) cannons housed in separate pits under the control of a command centre to the south and one dedicated level of the massive observation tower just to the north west.

Whilst the heavyweight work of uncovering the actual gun pit and personnel slit- trenches and crew bunkers was being undertaken by the lads of the Guernsey Armouries, away from the site in a warehouse at St Sampson to the north of the island, the actual hardware to be sited in the renovated gun pit Number Three had also been taking place.

As a part of the clearance by British Army Royal Engineers of all enemy ordnance in the Islands in the immediate aftermath of the German surrender in May 1945, many smaller weapons, along with tons of ammunition, found themselves cast into the deep waters off the islands.

Many guns, complete with cradles & wheels, were pushed off the nearest high cliff, including several built for the French army in 1917 that found ithemselves transferred to the German arsenal when the Wehrmacht over-ran France in 1940. Sent to the Islands for caostal defence at 25 tonnes  & able to lob a 104kg shell 22 kilometres, they were the second largest cannons in the islands after Guernsey’s famous Batterie Mirus.

One of these barrels was located at Les Landes on nearby Jersey, but undaunted by the huge task of retrieving it, a hazardous recovery operation was mounted by the Guernsey Armouries team and it was successfully raised up the 300 foot sheer cliff-face!

After period of innovation and renovation, (plus a coup in finding a set of original wheels acting as ‘gate-guardians’ outside an island Boy Scout hall), this last remaining 22cm was restored to its full war-time glory. The original barrel has since been married to a new gun-carriage and chassis which had been lovingly and faithfully re-created, courtesy of the original blue-prints generously supplied by the French Ministry of Defence.

Lowered into its rightful place on the stunning Pleinmont headland and painted in an impressive mottle yellow-green camouflage, it is now seen by many island visitors as a stark and sometimes frightening reminder that British soil was actually occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany during the long years of World War Two!

Sadly though a great deal was achieved and an enormous amount of effort and man-hours was expended over many years under the overall flagship of Fortress Guernsey, this incredible island government-sponsored operation ran out of political steam, so leaving the private museum & site owners and enthusiastic volunteers, plus members of the Guernsey Occupation Society and the now latterly formed Festung Guernsey (with Paul and the lads), to simply revert back to the ‘good old days’ of  private endeavour..!

Happily, as we saw on the BBC only last night, this hardy, privately-financed band are continuing to preserve the tales of the German Occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey with an ever-ready willingness to do whatever is necessary to keep this vital story alive and well… and to this end watch out for their newly published book on German Tunnels in Guernsey, Alderney, Herm & Sark…they deserve all the help & support all enthusiasts of the German Occupation of these beautiful islands can lend them…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013