Channel Island Slave Labourers ’40-45

Amidst the jaw-dropping beauty that are the islands of Guernsey & Alderney today, it is sometimes hard to take on-board that during the German Occupation between the years 1940 & 1945, in addition to the hardships suffered by the islanders cut-off from the mainland and subject to German military law, another group of individuals were finding these times even tougher and often unimaginably so. These were the German’s political prisoners shipped into Alderney as slave labourers from various parts of Occupied Europe to work on the planned programme of heavy fortification of these stunning British islands under the Third Reich’s military engineering arm, the Organisation Todt.

Indeed it is this and the tragic fate of three Jewish Guernsey women that still provides a sad and at times slightly murky undercurrent to this most intriguing of war-time stories and the facts of the matter are often further muddied by the sheer sensationalism that still often surrounds the fates of these poor unfortunate slave labourers. Stories, some repeated in print as if Gospel, that usually, (and to the intense annoyance & utter distaste of those of us trying to reflect the accurate story) involved slave labourers being ‘brutally murdered by their German guards or OT overseers and either thrown into the concrete foundations of the gun emplacements, towers & underground tunnels or being flung from the high cliffs on Guernsey & Alderney’s coasts!’

These along with many similar sensational stories are continually being dreamed up by budding historical authors and then oft-repeated by conspiracy theorists; however whilst it is beyond dispute that over 100 slave labourers did die in the course of the construction of the massive concrete fortifications that Hitler decreed be built across the Bailiwick to secure these islands from a British counter-attack, (and the conditions under which they were held & worked in were often extremely unpleasant), such on-going stories of wholesale slaughter of these prisoners is pure fantasy and certainly not helpful when viewed in a historical context.

However to return to the story of the 3 Jewish women on Guernsey, (Marianne Grunfeld, Auguste Spitz & Therese Steiner), who were eventually to be transported to Germany and their fate in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau sealed, German Occupation Museum proprietor Richard Heaume MBE has a small room at his famous museum dedicated to this darker side of the German occupation. Here, in addition to having on display a pair of the evocative blue & white striped concentration camp suits as worn by the slave labourers, he also commissioned a special display some years back by talented mainland sculptor Jennifer Anne Snell, a former Channel Islander herself.

The actual sculpture itself is a very evocative design of 3 suitcases, something that many island deportees, both those evacuated from the Bailiwick to the mainland in 1940 and those later sent to Biberach internment camp in Germany later in the war, will instantly recall and remember. Seeing this very simple memorial in his small room, (which is sparsely decked out like the original cell of the old island prison at in St James Street in St Peter Port), displayed alongside the infamous concentration camp suits is certainly a most thought-provoking moment. As such a visit to Richard’s Occupation museum in the Parish of Forest would not be complete without spending a contemplative moment or two in this ‘cell’ to see the dark side of German military rule in WW-II.

Sadly elsewhere on the island a most embarrassing & potentially insulting act was to later take place which I personally still feel a great sadness over in as much as I believe it was always politically-motivated and should never have happened. During the years that I worked as Media Consultant to ‘Fortress Guernsey’ under the superb leadership of Major Evan Ozanne, (in the wake of my television documentary Channel Islands Occupied), we were always more than aware of the Slave Labour questionAs such it was something all of us involved in this specific aspect of Channel Islands war-time history trod very softly and very sympathetically around…

Indeed a part of my media spokesman’s job was to ensure that UK and International journalists and film-makers coming to Guernsey would tell the correct story and not run away with the ‘Sunday tabloid’ sensationalist stories about the aforementioned labourers being killed and thrown into the fortifications’ footings etc.. and many’s the time during my 5 year tenure that I had to ‘ride shot-gun’ on an unfolding magazine story or film to ensure this did not happen..!

As a part of our work, it was deemed a priority by Major Ozanne that a roll-call of all slave labourers that died in the Bailiwick under German Occupation finally be remembered and so, in league with the Royal British Legion-Guernsey and the island’s Occupation Society, (and following much research by Major Ozanne himself), eventually a list of 110 known foreign workers from former German military medical records was drawn up and he set about contacting the Embassies in each of the countries representing these workers.

Following a lengthy diplomatic process, a gold & granite plaque was commissioned in 1999 and unveiled amidst an emotional ceremony on White Rock in St Peter Port’s harbour, a service that I was honoured to be invited to. With the 110 traced names finally honoured in front of many Ambassadors & Charges d’Affaires from the countries involved, members of the press looked on and duly reported this hard won-achievement.

However it was all to end in an embarrassing farce thanks to the complaint of one man, a former Dutchman then living on Guernsey, who maintained he was a forced labourer working for the Organisation Todt on Guernsey & Alderney… a matter that has, alledgedly, never truly been established by the relevant authorities and with certain island politicians merely accepting his word without ever going to the trouble of ascertaining his exact bone fides in this matter!

Major Ozanne takes up the story..: “The plaque was unveiled & blessed by the clergy, but some time later a former O.T. worker Gilbert van Grieken complained that 10 German workers we had honoured also had headstones at the Military Cemetery at Fort George. With the exception of one named Berganski and another who died at sea, the 8 remaining bodies were commemorated in the German cemetery, but we don’t know whether these men were O.T. overseers or German nationals coerced into working for the military against their will”.

Such was the negative publicity generated by Mr van Greiken that the States capitulated and ordered the removal of the plaque leaving a blank wall down at the harbour. We then waited in vain to see if a new memorial would be commissioned by the States commemorating all-but-the 10 German names Mr Greiken objected to, or whether the confirmed German forced labourer Mr Berganski and the worker lost at sea would be the two lone German names left on a new plaque, possibly with the addition of a Luxembourger who later came to light!

However, all these various parameters notwithstanding, the permanently unanswered question remains in my mind as to how such an important war-time plaque commemorating so many innocent men on Guernsey and which had been consecrated by the clergy and officially unveiled in a ceremony with full diplomatic courtesies being extended, could simply have been removed from public view without a thorough official investigation beforehand..?

So it appears Mr van Greiken lodged a complaint and, (is the way of the world these days), the civil servants jumped straight into action on the say-so of one man, whose war record, it now transpires, is open to some speculation or interpretation! So act first then ask questions later…except it seems no questions ever were!

As Major Ozanne put it: “I regret the plaque was removed because of insular attitudes as in the end, who is to judge? I personally believe that all of these men honoured were either forced or cajoled into working for the Germans; now all of these workers names have been removed on the accusations of just one man…how can this be just? Hopefully whatever the eventual outcome of the plaques’ removal a decision will eventually be made as to what form a replacement memorial will take and indeed how the remaining 102 of Guernsey’s known dead foreign labourers will be honoured as per the original hopes of Fortress Guernsey, the Guernsey Branch of the British Legion and the Occupation Society back in 1999”… but some 15 years, on we are still waiting..!      

           Copyright@Brian Matthews 2013

A New Forest Fighter Strip…

Amidst the many great joys and privileges of living down on the South Coast of Hampshire is the fact that I am only a 20 minute drive from one of the greatest and certainly the largest Mediaeval Forests in Western Europe.. The New Forest… plaything & hunting ground of Kings & Princelings down the ages. Now a world famous British National Park in all its eye-watering splendour, it was also the place where my late, much adored, mum was born and raised on a riding school owned and run my maternal grandfather…

In an idyllic child-hood, every morning mum was taken to school across the Forest by pony & trap and as she grew was certainly schooled both in horsemanship and in the lore of this beautiful, awe-inspiring, massive & very ancient Forest…

It was also a wonderful place in which I too spent much of my childhood and now that my mum has sadly passed on, my dad & I content ourselves with regular trips down to this place of outstanding beauty and try to catch a glimpse of my mum’s spirit dancing in the dappled sunlight between the oaks and the silver birches on myriad sunny Autumnal days…

But as well as being such a historical and most beautiful place with a very long and distinguished history, in recent living memory it was also home to a number of RAF and American air-bases during the Second World War.

As I grew up and my many & varied youthful interests turned into serious ones relating to the 1939-45 war, I certainly became aware of two major airfields, the largest one being at Stoney Cross in the heart of the Forest, (a vast open space even today upon which I  took my first tentative steps behind the wheel of the family car when learning to drive), and a second, less evident, bomber & fighter field at the nearby village of Ibsley.

Flying from Southampton to the Channel Islands as I regularly do and looking down from a lower-flying 16 seater Aurigny Trislander, Stoney Cross, (which opened in November 1942, but has long since had its huge concrete runways dug up), is easy to pick out by the impressive outlines of its two former main runways. These were home initially to RAF Mustangs from January 1943 and then, in March 1944, firstly the USAAF’s 367th Fighter Group flying primarily Lightnings and thence in September 1944 the USAAF 387th Bomb Group flying B-26 Marauders who were, in turn, followed by RAF Stirlings & Wellingtons acting as Transports & Glider Tugs for the final big push across the Rhine into Germany.

Nearby RAF Ibsley just a few miles away to the north-west and on the fringe of the Forest is another former war-time airstrip that you can see from the air; in fact only recently when out on a jaunt and dad & I were wondering exactly where the air-strip may have been, we accidentally uncovered some remaining crew huts and a water-tower on a nearby farm when driving through this lovely small village’s back lanes.

Ibsley air-base also played host initially to RAF Spitfire & Hurricane Squadrons early on in the war and thence later to the USAAF 367th Fighter Group when it transferred across from Stoney Cross, firstly with its P.38 Lightnings and thence P.47 Republic Thunderbolts.

In fact dotted through the vastness of the Forest and down on its fringes you can still accidentally stumble across grass airstrips that were used both at the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and in support of the D-Day landings in 1944 as forward airfields, including Beaulieu, now home to the world famous Motor Museum). But in 1942 this was also home to RAF Typhoons and the medium twin-engined light bomber the Boston, (or ‘Havoc’ as they called it in America), until 1944 when the USAAF again moved in with their Thunderbolt fighters and B-26 Marauder bombers.

Seemingly many small-to-medium sized war-time airstrips sprang up alongside the huge concrete ones of Stoney Cross and it was upon one of these that dad & I stumbled by lucky happenstance last week when making our way down to Bucklers Hard, (another famous historical landmark, this time full of Nelsonian Royal Naval history). Backing up the car to catch further glimpses of the Solent through a gap in a hedge that we’d just trundled past, quite amazingly we noticed some little signs in a field that we have driven past on numerous occasions, but had never actually caught sight of before…

Pulling over to the side, I leapt out of the car, thanking my lucky stars that I had thought to bring my digital camera with me, intent on capturing some of the early stunning Autumn hues as the massive oaks and beeches turn to golden browns, golds and copper.

I was met by a small framed photograph of a Hawker Typhoon & pilot, (my favourite fighter aircraft, after the P40 Tomahawk for obvious reasons), and with incredulity began reading a larger framed sign that contained what turned out to be a the history of a forward fighter airfield that had supported the Allied D-Day Landings on the German Occupied coast of France back in June of 1944…

Judging by the map contained within the glazed frame, as we were standing there looking out across the field to the nearby Solent, the stretch of water separating the mainland from the Isle of Wight, I could see that dad & I were actually slap-bang in the middle of one of the two original landing strips from 1943 & 1944 – all those years trundling up this slightly off-the-beat road and we never knew..!

According to the legend written on the board, this was Needs Oar Point and it was constructed on farm land on Park Shore in 1943 by No 5004 Royal Air Force Construction Squadron, through levelling the fields, diverting ditches removing some hedges and trees and then laying Sommerfeld tracking and four blister hangers, which were added a little later. Accommodation was provided by the RAF commandeering several local farm cottages but the bulk of the station’s personnel were billeted under canvas at the airstrip’s perimeter.

The board also states that aircraft maintenance was provided by mobile workshops based on the back of heavy RAF trucks, whilst airfield cover & protection was undertaken by  the Royal Artillery who manned heavy anti-aircraft guns sited south of School Cottages whilst the RAF Regiment manned lighter ack-ack guns (40mm Bofors), based just down on the nearby shoreline..

The completed airstrip was to become the temporary home to the RAF’s No 146 Wing, 84 Group, Second Tactical Air Force and on the 10th & 11th of April 1944 it opened its two runways up to welcome in over 100 RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers of 193, 197, 257 and 266 Squadrons and immediately began flying the very hazardous low-level missions over France in advance of Allied Forces on the forthcoming D-Day Landings.

On D-Day 6th June, and for 4 weeks thereafter, these 4 fighter squadrons flew regular ‘Rhubarbs’ (low level strafing missions over the invasion beaches), then further such sorties against trains, vehicle convoys & enemy strong-holds in support of the advancing forces, including attacks on several Wehrmacht HQs.

In July 1944, one month after the successful invasion of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’ the Typhoon squadrons then moved to nearby Hurn Airstrip, (now Bournemouth International Airport and the only former New Forest war-time air base in use today), for two weeks before transferring across the Channel to new airstrips built in the Normandy countryside from which they would continue their strafing war against the Third Reich from newly liberated fighter bases now established in France!

Finally the board states that “In 1945 the land was returned to farming and the tracking and hangers removed; and now this Commemoration panel is placed at the point where the North-South runway crossed the road. It is placed here as a tribute to all concerned with the Liberation”

So it was that with the ending of the long war in Europe in May 1945, the heavy Allied bombing campaign of 1943 & 1944 followed by the low level RAF and USAAF raids over France and Germany in support of the advancing troops finally ended and so all of the various concrete and grass strips dotted across The New Forest, (with the exception of Hurn) were slowly run down.

By 1946 had all been returned back to their previous pre-war owners, with nature allowed to reclaim the spaces that had formerly throbbed with heavy fighter & bomber aero-engines… and now you’d find it hard to even believe the huge amount of men, material & aircraft that operated in this beautiful part of southern Hampshire..but if you look closely, (and indeed know where to look) the signs are all still there before your eyes!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013