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

German Tunnels in Guernsey, Alderney & Sark…

These days when there are something like ten thousand books a month being published here in the UK alone, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a subject that hasn’t already been ‘done to death’ as everywhere you look there are literally hundreds of books all on the same subject, (just Google ‘Adolf Hitler’ or ‘Waffen-SS’ to see just how many in this particular genre alone!)

So whilst some are good and some indifferent, the ‘Holy Grail’ has always been to find something new and so I‘m excited to bring news of a book that I’ve personally long wanted to see… and which has now arrived on my doorstep:The German Tunnels of Guernsey, Alderney & Sark’…

I am even happier that this wonderful new reference work has been researched, written & produced by friends & colleagues in ‘Festung Guernsey’, the private group of individuals that have took up the earlier cudgels of Guernsey Tourism’s initiative ‘Fortress Guernsey’, to continue the excavation, restoration and promotion of so many of the Bailiwick’s German fortifications. Long involved with myriad structures on the surface, the group has now successfully turned their attention to what actually lies beneath the islands of Guernsey, Alderney, Herm & Sark: a complete network of differing tunnels, all of which were excavated during the Nazi Occupation of the British Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945.

I must admit that I have been totally fascinated by these incredible tunnels for many a long while now and so I’m very pleased to say that this new book is everything I’d hoped for… and more… for in truth I was expecting more of a slimmer volume, but this is a chunky, well-produced, good looking, photo-rich, heavily researched reference work that I’m only too delighted to add to my own personal library of Channel Island Occupation books.

Written by Ernie Gavey, with contemporary photos by Steve Powell, this gorgeous, glossy, high-quality, paper-back boasts some 350 pages and 600 colour & B/W photos, including a fantastic selection of really fascinating war-time & post-war ‘then and now’ shots, allied to some delightful reprints of the sumptuous colour-plates from the original German ‘Festung Guernsey’ presentation volumes of OT architects’ plans.

Not only is this a lavish, exhaustive and well-documented account of just how busy the Organisation Todt was with its tunnelling activities in the Bailiwick, (and how the States and the islanders viewed the varying tunnels post-war), but it is also a carefully and fairly crafted commentary that will hopefully finally lay to rest some of the wild stories spun relating to the alleged atrocities involving ‘slave labour’ that went on during the construction of these incredible underground caverns.

Built for a variety of reasons, though primarily for storage and the secure housing of ammunition stocks down away from feared RAF air-raids, every time the question of these tunnels, (and indeed all of the concrete fortifications across the islands), arises here on the mainland, there is always seemingly somebody ready to opine erroneously about: ‘how many Russian slave labourers were killed and thrown into the concrete and so whichever tunnel you are in or concrete gun-emplacement you are looking at, it is probably a war grave containing the remains of these poor wretches from Russia, Ukraine, Poland etc, who died under the harsh treatment and who were simply pushed into the concrete foundations or tunnel linings when their lives expired..!’.

Whenever you start talking about this subject, there will always be some idiot making such fanciful claims whereas, yes, the conditions for the ‘Forced Labourers’ were undoubtedly extremely tough and it must have been pretty unpleasant for the men as they worked hard to excavate these tunnels and build the enormous fortifications, (that are now a symbol of Channel Island occupation), for their Nazi masters…and indeed a large number did die during this dangerous work…, but such fanciful tales of 100’s of Russian Forced Labourers being thrown over the cliff or buried in the footings, are just that, fanciful, and should be avoided at all costs!

Therefore, with all of the accurate facts available and compiled by these Guernsey ‘keepers of knowledge’ this captivating account of the German’s tunnelling proclivities, together with  some of the best photos & plans of the resulting underground storage facilities and their myriad uses, (post-war as well), is a totally fascinating read. Especially so given my own interest through both my 5-year consultancy for ‘Fortress Guernsey’ and my years of research in advance of my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’.

It was not surprisingly perhaps, that during both of these terrific career periods that I became totally absorbed by this whole tunnelling question and to which I recently returned in a recent Blog when I talked about the U-Boot/Luftwaffe refuelling tunnels that now hold the superb museum of Peter & Paul Balshaw at La Valette, Guernsey,which are also well documented in this new book.

In ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ my crew and I also filmed in two of the magnificent tunnel complexes featured in this book:  Guernsey’s Underground hospital at St. Andrew, (Hohlgang.40 Lazarett), and at the late Derek Traisnel’s fascinating small museum in the tunnel of Hohlgang.12 under St Saviour’s church on Guernsey, (a fascinating back-ground story in itself), where much of the German occupying force’s ordnance, equipment, steel helmet’s & gasmasks and so forth were put into deep storage and sealed, just after German surrender in May 1945.

Exploring, and then filming, in both of these tunnels was a most eerie & exciting experience as I very much caught a real feeling of the former German occupying forces’ presence… perhaps I should look at German hauntings next..!

The final chapter devoted to the post-war scrap drive of the late 1940s and early 50s is a true collector’s delight, (both in terms of photos of the German  equipment that was uncovered and copies of the letters between the States Government and the various scrap companies). It is tinged with a certain sadness though when realising just how many tanks, vehicles and items of  German equipment were pulled out of those previously sealed-up tunnels only to be put to the scrap-dealers’ oxyacetylene torches… though thankfully Richard Heaume MBE ‘did his bit’ and managed to save a number of rare pieces for his superb German Occupation museum in the Parish of Forest…

On another personal note arising from this last chapter: in my teens I had lucky cause to visit a very large and hugely famous Film Properties supply company out in the sticks of Wiltshire, (way before my long & very happy association with the Bailiwick of Guernsey), and in one of their many stables housing literally tons & tons of military equipment of all hues, (what an Aladdin’s Cave!), were pile-after-pile of rusted German steel helmets, standing 8 or 9 lids high, which were destined to be used to dress various up-coming movie battlefield scenes.

I was informed that all of these helmets had come directly from Guernsey’s very own St Saviours’ Tunnel during one of those early scrap drives… indeed I was given one of the piles containing 8 rusty lids as a memento of my visit, including one that, under the rust & dirt, actually bore a Waffen-SS decal…now that’s an interesting subject for another day..!)

But back to the book… and even if you have only a passing interest in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, the gripping topic of these Bailiwick’s OT-built tunnels will certainly appeal to many and I cannot recommend this lovely tome highly enough as Ernie, Steve & their colleagues in Festung Guernsey have done a stunning job, for which I heartily congratulate them all… whilst thanking them personally for producing a book I have always longed to own..!

Priced at £15.95 plus p&p, I bought my copy as soon as I heard first word of its launch and have not been able to put it down since..!

If you are in Guernsey look out for them at Richard Heaume MBE’s German Occupation Museum, (and all good tourist outlets), or if you are not lucky enough to visit this beautiful part of the world, you can order via mail-order directly from Festung Guernsey.

..and my advice is: don’t hang about..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013