Festung Alderney Revisited…

Perhaps not surprisingly when it comes to the story of the Channel Islands’ German Occupation, it is usually the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey that continue to garner most of the interest in the incredible war-time history of these Crown Dependent islands…

However on the quieter & smaller island of Alderney to the north, volunteer occupation enthusiasts have nevertheless been much more active in recent years and as that regular visitor, I have often been able to wander around this relatively well-kept secret in the company of Dr Trevor Davenport, long-time resident and author of the excellent fortifications book Festung Alderney (and willing interviewee in my TV documentary), to catch up on the latest developments.

In the many happy years since I first set foot on Alderney to film its part in ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, I was always aware of the very impressive German fortifications dotted around this stunningly beautiful  island, but it is only in the company of somebody who really knows the place well that you will finally get to see and hopefully discover a whole host of other hidden treasures!

For me, however, one of the more intriguing little Alderney stories did not involve a German bunker, but the fate of the rather impressive military headstone that had been erected after the war in the German cemetery at Valongis, next to Alderney’s Strangers’ Cemetery on Longis Road, the garrison’s war dead having originally been buried in the graveyard of St Anne’s picturesque little church up in the centre of town.

It actually first came to my notice when reading Winston G. Ramsay’s definitive photo-led book ‘War in the Channel Islands – Then and Now’, which contained a picture of the headstone as photographed by the book’s author in 1979: sadly it had been somewhat unceremoniously dumped over the cemetery wall in 1961 shortly after the remains of 70-odd Wehrmacht & Organisation Todt personnel were exhumed and repatriated back to Germany.

It was to be many years on that I would actually first see this worn but very impressive headstone for myself, still in its casually discarded position and on each of my many subsequent trips to Alderney I always sought it out and stood quietly before it, wondering what tales it could tell!

So it was with no small frisson of excitement, that on another subsequent visit back to the island that I wandered once more into the small cemetery to come face-to-face with the headstone, now completely refurbished and restored to a prominent position at the top end of the Longis Road Strangers’ Cemetery, standing as a quiet sentinel under the trees.

Upon further investigation, I learned that a small group of German visitors to Alderney had also seen the previously discarded headstone and expressed a wish to see it restored to a standing position and in full view of passers-by; happily The Alderney Society stepped in and a superb job was undertaken in restoring it to its former glory.

Now clearly bearing, in German, its St John, Chapter 14, Verse 20, inscription: “Because I live, you shall also live’,  the stone was been set into an attractive small enclosure, clearly visible through the cemetery gates from the Longis Road, where it now stands alongside a second, much smaller memorial stone.

Some mystery surrounds this other headstone, which was actually discovered more recently on nearby Clearmount Farm where it was covering a drain opening! Originally set in a wall up at the States Airport, the slightly less clear inscriptions are to Obergerfreiters Hohendahl & Theiss and Gefreiter Galda who were originally thought to be killed in an Allied air-strike against the German-held airport whilst they were manning a Flak Battery on February 4th 1942.

Despite further investigation, Dr Davenport can find no reference to any air-raid on that date amongst Allied Air-Force bombing records and therefore believes another story may hold true… so this one must go down as ‘an investigation still in progress!’

The Alderney Society and the island’s Wildlife Trust were also active in uncovering & restoring Alderney’s first German bunker to open to the public; high above the cliffs due south of St Anne in an area known as ‘Quatre Vents’ was a Luftwaffe 20mm flak Battery that originally protected the town from low-level Allied air attack and within that battery was a small radio-signals unit set in a fortress-standard bunker.

One of only two such bunkers known to have existed throughout the whole of the occupied Channel Islands, the battery was named ‘Millionaer’ by the local Luftwaffe gun-crews, believing that the stunning house in whose grounds they were sited had actually belonged to a very wealthy pre-war local!

Having walked over the top of it in blissful ignorance for many a long year, it was a nice surprise when Alderney’s Wildlife Trust acquired this signals-bunker and, with the further help of volunteers began a period of sympathetic restoration through the reconstruction of wooden floors, a complete re-paint job, original doors re-oiled and the replacement of the concrete wall’s inner wooden linings, as would have been the case when it was built by the Organisation Todt around 1943.

Now open to the passing public both as an excellent Countryside centre offering fantastic bird-watching facilities and as a war-time historical display centre, though not strictly a military museum as such, it is nevertheless an excellent restoration job which will give the avid ‘bunker hunter’ an idea of life as lived by Alderney’s German occupying garrison.

Local volunteers have also been busy with spades & shovels uncovering a maze of slit trenches and air-raid personnel shelters up above the Mannez & Berry Quarries amidst the site of the former 88mm Flak Battery ‘Hoehe 145’  situated on the high ground at the north-eastern end of the island and in the shadow of the island’s very impressive MP3 range-finding tower, dubbed ‘The Odeon’ . Other work on Alderney’s hidden German fortifications took place down at Fort Doyle by Platte Saline where what was, to my mind, merely a nettle-covered hillock under my walking boots, actually emerged as a superbly laid out crew personnel-shelter with associated slit trenches running hither & thither.

In the course of the German’s original construction programme the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil, Lager Sylt, was established close by the island’s small airstrip and which housed mainly Russian slave labourers, who were working on fortification construction, also under German Organisation Todt engineers.

Strangely, there were also several Frenchmen, who having survived the harsh conditions of their incarceration, I actually witnessed at a military memorial service at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2000 when, as a journalist, I was invited to join a group of American Combat Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division returning first to the D-Day beaches of Normandy thence to Alsace-Lorraine.

Run by SS Bau-Brigade 3, evidence of Lager Sylt was all but destroyed by the Germans in 1944, however today the gate posts stand as a poignant sentinel against the open sky and in recent years a plaque marking the camp and its part in the occupation of Alderney was affixed to one of the two posts.

Now cleared of the original scrub that over-ran it, this windswept memorial to the dark days of the island’s German occupation can easily be accessed by the public.

Barely a 40-minute flight from the South Coast’s Southampton airport in one of Aurigny’s distinct 3-engined Trislanders, the living, breathing evidence of Nazi Occupied Britain is very much still on your doorstep and so a visit to the oft-overlooked island of Alderney will not only introduce you to a place of breath-taking, windswept beauty that will take you back to how mainland Britain looked and felt in the 1950s and earlier…

…and if you keep your eyes open, it will also throw up some new German Occupation reminders that have been well hidden from public view since 1945..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013