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

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

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

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