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

Liberation Day in the Channel Islands…

May 9th…and a very happy Liberation Day to all of my good friends in the beautiful Channel Islands, a day, I must admit,  that suddenly creeps up on me here on the mainland, but nevertheless a day when I think so longingly about being over there once again in the beautiful Bailiwick of Guernsey;  either having a splendid lunch with my two great pals, Evan & Ian, both former senior figures in the Guernsey Tourist Board, or with my agent and my ‘Guernsey Mum’ Molly Bihet, or meeting up with Richard at his Occupation Museum, or if  I’m lucky enough, nipping  over to neighbouring tiny Alderney for a wonderul afternoon of cliff-walking high above a foam-flecked sea with the wind in my hair and salt air on my lips..

I am only 40 minutes away by air from Southampton airport but without a seat already pre-booked and an office-full of Tomahawk Films’ work high on my list of priorities here in my little village of Twyford, it might as well be a million miles away.  Don’t get me wrong, I am very privileged to live in this pretty little farming village as I do, but my love for the beautiful Bailiwick just means that on some days the terrific pull of those beautiful Crown dependent islands upon my heart is almost too great to resist… and sometimes it is so great I almost physically ache to be back over there again on God’s Own Island..!

But back to the topic of Liberation Day and most people over here on the mainland actually don’t usually know or are even aware that May 9th is a national holiday on Guernsey & Jersey at all!

I omit the stunning and most northerly island of Alderney as that gorgeous sister island to Guernsey said goodbye to all of its it civilian population in 1940, with the incoming German garrison becoming the only inhabitants of the island between the years 1940 and 1945. So it was that those evacuated Alderney folk only returned after the war, on December 15th 1945, and so today this is now their island’s holiday… known as ’Homecoming!’

I have been fortunate enough to spend a number of exciting Liberation Days on Guernsey, not least when I originally launched my documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ on the 45th Anniversary  of the Bailiwick’s liberation and I can happily confirm that  the buzz, excitement & general happiness upon those anniversary days is quite something! So heaven knows what it actually must have been like when the Bailiwick was actually liberated from German occupation for real by a British army artillery unit on May 9th 1945 , just a day after the final surrender of all German Forces across Europe on May 8th

Looking at the superb and evocative Warworks 35mm Liberation newsreels I was able to include in my documentary, (a superb b&w ’moving snapshot’ of the that emotional day), you can see how the bubble burst for the islanders and the ensuing explosion of untold joy and a light in the eyes of the Guernsey people when, from radios that suddenly appeared from deep hiding and put out on widows, was heard Winston Churchill declare to the world: ‘our Dear Channel Islands would soon be free’..

From all corners of Guernsey people who had spent 5 long years living under Nazi occupation, (which though rightly deemed ‘benign’, was still certainly tough) descended en masse down into the streets onto the quay of St Peter Port. Here they watched a small infantry landing-craft with just a couple of dozen British artillerymen of Force 135 ferried in from the Royal Naval fleet now at anchor outside of St Peter Port Harbour (including HMS Bulldog upon which the official German surrender had taken place) come ashore.

At my documentary’s climax you can see the massed crowds lining the street to gives these ‘liberating Tommies’ a true heroes’ welcome as they marched up from the harbour into the town…the people finally free from their yoke of occupation. Meanwhile the Warworks newsreels captures the moment that the troops comprising the German garrison on Guernsey were ordered to lay down their rifles and side-arms and remain in their barracks until such time as their new status as prisoners of war could be confirmed and arrangements for them to be marched down to the sea shore. Here the larger tank landing ships would be coming ashore to load them up and transport them over to Weymouth and thence on to the POW cages near London and the Home Counties.

Whilst the islanders were ecstatic with joy at their deliverance, what would have been going through the minds of the German soldiers, (many tens of thousands of them), must have been a mixture of relief that the majority of them had survived the war, (and that ever-feared posting to the Russian Front), whilst feeling trepidation at what might be coming next and indeed what of their homeland: were their families still intact, were their loved ones still alive..whose towns and villages had been over-run by the Americans & the British…and whose were now in Russian hands? Now was a tough time for many German prisoners…especially for some that had fallen for lovely Channel Island girls and were now being parted…heart-breaking love stories in their own right, that would be later recaptured in compelling TV documentaries, like Passionate Productions’ truly wonderful ‘Jerry Love’ looking back to those tumultuous & often heart-breaking days…

Meanwhile on May 9th 1945 across the Channel Islands the joy amongst the civilian population, was unconfined and one can only imagine how it must have felt to now know that as an islander, safe with British troops in amongst you, you could do and say what you wanted? Far from living under constant German watch and tight regulation you were now free go where you wanted and, knowing that, begin to notice and benefit from now on from the slow, but steady influx of food and supplies after that terrible, deprived winter of 1944/1945… plus then there was the growing expectation of the returning evacuated family members, shipped to the British mainland ahead of German occupation in 1940… life must have seemed so heady as to be almost unbelievable!

I know from taking to Molly, who was a child of the occupation, just what a magical day it was… indeed her lovely little book ‘A Child’s War’ was and is still a major read by visitors to Guernsey and the island’s school children alike. It lays out in great detail just what it living under German military rule must have been like, whilst her subsequent books also document the joy and elation of the Liberation and the fact that they survived the Nazi occupation of the only British soil that Hitler managed to get his hands on…

So the next time May 9th comes around, if you have a spare minute or two to stop in your busy life and quietly reflect for a moment, just think how important this May Day Bank Holiday actually is to so many wonderful British people now living quietly & peacefully just 80-odd miles off the English south coast down there in the Channel Islands… for them, this really is one Bank Holiday that’s worth celebrating!!!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013

A Wehrmacht Gunner’s Return to Guernsey..!

It is now approaching some 70 years since the dark cloud of Nazi occupation was lifted from the beautiful British Channel Island of Guernsey and its wonderful islanders, (many of whom came so close to starvation along with most of the former German garrison back in that terrible winter of 1944/45), could begin to rebuild their lives and savour real freedom for the first time in nearly six long years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the immediate post-war years all things German were regarded at best, with complete indifference and at worst, with barely suppressed loathing; however as the long shadows of the war and the hardships of that World War Two occupation now soften and bathe the stunning seven islands of the Bailiwick in a more gentle light, Guernsey has come to welcome back a number of German soldiers, sailors and airmen from the former garrison. Many of these veteran soldiers now return year after year to visit their previous billets and batteries, striking up new friendships with islanders & tourists alike and in some cases rekindling special and very treasured old ones……

During my much-enjoyed 5-year tenure as media consultant to ‘Fortress Guernsey’, amongst the many wonderful people I continued to meet in the Bailiwick was one such veteran: former German army Oberkanonier Helmut Zimmermann. A most delightful, kindly & very funny ex-Wehrmacht soldier who has made several unannounced return trips to Guernsey, (the first in 1990), quietly and without fuss touring the island with his lovely English wife Geraldine, seeking out his old stomping grounds.

His visits would have gone completely unnoticed, but for Peter & Paul Balshaw, owners & curators of the stunning Underground Military Museum at La Valette in St Peter Port, who by chance got talking to him on an early visit as he inspected their wonderful perdonal collection of German occupation artefacts, preserved and displayed in the incredible U-boat refuelling depot hidden away deep under the rocks overlooking the harbour and Castle Cornet!

A good friendship developed between the two born-and-bred Guernseymen and the former German occupier, which all three generously allowed the directors of Fortress Guernsey, ( the Tourist Board’s initiative to promote and preserve the  incredible story of the WW-II German Occupation of Guernsey), to tap into one summer in the late 90s when Helmut once again flew to the Bailiwick from his home in Lincolnshire to be interviewed for an American documentary about his duty on Guernsey between the years 1943 and 1945:

Born in Neundorf in Eastern Germany, Helmut left school in 1939 to become an apprentice blacksmith and thence from April 1942 worked in the Junkers aircraft factory at Reppen until January 1943 when called up for service with the Reichs Arbeits Dienst (German Labour Service). Three months later he reported for military service and was sworn into the army at Frankfurt an der Oder and he entered the artillery branch, undergoing training in Poland and Russia in the Summer of ‘43.

In September 1943 a group of young soldiers including Helmut found themselves travelling westwards by train, arriving at St Malo then, after a short sea crossing he and his comrades found themselves in the harbour at St Peter Port where, upon seeing a palm-tree, was convinced they had arrived in the Med! Joining Artillery Regiment 319, the new intake marched from the harbour with full-kit and rifles up to their new billet at Catel, where Helmut was to serve with an army coastal defence unit operating one of four 10cm Czech-made Skoda guns in open emplacements at Batterie Wolf.

Not speaking English, Helmut and his comrades had no real contact with the Guernsey people, seeing only the farmer on whose land their battery was sited though occasionally they ventured into St Peter Port clutching their prized army permit to visit the cinema. They had little money, (their weekly wages in Guernsey Occupation Marks being deducted by a contribution to the German war effort back home), but he recalled there was little to buy anyhow!

Helmut’s battery had a fairly uneventful war; life was routine and pretty regular and early on rations from France were good and he learnt to drive and gained his army driving licence, but there was no petrol available so he couldn’t try out his new skill!  Nominated number one gun-layer, as a former blacksmith, Helmut was also put to work repairing anything from military hard-ware to buckets & locks and later in the war, as supplies from France dwindled, he turned his hand to making wooden sabots, (sandals), for his unit. He also remembers his hardy woollen uniform surviving the lack of replacement materials but not so his socks, so he became something of an expert in darning!

During his time on Guernsey, Helmut had just one spell of home-leave, but remembers spending most of his time dreaming of going home for good. Initially unaware of the way the war was going for the Reich, Helmut was able to listen into a nearby Funker, (signal unit), and was surprised to hear of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944 even though he knew something was up by the number of aircraft visible in the early dawn-sky heading towards France. However even when he realised it was the long-awaited invasion and opening up of the Second Front in Europe, he still thought Germany would ultimately win the war!

As the Allies broke out from the Normandy bridgehead in late Summer 1944, German garrisons on the Islands found themselves cut off from France. Unable to take advantage of life-saving supplies delivered by the Red Cross ship SS Vega to Guernsey’s suffering civilian population, Helmut and his comrades faced a very tough winter as their army rations dwindled to a point that the young soldiers were reduced to boiling nettles for food.

Tragically one of Helmut’s pals ate a poisonous plant & died and he quietly recalled his sadness at acting as pall bearer at his military funeral.

In the wake of D-Day, and increased Allied air activity in the skies over the Channel Islands, guard & sentry duties increased and Helmut remembers a tiring life of 4-to-5 night guard duties per week, plus gun-laying drills each day, eventually becoming so exhausted that one night he  fell asleep leaning on his rifle. Luckily he escaped punishment, which could have come in the terrifying shape of an immediate transfer to the dreaded Russian Front…

In fact Helmut escaped a second time when he was caught trying to knock apples out of a tree, being given just 3 days on bread and water. however a fellow gunner was not so lucky, and caught stealing cigarettes, was sentenced to 3 months hard labour on the island, though when he was returned to his unit, his Hauptmann gave strict instructions that no reference be made to the punishment.

The Third Reich finally crumbled and the surrender of the Islands’ German garrisons came on May 9th 1945, the day after the official surrender of all German forces across Europe. Now a Prisoner-of-War Helmut spent 2 weeks working in the kitchen of the British army cook-house of the liberating Force 135, before being marched down to the harbour and onto a US troopship bound for Southampton; an onward trip to the German prisoner stockade at Kempton racecourse followed, thence to the P.o.W. camp at Driffield in Yorkshire. A prisoner until 1948, Helmut was put to work again as a blacksmith on a local farm where the first English word he learnt was ‘brush’ as in “Helmut!… brush the yard!!”

One of the estimated 100,000 German P.o.W.’s who stayed on in the UK upon release, Helmut met his future wife Geraldine in Skegness in 1949, married her in 1951, raised two sons Nigel and Paul, (both of whom grew up to become submariners with the Royal Navy), and continued to work as a blacksmith until 1990, having become a British National in 1960.

Now living happily in retirement in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the United Kingdom where he enjoys playing bowls and going dancing with his beloved Geraldine, Helmut’s personal army Wehrpasse, Soldbuch and driving licence can be seen today proudly displayed in Peter and Paul’s Military Museum at La Valette in St Peter Port on Guernsey, CI.

A confirmed lover of the Bailiwick and a most welcome guest, Helmut firmly believes that his lucky posting to Guernsey in 1943…actually saved his life!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013