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

Taps..!

For British & Commonwealth Forces it is the moving ‘Last Post’ whilst for Germans it is the haunting ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’: both tunes guaranteed to stir the souls of veterans especially when played at military ceremonials or periods of official Remembrance.. But what of the American equivalent?

My first experience of the U.S. military’s most revered tune was, as the sole journalist on the Friendly Convoy, standing amidst American graves high on the cliff above D-Day’s ‘Omaha Beach’. Around me, Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division had gathered at this famous cemetery, (made all the more so by its inclusion in the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’), to honour comrades who had fallen during the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe on June 6th 1944.

As those wonderful veterans, widows, friends & family gathered at the foot of the statue for American Youth, the sound of ‘Taps’ was born high on the wind and over the invasion beach as heads lowered and tears welled in this unbelievably beautiful and tranquil resting place for tens of thousands of young GI’s so far from their home-land..!.

It is anybody’s sad guess just how many times this American call-to-arms has been played down the years, in how many far-flung wars and for just how many lost sons of the United States, but where does this simple tune originate from… and how has it become so ingrained in the American military psyche?

The story is actually very simple, but totally heart-rending: it came about in 1862 in the American Civil War when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was marshalling his troops near Harrison’s Landing in the State of  Virginia and facing the Confederate Army, who were on the other side of a narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’.

During one night, Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the battlefield and, not knowing if the soldier was a Union or Confederate, the Captain decided to take his life into his own hands and try to bring the stricken soldier back to his side of the lines for medical attention. Crawling out under enemy gunfire, Captain Ellicombe reached the wounded soldier and began to slowly drag him back, but when he finally succeeded in reaching his own lines, he discovered that not only was the soldier a Confederate, but he was already dead.

With a heavy heart the Captain lit a lantern, then caught his breath and going numb with shock as in the dim light he saw the face of the soldier and recognised that of his own son!  It later transpired that his boy had been studying music in the Deep South when the war had broken out, and without telling his father, had joined the Confederate Army..!

The following morning the heartbroken Union officer sought permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial with a Union Army band in attendance, despite his ‘enemy’ status. But the Union High Command refused to grant him the full ceremonial he craved because his boy was a soldier in the Confederate Army, but out of respect for his father, granted him a single musician to mark the burial.

Captain Ellicombe chose a lone bugler and asked that he play from a sheet of musical notes found in his music student son’s uniform pocket… and so the haunting American funeral march that we now know as ‘Taps, was born:

Day is done, Gone the sun,

From the Lakes, From the hills, From the sky,

All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh…

Fading light, Dims the sight, And a star gems the sky, Gleaming bright,

From afar, Drawing nigh, Falls the night…

Thanks and praise, For our days, ‘Neath the sun, ‘Neath the stars, ‘Neath the sky,

As we go, This we know, God is nigh….’

                                                      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