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

Guernsey’s Victorian Fortifications…

It is a little remiss of me when writing about Fortress Guernsey and all of the terrific work undertaken by this historical initiative in the late ’90s under the leadership of my good friend and former boss at the Guernsey Tourist Board, Deputy Director Major Evan Ozanne, not to have ever touched on the earlier Victorian Fortifications of the 7 islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey…

For almost as important in the engrossing history of these sun-soaked islands as the German Occupation is the story of the earlier fortification building programme that took place in the late 1700s to combat the ever-present threat of an earlier invasion, this time by the French, (our on-off friend & enemy down the years), as these attractive of Anglo-French islands were literally right in the firing line between our two countries.

Though a greater part of my responsibility as Media Consultant to Fortress Guernsey, (often working alongside leading Alderney-based fortifications expert Colin Partridge), was to write, report & broadcast on the German Occupation side of the story and indeed to bring over as many documentary-film makers, fellow broadcasters and travel journalists as possible to show off this unique aspect of Guernsey’s formidable & fascinating history, so too the incredible Victorian Fortifications were a major part of our combined endeavours when promoting the military historical background of Fortress Guernsey to an intrigued outside world.

For almost 2,000 years in fact Guernsey and its 6 satellite islands of the Bailiwick  possessed considerable strategic importance in the defence of Britain and by virtue of its special relationship to mainland Britain as a Crown Dependent territory, Guernsey was to eventually find itself covered with myriad fascinating earthworks, forts, Martello towers, gun-batteries, arsenals & watch-houses, all built principally to resist the threat of invasion… and obviously long before the rise of the Third Reich and Hitler’s lustful eyes on these stunning islands, (though interestingly enough all those years later many of the subsequent German fortifications were actually built upon, or added to, these previously early constructed and very sturdy Victorian fortifications.)

The catalyst for the earlier defensive positions can be traced back to the American War of Independence in 1775 as 3 years later in 1778, France declared its support for the American colonists in their struggle against the British Crown..and the Channel Islands, despite the presence of a powerful Royal Navy, lay very close to an increasingly aggressive France.Indeed in May 1778 the Governor of the neighbouring island of Jersey wrote to the British Secretary of State in London recommending that a programme of  coastal defence building should begin in the two larger Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey & Guernsey).

So it was that in August 1778, approval was given for the construction of 15 fortified towers and with the importation of a large force of labour, (later echoed in the 1940s when the Germans brought in slave labour for their building programme), by March 1779 all 15 were complete and ready for action. The French had actually drawn up plans for the full invasion of the Channel Islands, though mercifully this did not materialise, nevertheless it was decreed that Guernsey’s defences be further strengthened. So it was that from 1803 onwards three large Martello Towers were built at Rocquaine Castle, Fort Sausmarez and at Houmet Point, all of which were to have additional German fortifications added to, (or on and indeed over), during the 1940-45 Occupation of the Bailiwick.

However, of the original 15 Victorian Loophole Towers built in 1778-79, just 12 now remain in Guernsey, one of the most important of these being Rousse Tower in the north of the island overlooking Grand Havre. Designed primarily to prevent the landing of enemy troops on nearby beaches and, on stretches of coastline where more than one tower was erected, Rousse and the other towers were positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire from their light 1-pounder cannons.

Musket-fire could also be directed down on invading forces through the loop holes whilst from a position on the roof the later addition of a 12-pound cannonade could fire grapeshot. Heavier guns on these batteries were subsequently added and this allowed the towers to actually engage enemy ships up to a range of some 3000 yards.

Rousse was actually constructed in 1804 on the site of a former small battery already sited on this ‘achingly beautiful’ headland and by 1816 it boasted three 24- pounder cannons and two smaller 9-pounder cannons and, on a base of Portland stone imported over from Dorset, the larger guns were mounted on inclined platforms to help with the force of the cannon’s recoil, whilst the smaller cannons were sited on the flat so they could be easily manoeuvred to fire on the advancing enemy through the embrasure openings on the rear wall if required.

Although the British Government maintained a permanent military garrison in the islands, there were actually insufficient troops to guard all of Guernsey’s wide-open sandy beaches, so this task was delegated to the Guernsey Militia. Recruited at the age of 16 and transferred into the Reserve at 45, they remained on standby by for call-up right up to the age of 60, and though there were weekly drills & parades, they were not paid… and even had to provide their own Militia uniforms until the British Government began furnishing them from 1782 onwards.

With a force of some 2,500 to 3,000 men in the Militia, Rousse Tower was manned by a Sergeant and 20 men under the command of a Captain, who was also responsible for 3 other identical batteries sited across the headland

Men allocated to this duty also had to continue their normal day-job as farmer, fisherman or quarryman, however they were allowed to appoint ‘substitutes’ for when the day job was more pressing and at these times it was not unusual for the soldier’s wives or their children to stand in. But eventually this led to abuse and many derelictions of duty when men supposedly on duty… but were anything but!

As a part of Fortress Guernsey’s remit, Rousse Tower was given a superb make-over and in addition to the construction of life-size models then placed inside the tower to illustrate life within in the late 1700s/early 1800s, after a great deal of effort a number of original cannons were sourced and, after proofing in Chatham Docks in England, were sited on accurately reproduced carriages. Now these are proudly on display at this beautifully restored Victorian site.

On my recent trip back over to Guernsey I was delighted to once again pop up to Rousse and happily note that the Tower, (seemingly falling yet again into a state of some disrepair on a previous visit, despite all the work that Fortress Guernsey had originally invested on it), was now looking really ‘ship-shape & Bristol fashion’.. a real sight for sore eyes in fact!

It was a real delight to spend some time here once again, this time with my dad, taking in the magnificence of this Loophole Tower, now some 230 years old, fully restored to its former glory as it is a truly wonderful testament to the Victorian art of military fortification; and something that the German military designers & engineers either consciously or subconsciously copied some 160 years later when it was their turn to further fortify the Bailiwick from 1941 onwards, (after their invasion the previous year), and the island’s unique German gunnery range-finding towers began to rise at their coastal locations…

Now following Major Ozanne’s earlier lead & persistence in the late 1990s, Rousse Tower is deservedly back on Guernsey’s list of States-maintained historical sites and with further island investment and continued work on the site in 2006, this important landmark attraction can rightly said to be of the finest restored Loophole Towers anywhere in the Channel Islands. So to all involved…well done and bravo!

Finally, whilst just finishing off this latest Blog, a number of readers kindly contacted me to say that they had been enjoying my piece entitled ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ concerning ‘Douglas’ Small’s final resting place in my local village churchyard and my musings as to whether the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had learned of my periodic maintenance of his grave and added it to their official cleaning list as a result?

Well I am delighted to say that a fellow villager, Reg, came forward to say that he and his wife had seen a van in the churchyard when out on one of their regular rambles that bore the legend ‘Commonwealth War Graves Commission’ on the outside and when they approached the team, they were told that the CWGC now comes to our churchyard every two years to give the soldier’s headstones a make-over…

Back then Reg was unaware of my tie to Douglas’ grave so wouldn’t have been able to ask the cleaners if it was indeed them that had given his headstone a thorough make-over, but as his is now a clear white marble, (as opposed to the ‘grey concrete’ when I started to clean it in 1999), I feel I can conclude that the CWGC have indeed added ‘Douglas’ to their list. A very happy outcome for me as we approach this Sunday’s November 11th Remembrance ceremonies and then, next year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the subsequent opening of the Hazeley Down Army Pre-Embarkation Camp here in my beautiful village of Twyford on the River Itchen.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

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

German Tunnels in Guernsey, Alderney & Sark…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

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

 

The Guernsey Liberation Medal…

Over recent years observers watching the November Veteran march-pasts at the Cenotaph in London have spotted a new medal with a rather brightly coloured ribbon appearing on the blazers & jackets of some of the former proud old soldiers taking part in this annual Act of Remembrance…  and subsequent investigations have revealed it to be the Guernsey Liberation Medal that was first struck in 1995 and issued to the surviving members of Allied Force 135, the soldiers who originally liberated the Bailiwick of Guernsey on May 9th 1945 after 6 long years of German Occupation…

On May 8th as the German forces laid down their weaponry, the islanders broke out their hidden radios to hear Winston Churchill announce that “our dear Channel islands would once again be free.”.  Meanwhile the Destroyer HMS ‘Bulldog’ had sailed for Guernsey waters under the code-name ‘Operation Nest Egg’, to drop anchor on May 9th just off St Peter Port’s harbour.

The official surrender by Germany’s Major-General Heiner then took place aboard Bulldog, after which a lone Royal Naval LCI sailed into the harbour and the entire German garrison of some 10,000 men handed over the reins of command to just 30 British artillerymen and the initial joy at deliverance from German Occupation on that sunny day in May 1945 has never been forgotten and today May 9th is enshrined in as ‘Liberation Day’, an official holiday across all of the Channel Islands.

But what of those young British soldiers who originally came ashore on that wonderful day in 1945?  This was a question that ex-pat Guernseyman John Richards, (a former advertising executive living in Hampshire), had often pondered  but  not knowing just how many Vets might even still be living, he joined forces with former Deputy Director of Guernsey Tourism (and a former officer in the Hampshire Regt), Major Evan Ozanne Ret. and the pair began a painstaking hunt across some 42 countries in an effort to trace those original members of Force 135.

As they were doing so, sketches for the design for an original Liberation medallion were being made, incorporating the 3 Guernsey Lions to the front of the medal and the legend ‘Operation Nest Egg. Fiftieth Anniversary of Liberation .Task Force 135’ on the obverse; with a suggestion that the ribbon be two yellow vertical lines on a red background in representation of the colours of the Bailiwick of Guernsey and redolent of the triangular badge worn on the battle-dress shoulders of the liberating soldiers of Force 135.

Final designs were subsequently submitted to London medal makers Toye, Kenning & Spencer and the official Force 135 Liberation Medal, to be worn on the right breast, was born.

By now John Richards & Evan Ozanne had located some 210 veterans from the original 1945 Operation Nestegg’ and, on Liberation weekend in 1995, a number of them were invited over to Guernsey to be presented with their medallion by the Bailiff of Guernsey, Sir Graham Dorey, whilst those unable able to make the trip were officially presented with their medallions in their home towns, as a small but heartfelt token of gratitude from the people of Guernsey to those young soldiers who came ashore on that joyful and emotional day in 1945..

I am very grateful to be able to say that I too now own one of these rare & striking medallions, for once all of the veterans had been presented with theirs, Major Ozanne generously gifted me the last one as a token of thanks for my 5 years work with Guernsey Tourism’s Fortress Guernsey initiative and helping to tell the story of Guernsey’s Nazi Occupation during the years 1940 and 1945.  It is now very proudly on display here in the production offices of Tomahawk Films...

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013