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

 

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

 

Guernsey’s WW-II German Occupation Museum…

As a young boy in my very early teens, I began my own journey into a lifetime of collecting with a modest gathering of World War Two militaria and, courtesy of my parents generosity, was allowed to take over two rooms of their large old house in which I opened a little museum to the public… and from that moment I longed to run a fully-professional operation on a full-time basis.

Sadly, as is often the case, life a got in the way and I went off to the film & television industry instead, however just a 40 minute flight due south of my Winchester home, one man’s similar boy-hood dream actually became a stunning reality and not so long ago I was privileged to be invited over to the Channel Islands to join in the 40th anniversary celebrations of Guernsey’s German Occupation Museum as owned & run by the amazing Richard Heaume MBE.

Trying to share the importance of Richard’s  unique undertaking to those who have not paid it a visit is not the easiest of tasks and even his  local newspaper only managed to limited itself to a front cover photograph and several paragraphs of passing copy, whereas for me to similarly limit myself would be to seriously miss the point of what is one of the Channel Island’s finest personal collections of artefacts from Nazi-Occupied Britain that is also open to the public…

It would also foolishly ignore the fact that Richard, though a modest, quiet & very self-effacing man, is a remarkable ‘keeper of knowledge’ when it comes to this often overlooked piece of World War Two history and along with many other visitors to his Occupation Museum, I suspect, I was totally taken aback by my first visit in the 1980s to the Parish of Forest that is home to Richard’s all-encompassing collection.

I can still recall today the incredible frisson of excitement I felt when, on what was a long, hot, sunny day, I eagerly pitched up to the front door of this little white-washed, typical Channel Islands cottage, lying down a small country lane, not a stone’s throw from the island’s airport… and which somebody had once succinctly and rather accurately noted: “resembles a Tardis..!”.

Certainly accurate, for whilst being tiny on the outside, oh boy, when you step in through the low front door, a world of German Occupation history literally explodes before your eyes and being an inveterate collector of all things Third Reich way back then, I thought I had ‘died and gone to heaven’ as, unfolding before me, was one man’s collection devoted to the entire military & civilian story of the Second World War German occupation of these beautiful Crown Dependent islands..

From the day the Channel Islands were de-militarised by the British government and the first Luftwaffe Ju-52 landed its troops in 1940, to the final capitulation in May 1945, when the entire German garrison surrendered its arms to British liberating forces without a shot being fired in anger, all was laid out here before my ever-widening eyes. Through little archways and corridors into darkened rooms with enormous glass cases reaching from floor to ceiling, all  packed with stunning artefacts, past small tableaux and hidden audio-visual displays playing German newsreel films, commentaries & marching songs, I was transported back to those dark, tough days of Guernsey’s Nazi occupation.

What is quite remarkable is that Richard is actually untrained in the professional and somewhat formal art of museum management & curation, but nevertheless works directly from the heart: as such he is incredibly protective of the Bailiwick and its unique war-time history and is always politely but firmly insistent that the correct story is told at all times, as many a passing journalist or film-maker will have found out!

As a result of this expertise he has, down the years, become an accomplished television & radio expert, contributing to the documentary works of those producers wishing to cover and re-tell this unique story of Britons under Nazi rule, myself included when he kindly allowed me full rein to film in his museum and then to appear on camera to explain some of his wonderful German finds in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied shot in 1989.

As always, Richard so generously gave of his time in helping to get my particular telling of the story right and I will be forever grateful for his patience with me and I feel that is the mark of the man and why his fabulous museum is so much more than just a passing reflection of Guernsey’s war-time history… it is in fact a living, breathing representation of the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands, a story he is proud to tell with great accuracy and personal dedication.

It all began when Richard the schoolboy began collecting spent bullets in the local fields after the plough had gone by, before becoming a much bolder scavenger of the island’s bunkers & gun batteries with his pals, including ‘midnight trips’ in the mid 1950s. It was on these regular jaunts that he would slip out of bed and, armed with just a torch, would clamber down through a small hole into the ‘Aladdin’s Caves’ of the St Saviour’s tunnels where, after the German surrender in 1945, the liberating British army in the shape of the Royal Artillery had stacked up piles of redundant German steel helmets, gas-mask tins and all manner of ‘captured’ Third Reich military items before sealing the entrances to the outside world…

Sensing the imminent arrival of mainland scrap merchants of the early 50s, (who were to spirit away so many occupation German treasures), Richard’s race against time to ‘liberate’ as much as he could before it disappeared off the island to be cut up or melted down was truly on…and in this task he was incredibly successful!

In the very early days his small collection started out with little trophies brought back under the cover of night and without his family’s knowledge… but eventually his parents became aware of his nocturnal raiding parties and in the end his remarkable mother, Doris, became a co-conspirator, turning up one day with an ultra-rare German horse’s gas mask from the stables of a family friend. He also recalls, with a laugh, her coming in to the house one one day proudly brandishing an MP40 machine-pistol that she had also ‘liberated’ from somewhere on the island.. ah, mothers, what can you do with them?

In 1961 Richard formed the German Occupation Society and the young scavenger and his formidable mother continued to ferret their way around the island of Guernsey seeking out further relics & artefacts left behind by the German occupiers; and so steadily his collection continued to grow and the attic of the family farm began to fill up with all manner of helmets, tunics, gas-masks & canisters and of course his mother’s ‘prized’ machine-pistol!

Then in June 1966, the day that many of us amateur museum curators could only dream of, Richard’s parents allowed him to move his burgeoning collection across the road into a small cottage that had been housing farm tenants and he immediately stepped up a gear from knocking on doors seeking out smaller items, to actively finding & towing back much larger items!

His favourite artefact is a German Army ‘goulash cannon’: a four-wheeled field-kitchen that had also been stored down in St Saviours tunnel which, with the help of his father’s tractor he dragged back to the farm, (after a suitable contribution to the church’s collection plate), the landowners having allowed Richard access to the tunnels underneath their building. He still recalls the pride he felt when he and his father finally pulled this complete and rare artefact from its underground tomb to sit proudly and ready for his brand new museum’s hoped-for visitors…

The young museum owner was not to be disappointed for back in that World Cup year of 1966, (when there was still a feeling of ‘Don’t Mention The War’), Guernsey was a relatively cheap holiday destination for families and in his first year of opening, with prices at 2/- (10p) for adults and 1/- (5p), for children, he recorded a staggering 100,000 visitors in that first year… and on one day alone 956 visitors passed through the small front door to take in Richard’s treasures set out before them..!

Young Richard’s boyhood dream of having his own museum had become flesh and such was the continued successes in terms of visitor numbers, that he was able to self-finance, bit-by-bit, purpose-built extensions to the small farming cottage, starting in 1976 with the transport corridor and tea room, then in 1987 the superb Occupation Street, (a collection of shop frontages depicting a street in St Peter Port between 1940 & 1945), and then in 2001 a further small extension housing a thought-provoking prison tableau and sombre scenes dedicated to the islands deportees and the lesser known story of the Jewess taken away to the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp..

Finally, to the modern day and Richard’s latest extension to the end of the Occupation Street which houses ‘Maritime Guernsey’: an impressive display dedicated to the war-time naval activity around the Bailiwick, including those brave souls that tried to escape German occupation by boat to the British mainland and to the memories of the British matelots who died after the sinking of HMS Charybdis  in 1943 and whose bodies were washed ashore and now buried in Guernsey’s Foulon Cemetery.

However amidst his rightful pride at his undoubted successes with his preservation & museum work comes a lingering sadness at the theft, some years ago, of the Kriegsmarine Harbourmaster’s double-decal steel helmet by a sneak-thief who somehow managed to spirit away this rare item, a beautiful helmet that would have taken pride of place in this new maritime extension.

Friends & supporters of the museum continue to keep an ‘ear to the collecting ground’ and cling to the hope that this unique German artefact will one day re-surface and eventually be presented back to Richard to be restored to its rightful place in the museum.. and I will refer more to this theft in detail in another Blog in the hope that it might stir some thoughts or possible sightings even now, some while after its disappearance!

The sad loss of Richard’s mother Doris at the beginning of the 90s and that cruel theft of such a special exhibit are, mercifully, the only sad notes in all of Richard’s many years of successful museum opening and you really do have to keep reminding yourself that not only is this all the private collection of just one man, but that Richard is totally self-taught in the art of museum management skills.

The surprised reactions on the faces of so many of Richard’s  visitors upon first seeing his superb collection at the German Occupation Museum in the Forest Parish, is a very fitting tribute to his ingenuity & drive in keeping this unique story of Nazi Occupied Britain alive. Certainly a life’s work resulting in the well deserved award of an MBE from the hands of Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2011…

             Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013