A Hurricane Downed over Guernsey..!

When wandering the tranquil lanes & backwaters of the beautiful islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey it is sometimes hard to believe, especially on a drowsy, sunny, early Autumnal day that, between 1940 & 1945 this Crown Dependent landscape was occupied by the military forces of Hitler’s Third Reich!

Indeed sometimes amidst the peace & quiet of these intrinsically agricultural islands you could be fooled into thinking the Bailiwick had been completely untouched by war and that the sound of heavily studded boots and the clinking of German mess-tins on gas-masks and lusty voices raised in soldier-song on these narrow lanes was all but a fantastic dream..!

However although the Channel Islands are dotted with some very serious German fortifications, (some of which were doomed to be destroyed post-war until it was realised the civilian-commissioned demolition teams were to be beaten by the sheer amount of concrete involved), it is only when you visit some of the well kempt graveyards or see the myriad memorials in the occupation museums or renovated German military sites & locations that you realise that it did indeed happen…and how!

As to be expected, there was a large human cost involved despite this ‘benign occupation’ as the late Guernseyman Frank Stroobant called it and the German cemetery at Fort George is both another place of ‘pilgrimage’ for me as well as being a part of the closing sequence in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied.

Here, high up on the cliffs overlooking St Peter Port, some 113 German graves lie with full public access and where one can see headstones of some 19 Kriegsmarine matelots, 88 soldiers & 4 German merchant seaman killed, some as the result of Allied assaults and some of illness or natural causes during the years of occupation. All of these graves all beautifully tended & manicured by locals and a paternal eye is also kept by the German War Graves Commission, however there would have been many more German graves across the Bailiwick but for a concerted effort by the German authorities in the 1960s to exhume and repatriate many bodies of former serving Wehrmacht and Organisation Todt personnel from the Bailiwick.

Slightly macabre evidence of this very sombre act can be seen today in Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest.. sight of which I must admit rather stops me in my tracks and causes more than a few moments of quiet thought! But why some bodies were removed and re-interred in military graves in France & Germany, whilst the 113 in St George were left quietly in this most stunning of locations, I have yet to find out… it may be that by the 1960s their families were now stranded behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany or their families were no longer around… or maybe that their surviving loved-ones thought it perhaps best to leave them quietly at rest here in this most peaceful location on Guernsey.

However it is a further contemplative moment when you wander amongst these many German headstones in St George’s cemetery and note the varying ages of those lying here: from late teens to late 40s/early 50s, plus the varying ranks & branches of service of those former servicemen laid to rest here. Indeed there is a member of the NSKK, (Nazi Germany’s political motoring arm), a Wehrmacht veterinary officer, a Kriegsmarine ships stoker, a Luftwaffe flak gunner, a senior army officer… just casting an eye across this cemetery is a history lesson in itself.

Then, set just atop all of these German headstones that step down in tiers below it, is one of a Canadian pilot, 22 year old Flight Sergeant Biddlecombe RCAF, shot down over the Bailiwick in 1944 when either conducting an air assault on Guernsey’s German fortifications or having baled out when in the vicinity of the islands… and again I am wondering if that, as his family was so far away across the Atlantic, they too perhaps thought it best to also leave his body here in peace on the island of Guernsey.

This then led me on to wondering just how many Allied air crew had actually been killed over the Bailiwick – and the number was surprisingly readily forthcoming: 111. Indeed at Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest there is now a very attractive little propeller memorial to these airmen sited in the corner of his car park as you venture from your car towards the museum entrance as testament to this fact.

When you think about it, 111 is a huge number of lost Allied air-crew even for the  5 years occupation of these islands, (on average just over 22 a year), and a number of these would have come as a result of probing low-level fighter-bomber offensive attacks conducted against the islands by the RAF and USAAF, whilst others, (which would account for the somewhat high number of losses) would be from British, Canadian or US bomber crews shot down on the return legs of their missions over the Ruhr or the Reich’s capital Berlin.

These would undoubtedly have been shot down as they strayed off course and got bounced by Luftwaffe night & day fighters flying from nearby France, or by the ME109s scrambled from Guernsey’s Luftwaffe base. A number would have also been shot down by the many heavy flak crews sited both on the islands and again over the water in France.

Happily not all Allied crew that baled out or crashed over the Bailiwick were killed… and I am indebted to my pal Major Evan Ozanne, late of the Guernsey Tourist Board and more recently editor of his former parish’s newsletter ‘Les Tortevalais’, who told me of a Hawker Hurricane pilot that baled out over the island early on in the war and the tale surrounding the pilot’s family who had recently come to Guernsey looking for information on his war-time escapades!

Lesley Sutherland and her husband Alastair had flown over to the Bailiwick from their home in Glasgow, intent on researching the story of her father, Robert Stirling, who crashed off Lihou island during the war. Staying at a local hotel they picked up Evan’s magazine and there, before her eyes, was her father’s story as penned by Evan … and a subsequent meeting up with him and thence with Simon Hamon from the Channel Island Occupation Society (Guernsey) added more vital information to their research.

It transpires that Robert Stirling was a 23 year old Sergeant-Pilot with 87 Squadron RAF flying a Hurricane Mk1 on a night-intruder patrol from its base in South West England in the vicinity of the Channel Islands on the night of April 11th/12th 1941, when his plane actually ran out of juice over the Bailiwick. Making a swift decision to try to force-land at Guernsey’s airfield unfortunately the Luftwaffe heavy flak crews defending the air-field opened fire on his Hurricane and Robert decided to bale out instead of being shot down and safely came down on the end of his parachute onto the tiny all-but inhabited island of Lihou just off the south-west corner of Guernsey.

Fortunately it was low-tide so he made his way back across the causeway to the mainland and, surviving both a German minefield and a mined road, walked to the nearest house he could find, that of Mr Tom Brouard who took him in and gave him a cuppa, (of bramble tea no doubt!).

With an island-wide night curfew and Tom having no ‘phone Robert was given bed and in the morning, he gave himself up to the German authorities… and Tom? Well sadly for all his endeavour the Germans gave him 4 weeks in prison for harbouring a British fugitive… despite not being able to inform the authorities that the downed RAF pilot was with him..! and that might have been the end of the story but for Robert’s daughter Lesley who, later in their holiday, was chatting to Marion Henry at the Bruce Russell Gold & Silversmith showroom and mentioned the purpose of their trip.

She showed Marion Major Ozanne’s magazine article and said she & her husband had learned that a Mr Tom Brouard had sheltered her father on that fateful night he was shot down…to which Marion replied:’Tom was my uncle’…a very small world if ever there was..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013       (Robert Stirling photos courtesy: The John Goodwin CIOS Archive)

Jersey War Tunnels…

Perhaps one of the more famous, (if not the most famous), of Jersey’s World War Two German Occupation historical sites has, for many years now, been the awe-inspiring Underground Hospital tunnels up at St Lawrence… and after being renamed in recent years, Jersey War Tunnels, the forthcoming 2013 opening season marks its exciting re-launch as a newly updated & upgraded German Occupation attraction in the heart of this lovely British Channel Island…

Indeed it was my very first visit to this fantastic example of Nazi Germany’s Organisation Todt tunnel-engineering some 30-plus years ago that was to have such a marked effect on my own personal & professional life and led to my ensuing and all-encompassing interest in the story of the World War Two German Occupation of all of these unique British Channel Islands.

Indeed it certainly set me off on an incredibly fascinating professional & historical path that would still have me studying & writing on the islands’ German Occupation history almost a life-time on, so I certainly have an emotional attachment to these particular tunnels to be sure. It is also one of those quirks of fate that many years later I would once again become re-acquainted with them through that work… and in so doing I am also incredibly grateful to the wonderful organisation behind these evocative tunnels, (including Kathy & Sheila), for so kindly promoting & marketing my subsequent ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ TV documentary that emanated from my early experiences of these tunnels, for well over 20 years…

Originally constructed from 1941 onwards as a massive underground  air-raid shelter & ammunition store to protect both Wehrmacht personnel & the garrison’s military stocks & supplies against potential RAF attacks on these German-held islands, taking an incredible two & half years to build and designated Hohlgang 8, it was in late 1943 that German High Command in Berlin began to fear an all-out Allied assault on the nearby northern coastline of France and an order went out for Ho.8 to be converted into a casualty clearing station & emergency field hospital.

These stark and somewhat forbidding tunnels were subsequently fitted out with some 500 beds ready to receive the predicted wounded Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS evacuees from France and a fully functioning heating & air conditioning system, (including gas-proof doors), was installed, whilst a fully-equipped operating theatre was set-up… and all unfinished tunnels were sealed off.

When ‘Operation Overlord’ was finally launched in the summer of 1944 and Allied troops fought their way ashore onto the Normandy coastline on June 6th, injured German ground forces wounded in the vicious battles to defend their ‘Festung Europa’ were indeed transferred over to the Channel Islands for medical treatment. However it is a matter of conjecture as to whether Ho.8 was ever actually used ‘in anger’ as a medical hospital, but if were then it was for but a short period only, though even so, deep underground and away from daylight, it must have been a pretty unpleasant & depressing place for any soldiers who may have been sent there for an operation & subsequent recuperation from serious combat injuries.

What is known however is that after the surrender of the German garrison on 9 May 1945 these massive tunnels became the target for souvenir hunters and so much of the equipment left standing at Liberation was completely stripped away before the tunnels themselves began to fall into disrepair.

However as soon as 1946, Jersey States acquired the site with a view to opening it up as a museum and local Jerseyman Jim Sutherland became the Underground Hospital’s first curator, effectively setting up the island’s first tourist attraction, which he ran with great skill & enthusiasm on and off as a private venture for over 20 years. Later on in the 1960s, Daisy Hill Estates bought the attraction and Mr. Sutherland continued to oversee the museum as the curator up until his well-earned retirement at the ripe old age of 83.

Though now boasting white-washed walls and much brighter lighting, making it all look probably a good deal smarter and more welcoming than would have actually been the case back in 1944; nevertheless there was always ‘something’ about these tunnels that were very much a haunting and certainly magnetic draw for me.

Wandering down along around the many long concrete tunnels, looking into the various ‘wards’ and seeing the myriad medical dioramas whilst catching snippets of heart-rending songs from the Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS’s very own ’Force’s Favourite’ Lale Andersen wafting out of a German radio apparently in the Doctor’s Mess room was always gripping… and perhaps not even a little eerie?

Certainly deeply ingrained on my psyche forever was the German operating theatre with ‘surgeons’ fully gowned-up and working on a poor unfortunate German soldier on the operating table, whilst all around these still slightly shadowy tunnels could be heard the sound of oxygen pumps, scalpels being dropped into stainless steel bowls, surgeons & nurses quietly talking to each other and the occasional and most alarming moan of pain from a wounded Wehrmacht soldier..!

I will freely admit that until that first visit, I had never previously been in a German museum setting that so affected me as much as the teenager I was then and I’ve always maintained a true affection for this particular world-famous Channel Islands German Occupation attraction ever since I first saw it as a film location in the BBC’s ‘Bergerac’…

So this month, as the Jersey War Tunnels re-launches itself some 35 years or so after that first visit, I am keen to learn about what we may now see & hear from JWT…  and from early indications, (though I have yet to get back over back to Jersey to experience it all ‘in the flesh’ for myself), is that these magnificent tunnels have now been restored more than ever back to their  alternative role as a war-time German Garrison Underground Hospital and indeed back to a superb snap-shot of just how it would have looked in June & July 1944, as it readied itself for the transfer of those terribly injured soldiers from the fighting in France…

Created by an on-site team of five, led by Operations Manager Kathy Bechelet, I understand that two main new displays will now be opened up for the eager visitors for this 2013 season: the first being a cracking display devoted to the air-raid protection role of these incredible tunnels.

Kathy explains: “An air-raid shelter display was just crying out to be shown for Jersey was bombed during the Occupation and the islanders and the German garrison would have expected many such air-raids but most of the shelters on this island were out in the countryside. So we did a lot of research as we wanted to show our visitors just how horrible it would have been down in a shelter under attack… sometimes for many days at time! ”

Judging from the early reports reaching me, Kathy’s team have been very successful and such a living air-raid display has indeed been expertly incorporated into the museum. With the inclusion of yet more superb war-time effects, you can now sit in a ‘real’ shelter and experience and ‘feel’ the hair-raising horror of a 2 minute heavy aerial bombardment down onto the tunnels. This must really be quite something, judging from that old ghostly effect from those previous operating theatre sound-effects, (and indeed all audio-effects and now German military music so skillfully employed), used to have on my fevered imagination down in these enormous German concrete tunnels deep in the bowels of the Jersey countryside..!

However most happily for me, appears to be the fact that great care, attention & enthusiasm has also been lovingly administered to the ‘real attraction’ of these tunnels, (in my eyes!): the military hospital re-creations themselves, as it would appear that, for a number of years Jersey War Tunnels have been sitting on a rare, but stored, collection of original WW-II German medical equipment, enough to also kit out a fully functioning ward to display alongside the operating theatre and here Kathy takes up the story again:

“We have had many visitors coming through the operating theatre and asking where the wards were… but we no longer had a proper ward displayed as such, however with all of that equipment we still had in reserve, we thought we should restore a complete ward to one of the tunnels. So we have taken out about three-quarters of those stored items and put them on display in the new ward to give a real idea of what life would have been like down here in 1944 after the wounded German soldiers had been brought across from France. We wanted to bring the tunnels back to life and my feeling with our stored collection was: if we’ve got it, don’t lock it away, but put it on display for the public to see…

“We are effectively trying to re-live & re-tell the story of the German Occupation, especially for the children, though if you give them something to read, they probably won’t… but give them stuff to look at, especially if it’s gory, and they’ll be interested! If you don’t show the younger generation these things they just forget… but we are not trying to glamorize things, just tell a story..!”

From personal experience I tell you that if the exciting, new-look Jersey War Tunnels does indeed have all of the self-same stunning effect on the imaginations of that younger generation of island visitors in the same manner that the old set-up did on me, then Kathy and her team will be highly successful as, for me, The German Underground Hospital was always once seen, never forgottenI’ve still even got my old but prized 30-year old souvenir mug here in the office to prove it..!

The further good news is that, as more budgets become available to Jersey War Tunnels and its creative team, so more & more of these very exciting displays will also come on stream as this rare WW-II attraction continues to expand the depth & breadth of all of the exhibitions for its visitors…

But for the ‘here & now’ perhaps one of the more surprising aspects to this exciting re-launch, (and something of a logistical triumph for Condor Ferries that shipped it over to Jersey from Portsmouth), is the unveiling of a life-sized German Sturmgeschütz iii Ausg.G self-propelled assault gun going by the name of ‘Hedwig’!

Commissioned by JWT and lovingly crafted over here on the mainland in Sussex by an expert team of armourers led by John Webster, weighing in at some 16 tons, measuring nearly 18’ in length and having a superbly accurate & highly effective camo paint job, this Stug is believed to be the most accurate & detailed copy of such a German combat fighting vehicle ever built… and most surely Jersey War Tunnel’s new star attraction!

Certainly from the press photos I have see thus far, it looks a real beauty and though for me, it is the 1944-planned ‘alternative’ medical history of these enormous German tunnels that continues to feeds my historical imagination, anything else that that helps underline the powerful feelings of Jersey’s World War Two Occupation that you get upon first entering these incredible German tunnels, such as this Stug, is more than ok in my book..!

So I hope that when I eventually get another chance to fly back over to Jersey and once again go down into these incredibly atmospheric German tunnels of Hohlgang.8 for myself and see the incredible time & effort going into the ‘new’ Jersey War Tunnels exhibitions, that I will feel that same excited tingle running up & down my spine that I felt on my very first visit over 30 years ago…  I can’t wait..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013