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

Guernsey’s German Bunker Finds..!

Thanks to the handy invention that is the BBC i-Player, I was able to catch up on this week’s latest edition of their superb travelogue series ‘Coast’, which once again took in the beautiful Channel Island of Guernsey, (which is always going to win my vote & eternal gratitude!).

Thus I was delighted to be able to access my latest Festung Guernsey update on-screen courtesy of the programme’s presenter, Nicholas Crane, accompanying islander and FG stalwart Paul Bourgaize as his merry band of volunteers, ( including Bob Froome and his locally-based heavy plant), set about uncovering a German 10-man personnel bunker which was being opened up on the northern coast by the island’s golf course at Les Amarreurs, for the very first time since it was sealed up after the surrender of the island’s German garrison in May 1945.

Fortunately for we ‘arm-chair viewers’ other FG members were also able to lead the cameraman down into another  German personnel bunker, the Half-way Pak casemate which the team had excavated as recently as 2010, in which we were shown a fabulous remaining, though rusty, fortress field telephone still on the wall by a clearly painted sign ‘Achtung Feind hört mit!’  (Warning, don’t let the enemy listen in!).

Elsewhere in the newly opened bunker with its still whitewashed walls we were further treated to evidence of former gun-crew crew members having once billeted there, courtesy of a snippet from a German newspaper proclaiming ‘Dem Führer beschworen’ (Confirmed by Oath to the Führer), that was, incredibly, still affixed over one internal doorway and clearly legible after all these years..!.

Including interviews with two islanders, one who stayed during the Occupation as a young boy whilst the other as a young girl was evacuated to Cheshire, (as so many were), this fascinating segment of Coast was nicely rounded off by Mr Crane’s interview with Fritz Kuhn. A former German artillery gunner, he is one of the many Guernsey-garrisoned soldiers who now regularly return to the Bailiwick to retrace their previous war-time steps and in some cases, are lucky enough to see the uncovering of their actual war-time bunkers and personnel shelters…

I must admit this was always a highlight for me when, following my television documentary Channel Islands Occupied I was retained as the media consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board and its fortifications initiative Fortress Guernsey, for such fantastic voluntary work by these incredible local enthusiasts, (often visited by such former German personnel), always provided me handsomely with much exciting and very welcome ammunition as I helped tell the story of the Bailiwick’s war-time German occupation to an increasingly fascinated outside world.

One such restoration project which, back then, was quietly on-going under the direction of  volunteer members of The Guernsey Armouries team was to renovate and restore an important gun-pit and its associated bunkers and slit-trenches left behind after the German garrison’s surrender in 1945.

On week-ends throughout several winters and during long, sunny evenings of summer and autumn, a local businessman Dave Malledent and his small but knowledgeable band of Guernseymen, (again alongside Bob Froome’s diggers), could be found labouring away up on the Pleinmont headland, clearing the scrub land and digging out some 500 tons of infill that had also hidden these impressive gun pits & trenches from public view since the 1950s.

Named after Generaloberst Dollmann, and based on the South West corner of the island, the Batterie Dollmann, sited between the hauntingly impressive fire control towers of Pleinmont and L’Angle, this battery was originally home to four 22cm K532 (f) cannons housed in separate pits under the control of a command centre to the south and one dedicated level of the massive observation tower just to the north west.

Whilst the heavyweight work of uncovering the actual gun pit and personnel slit- trenches and crew bunkers was being undertaken by the lads of the Guernsey Armouries, away from the site in a warehouse at St Sampson to the north of the island, the actual hardware to be sited in the renovated gun pit Number Three had also been taking place.

As a part of the clearance by British Army Royal Engineers of all enemy ordnance in the Islands in the immediate aftermath of the German surrender in May 1945, many smaller weapons, along with tons of ammunition, found themselves cast into the deep waters off the islands.

Many guns, complete with cradles & wheels, were pushed off the nearest high cliff, including several built for the French army in 1917 that found ithemselves transferred to the German arsenal when the Wehrmacht over-ran France in 1940. Sent to the Islands for caostal defence at 25 tonnes  & able to lob a 104kg shell 22 kilometres, they were the second largest cannons in the islands after Guernsey’s famous Batterie Mirus.

One of these barrels was located at Les Landes on nearby Jersey, but undaunted by the huge task of retrieving it, a hazardous recovery operation was mounted by the Guernsey Armouries team and it was successfully raised up the 300 foot sheer cliff-face!

After period of innovation and renovation, (plus a coup in finding a set of original wheels acting as ‘gate-guardians’ outside an island Boy Scout hall), this last remaining 22cm was restored to its full war-time glory. The original barrel has since been married to a new gun-carriage and chassis which had been lovingly and faithfully re-created, courtesy of the original blue-prints generously supplied by the French Ministry of Defence.

Lowered into its rightful place on the stunning Pleinmont headland and painted in an impressive mottle yellow-green camouflage, it is now seen by many island visitors as a stark and sometimes frightening reminder that British soil was actually occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany during the long years of World War Two!

Sadly though a great deal was achieved and an enormous amount of effort and man-hours was expended over many years under the overall flagship of Fortress Guernsey, this incredible island government-sponsored operation ran out of political steam, so leaving the private museum & site owners and enthusiastic volunteers, plus members of the Guernsey Occupation Society and the now latterly formed Festung Guernsey (with Paul and the lads), to simply revert back to the ‘good old days’ of  private endeavour..!

Happily, as we saw on the BBC only last night, this hardy, privately-financed band are continuing to preserve the tales of the German Occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey with an ever-ready willingness to do whatever is necessary to keep this vital story alive and well… and to this end watch out for their newly published book on German Tunnels in Guernsey, Alderney, Herm & Sark…they deserve all the help & support all enthusiasts of the German Occupation of these beautiful islands can lend them…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013