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

Guernsey’s German Underground Museum…

Only one thing saddens me as a producer when I look back to the blissfully happy days I spent in the Bailiwick producing my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’and that is, too late in the day to change the shooting schedules, I happened upon Guernsey’s other fantastic German Occupation Museum.  Owned by brothers Peter & Paul Balshaw and located down at La Valette in the capital St Peter Port, this superb museum it is sited deep inside some imposing German concrete tunnels carved out of the hillside overlooking the beautiful harbour, with the old open-air swimming pools set in the rocks just below it and the stunning Castle Cornet shimmering away in the distance.

However happily for me, (courtesy of my later work as a consultant for the Guernsey Tourist Board’s initiative ‘Fortress Guernsey’), I was able to rectify that error just a little by helping to additionally publicise this fabulous museum through both my writing & broadcasting and being able to tour-guide a number of interested journalists & other documentary film-makers around these incredible tunnels and the stunning personal collection of German military & Guernsey civilian artefacts that the two brothers have imaginatively put on public display.

This award-winning museum covers many aspects of the Bailwicks’ military past including both the First & Second World Wars and the engaging story of Guernsey’s Militia… and all uniquely placed within a series of air-conditioned tunnels originally built by the Germans as a fuel storage facility for U-Boots visiting the Bailiwick during the years of 1940 to 1945..

The Third Reich had a ‘real thing’ about tunnelling and in the Channel Islands this task was given over to the para-military Organisation Todt, (effectively the Nazi’s fortifications building company staffed by highly-qualified German technicians), where, using ‘Forced Labour’ taken from the occupied territories to work in these beautiful islands, they had something of a field-day with 41 such tunnels being started in Guernsey alone..!

However across the islands as a whole it is the German Underground Hospital in Jersey, (now referred to somewhat less enigmatically as ‘Jersey War Tunnels’),  that is probably the most well known of these subterranean structures, though that was originally built as an ammunition tunnel and only became an active military hospital after the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6th 1944. At this point many German troops wounded in the fighting in France were evacuated to Jersey for treatment in these newly-converted tunnels… though spending many weeks underground cannot have been a totally welcome proposition for those badly knocked about Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS soldiers!

However Guernsey’s tunnels at La Valette are typical of the O.T. engineering that was undertaken across the Channel Islands during the occupation and were initially conceived as an underground dump from which, (protected from RAF attack above), fuel would then be pumped down to the Kriegsmarine’s submarines at their moorings in the bay below. However this particular tunnel complex was never completed as the necessary building supplies from France were cut off shortly after D-Day, though the Germans did try hard to get it finished using what meagre supplies they still had to hand…

Meanwhile the OT architects designed the tunnel bays in such a way that if any of the tanks were ruptured or sprang a leak, (accidentally or through sabotage), all of the fuel could be securely contained in a protective pool beneath each tank and then be allowed to safely drain away through the specific ducts which were installed. At this point it’s worth noting that when the tunnel was eventually converted into the modern museum it is now, the local Guernsey Fire Brigade had to pump some 1,500 gallons of water in a constant stream through one of the drains… which handled it just as originally designed!

Just two years after war’s end, today’s underground museum was just a nebulous idea for many years hence… but that day eventually came in 1986 when, after a feasibility study showed it was financially possible, discussions opened with the States of Guernsey’s Board of Administration and then States’ Engineers looked into the tunnel’s structural safety. Finally, after a year of too-ing & fro-ing between various island governmental departments, the go-ahead was given and work on the tunnel’s conversion started in December of the following year

Beginning with an excavation of two tunnel entrances, (one to provide a main entrance and the second to provide an emergency exit), an  extension to the existing tunnel lining was then added as protection from falling debris from the cliff above, steps & vehicle ramps were  built and a connecting tunnel between the fuel tank bays was completed so future visitors could see an unfinished tunnel in complete safety.

Meanwhile local ‘subbies’ re-wired the tunnels, installed air-conditioning, fitted smoke detectors, emergency lights, security & fire alarms and also spray-painted the whole interior; plus the one remaining fuel tank had to be pumped clean of its remaining 500 gallons of fuel and refilled with water as a bulwark against any explosive gases building up over time…

Unfortunately for the budget, the existing supports underneath the tank were found to be unsafe and so new block-work walls had to be constructed then, to prevent further rusting, the tank had to be de-scaled and sprayed with a rust-preventative primer… only then could museum glass cabinets be constructed & wired-in and myriad tailor’s dummies dressed and displayed.

Signs explaining the tunnel’s original usage were also produced, missing uniform items sourced & displayed and restoration of other occupation exhibits undertaken… but finally the whole wonderful collection reached ‘museum standard’ and ready for public presentation and so, in the Summer of 1988, the doors were thrown open to the island’s enthusiastic visitors.

When I finally discovered this exciting museum for myself, my jaw figuratively hit the floor as I took in Peter & Pauls’ amazing handiwork and the realisation that this fabulous scene should really have been featured in my documentary. I certainly experienced a real tingling sensation as I stepped down into these huge concrete tunnels as originally designed by the island’s German occupiers and built by imported forced labourers in conditions of such hardship..!

The fact that this ultra-professional display of living history was underground really added to the surreal film-set atmosphere and gives everything a great deal more poignancy & focus than might otherwise have been the case. Now walking through these enormous tunnels today with echoes of the same military music from our Tomahawk Films Archive that Guernsey’s German occupiers would also have heard over 70 years ago, all adds to that slightly eerie feeling of having taken a step back in time..!

It was quite a feat of German engineering to create this U-Boot & Luftwaffe refuelling tunnel in the early 1940s, but I think that is nothing compared to the marvel of design & reconstruction that went into the La Valette Hohlgang by Peter & Paul Balshaw and their builders… as such this underground military museum is nothing short of superb and must be included on your Guernsey visitor itinerary… you’ll certainly kick yourself if you don’t!!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The Nazi Occupation of Jersey 1940-1945…

Like many of my generation I suspect, the earliest awareness I had of the very beautiful British Channel Islands was from watching the always superb, Jersey-located, ‘Bergerac’  that was a regular staple of our television viewing back in the 1980s, (and which still holds up as a gripping police detective series in its many outings on the various history satellite channels today… but oh boy, in that pre-mobile phone, pre-computer era, doesn’t everybody now look so young?).

As with a lot of folk back, then I merely assumed that all of the Channel Islands were one single entity, not realising at the time that the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (containing the 7 islands of Guernsey, Alderney, Herm, Sark, Jethou, Lihou & Brecqhou), were actually one governmental or administrative grouping, whilst the Bailiwick of Jersey stood aaprt from the others as a completely seperate island, complete with its own parliament, laws & bank-notes and so forth; a slighty strange anomaly the roots of which can be traced back to when both Bailiwick’s, (the word meaning the ‘area over which a Bailiff has jurisdiction‘), were on opposing sides during the English Civil War.

Originally part of the Duchy of Normandy back in the 10th century, the Channel Islands were constantly fought over by England & France in many ensuing mediaeval wars, during which their ownership changed hands on more than one occasion: indeed pre-1945 the majority of all Channel Islanders spoke French, or more accurately, a fascinating local Patois that it is still possible to catch being spoken in certain parts of the two larger islands today.

But it was during the English Civil War that the distinct fault lines began to appear within the islands as the population of Guernsey’s sympathies lay firmly with the Parliamentarians whilst nearby Jersey remained staunchly Royalist… and it is these deep-set divisions that still appear to underpin  inter-island relationships albeit today it is, happily, more of a friendly rivalry between the two Bailiwicks which, as Crown Dependencies, are a part of the British Isles, though not part of the United Kingdom or the EU… (lucky them!)

However during the Second World War, the story of their German Occupation was more or less the same and both Bailiwicks went through identical untold hardships, had huge German garrisons stationed there between 1940 & 1945 .Furthermore both had their landscapes dramatically transformed forever thanks to the massive German ‘Organisation Todt’ fortification building programme that turned these most beautiful & hitherto peaceful islands into the most heavily fortified part of Adolf Hitler’s massive ‘Atlantic Wall’.

So when faced with documenting these islands in my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ and having only the limited budgets available, decisions had to be made as to which islands I would, or could, actually focus on… and despite having a number of friends and valued Tomahawk Films’ customers on Jersey, (a most beautiful island in its own right), tough financial decisions finally came down to my eventually shooting on Guernsey & Alderney.

Though I am relieved that this ultimately proved to be the right financial decision for Tomahawk, with my film, (I’m proud to say), now a very well received & highly respected documentary, it nevetheless always niggled me a little in that I could not give over as much of the story to Jersey’s specific experiences as I would have liked, in terms of physically filming there.

Nevertheless Jersey is very much a part of my story and I am therefore ever grateful for a wonderful comment later made by Michael Ginns MBE, Hon. Secretary of Jersey’s Occupation Society, who generously & most kindly opined of my documentary: “Congratulations on a very neat production: first class and much more honest & factual than some of the rubbish we’ve had to endure on television lately..!”

However in order that I might try to correct the possible ‘shooting imbalance’ of my film,  some years later I directly approached Jersey’s Tourist Board, showed them my documentary and asked if I could produce something similar for them but which had much more of a direct ‘Jersey focus’ to it?

Sadly I was met with a something of a rebuff… so did not pursue that idea any further as my documentary was continuing to sell in huge numbers in Jersey, not least through the fabulous German Underground Hospital, (now renamed Jersey War Tunnels), at St Andrews and the superb private museum down on the coast at St Ouen, owned & run by Damien Horn. So I felt that there was perhaps enough sales evidence to convince me that I had roughly got the story right for all of the differing Channel Islands and their incredible shared war-time German occupation history.

But it was still a real delight when I was approached by David Williams who called Tomahawk Films to say that he was putting together a film called ‘Stars on the Landscape’.  In it he would be taking a highly detailed look at the surviving German fortifications on Jersey that volunteer CIOS members were working very hard to lovingly restore and open up to their islands’ many visitors each summer season and could he use some of the period music from our Tomahawk Films’ WW-II German Archive for his sound-track..?

We were indeed able to supply him with some tracks from our biggest selling Third Reich/Nazi-era CD ‘The Military Music of Adolf’s Hitler Leibstandarte-SS’ but then a  thought occurred to me: around this time Tomahawk was in the process of going from video to DVD and ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ was going to be permanently transferred to this new format, but at 50’ long I thought this was a bit short for this new format that always seemed to be around 90’ and required additional extras such director’s cuts and ‘behind-the-scenes’ formats etc.

So I suggested to David that if  I also offered to record the voice-over for ‘Stars on the Lanscape’, in addition to supplying the Musikkorps SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ music tracks for his sound-track, could Tomahawk obtain the rights to his wonderful film and effectively offer it as a second ‘bonus film’ on our newly transferred to DVD ‘Channel Islands Occupied’?

Happily he agreed and so Tomahawk Films re-edited our production to offer ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ as 90’ double-documentary release featuring my programme looking, primarily, at the German occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey & Alderney, whilst David’s superb film documented the incredible post-war fortifications that Jersey still boasts… thereby offering that much more comprehensive, historical balance across all of the islands that I had so striven for earlier.

Judging from the terrific and most welcome feedback we are still getting from our myriad Tomahawk Films’ customers around the globe, (along with myriad visitors to the Channel Islands kindly still buying our DVD year in, year out when over on holiday), this was indeed the correct production decision..!

I am now really much happier that ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ combined with David’s ‘bunker-hunting’ production of ’Stars on the Landscape’ now gives ‘equal billing’ to this important German Occupation story cross all islands…

So as they say in certain circles… job’s a good ‘un..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013