Music in the German Occupied Channel Islands 1940-45…

As the generous readers of my Blog for Tomahawk Films will have realised, the German Occupation of the British Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945, is, alongside my passion for the German Soldier Song and the Military Music of the Third Reich, (an important & integral part of both my own and indeed Tomahawk’s personal & professional life, in addition to producing my television documentary Channel Islands Occupied), still something I love writing about, at the drop of a hat..!

So I thought I would also pen another Blog combining the two and write something on the history of the German military musical presence in those beautiful islands between 1940 and the occupying forces’ surrender 1945 and have actually subbed the ‘Channel Islands Occupation’ chapter from my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45 as it offers some corking original archival photographs!

Sadly, Tomahawk Films and I have decided not to republish this ‘mighty tome’, for though it has been incredibly well received.. thanks to all that bought a copy..the  enormous cost of re-printing is such that we have decided not to funnel such another huge amount of money into books as that it is not our core business..

However as many fellow military enthusiasts (and indeed fellow lovers of these Crown Dependent pieces of heaven), already know, the Channel Islands were the only British soil to be occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany during the Second World and make for one of the of the most amazing stories of the Second World War.

By dint of this, during that Nazi occupation there were actually 2 German military bands stationed on the two main islands (out of the total eight Channel  Islands): one drawn from the army:  Pionierbattalion 15, garrisoned on Guernsey, and the other being provided by the Luftwaffe’s 40th Regiment, Flak Artillery, which primarily performed on Jersey.

The story of that Second World War occupation offers the incredible imagery of WW-II German Musikkorps performing on British soil alongside other rare and almost unimaginable images of German Forces on British soil and this sadly over-looked story is a historical study all of its own when it comes to the Second World War…

When the entire German garrison across the five main Channel Islands ultimately surrendered in 1945, their musical instruments, song books and many musical accoutrements were left behind intact and can be seen today on display in some of the superb island occupation museums. In addition, with the recent location of a number of rare photographs of these German military bands actually performing on British soil, it is possible to take a ‘then and now’ look at them and witness those instruments being played during the occupation:

The Channel Islands are some of the most beautiful, peaceful and evocative to be found anywhere in the world, but it wasn’t always that way, and a half century ago the picture told a very different story..:

In the first months of the Second World War, following Hitler’s lightning war against Poland, an uneasy peace settled over Europe, and to the Channel Islanders the problems on the continent seemed another life away. Besides, what would Hitler want with the Channel Islands anyway?  However, in the spring of 1940 aircraft of the Luftwaffe began to appear in the skies above the islands, and the authorities introduced the first air-raid precautions; then on May 10th 1940, as Hitler launched his forces against the Low Countries and the BEF began its retreat to Dunkirk, it was just a matter of time before France fell and Adolf Hitler’s eyes would then turn to his next target… Britain!

On June 19th 1940 the British government announced that the defence of the Channel Islands was no longer justified and withdrew the garrison; just 3 days later, France surrendered and fearing German invasion to be imminent, some 34,000 Channel Islanders left for mainland Britain, leaving a total population of 50,000 to face the unknown. But far from showing disinterest, Adolf Hitler knew that capturing a piece of Britain would not only provide excellent propaganda but give him an additional base from which to launch his air and sea attack on the British mainland.

Wrongly advised by German Intelligence that the islands were still heavily defended, 6 fully-laden Heinkel IIIs set a course from their bases in Northern France on June 28th and, mistaking a line of tomato lorries for a troop convoy, bombed Guernsey’s St Peter Port harbour, killing 30 civilians, before flying on to strafe St Helier in Jersey, killing a further nine islanders.

Then on June 30th the German bombers returned, dropping written ultimatums demanding the unconditional surrender of all islands. Later the same day a lone reconnaissance Dornier 17 landed at Jersey’s airport, the pilot, 25 year-old Luftwaffe-Leutnant Richard Kern, having the dubious honour of becoming the first German occupier setting foot on British soil.

Then came the first Ju-52 transports ferrying the advanced troops who, believing Britain was only days from invasion, settled in quickly under strict orders from Hitler (who still hoped for a settlement with Britain) to treat all islanders with respect. Nevertheless, communications between the islands and mainland Britain were immediately severed, batteries of flak-guns were sited, slit trenches dug and all Union flags were hauled down and replaced by the swastika’d Reichkriegsflagge.

Whilst German Military Forces under the command of Feldkommandantur (Field Command – FK) 515 co-operated with the local government and police forces, all Channel Island affairs now fell directly under the command of Berlin, thus beginning six years of what Guernseyman Frank Stroobant was to call a ‘benign occupation’.

With the invasion of Britain abandoned, Hitler feared the Allies would launch an all-out attack to recapture the islands, and they soon began to reverberate to the sounds of shovels & concrete mixers as plans for their defence from air and sea attack were put into operation. Using forced labourers from Eastern Europe under the direction of the Organisation Todt (comprising German civilian technicians & labourers), massive flak and coastal gun batteries were built across the three main islands, turning them into the most heavily fortified part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall…

Guernsey & Jersey were initially garrisoned from July 1940 by units attached to the German 216th Infantry Division, plus Machine Gun Battalion No.16 on Guernsey and Panzerjäger Battalion No. 652 on Jersey. However, with Hitler’s attack on Russia, the 216th was earmarked for the Eastern Front, and in the Summer of 1941 the 319th Infantry Division (who had already seen action in Poland and France) was ordered to the islands to take over the defence of Guernsey & Jersey, whilst the 83rd Infantry Division was sent to Alderney. The 83rd Division then found itself despatched to Russia at the end of 1941, and the 319th took over the garrisoning of all three main islands.

Alderney, with its civilian population having been totally evacuated by the German military, was an unpopular posting, so FK-515 ordered a 3-month garrison rotation with army units from Guernsey and Luftwaffe flak units from France, though Kriegsmarine units, (for some reason), were exempted from this rotation.

Mobile armour was provided by 17 captured French Char-B tanks on Jersey and 19 to Guernsey under the command of Panzerabteilung 213, whilst anti-aircraft firepower arrived in the shape of Luftwaffe Flak Regiment No.39 on Guernsey and No.40 on Jersey. The Kriegsmarine initially oversaw command of all army and naval coastal artillery batteries from March 1941, until they merged in 1943 to form Heeresküstenartillerieregt (Army Coastal Artillery Regiment) 1265.

As the war slowly turned against Hitler, his Naval High Seas Fleet found itself confined to their harbours in Germany by increasing Allied activity. As a result, the Kriegsmarine presence in the Channel Islands mushroomed, as surplus German naval manpower from Kiel, Hamburg and Wilhelmshaven was transferred in to boost the size of the garrison. Indeed Jersey’s last Kommandant was a senior Kriegsmarine officer, Vice-Admiral Huffmeier.

At the height of the Occupation in May 1943, some 26,800 German troops garrisoned the islands: 13,000 on Guernsey, 10,000 on Jersey & 3,800 on Alderney, including the Army Mobile Anti-tank Battalion 450; Luftwaffe Long Range Reconnaissance Group 123 & Fighter Group 53; Army Ost-Bataillon 823 & 643 (captured Georgians who changed sides and the Russian Army of Liberation); SS-Baubrigagde 1 and the  Kriegsmarine’s 2nd Patrol Boat Flotilla & 24th & 46th Minesweeping Flotillas.

Additional units included fortress construction battalions, bridge, railway & airfield construction companies, combat engineers, medical, veterinary, field-police, signals, customs, field- post and the Reichsarbeitsdienst and NS Kraftfahrkorps…

In fact an incredible assortment of manpower was crammed into the relatively small space of the three main Channel Islands, plus Sark, and all needing some form of entertainment in their off-duty hours; to this end the island’s civilian cinemas provided one form of distraction, as did the soldier’s own ‘clubs’, the Soldatenheime (Soldiers’ homes) in St Helier and St Peter Port.

However, it befell the lot of the two military bands of the Luftwaffe and the Heer to provide light relief for both the German garrisons and the civilian population alike, and their concerts, many in the open-air, proved to be very popular, so much so that one wartime occupation edition of the Guernsey Evening Press in July 1943 ran a terrific story on Gerhard Anders, Obermusikmeister of Army Musikkorps Pionierbataillon 15:

“Thousands of Sarnians visited Candie Gardens on summer evenings last year to listen to the German Regimental Orchestra under the direction of Gerhard Anders.

Obermusikmeister Anders is himself a personality and  our music critic ‘Jubal’ contributes a pen-picture of this gifted composer & musician, who intends to honour Guernsey with a composition on the island..”

Meet Bandmaster Gerhard Anders

“He is young, genial; has bright eyes that flash with the genius of music and in the two years he has been with us in Guernsey, training his accomplished military band of 30 musicians, he has acquired English, to make himself understood, thus adding another language to his German.

Bandmaster Anders was the conductor of Berlin’s Operetta Theatre Orchestra of 80 musicians before the war, and his name is known throughout Germany as that of a young composer rising to fame. The upheaval of our time finds him writing band scores and composing music at his residence, ‘Cote des Vauxlaurens’, Cambridge Park, or conducting his devoted band at Les Cotils for two hours each morning in all genres of music”.

‘Jubal’, goes on to write (in very quaint English as if the Guernsey patois was his first language and English second) that Anders was always noting down ideas for future scores in a series of little blue books that were always to be seen ‘peeping out of his tunic pockets’ and that his army band, Pionierbataillon 15, had ‘over a  thousand pieces in their repertoire to choose from’.

However, whilst Anders was said to ‘find joy in helping Guernsey musicians in providing strings for their orchestras’, ‘Jubal’ (aka William ‘Billy’ Vaudin, the Guernsey Press’ chief reporter), noted that he ‘found great difficulty in obtaining suitable quality manuscripts for scoring’ as the on-going occupation resulted in a lessening of German and French supplies to the military garrison.

The long awaited relief of the Channel Islands, expected after the Allied invasion of Normandy, failed to materialise; instead the battle of France raged on and with the fall of St Malo the first of 600 wounded German soldiers arrived for treatment in the German underground hospitals on Guernsey & Jersey.

Meanwhile the Allied advance continued across North-West Europe and the islands were effectively by-passed; islanders and Germans alike were now cut-off and facing a very tough winter of 1944/45, existing on near-starvation rations and managing to hold on just long enough until the arrival of the Red Cross ship SS Vega in December 1944 with desperately needed food and supplies.

The final Allied drive into Germany continued and the death knell of the Third Reich was eventually sounded when on May 8th 1945 the Royal Navy’s HMS Bulldog and HMS Beagle left Plymouth to rendezvous with the Germans off Guernsey’s St Peter Port.

The islands’ Kommandant, Vice-Admiral Huffmeier, initially held out for an armistice, but on the following day, May 9th 1945, capitulated and surrendered the German military garrisons of Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney without a shot being fired!  (Incidentally the ‘bristling’ young Nazi officer pictured sitting, right, here in the surrender signing aboard HMS Bulldog, was later believed to have rejoined the new post-war German Bundesmarine, eventually becoming a very senior German Naval attache working within NATO!)

Meanwhile the musical instruments and sheet music of Guernsey’s army and Jersey’s Luftwaffe bands simply remained in their billets as the musicians themselves marched into captivity; after liberation, the islanders soon found them, and they were subsequently distributed to various island orchestras such as the Boys’ Brigade and Salvation Army bands in the following first months of peace.

On Alderney, however, a number of bandsmen found themselves prisoners-of-war and held back to help with the massive mine and defence clearance operation that took place in the years immediately following the island’s liberation. This was a most hazardous undertaking and sadly several former German garrison members were killed whilst attempting the recovery of many hidden mines & booby-trap bombs; but this task was finally accomplished and in 1947 the remaining German POWs performed a concert for the island’s returning civilian population.

Nothing is known of the fate of Heeres-Obermusikmeister Gerhard Anders, (though the Guernsey Press’ music critic & organ music aficionado, Billy ‘Jubal’ Vaudin, retired from the newspaper in 1948… and died in 1955 at the age of 73).

However, a footnote to the German occupation of Alderney was heard by myself in the early Summer of 1998, when Hans Schiffer, a former Kriegsmarine signals teletype operator at the former German Naval Signals Headquarters at St Jacques in St Peter Port, Guernsey, returned as the guest of honour at the opening of the newly refurbished bunker (and HQ of Guernsey’s German Occupation Society), under the island’s former ‘Fortress Guernsey’ initiative that I helped publicise:

During the celebrations, Herr Schiffer was heard to mention, when being interviewed on the possible whereabouts of former German service personnel based in the islands during the Occupation, that he had recognised one of the former Luftwaffe musicians he had previously seen performing for the troops on Alderney actually playing in a jazz-band in Düsseldorf in 1958… who’d have thought eh?

Copyright  @ Brian Matthews 2013

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

Stand-up, Hook-up & Hit the D.Z..!

It’s just as green and beautiful as I remember!”… the first words of former Private Billie Taylor of the US 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment as he stepped down from the coach that had brought him back to the former World War Two RAF air-base at Chilbolton near Winchester in Hampshire one beautiful Autumnal Saturday morning some years ago…

In late 1943 Chilbolton had became the home to members of the US 17th & 82nd Airborne Divisions, in advance of their deployment in the assault on the Normandy coast and in support of full-scale Allied operations on the ground; and for Billie and his wife Frances this long trip from their home in Indiana marked an emotional return to British soil for the first time since war’s end!

It was also to be just the start of an even longer pilgrimage to the Belgian Ardennes, the location in 1944 of the cauldron that was the Battle of the Bulge thence to the Rhine and ultimately on to Berlin, arranged through MilSpecTravel in association with Libertyroad.com, a specialist travel company offering battlefield & military tours for US veterans of World War Two under the expert eye of specialist tour guide Mr Patrick Hinchey.

In fact it was Patrick who was later to be the expert guide on the 2000 ‘Friendly Convoy’ when as the only journalist invited along, I had the real & most emotional honour of travelling back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and on into Alsace-Lorraine in the wonderful company of Veterans & Widows of the US 79th Infantry Division; thence later with Patrick as my own personal guide, when I travelled to Bad Kreuznach in Germany to interview former Musikmeister of the Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’  SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn, for my book‘The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945’…

But back to Billie’s pilgrimage and, arriving in England soon after its formation in mid-1943, under the motto ‘Thunder from Heaven’, the 17th Airborne, (boasting one parachute & two WACO glider regiments), first saw combat in Europe in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, thence in March 1945, the division had the honour of making America’s first & only airborne assault into an enemy heartland as they crossed the River Rhine into Germany in Operation Varsity….

As Billie’s memory-laden return to England continued to unfold before him, I was able to quietly observe this modest man from a distance as he took in this former war-time British airfield spread out all about him; and I could see that faraway look come into his eyes, a look that I have seen on so many occasions with many combat veterans, Allied & German, both here & overseas.

In my journalistic experience, it is a look that only men who have actually fought in combat take on… and I’ve come to realise that when I see it, it’s sometimes best not to say a thing as all their thoughts come flooding back: action seen, good buddies lost, life perhaps that could only have minutes more to run as mortal danger threatens to envelope them!

Some combat soldiers, like Al Sepulveda, a heavily decorated US 82nd Airborne Veteran from Los Angeles, who parachuted into Occupied Europe at 2.25am on the morning of ‘D-Day’ 6th of June 1944, again later at St Mere Eglise, (a jump immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’) and at Nimegen and who was awarded a Silver Star at Oosterbeck, will want to talk about their war and share all its details… whilst others will just want to slowly slip away from the crowds and quietly relect on their own.

Billie was in the latter camp, so I just stood silently in the shadows under the trees watching him as he cast his gaze slowely around the former combat glider airstrip around him and so obviously recalled a previous life spent here in a small part of the beautiful English countryside.

Then after a long while alone with his prized & personal memories, the reflective mood of the afternoon was broken as party of British combat veterans wearing their prized airborne forces red berets respectfully appeared and offered their personal welcome to all of the American veterans present at a small ceremony of remembrance.

In a ceremony befitting such a WW-II Veteran visit, both American & British Unit Colours & Honours were presented and wreaths laid at the memorial commemorating the vital role that this former World War Two airfield played in the build-up to the D-Day assault on the French coast of Normandy and thence all future Allied airborne drops over Occupied Europe…

Then the formal mood of Remembrance lifted as the American party was escorted by their former British paratrooper compatriots into the nearby village of Chilbolton; here they were able to finally enjoy a rare treat that many of them had not tasted since 1945: a traditional cream-tea that is now a regular custom laid on by the Hampshire locals who regularly play host to many returning former US airborne troops whom, as younger men, had become a regular & much-loved part of the village fabric back in those turbulent & momentous years of 1943 & 1944.

Then following a few precious hours in the Britain’s ancient capital, the nearby City of Winchester, and a moving Vin d’Honneur, (a simple but truly heartfelt formal ceremony of welcome), by the City’s Fathers to these returning WW-II Veterans, at which I was proudly made an Honourary Member of the 17th Airborne Division Association, it was back on to the coach in preparation for their trip across the Channel and onto the continental leg of their European pilgrimage….

As in the final months of World War Two these former US airborne warriors would once again be facing another reception by German parachute forces… though on this occasion it would be a much anticipated, (and this time friendly!), reception in the lovely small German town of Wesel… and by the very Fallschirmjäger ground troops they last met and fought when they jumped & glided in on top of them during Operation Varsity in March 1945!

Where once their one and only aim was that of killing each other, now these Allied & German veteran soldiers would embrace each other as firm friends… truly, war is a strange thing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Festung Alderney Revisited…

Perhaps not surprisingly when it comes to the story of the Channel Islands’ German Occupation, it is usually the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey that continue to garner most of the interest in the incredible war-time history of these Crown Dependent islands…

However on the quieter & smaller island of Alderney to the north, volunteer occupation enthusiasts have nevertheless been much more active in recent years and as that regular visitor, I have often been able to wander around this relatively well-kept secret in the company of Dr Trevor Davenport, long-time resident and author of the excellent fortifications book Festung Alderney (and willing interviewee in my TV documentary), to catch up on the latest developments.

In the many happy years since I first set foot on Alderney to film its part in ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, I was always aware of the very impressive German fortifications dotted around this stunningly beautiful  island, but it is only in the company of somebody who really knows the place well that you will finally get to see and hopefully discover a whole host of other hidden treasures!

For me, however, one of the more intriguing little Alderney stories did not involve a German bunker, but the fate of the rather impressive military headstone that had been erected after the war in the German cemetery at Valongis, next to Alderney’s Strangers’ Cemetery on Longis Road, the garrison’s war dead having originally been buried in the graveyard of St Anne’s picturesque little church up in the centre of town.

It actually first came to my notice when reading Winston G. Ramsay’s definitive photo-led book ‘War in the Channel Islands – Then and Now’, which contained a picture of the headstone as photographed by the book’s author in 1979: sadly it had been somewhat unceremoniously dumped over the cemetery wall in 1961 shortly after the remains of 70-odd Wehrmacht & Organisation Todt personnel were exhumed and repatriated back to Germany.

It was to be many years on that I would actually first see this worn but very impressive headstone for myself, still in its casually discarded position and on each of my many subsequent trips to Alderney I always sought it out and stood quietly before it, wondering what tales it could tell!

So it was with no small frisson of excitement, that on another subsequent visit back to the island that I wandered once more into the small cemetery to come face-to-face with the headstone, now completely refurbished and restored to a prominent position at the top end of the Longis Road Strangers’ Cemetery, standing as a quiet sentinel under the trees.

Upon further investigation, I learned that a small group of German visitors to Alderney had also seen the previously discarded headstone and expressed a wish to see it restored to a standing position and in full view of passers-by; happily The Alderney Society stepped in and a superb job was undertaken in restoring it to its former glory.

Now clearly bearing, in German, its St John, Chapter 14, Verse 20, inscription: “Because I live, you shall also live’,  the stone was been set into an attractive small enclosure, clearly visible through the cemetery gates from the Longis Road, where it now stands alongside a second, much smaller memorial stone.

Some mystery surrounds this other headstone, which was actually discovered more recently on nearby Clearmount Farm where it was covering a drain opening! Originally set in a wall up at the States Airport, the slightly less clear inscriptions are to Obergerfreiters Hohendahl & Theiss and Gefreiter Galda who were originally thought to be killed in an Allied air-strike against the German-held airport whilst they were manning a Flak Battery on February 4th 1942.

Despite further investigation, Dr Davenport can find no reference to any air-raid on that date amongst Allied Air-Force bombing records and therefore believes another story may hold true… so this one must go down as ‘an investigation still in progress!’

The Alderney Society and the island’s Wildlife Trust were also active in uncovering & restoring Alderney’s first German bunker to open to the public; high above the cliffs due south of St Anne in an area known as ‘Quatre Vents’ was a Luftwaffe 20mm flak Battery that originally protected the town from low-level Allied air attack and within that battery was a small radio-signals unit set in a fortress-standard bunker.

One of only two such bunkers known to have existed throughout the whole of the occupied Channel Islands, the battery was named ‘Millionaer’ by the local Luftwaffe gun-crews, believing that the stunning house in whose grounds they were sited had actually belonged to a very wealthy pre-war local!

Having walked over the top of it in blissful ignorance for many a long year, it was a nice surprise when Alderney’s Wildlife Trust acquired this signals-bunker and, with the further help of volunteers began a period of sympathetic restoration through the reconstruction of wooden floors, a complete re-paint job, original doors re-oiled and the replacement of the concrete wall’s inner wooden linings, as would have been the case when it was built by the Organisation Todt around 1943.

Now open to the passing public both as an excellent Countryside centre offering fantastic bird-watching facilities and as a war-time historical display centre, though not strictly a military museum as such, it is nevertheless an excellent restoration job which will give the avid ‘bunker hunter’ an idea of life as lived by Alderney’s German occupying garrison.

Local volunteers have also been busy with spades & shovels uncovering a maze of slit trenches and air-raid personnel shelters up above the Mannez & Berry Quarries amidst the site of the former 88mm Flak Battery ‘Hoehe 145’  situated on the high ground at the north-eastern end of the island and in the shadow of the island’s very impressive MP3 range-finding tower, dubbed ‘The Odeon’ . Other work on Alderney’s hidden German fortifications took place down at Fort Doyle by Platte Saline where what was, to my mind, merely a nettle-covered hillock under my walking boots, actually emerged as a superbly laid out crew personnel-shelter with associated slit trenches running hither & thither.

In the course of the German’s original construction programme the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil, Lager Sylt, was established close by the island’s small airstrip and which housed mainly Russian slave labourers, who were working on fortification construction, also under German Organisation Todt engineers.

Strangely, there were also several Frenchmen, who having survived the harsh conditions of their incarceration, I actually witnessed at a military memorial service at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2000 when, as a journalist, I was invited to join a group of American Combat Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division returning first to the D-Day beaches of Normandy thence to Alsace-Lorraine.

Run by SS Bau-Brigade 3, evidence of Lager Sylt was all but destroyed by the Germans in 1944, however today the gate posts stand as a poignant sentinel against the open sky and in recent years a plaque marking the camp and its part in the occupation of Alderney was affixed to one of the two posts.

Now cleared of the original scrub that over-ran it, this windswept memorial to the dark days of the island’s German occupation can easily be accessed by the public.

Barely a 40-minute flight from the South Coast’s Southampton airport in one of Aurigny’s distinct 3-engined Trislanders, the living, breathing evidence of Nazi Occupied Britain is very much still on your doorstep and so a visit to the oft-overlooked island of Alderney will not only introduce you to a place of breath-taking, windswept beauty that will take you back to how mainland Britain looked and felt in the 1950s and earlier…

…and if you keep your eyes open, it will also throw up some new German Occupation reminders that have been well hidden from public view since 1945..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013