For many years just hearing the mere mention of the island of Alderney was enough to send a slight shiver down my spine….. as a young Third Reich history student I had always regarded this tiny Channel Island, lying just off the French coast, to be a cold, bleak outcrop of rock jutting out from an inhospitable sea – the perfect setting for the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil during the Second World War. My fevered imagination had played out all sorts of awful scenes on that far flung ‘island of terror’, the stuff of nightmares in fact! But the reality in broad daylight could not have been further from my idea of the truth..!
The most northerly of the small group of British Islands, and measuring just 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles at its widest, Alderney lies eight miles off the French Cotentin peninsula and, home to a small population of just over 2,000, is a place of truly outstanding, desolate beauty! This surprising revelation hit me in the late 1980s when I was doing the groundwork for my 50′ tv documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ and had just set foot on the island for the very first time after a 15 minute flight from nearby Guernsey, a mere 24 miles away.
With the early Autumn sun glinting off a deep-blue, wave-flecked English Channel, my tiny 16-seater aircraft had banked sharply on its final approach to give me an impressive panoramic view of this incredible little island and my first sight of some of the concrete fortifications of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ that were abandoned and left to nature after the German garrison surrendered without a shot being fired in May 1945.
Since that first introduction to the ancient and historic Bailiwick of Guernsey’s tiny sister island, I have come to fall deeply in love with Alderney’s untouched, tranquil beauty and to understand and appreciate the sheer variety of its myriad fortifications that have protected this vulnerable outpost down through the centuries.
The Germans were not the first to fortify this island – in fact the most prolific examples of defensive positions were actually built in Victorian & pre-Victorian times: stunning stone forts that have been studied in depth by island residents Dr Trevor Davenport & Colin Partridge. Both experts on the German defences, these two academics have faithfully documented Alderney’s stunning range of fortifications from the period 1940-45, back to the mid 1770s and their publications on these incredible edifices makes for fascinating reading.
For the committed WW-II German ‘bunker hunter’ or Victorian fortifications ‘buff’ then the real beauty of Alderney is that, apart from being a mere 40 minutes flying time from the UK mainland, you don’t actually need a car when you arrive. St Anne, the islands’ pretty little town, can actually be reached on foot from the tiny airstrip in about 15 minutes, whilst the island itself with its high cliffs in the south-west and its flat sandy beaches up at the north-east, is very much walkable in much less than a day.
The wide, open spaces also mean that the majority of the fortifications, both German & Victorian, are readily accessible to view and some to clamber over, with the right clothing and a torch. In fact some twenty-three years or so on from my original film, I never tire of rambling round Alderney, taking in the Victorian forts of Ile de Raz, Tourgis & Clonque and the impressive German anti-tank wall at Longis Bay, the enormous gun emplacements of the marine-artillery gun emplacements at Annes Batterie and the haunting and evocative MP3 naval direction-finding tower dominating the sky-line at Mannez.
Unlike the remainder of the Channel Islands, Alderney was cleared of its local population after the relatively bloodless occupation of this British territory in the summer of 1940. This civilian evacuation was the prelude to the impending fortification, resulting in Alderney joining with the other islands to eventually become the most heavily fortified part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ and a natural extension of the Fuehrer’s grand plan for ‘Festung Europa’ (Fortress Europe).
In 1938 the ‘Organisation Todt’ (set up under Dr Fritz Todt to oversee the production of Hitler’s massive autobahn construction programme), was tasked with fortifying Germany’s western border. Between 1938 and the outbreak of war in 1939, this para-military body built over 400 miles of defences comprising 14,000 individual concrete bunkers & emplacements along the so-called ‘West Wall’.
Following the invasion of France and the Battle of Britain, Hitler decided in December 1941 to fortify the entire coastline from Denmark down to France’s border with Spain, and it was the O.T. that was put in charge of this massive ‘Atlantic Wall’ building programme. By mid-1943 this enormous body, bolstered by forced-labour from the occupied countries across Europe, had grown to over half a million strong.
In the wake of the occupation of the Channel Islands in that beautiful summer of 1940 Alderney, along with Guernsey,Jersey and to a lesser degree Sark, were initially fortified to a limited degree by army combat engineers. However, following Hitler’s fortification decree of 1941, it was realised that that the army would not be able to cope on its own, so the Organisation Todt moved in with the role of permanently fortifying the islands and providing the coastal defences capable of providing cover for German shipping routes along the western coast of France, from St Malo to the Cotentin peninsula. Flak Artillery was provided by the Luftwaffe whilst coastal defence was to be undertaken by army & marine-artillery units under the control of the Kriegsmarine.
Whilst the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey retained much of their local population, despite a fairly high level of pre-German occupation evacuation to mainland Britain, on Alderney from 1941 onwards the civilian population was all but replaced by the constant inward flow of German manpower, plus the military hardware and building material required to turn this small island into a fortress. Aided by the construction of a huge jetty down in the harbour, (originally destined for use as part of an artificial harbour for ‘Operation Sealion’ – the aborted invasion of mainland Britain), the original military garrison of 450 assorted personnel in 1941 was to eventually grow to over 3,000 by 1944, whilst the German labourers of the OT, boosted by forced-labourers from as far afield as Russia, would bring the total war-time occupation force on Alderney to some 7,000.
Most Wehrmacht personnel were either billeted in St Anne or alternated between hutted accommodation constructed around their flak coastal batteries or underground in their heavily reinforced, wood-lined concrete crew-quarters that made up a part of the complex maze of bunkers & slit-trenches surrounding each fortified position. However in early 1942 a priority was given to house the influx of German O.T. workers & forced-labourers which resulted in four specific camps being constructed within a six-month period by a volunteer force of French workmen who arrived on the island in January 1942.
Each was named after a North Sea island: ‘Helgoland’ at Platte Saline, ‘Nordeney’ at Saye Bay, ‘Borkum’ at the Haize and ‘Sylt’ on edge of the grass air-strip, (disabled to deter Allied landings), and ‘Lager Sylt’’ which was eventually handed over to 1.SS Bau-Brigade. This SS Construction Unit took charge of the Russian forced labourers previously under O.T. control so becoming the only SS-run concentration camp on British soil.
Unfortunately many salacious and fanciful stories concerning the fate of these Russian workers at the hands of their SS guards have magnified themselves over the years, whilst the real truth regarding the terrible conditions that some of those wretched workers endured under such SS rule has been shrouded in mystery, compounded by a lack of surviving witnesses and the fact that the SS destroyed the camp before the German occupation came to an end in 1945.
What is known is that by 1943 all four camps housed between 3 & 4 thousand volunteer & forced-labourers and at least 330 of these workers died or were killed during the fortifying process, including many of the Russians who were subsequently buried in make-shift graves on Longis Common. Following the German surrender in May 1945, ‘Bunny’ Pantcheff, a British officer in military intelligence, (and a former peace-time visitor to Alderney), was sent to the island to conduct a full enquiry into any German ‘mis-deeds’ and his compelling summary was later turned into a small paperback book entitled ‘Alderney Fortress Island’ in 1981.
As the long shadows of history now fall gently across this breathtakingly beautiful Channel Island, the welcome visitor, armed with a map from the small tourist office in town, will find it possible to locate many of the German and Victorian fortifications that still dominate the scenery – even the former gate-posts to SS-Lager Sylt stand alone & forlorn by the side of the now tarmac airstrip, as an accusing testament to what awful deeds may have taken place within the camp perimeter those many years ago.
Standing looking at these innocent gate-posts today or indeed standing atop some of the huge coastal bunkers or amidst the massive gun emplacements up on the cliffs I must admit that even in such beautiful location as this, a slight tingle still runs up my spine as I take in the haunting atmosphere and think back over 70 years to Adolf Hitler’s forces occupying this small, but heavily fortified outpost of the British Empire and wonder… what if mainland Britain had actually been next..?
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013