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