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

The Best of Enemies..!

Staying at the home of the enemy that tried to kill you in the war-time skies over Europe would seem to many people to be a fanciful story that could never happen; but that is exactly what did happen to a former Lancaster flight engineer from Hampshire, who survived his encounter with  Luftwaffe night-fighter ace, Knight’s Cross holder Heinz Rokker, over the French town of Neufchateau in July 1944.

One of only two air-crew to escape from their blazing bomber that fateful night, Thomas Harvell from Southampton parachuted to safety and was rescued by a local Frenchman, to later join forces with Resistance fighters, the Maquis, whom he fought alongside  in the Autumn of 1944 as they harassed German supply lines.

Known today by former members of the Maquis as ‘notre Anglais’, Mr Harvell, was on his way from a 5-day stay at Mr Rokker’s home in Oldenburg in Germany to France’s national monument to their war-time Resistance fighters at Sicon in the Franche-Comte region, when I caught up with him in Neufchateau whist I was travelling with Combat Veterans of America’s 79th Infantry Division on their pilrimage back to the D-Day Beaches of Normandy and thence onto Alsace-Lorraine.

Mr Harvell was to be presented with a medal of appreciation by the Federation Nationale Andre Maginot, and a certificate bearing the name of his war-time alias ‘Charles Hautier’ in recognition of his daring war-time exploits alongside his French comrades; however such acts of derring-do would not have happened, but for Heinz Rokkers’ dramatic & deadly intervention that July night.

An officer in the CID branch of British Transport Police at Southampton Docks, back in 1944 Mr Harvell was flying to Stuttgart on the night of July 28/29th with 514 Squadron’s Lancasters from Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, when he first came face-to-face with Hauptmann Rokker…literally!

Born on October 20th 1920 in Oldenburg, Heinz Rokker volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1939, having just sat his German ‘A’ Levels, (Kriegsabitur), early because of the outbreak of war. Upon acceptance in to the Third Reich’s air arm, he immediately undertook officer and initial pilot training at the Luftkriegschule (Air Warfare School) at Berlin-Gatow before being posted to Magdeburg to complete his training. Following night-fighter conversion at the Nachtjagdschule (Night-fighter School), at Neubiberg-Ingolstadt, he was posted to 1/NJG 2  in Sicily, scoring his first 4 night kills over North Africa.

In August 1941 the Squadron was sent to Brussels-Melsbroek for a rest, during which he undertook two long night flights over England, before transferring back to Sicily in January 1943 where he added a further kill to his mounting tally. July 1943 saw Rokker’s night-fighter squadron posted back to Germany as part of the Reich’s air defence umbrella around Kassel-Rothwesten and after the June 6th Allied Invasion of Normandy was posted to Chateaudun. In early 1944 Rokker was promoted to Hauptmann and made a Staffelkapitan, (Squadron Leader), and was now flying from the Rotenburg/Twente/Kassel-Rothwesten sector once again when scrambled against Thomas Harvell’s second incoming Lancaster raid on Stuttgart of the week.

Flying his radar-equipped Junkers Ju88 with its twin cannons mounted on top of the fuselage, known as Schrage-musik (slanting music) Rokker, who was to amass 64 kills before war’s end, lay in wait for the RAF ‘blind bomber’ formations and having already shot down one Lancaster that night, finally pounced as Mr Harvell’s aircraft flew wide of the bomber stream, his navigator having locked onto the British aircraft’s H2S radar waves.

Rokker flew under Harvell’s lone aircraft and using a ‘pull-down’ visor which magnified the target, let loose his Schrage-musik cannons, firing up at the underside of the Lancaster into the bomber’s port inner engine. For reasons that Thomas Harvell still cannot not fathom, pilot Flt Lt Jones continued to fly straight & level, taking no evasive action whatsoever.

One 39 Allied aircraft shot down in that single, the German ace could not believe his luck and having circled around to watch the bomber continuing in its level flight, swung back in on the starboard side and raked the Lancaster with heavy nose-canon fire… this time the doomed heavy four-engined aircraft blew up in the night-sky over Neufchateau.

Thrown clear of the exploding Lancaster as cannon fire hit its fuel tanks and rescued by a local Frenchman after a hair-raising parachute landing, Mr Harvell found his way into the hands of the Resistance. After several aborted attempts to reach Allied lines, he opted to stay and help the French underground in their clandestine war against the Germans. During a 6 week period he fought alongside the Maquis, helping to liberate the town of Pierrefontaine in 1944, before being ‘liberated’ himself by advancing American Forces.

Eventually making his way back to Britain, via Italy, in November 1944, Mr Harvell rejoined his squadron, but was told that downed air-crew fighting with the Resistance was deemed to be against the terms of the Geneva Convention. He would therefore no longer be able to fly on ‘Ops’ and was assigned to aircrew  training until the end of the war, returning to ‘civvy street’ in 1947.

Back in Germany, Hauptmann Rokker as a night-fighter pilot, amassing a further 59 kills with the ’Wilde Sau-Zahme Sau’ Geschwader, (Savage Hog-Tame Hog Squadron), from his final air-base in Schleswig. His war-time medals included a Black Wound badge on July 14th 1942, the Iron Cross 1st Class on August 14th 1942, the Knight’s Cross from the hands of Adolf Hitler on July 27th 1944 and the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross on March 12th 1945 from Head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering.

At war’s end Heinz Rokker was briefly interned by the Allies and on his release in late 1945 qualified as a teacher, retiring from his post as a deputy head-teacher of a primary school in his native Germany in 1982.

Meanwhile the ‘Aviateur Anglais’ Thomas Harvell is a regular guest of his war-time Resistance comrades in the beautiful French town of Neufchateau…

But how did they feel coming face-to-face after their deadly duel in the night skies of Europe so many years before? Mr Harvell explained: “Heinz was very proud to be an ace and before meeting me, he’d been a guest at the RAF’s Air Gunners Association where he met a Halifax rear gunner and a Mosquito pilot he’d shot down and both were very surprised to meet the German pilot who’d been their Nemesis.

But when I met him, it was as if we’d known each other all of our lives, though it had been so personal back then as he was actually trying to kill me..!  As an ace he had obviously been a ruthless man and though he later became a quiet primary school teacher, whenever he talks about his wartime exploits you can see that old streak of ruthlessness emerge once again..! 

As for meeting Heinz in person, it was very emotional and as we are both tall men his first words to me were that we were ‘both a matching pair’’… furthermore he could certainly well remember that night, telling me that he had to give us two bursts to despatch us as we continued to fly straight and level”

Today the two adversaries are friends, their deadly duel but a distant memory and whilst Heinz Rokker lives in peaceful retirement in Germany, still with his Knights Cross with Oakleaves on display at his home, Thomas Harvell is home in Hampshire, a hero of the French Resistance… with both medal and citation to prove it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013