Guernsey’s Victorian Fortifications…

It is a little remiss of me when writing about Fortress Guernsey and all of the terrific work undertaken by this historical initiative in the late ’90s under the leadership of my good friend and former boss at the Guernsey Tourist Board, Deputy Director Major Evan Ozanne, not to have ever touched on the earlier Victorian Fortifications of the 7 islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey…

For almost as important in the engrossing history of these sun-soaked islands as the German Occupation is the story of the earlier fortification building programme that took place in the late 1700s to combat the ever-present threat of an earlier invasion, this time by the French, (our on-off friend & enemy down the years), as these attractive of Anglo-French islands were literally right in the firing line between our two countries.

Though a greater part of my responsibility as Media Consultant to Fortress Guernsey, (often working alongside leading Alderney-based fortifications expert Colin Partridge), was to write, report & broadcast on the German Occupation side of the story and indeed to bring over as many documentary-film makers, fellow broadcasters and travel journalists as possible to show off this unique aspect of Guernsey’s formidable & fascinating history, so too the incredible Victorian Fortifications were a major part of our combined endeavours when promoting the military historical background of Fortress Guernsey to an intrigued outside world.

For almost 2,000 years in fact Guernsey and its 6 satellite islands of the Bailiwick  possessed considerable strategic importance in the defence of Britain and by virtue of its special relationship to mainland Britain as a Crown Dependent territory, Guernsey was to eventually find itself covered with myriad fascinating earthworks, forts, Martello towers, gun-batteries, arsenals & watch-houses, all built principally to resist the threat of invasion… and obviously long before the rise of the Third Reich and Hitler’s lustful eyes on these stunning islands, (though interestingly enough all those years later many of the subsequent German fortifications were actually built upon, or added to, these previously early constructed and very sturdy Victorian fortifications.)

The catalyst for the earlier defensive positions can be traced back to the American War of Independence in 1775 as 3 years later in 1778, France declared its support for the American colonists in their struggle against the British Crown..and the Channel Islands, despite the presence of a powerful Royal Navy, lay very close to an increasingly aggressive France.Indeed in May 1778 the Governor of the neighbouring island of Jersey wrote to the British Secretary of State in London recommending that a programme of  coastal defence building should begin in the two larger Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey & Guernsey).

So it was that in August 1778, approval was given for the construction of 15 fortified towers and with the importation of a large force of labour, (later echoed in the 1940s when the Germans brought in slave labour for their building programme), by March 1779 all 15 were complete and ready for action. The French had actually drawn up plans for the full invasion of the Channel Islands, though mercifully this did not materialise, nevertheless it was decreed that Guernsey’s defences be further strengthened. So it was that from 1803 onwards three large Martello Towers were built at Rocquaine Castle, Fort Sausmarez and at Houmet Point, all of which were to have additional German fortifications added to, (or on and indeed over), during the 1940-45 Occupation of the Bailiwick.

However, of the original 15 Victorian Loophole Towers built in 1778-79, just 12 now remain in Guernsey, one of the most important of these being Rousse Tower in the north of the island overlooking Grand Havre. Designed primarily to prevent the landing of enemy troops on nearby beaches and, on stretches of coastline where more than one tower was erected, Rousse and the other towers were positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire from their light 1-pounder cannons.

Musket-fire could also be directed down on invading forces through the loop holes whilst from a position on the roof the later addition of a 12-pound cannonade could fire grapeshot. Heavier guns on these batteries were subsequently added and this allowed the towers to actually engage enemy ships up to a range of some 3000 yards.

Rousse was actually constructed in 1804 on the site of a former small battery already sited on this ‘achingly beautiful’ headland and by 1816 it boasted three 24- pounder cannons and two smaller 9-pounder cannons and, on a base of Portland stone imported over from Dorset, the larger guns were mounted on inclined platforms to help with the force of the cannon’s recoil, whilst the smaller cannons were sited on the flat so they could be easily manoeuvred to fire on the advancing enemy through the embrasure openings on the rear wall if required.

Although the British Government maintained a permanent military garrison in the islands, there were actually insufficient troops to guard all of Guernsey’s wide-open sandy beaches, so this task was delegated to the Guernsey Militia. Recruited at the age of 16 and transferred into the Reserve at 45, they remained on standby by for call-up right up to the age of 60, and though there were weekly drills & parades, they were not paid… and even had to provide their own Militia uniforms until the British Government began furnishing them from 1782 onwards.

With a force of some 2,500 to 3,000 men in the Militia, Rousse Tower was manned by a Sergeant and 20 men under the command of a Captain, who was also responsible for 3 other identical batteries sited across the headland

Men allocated to this duty also had to continue their normal day-job as farmer, fisherman or quarryman, however they were allowed to appoint ‘substitutes’ for when the day job was more pressing and at these times it was not unusual for the soldier’s wives or their children to stand in. But eventually this led to abuse and many derelictions of duty when men supposedly on duty… but were anything but!

As a part of Fortress Guernsey’s remit, Rousse Tower was given a superb make-over and in addition to the construction of life-size models then placed inside the tower to illustrate life within in the late 1700s/early 1800s, after a great deal of effort a number of original cannons were sourced and, after proofing in Chatham Docks in England, were sited on accurately reproduced carriages. Now these are proudly on display at this beautifully restored Victorian site.

On my recent trip back over to Guernsey I was delighted to once again pop up to Rousse and happily note that the Tower, (seemingly falling yet again into a state of some disrepair on a previous visit, despite all the work that Fortress Guernsey had originally invested on it), was now looking really ‘ship-shape & Bristol fashion’.. a real sight for sore eyes in fact!

It was a real delight to spend some time here once again, this time with my dad, taking in the magnificence of this Loophole Tower, now some 230 years old, fully restored to its former glory as it is a truly wonderful testament to the Victorian art of military fortification; and something that the German military designers & engineers either consciously or subconsciously copied some 160 years later when it was their turn to further fortify the Bailiwick from 1941 onwards, (after their invasion the previous year), and the island’s unique German gunnery range-finding towers began to rise at their coastal locations…

Now following Major Ozanne’s earlier lead & persistence in the late 1990s, Rousse Tower is deservedly back on Guernsey’s list of States-maintained historical sites and with further island investment and continued work on the site in 2006, this important landmark attraction can rightly said to be of the finest restored Loophole Towers anywhere in the Channel Islands. So to all involved…well done and bravo!

Finally, whilst just finishing off this latest Blog, a number of readers kindly contacted me to say that they had been enjoying my piece entitled ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ concerning ‘Douglas’ Small’s final resting place in my local village churchyard and my musings as to whether the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had learned of my periodic maintenance of his grave and added it to their official cleaning list as a result?

Well I am delighted to say that a fellow villager, Reg, came forward to say that he and his wife had seen a van in the churchyard when out on one of their regular rambles that bore the legend ‘Commonwealth War Graves Commission’ on the outside and when they approached the team, they were told that the CWGC now comes to our churchyard every two years to give the soldier’s headstones a make-over…

Back then Reg was unaware of my tie to Douglas’ grave so wouldn’t have been able to ask the cleaners if it was indeed them that had given his headstone a thorough make-over, but as his is now a clear white marble, (as opposed to the ‘grey concrete’ when I started to clean it in 1999), I feel I can conclude that the CWGC have indeed added ‘Douglas’ to their list. A very happy outcome for me as we approach this Sunday’s November 11th Remembrance ceremonies and then, next year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the subsequent opening of the Hazeley Down Army Pre-Embarkation Camp here in my beautiful village of Twyford on the River Itchen.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

The Great Escape of 1944…

Over the weekend I sat down to watch a superb documentary produced by Windfall Films and aired on Channel 5, devoted to the recent uncovering of the actual tunnel dug and used in the fabled 1944 ‘Great Escape’ from the German  Prisoner of War camp Stalag Luft III located in what is now western Poland…

Untouched for almost 70 years, this underground passage, nicknamed ‘Harry’ by Allied prisoners, was sealed by the enraged and embarrassed German authorities immediately after the audacious break-out from the camp and despite on-going interest in this subject, (not least as a result of the 1963 John Sturges-directed Hollywood movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence et al) it has  remained undisturbed down the years because of its location behind the later Iron Curtain and of it being of no interest to the Soviets!

Now, post-Fall of the Berlin Wall, a team of archaeologists, lead by Briton Peter Doyle (his father was a POW in Stalag VIIIb) & American Larry Babits, (whose late father was a US bomber pilot with a reputation for always getting his air-crew safely home), have located and excavated this important war-time legacy from its sandy tomb in what is now a rather beautiful Polish silver-birch forest.

Over a three week period in August they located the actual entrance to the ‘Harry’ and in the course of this dig the team also stumbled across another tunnel, called ‘George’, whose exact position had not been charted, though this one was never used as the 2,000 remaining prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached Stalag III in January of 1945.

But it was during this recent excavation of ‘Harry’ that Peter & Larry, watched on by veterans of the original war-time tunnel construction, discovered many remarkable secrets that still abide within this 111-yard long wood-lined passageway out from the camp and under the former perimeter fences and tantalisingly close to what was, back then the surrounding woods. (The camp having been designed with all its POW huts on legs and away from the perimeter fences and a large swathe of woodland outside of those same perimeter fences felled and cleared so the Luftwaffe guards could, supposedly, always see what their prisoners were always up to!)

As all of us avid Great Escape movie-watchers know full well, the first tragedy of this daring  ‘Boy’s Own’ escape (conducted under British military leadership along the lines of the rules of cricket), was that the eventual opening of the completed tunnel came up dangerously short of the wood and so the escapees would have to come up with the risk of being spotted by the Luftwaffe guard’s watch-towers. This is why, despite help from a well-timed Allied air-raid just as the escape was on and the fact that one of the first out of the tunnel remained just inside the wood and dropped a rope back into the tunnel, giving two tugs to those within to indicate when the Luftwaffe guard had reached the far end of his patrol and it was safe to emerge, only 76 of the planned 200 prisoners got out and into the welcoming protective cover of the forest.

Having first found the concealed tunnel entrance in the ruins of what was originally POW Hut 104, the modern archaeologists excitingly then uncovered the ‘fake’ concrete panel that had disguised the tunnel opening inside the hut, then one of the metal hooks fashioned by the POWS to help with its removal. After this the team then dug down some 30 feet  into the sandy forest loam to uncover the tunnel itself and found that many of the originally harvested hut bed-boards, which had been used in mining fashion all those years previously to shore up the tunnel to stop it collapsing were all, incredibly still in position and expertly doing their protective job even today!

The original ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as ‘Klim Tins’, (milk backwards) was still in working order and as they moved further down through the excavation site, the team also found many parts of old metal buckets, hammers & crowbars, all cleverly fashioned into tools of many & varied designs in 1944 by the POWS from scavenged bits of metal and then used to hollow out the escape shaft & tunnel.

In all a total of some 600 Allied prisoners-of-war worked on three tunnels nicknamed Tom, Dick & Harry at the same time, (with the hope that if the German guards discovered one of them…as actually happened… then they could continue working on the other two), and these tiny shafts were just 2 feet square for most of their full length… not a happy undertaking for those suffering claustrophobia..!

Originally lit by candles made from fat skimmed off the top of their meagre bowls of Ox soup, later scavenging harvested enough wire for the former electricians within the prisoner escape teams to be able to secretly plumb into the German supply and have electric light along the lengths of all 3 tunnels… and so it was that on the night of March 24 & 25 1944, 76 Allied airmen successfully escaped through Harry, complete with their fake identity papers, suitcases and expertly mocked-up German military uniforms & civilian garb.

Barely a third of the originally-planned 200 prisoners managed to get through the tunnel and into the woods before the Allied air-raid was over, and the camp floodlights came back on and the 77th escapee was spotted by an alert German guard. At this point ‘the balloon truly went up’ and all of the remaining escapees in the tunnel were discovered and, along with those waiting in the huts for their chance, were rounded up inside the camp… but not before a great deal of the precious fake German documents forged in the previous year were quickly put to the flame inside the huts..!

3 Allied airmen successfully made it back home to fight again but in the second tragedy of this whole episode, some 50 POWS were rounded up and handed over to the Gestapo and such was Hitler’s apoplexy at this enormous breach of security that orders were given for all 50 prisoners to be executed by firing squad! But something I had not known until watching this excellent documentary was that the Luftwaffe Camp Commandant was so horrified by this cold-blooded killing of so many of the rounded-up POWS that in an amazing act of contrition, he allowed surviving prisoners from Stalag Luft III to go outside of the camp to build a memorial to their murdered airmen Comrades. Still there today it is interesting to note that the memorial missed off the final numeral: it reading just 1939 to 194 because, of course, those surviving prisoners didn’t know when the war would end.

But back to the actual tunnel excavation itself and from the film we learned that in all some 90 boards from bunk-beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels & blankets were all squirreled away by the Allied prisoners to help aid their ultimate escape plan, which successfully took place right under the noses of their Luftwaffe captors despite the German attempts to ‘keep a lid on things’.

Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise (and the Steve McQueen motorcycle sequence is a true motion-picture classic moment), no Americans actually escaped through the tunnel as all of the USAAF airmen involved for many months in the preparation of the tunnels allied to all of the required forgery and costume creations for such an operation were transferred, at the last minute, to another camp that had been built to specifically imprison just downed American bomber-crew and fighter pilots.

However, as is often the case with Hollywood producers rewriting World War Two history as they are oft wont do: (i.e. anything to do with D-Day always seems to forget British & Canadian troops storming the nearby beaches of Gold, Juno & Sword, that the spectacular capture of a Top Secret Enigma machine from a German U-Boot was undertaken by Royal Naval personnel not, as in last night’s film U571, by US seamen or, indeed in that awful CGI-dominated film Pearl Harbor, where the impression was given that just one US airman flying with the RAF had been personally responsible for winning the Battle of Britain single- handedly ..thus stretching the meaning of ‘The Few’ to a quite extraordinary length!)

However whilst American air-crew personnel were very much involved in the vital planning stages of the Great Escape, on the day of the break-out the POW’s were presominantly British, Canadians, Poles, ANZACS & South Africans and this modern day dig, (brilliantly interspersed for TV with some superb actor-recreations, something readers of my Blogs-various know I don’t usually rate), really was a wonderfully engrossing and modern day telling of this amazing war-time story.

Now all these years on from 1944 along with the several American veterans watching the excavation with rapt interest was Gordie King, a former RAF radio operator who, luckily for him in the end, was 140th in line for ‘Harry’ and so didn’t get away. As a result he lived to tell his story and to see the tunnel briefly opened up to the world & recorded on film, before being filled back in and hidden away from the world’s gaze once more.: ‘This brings back such bitter-sweet memories,’ he said, wiping away a tear, ‘I’m amazed by what they’ve found..!’

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The Loss of HMS Charybdis in 1943…

The last week of September of this year saw me back on the beautiful island of Guernsey accompanied again by my father who, happily for me, has also fallen in love with the 7 Crown Dependent British islands that make up this stunning Bailiwick… (in fact I hadn’t even got to the end of my question in the Summer of ‘would you like to go back to Guernsey again’ than his suitcase was packed and standing primed & ready by his door!)

So, following the 30 minute flight from Southampton airport, we were back on God’s Own Island meeting up with my old friends, Ian McRae & Evan Ozanne, both former senior figures with Guernsey Heritage & Guernsey Tourism, the latter to whom I am most grateful for offering me the reminder that the annual HMS Charybdis memorial service and thence graveside ceremony at le Foulon Church would be taking place that very weekend… and not just the annual service, but the 70th commemoration of the ship’s war-time loss.

I must admit that, because my own personal & professional interest is usually focussed primarily on the German side of the occupation, I find that my attention is sometimes fully taken up with those ‘German stories’ almost to the exclusion of all else; however the HMS Charybdis story is one of those awful stories that oft times emerge from the British 1939-45 war effort.

In fact it was, (I believe I am right in saying), the largest loss of Royal Naval personnel that Britain suffered in one single action during the Second World War; it is even more tragic in that because of its horrendous nature and the huge loss of life involved, it was ‘hushed up’ at the time and its true horror only really became known after the war was finally over!

Talking to survivor’s families, tragically for all involved, it goes down in naval annals as one of the biggest foul-ups of World War Two and the actions that cost both HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne are now ‘required reading’ within the today’s Royal Naval ie: how not conduct offensive naval operations during times of conflict!

But the story goes back to the night of October 22 & 23rd 1943 and affects Guernsey directly because the loss of both Royal Naval vessels to Kriegsmarine torpedo & heavy gun fire off the Brittany coast of France, some 12 miles to the south of the island of Guernsey, resulted in many bodies of those lost being interred in the Bailiwick.

Intelligence received by the Royal Navy’s C-in-C Plymouth around the middle of October 1943 had indicated that a convoy of German merchant ships carrying cargo vital to the Third Reich’s war effort would be making its way through French Coastal waters around the Brest peninsula, (so avoiding the open waters of the Channel), heading towards the German occupied port of St Malo on the night of October 22/23.

Accordingly under ‘Operation Tunnel‘ a flotilla of Royal Naval destroyers, headed by HMS Black Prince, was ordered to locate & sink the German convoy and its cargo.However the Black Prince went unserviceable but luckily the formidable anti-aircraft cruiser, HMS Charybdis, had just returned from a very successful tour of duty in the Med escorting convoys to the beleaguered George Cross island of Malta, thence covering the Allied landings at Salerno and escorting Winston Churchill’s ship to a vital conference of Allied leaders in the Middle East.

Ideal for this latest task, HMS Charybdis was deputed for the Black Prince and took command of the destroyer squadron ordered to locate the German merchantman… however no sooner had the British vessels set sail, than communications between all ships were lost and a state of high confusion resulted, so much so that many ships involved in this mission actually had no idea what was unfolding and were forced to act independently of each other. A disasterous state of affairs especially when taking on the might of Hitler’s highly ordered & disciplined Kriegsmarine that were heavily defending this vital convoy with both prowling destroyers and hard-hitting E-boots..!

Nevertheless our destroyers led by HMS Charybdis pressed on and approached the French coastline but were picked up by German coastal radars and their E-boots & destroyers were vectored to intercept. Charybdis picked up the German fleet 7 miles out whilst HMS Limbourne, operating new electronic warfare equipment, also acquired German naval forces and fired star shells into the night sky to try to identify the radar contacts.But almost immediately the German E-boots launched heavy torpedo attacks and both HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne were hit and sunk with a loss of over 500 crewmen from both vessels.

Both ships went down so fast that there was no time to launch life-boats and so the survivors were thrown into the oily water with only flotsam to cling on to in the hope of being rescued. Two other British destroyers, HMS Wensleydale & HMS Talybont, now aware of the disaster that had just befallen the attacking forces, set about searching for any survivors from both Royal Naval vessels they could locate in the dark and in a desperate 3-hour operation, 107 souls from Charybdis were pulled alive from the water, whilst some 85 out of a crew of 125 from Limbourne were similarly located & plucked from the sea…

But with a total of 464 crewmen from Charybdis and 40 from Limbourne killed, this was a loss of life on a terrible scale and over the coming days & weeks, bodies of matelots from both ships would slowly and continuously be washed up on the shores of Guernsey, Jersey and across the water in France…

29 dead sailors were found on Jersey’s shores whilst 21 bodies from Charybdis were eventually recovered on Guernsey’s beaches by St John’s Ambulance members between October & December and were subsequently given a German military funeral and laid to rest in Guernsey’s Le Foulon cemetery. This was an utterly tragic night in both Royal Naval history and in the history of Guernsey’s German occupation and was a military disaster that was obviously suppressed here on the mainland during the war because of the dire affect it would have on the country’s winning determination.

A previous Bailiff of Guernsey, Sir Geoffrey Rowland, described it thus: “The 21 bodies were given a military funeral by the German authorities and some 5,000 islanders journeyed on foot and on bicycle bringing with them thousands of floral tributes. It was recognised that young men had given their lives for the cause of freedom and during more than 3 years (by then) of German occupation, there had been few opportunities for Guernsey men & women to demonstrate their commitment to their King, Country and the Armed Services fighting to secure our eventual liberation and the restoration of our freedoms.The Star newspaper reported that there had not been, in living memory, such a manifestation of grief, pride and sympathy and the resulting strengthening in the morale of the islanders was most marked…”

So reading from the Bailiff’s summary, though the Royal Naval operation was a complete military disaster in terms of so many young sailors losing their lives in this aborted action, their tragic deaths gave an added impetus to all Channel Islanders to hold fast and continue to passively resist German Occupation, which would continue for another 18 months or so… and which was about to get even tougher!

In all the years I have been travelling to the Bailiwick this was the first time I have been on Guernsey around the time of the remembrance services for HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne and in our hotel we bumped into a young couple who had come to pay their respects to a grandfather who went down on Charybdis. His body was subsequently washed ashore on the French coastline, where it similarly now lies buried along with scores of other crew members in a French cemetery:

Karen Andrew & Anthony Pearce had travelled from Oldham in the north of England to attend the ceremony and remember Fred Andrews, (who spelt his surname with an ‘s’… something which baffles and mystifies his relatives who all lack an ‘s’ on their surname today!).

Though indeed one of the many matelots & marines buried across the water in France, Fred would also be remembered here in the Bailiwick along with the other 500 or so sailors lost from both ships on that terrible night in 1943 in the deep waters between Guernsey & France. Despite the obvious sadness (but also pride) behind the purpose of their trip, it was a great pleasure to meet with them both and to hear what they have been able to piece together of their grandfather’s sad story…

With neither Karen or Anthony having attended such a memorial service here on Guernsey before, I ventured to them both that the 6 surviving members of HMS Charybdis who would be attending the remembrance ceremonies in St Peter Port, (and thence at the graveside at Le Foulon cemetery), would be delighted to meet up with other family members of another lost comrade who were coming forward to, hopefully, add a little more to what is already known about this naval tragedy…and that proved to be the case!

I now hope that, as a result of their pilgrimage to the Bailiwick, Karen & Anthony have been fully welcomed into the HMS Charybdis Veteran’s family and, as a result, will learn yet  more about their brave WW-II sailor grandfather Fred…

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013