Festung Alderney 1940-45…

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

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