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

 

Fortress Guernsey – Autumn 2013…

My pal Dr Trevor Davenport, a renowned German & Victorian Channel Islands fortifications expert dwelling on my beloved walking island of Alderney, (most northernmost island of the 7 islands that make up the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and the one from which you can see the coast of France in the shape of the Cap de la Hague), often tweaks me about my ‘apparent’ lack of interest in German heavy fortifications whenever I am over on that sceptred isle… and our discussions (invariably) turn to the actual construction of such concrete beasts across all of the islands.

But my reply is, (almost in a whisper as such words are almost heresy to the committed ‘bunker hunter’), that my overall interests on this subject are more to do with the actual story of the German occupation of the British Channel Islands, (which I addressed in some detail in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied), from the personal perspective of its civilian population and the German occupying forces. As such I feel that I am more of a student of this particular aspect of this incredible Second World War story rather than being ‘purely’ a bunker hunter or ‘fortifications wallah’ myself..!

But I always add the caveat that I am indeed also interested in the Organisation Todt construction of these incredible German concrete towers & bunkers in the context of the Occupation, especially as a number of these highly specialised constructions can only be found in this part of Adolf Hitler’s mighty Atlantic Wall. But I am willing to admit that after several continuous hours of inspecting such impressive, (and often rare), fortifications I find my interest wandering and I want to get to grips with other aspects of the occupation. This usually means getting stuck in at Richard Heaume’s superb Occupation Museum up at Forest or the brilliant Military Museum deep underground down at La Valette in St Peter Port, where Peter & Paul Balshaw’s incredible private collection of both German Occupation artefacts and Guernsey Militia is also on public display.

However, when it comes to fortifications, (and this should please Dr Trev no end and get me back in his good books,) when happily back on Guernsey I always head straight for the beautiful Pleinmont headland down in the south-east corner of the island and the mouth-dropping Batterie Dollmann; not only is this the site of the superbly restored gun emplacement within the Dollmann Batterie itself by the lads of the Guernsey Armouries, but is also the site of the breath-taking & almost awe-inspiring L’Angle MP4 Naval (Kriegsmarine) Range & Direction Finding position high on the cliff tops, which originally boasted an important Freya radar located up on its roof throughout the German occupation…

This haunting construction, (redolent of the beautiful superstructures of the infamous Scharnhorst or Gneisenau battle cruisers of the Kriegsmarine’s High Seas Fleet), is complimented by its sister tower, the equally haunting MP3 tower just around the headland to the right, (now leased by Richard Heaume and open to the public on certain afternoons throughout April & October).

Dr Trev will be delighted to know that both of these incredible towers, (Marinepeilstanden und Messstellen to give them their correct German military monikers and which are a peculiar feature of the Channel Islands, for nowhere else do they appear on the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’) really do get my heart beating just that little bit faster whenever I am lucky enough to lay my eyes on them.

One of my favourites is Le Prevote on the island’s southern coast which was actually the first of these range-finding towers built early on in the occupation by Wehrmacht Fortress Engineers (before the Organisation Todt took over this construction work), and they based their design more on the many Victorian Martello Towers that dot the Bailiwick.

Former Deputy Director of Tourism major Evan Ozanne and myself at one point considered joining forces to buy this historic tower when it came on the open market some years back… needless to say this and the other main towers on Guernsey really capture my imagination, as does the superbly uncovered & fully restored gu-pit that sits squarely betwixt the two towers on Pleinmont’s headland.

It was on June 30th 1940 that the forces of the Third Reich invaded and took control the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (along with Jersey to the south and Alderney to the north), and it was to be an occupation of 5 long, hard years before the islands would once again be free.

However it was not until October 1941 that Hitler issued orders for the heavy fortification of these stunningly beautiful British islands; this was due in part to his fear of an Allied assault, for he wanted to ensure his massive propaganda coup on occupying a ‘little piece of Britain’ was secure, in addition to these islands being his planned stepping stone or launching pad to a full-blown invasion of Britain, just 80 miles to the North.

In fact, just as an aside, one of the tricks the locals used to play on the German occupying forces was to point north-east to Alderney just a couple of miles hence and tell them that was the Isle of Wight, which many German soldiers believed! The other trick that was perpetuated early on against the Germans, (or rather more of an omission in not telling the Kriegsmarine, as told in my documentary by the late Frank Stroobant), was just how high the tide came into St Peter Port.. and in contrast therefore, just how low it was on its ebb, so that initially Kriegsmarine minesweepers tied up at the harbour side were on a short hawser, thus when the tide went out these self same vessels were left, literally, hanging in the air… a rather jolly jape that caused great amusement amongst the locals, but which was soon punished by the occupying forces that had been made to look foolish… so it was not such a jolly jape after that!

However back to the fortifications of these wonderful islands and returning to my favourite area of Pleinmont where the Marine Coastal Artillery Batterie Generaloberst Dollmann covered a large area of the headland & where, in German military mapping parlance, it was designated the name ‘Westberg’. For as a part of the German occupation of the islands, all gun positions & fortifications were give German names as, in addition, were the island’s original 13 parishes.

In fact everything on the Occupation map of Guernsey was now given a permanent German moniker or military designation!.

So it was that Batterie Dollmann at Westberg was equipped with 4 WWI French 220 mm cannons that had been captured by the Germans during their attack on France and brought to Guernsey as a part of their fortifying process. In support of these large 22 kilometre range guns, 105mm field-guns, mortars, machine-gun pits & searchlights were deployed in defence of the headland; whilst criss-crossing this impressive coastal position were personnel shelters, ammunition stores & minefields to complete the picture of a very well defended stronghold..!

In the middle of all of this activity is an intriguing low, squat-like Command Post or Leistand that was originally built to a naval design, but then handed over to the army mid-way through construction and today, thanks to the lads of Guernsey Armouries, you can freely walk around the Batterie Dollmann gun-pit and explore the personnel slit trenches, bunkers & tunnels surrounding the site courtesy of their expert and dedicated restoration of this most important occupation site.

Indeed the gun barrel you see was recovered and sited onto a specially commissioned and re-built gun cradle using original blue prints from Krupps of Essen and the wheels, which for many years had been ‘gate guardians’ to a Boy Scout hut at St Sampson to the north of the island, were also acquired and re-matched to the cannon. So what you see today is a complete and accurate restoration of the original gun-pit over a number of years… a site which had lain filled-in by the Royal Artillery after the German garrison’s surrender in 1945, before the Guernsey Armouries got busy in recent years with their heavy excavators and uncovered the treasures you now see expertly restored and laid out before you now.

Likewise around the coast at about 800 yards or so is  the most impressive and highly evocative Pleinmont MP3 tower, standing almost on guard as it overlooks the famous Hanois Lighthouse , (which until recently was the last working example in British coastal waters). ‘Pleinmont’ as many of us simply refer to this most striking of all of the Bailiwick’s towers , has been lovingly cleaned and renovated by Richard Heaume. On certain levels he has also managed to restore original range finding equipment to several floors, (it being the case that each separate floor in these towers controlled their own separate heavy Marineartillerie gun batteries sited around the headland.)

However it is not just the Pleinmont headland that boasts a superb restoration of the island’s former original German gun positions and bunkers, for down at Fort Hommet, a striking promontory on Guernsey’s beautiful West Coast, more German bunkers and casemates have been, (and are in the process of being), restored to their former glory…

During the war the Germans renamed the Fort Hommet headland ‘Stutzpunkt Rotenstein’ and this particular area of the coast boasted some 12 fortifications all aimed at deterring Allied landings on the considerable amount of wide sandy beaches that this part of the island offers the tourist and sun-seekers of today…

Richard Heaume MBE opened up one of the casemates, which, with the assistance of his ‘trusty liegeman’ Ernie Gavey, (himself also an author of several superb books on Guernsey’s fortifications), is open to the public during the summer season. As you’d expect with Richard, he’s invested a lot of time & effort in recreating the many scenarios that you would expect to find in such a defensive gun position during the German occupation between 1940 and 1945.

This includes a superb crew room with bunk beds & mannequins recreating ‘down time’ of a Marineartillerie crew during the war. Indeed not so long ago, enthusiastic battle re-enactors came over from the mainland to spend a weekend living & sleeping in this bunker, (all in kit, which must have caused a slight storm amongst the locals). But not so unpleasant as you might think as the expertly crafted O.T. fortifications, with their wood-lined crew rooms, were known for being cool in summer and warm in winter.

Actually that reminds me, for the opening sequence of my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, we dressed our sound-man Simon ‘Woody’ Wood (he the later technical genuis responsible for superb studio production of Tomahawk’s Third Reich Musik CDs) up in one of Richard’s original greatcoats & helmet and stuck a rifle in his hand and had him stand-to in one of the coastal bunkers, in a moody silouette, as if on coastal look-out..!

As we had hoped, this turned out to be a most evocative opening shot for my documentary when later viewed in black & white; but after taking the shot the crew & I just could not prise him out of this original garb and after we ‘cut’, Woody marched determinedly around the headland for a jolly… only come to face to face with a poor lady innocently walking her dog… and the look on her face was a picture… oops, so sorry madam!

But back to the plot and less than a 100 yards away from Richard’s exciting case-mate, the lads of Festung Guernsey have also again been very busy on their own accord, with the uncovering and restoration of a 5cm Machinengranatwerfer M19 automatic mortar bunker. According to weapons expert and Festung Guernsey member Terry Gander, the M19 was designed as an anti-personnel weapon and the mortar itself was mounted in a steel cupola, level with the ground, with only the muzzle of the weapon visible and at full stretch it could fire 120 rounds a minute… enough to cause any invading force assaulting from the sea a major head-ache..and then some!

Only 4 of these M19 mortar bunkers were built in Guernsey during the German occupation and sadly after the war, all were extensively damaged by explosives during the great scrap drive of the 1950s when mainland companies came over to recover as much metal from the former German fortifications as they could, damaging or totally destroying many fortifications in the process.

Happily Festung Guernsey, as a part of their personal remit to uncover and restore as many of Guernsey’s German fortifications as they can, (at which news Dr Trev is doing hand-springs..me too in fact), began excavating this M19 bunker in March 2010 Sadly the crew-room proved to be shattered and a very large crack (resulting from the scrap men’s less than careful work), was seen to run from the turret room to the rear wall. However despite the bunker being flooded the rest of the bunker seemed to be in generally good order, so thanks to the ever-willing band of volunteers, this restoration of another of the island’s important German defensive positions has preserved it for future generations interested in this most incredible story of World War Two.

Likewise over my weekend I was pleased to visit Richard Heaume’s stunning German Occupation Museum at Forest to catch up with the man himself and to check that the 20′ version of my Channel Islands Occupied documentary was still playing OK in his small cinema (it was!) and to again wander around this superb museum and re-capture that first excited feeling I had some 30 years ago when first I happened upon it and share those feelings with my dad, who was certainly most appreciative of what he saw…

Likewise I was also able to get down to the Balshaw brothers superb museum at La Valette down in St Peter Port, (my first visit for some years) and though I sadly missed catching up with the lads, I was quite amazed to see their new frontage. Not so long ago you had to walk up a grass bank then down some steps into the opening of their former U-Boot refuelling tunnels that are set back in the cliff but now, after some obviously major excavations, you can walk right in from road level to this most extraordinary museum.

Once again it was fantastic to see so much of  the brothers own personal collection beautifully displayed in these very evocative tunnels and to be able to introduce my dad to to this terrific museum here on Guernsey with its very evocative location & setting down in these impressive German tunnels. What was supposed to be for a long weekend off to relax and show my father the sights & sounds of Guernsey actually turned into yet another part-working trip as I came across more stories, which I plan to pen in forthcoming Blogs, meantime I hope you will enjoy this further Guernsey German Occupation update. Visiting these beautiful islands for you, gentle reader, is such a tough job…but somebody has to do it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013