THE DAY THE NAZIS CAME
BRITS UNDER OCCUPATION IN THE CHANNEL ISLANDS
The Battle of Britain may have scuppered Hitler’s plans for an invasion of Britain, but, as Emma Slattery Williams reveals, some British subjects still lived under Nazi occupation
When Dorothy Edwards stared out of her window and watched a young signaller kicking a football around, she couldn’t help thinking that he was very attractive. The Sun shone over Guernsey as he saw her looking and gave her a salute. Dorothy stuck her tongue out in reply. Willi Joanknecht was a German sailor and part of the force currently occupying Dorothy’s home, the Channel Islands. He was supposed to be the enemy. Boys she’d known since childhood had signed up to fight men like Willi and defend their freedom from Hitler and the Nazis. But still, Dorothy liked the look of him.
Today, the average Briton may not be able to give many details about the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and may not consider it that significant in the grand scheme of World War II. It doesn’t evoke the same imagery and emotions as the Blitz, and is rarely taught in schools. Yet the summer of 1940 marked the start of five years when a part of the British Isles was under enemy control. It was a unique wartime experience, which offers a glimpse into what life might have been like with a swastika flying over Britain.
With the fall of France in June 1940, and with the threat of invasion looming, the decision was made by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his government to demilitarise the Channel Islands. They weren’t considered of enough strategic value to defend so the small militias there joined other regiments and the islands were left unprotected, with only bailiffs in charge.
A rushed and confusing evacuation message was announced, leaving very little time for families to decide what to do. Should they leave their homes and businesses undefended? If they stayed, should they send their children away or keep them at home and risk their safety? Fear spread as garbled and exaggerated horror stories of German brutality during World War I began to trickle through from France. In Jersey, even though 23,000 out of the 50,000-strong population registered to leave, only around 6,500 were actually evacuated. Just under half of Guernsey’s residents left and almost all of Alderney’s – that is, except seven stubborn residents. The Dame of Sark, Sibyl Hathaway, insisted the island wouldn’t be bothered by the Germans should an invasion occur so most of the 600 residents remained.
The announcement of demilitarisation wasn’t at first communicated outside of Britain. On 28 June, the Luftwaffe unleashed a devastating attack on the islands. The towns hit hardest were
St Helier and St Peter Port, where lorries at the harbour carrying tomatoes bound for England were mistaken for troop carriers. The red of the tomatoes mixing with the blood of those hit must have been a horrifying sight. In all, 44 people died and hundreds were left injured during the raids. In Britain, however, the attacks were completely downplayed. On 1 July, The Times mentioned it briefly at the bottom of a page, but only after reporting that German raids on mainland Britain had done no serious damage.
The bombings terrified the islanders into submission. With such close-knit communities, everyone knew someone who had been killed or injured. With stories flying around about the Nazis’ cruelty, it’s not surprising that many thought their best hope of survival was to keep their heads down. By 4 July, all of the islands had surrendered and German troops were soon arriving.
For the Nazis, the Channel Island provided a practice run for the planned invasion of Britain, so they quickly wanted to show that they could be fierce yet fair to their defeated enemy. Occupation orders appeared in the local newspapers, including a curfew between 11pm and 5am, a prohibition on the sale and consumption of spirits outside homes and no access to the airport. Clocks were put forward to German time and radios confiscated, cutting off news of the war’s progress. It didn’t take long before food became scarce and cases of malnutrition soared. It would continue to worsen throughout the occupation, until soldiers were left stealing pets to eat. Many locals grew what they could and had to hide pigs and other livestock in order to feed their families.
Empty houses would be requisitioned by the Wehrmacht, while families with large properties had to endure Germans moving in. Pearl White-Regan, who was 13 years old at the start of the occupation, lived in a Guernsey hotel run by her parents. “It was horrible… the officer got out and tried to shake hands with my father but my father wouldn’t shake hands with him,” she recalls. “They looked over the hotel and took what they wanted and made me leave my room and move into a double room with my sister.”
As for the soldiers themselves, many of them weren’t enthralled with the Nazi ideology of their leaders, but realised they had been given an easy
“The Channel Islands were not considered of enough strategic value to defend so were left unprotected”
“The size of the islands hindered any hope of organised resistance”
posting. White-Regan explains how the behaviour and discipline of the soldiers got worse as the war went on: “They were perfect at first because they picked the cream of Germany. The men that came over first were very polite, some had been educated at Oxford… we had all the terrible men at the end.”
Today, islanders make the distinction between ‘Germans’ and ‘Nazis’. Even with the war raging, locals could sympathise with the young men for whom joining the Wehrmacht wasn’t their choice.
When the shock of seeing German soldiers on their home soil had subsided, the innocence of youth meant that for young children, their new neighbours were viewed with curiosity rather than contempt. Some of the Germans had children themselves, as well as access to luxuries such as sweets and toys, and behaved in a friendly manner. Children couldn’t understand why their parents acted coldly towards them.
Having strong young men around the place had an appeal to some of the islands’ women as well. Contemporary diaries tell of Germans holding doors open for people and helping out on farms. And there were women who found solace in the protection of amiable soldiers able to protect them from the wrath of their more fanatical comrades. As a result, birth rates across the islands saw a sharp rise. Many of these relationships were doomed to fail, not least as the soldiers could be shipped out to the Eastern Front. One love story that did stand the test of time, however, was that of Dorothy and Willi.
Dorothy, or Dolly as she was known, was 17 when she first met Willi. She watched him playing football near her home and he noticed her, but they didn’t speak to one another. When she was accused of stealing a loaf of bread and imprisoned in France for four months, it was on the boat journey home that she first spoke to Willi. He took her up to the deck and gave her a coffee, although neither could speak much of the other’s language. Dolly’s aunt then began doing washing for him – a common practice for islanders in exchange for food – and so began their courtship. To Dolly, Willi was one of the kindest men she had met. “I knew all along he was the enemy, but he wasn’t the enemy to me,” she later said. In 1944, they exchanged rings in a chapel and considered themselves married. Like Dolly, young women across the Channel Islands came to the
realisation that some of these soldiers were just normal men, friendly, caring and homesick.
Yet once the war was over, vigilante groups sought to punish the so-called ‘jerrybags’ – women who had fraternised with Germans. There were instances of islanders who publicly and violently cut the hair of these known or suspected women or threw tar over them.
THREATS AND DEFIANCE
During the occupation, the threat of deportation constantly loomed. In September 1941, German civilians in modern-day Iran were interned by British forces, which incensed Adolf Hitler. He saw the Channel Islands as ideal for reprisals. Over 2,300 Britishborn islanders were deported to camps across Europe – with 45 never making it home again.
Any trust the islanders had that they would be treated respectfully was eroded with this order. White-Regan was packed ready to be sent to Germany as her father was Scottish, but he was also a butcher and so was considered too useful to send away.
Like the rest of occupied Europe, the Jewish population was singled out. The island authorities believed that anti-Jewish laws would have no effect as they assumed any Jews had been evacuated, so these laws were mostly unchallenged. Islanders helped hide Jewish citizens but three women were found and deported from Guernsey. They would all die in Auschwitz. After the war, Ambrose Sherwill, President of the Controlling Committee on Guernsey, expressed remorse for not defying the discriminative laws, but believed any attempt to do so would undermine his power to protect the population.
In reality, the size of the islands hindered any hope of an organised resistance movement. There was nowhere to hide, especially as there was one German for every two islanders. Hiding banned wirelesses to listen to the news allowed islanders to feel they were doing their bit and there were small acts of sabotage, such as setting fires and changing road signs around to confuse the Germans.
Humanitarian resistance was another way of defying the regime. Islanders left out food for the thousands of slave workers brought over from occupied Europe to build fortifications. Some risked their own lives by hiding them. The appalling treatment of these workers saw the civil mask slip from the German soldiers in their towns and homes, turning them into the cruel monsters of the rumours and propaganda.
Still, the threat of reprisals, along with the impracticality of having an underground network on such small islands, prevented serious resistance. Attempts to escape were condemned by the bailiffs.
As the war went on, the islanders felt increasingly forgotten and abandoned. On D-Day, they were sure they would finally be liberated – as did the Germans as Allied planes could be seen overhead
cloud of suspicion hung over the Channel Islands after the war”
– but they had to wait another year. Even on VE day, 8 May 1945, the islands would not be liberated until the following day.
Churchill often tops the polls of greatest Britons for guiding the country through the war and towards victory. The opinion of him on the Channel Islands couldn’t be more different. He refused attempts to send food and messages of support when conditions became tough. As White-Regan puts it, “I don’t want to hear his name, he let us down very badly.”
When liberation came, it was a joyous celebration. “Bells started ringing all over the island, there were people everywhere, my father put his flag up, it was absolutely wonderful,” exclaims White-Regan. “We never saw another German around our house again, they were gone.”
By the end of 1945, most of those evacuated or deported had returned, though home was a different place. Friends were gone, buildings destroyed and ugly fortifications littered the previously tranquil landscape. Evacuated children came back with strange accents and little memory of their families. For Dolly and Willi, liberation was bittersweet – she was eight months pregnant when Willi was taken away to a prisoner-of-war ship. By volunteering to help with the clear-up, he stayed imprisoned on Guernsey for a year, but wouldn’t be able to hold his son until he was three months old. When he was then sent to a camp in Devon, Dolly left her family to be with him.
A cloud of suspicion hung over the Channel Islands after the war. When the home secretary Herbert Morrison visited, he commented that he would take care of any “whitewashing” needed, suggesting there was something for the islanders to be ashamed of. They were made to feel the embarrassment of being occupied. There’s a misconception that the islanders collaborated, but the majority just tried to survive in an impossibly difficult situation. When discussing the occupation of France, Anthony Eden, foreign secretary during the war, remarked: “It would be impertinent for a country that did not suffer occupation to carry a judgment on another one that suffered one”. But a small part of the British Isles were occupied, and its residents left to fend for themselves.
Dolly and Willi didn’t return to Guernsey, opting to stay in Devon as Willi was denied a working permit. He passed away in 2015 and Dolly in 2017. They requested that their ashes be scattered at La Valette pools in Guernsey, a place they visited during the occupation. Their story demonstrates how love can be found across enemy lines; a light in a desperately dark period of history.
LEFT: The Germans establish themselves quickly; one soldier patrols the cliffs of German-held Jersey, overlooking the La Corbière lighthouse RIGHT: British subjects live side by side with the Wehrmacht under a host of rules and restrictions
LEFT: Dame of Sark Sibyl Hathaway refused to evacuate the island; she remained in her position until her death in 1974RIGHT: The Manger family were among the few thousand to leave Jersey
A British bobby on Guernsey helps a German soldier – but this freindly scene has been staged for a piece of propaganda Signs – German first, then English – were put up all over the Channel Islands
The Gaumont Palace cinema in St Peter Port shows the Nazi film Victory in the West
LEFT: The identity card of Albert Bedane, who hid slave workers and a Jewish woman from the NazisRIGHT: Ambrose Sherwill was imprisoned for trying to frustrate the regime on Guernsey, but also pleaded with people to stay on the island The Channel Islands certainly proved an easier and safer posting for a German soldier than the Eastern Front
The early 19th-century Fort Doyle on Guernsey had been heavily fortified by the Germans