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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Summer 1940: Germany occupies the British Channel Islands

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From June 30th, 1940 until May 9th, 1945, the Channel Islands Alderney, Guernsey, Herm, Lihou and Sark were the only de jure part of the British Empire occupied by Germany during World War II. That makes the archipelago of only 198 square kilometers located close to the coast of the French region of Normandy even more special: as crown dependencies ruled separately since 1290, with no elected representatives in the British Parliament, they are neither part of the United Kingdom nor considered an overseas territory.

Without realizing that they had been demilitarized by the defenders, the Germans early on June 28th, 1940 bombed the harbors of Guernsey and Jersey, killing 44 islanders. The BBC deliberately delayed to broadcast the message that they had been declared “open towns” until the afternoon. After the fall of Paris on June 14th, all British troops left. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had decided that the location offered no strategic value. Furthermore, 25,000 children and adults out of 90,000 inhabitants were evacuated from June 20th to June 23rd. Many more civilians had actually registered to leave. However, following the consistent advice of the local government, the majority chose to stay.

Major and recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross Albrecht Lanz (1898–1942) became the first Kommandant, followed by three other German officers. Anticipating a swift victory over Britain, the occupiers first used a very gentle approach that was supposed to set the theme for the next five years. Nevertheless, the situation gradually deteriorated.

The German authorities changed from Greenwich Mean Time to Central European Time to bring the islands into line with most of continental Europe. The rule of the road was changed to driving to the right.While scrip was used by soldiers to purchase goods and services, locals were also paid in Occupation Reichsmark. Entertainment was allowed to continue, including cinemas and theatre and German military bands performed in public. The residents settled down, with few overt signs of resistance, to a hard and dull, but relatively peaceful life.

Although more than half of them ended up working for their new masters, most of them avoided providing military assistance to the enemy by helping to build their part of the Atlantic Wall, an extensive system of coastal defenses and fortifications constructed between 1942 and 1944, along the coast of occupied continental Europe and Scandinavia against an anticipated Allied invasion from the United Kingdom.

Finally, Germans from (the civil and military engineering) Organisation Todt, paid and conscripted laborers from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, French Algerians and Moroccans, Spaniards who has escaped to France after the lost Civil War, Soviet forced workers, mostly from Ukraine, interned Poles, French Jews, as well as British conscientious objectors, Irish citizens and a few well paid locals heavily fortified relevant parts of the islands with a large number of tunnels and bunkers. Their indicated numbers vary from 15,000 to 20,000.

Around 500 of the inmates of the four camps lost their lives before being transferred to France, not including about 250 passengers of a vessel hit by Canadian motor torpedo boats on July 5th, 1944. 22 Allied air attacks on the Channel Islands, in which 13 air crew members were killed, resulted in 93 deaths and 250 injuries, many being workers. Besides, from July 1940 to December 1943 there were eight mostly uneventful, if not outright unsuccessful British commando raids.

As a reprisal for the 800 German civilians either deported or interned after British and Soviet troops had invaded Persia on August 25th, 1941, authorities announced in September 1941 that all residents of the Channel Islands not born in the islands, as well as those men who had served as officers in the Great War, were to be transferred to Germany. While of the 2,300 persons affected 45 would die abroad before the war ended, a total of 225 islanders voluntarily escaped their home.

During the Allied landing on D-Day in Western France on June 6th, 1944, the Channel Islands were bypassed because of their heavy defense. Due to the blockade started instead, the inhabitants already dwindling food reserves soon reached a critical point. Luckily in December 1944, with the help of the Swiss Red Cross, various supplies at last reached the outpost. Still, in March 1945, the Germans managed a short excurse into Allied-occupied France to secure some more.

A German offer made in August 1944 through the same intermediators, to evacuate all Channel Island civilians except for men of military age, was rejected in late September by the unprepared British. For their part, the Germans refused to discuss surrender terms with American negotiators who had sailed there under a white flag. Finally, at dawn on May 9th 1945, they unconditionally and peacefully surrendered aboard the destroyer Bulldog, which had arrived in the morning. Civil order was maintained until the main liberation forces reached the islands on May 12th.

The last German troops gave up their arms on May 16th, and most prisoners of war had been removed by May 20th, 1945. Some stayed behind for clearing-up tasks under British military supervision, so part of the evacuated population started to return in December 1945.

Then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison on May 15th felt obliged to explain in person in situ why they had been abandoned in 1940 and not liberated much earlier. On June 7th, King George VI and Queen Elisabeth visited to make up for the neglect. To wipe the slate clean, on December 12th, 1945 it was announced that prominent islanders would be honored for services during the occupation.

In any case, the Channel Islands were left with an enormous debt of over ten million British pounds for evacuation, accommodation, reconstruction and compensation, etc. Part of it was met by an official “gift” of 3.3 million British pounds from the government in London, and an estimated one million British pounds was simply written off.

P. D.: SS Hauptsturmführer Max List, the former commandant of two camps on the island, at the end didn’t stand trial for alleged war crimes.

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