Review: The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation 1940-45 by Paul Sanders (2005) Assessment 8 out of 10

Published in 2005, 60 years after the end of the Occupation, with assistance from Jersey Heritage Trust and Société Jersiaise, it is based on extensive documentary research. It is both scholarly and admirably balanced.

• Showing that the situations in the four separate British Channel Islands, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, were different. In Jersey octogenarians and septuagenarians were brought out of retirement to use their skills with horses. Water mills were used once more. In Guernsey the Glasshouse Utilisation Board struggled to adapt to self-sufficiency and demands to produce tomatoes for France and Germany. Guernsey is both further from the French coast than Jersey and closer to the UK, making it more susceptible to British raids. The lack of civilians in Alderney worsened treatment there of slave labour.

• In comparing the Islands to the experience in other parts of Occupied Europe. If there was a degree of collaboration, there wasn’t collaborationism, sympathy for Nazi aims, as there was in Vichy France. Any there might have been was stopped by the openly inhuman treatment of forced labourers, in particular Russian prisoners. Working prisoners to death was OK for the Nazis, so long as construction schedules were met.

• What an Island becomes is more dependent on its representation and auto-perception than geographic determinism. Isolated by difficult seas but prosperous as a result of ingenuity, occupation increased the Islands’ difficulties of connectivity. Isolation increased dependence on the black market, food rationing etc only working in unoccupied jurisdictions where it was better accepted.

• So much depended on how the Islands were affected by German, in practice the Führer’s decisions. From 1941 there was forced labour to construct the “Atlantic Wall” and significant German forces in the Islands. This was a “Model Occupation”, the Germans seeking to demonstrate their good behaviour hoping to indicate to the British that Occupation wasn’t to be feared. The Führer’s interest in the Channel Islands and the numbers of Germans there gave the Islands a privileged position. Isolated German forces in the Channel Islands were not unique in the final stages of the war, being left where they were until the final surrender in May 1945.

• The Nazi mind set was vigorous on the offensive, but paranoid on the defensive, the fortification of the Atlantic Wall, an expression of paranoia cast in concrete and steel. The quality of German defenders was sapped by the fortress mentality, exactly the scenario envisaged in David Frye’s “Walls; a History of Civilization in Brick and Blood” (2018).

• Island lack of understanding of the different, and in part conflicting German groups, Organisation Todt, the army, and Feldkommandatur (the uniformed civil police), a typically Byzantine situation under Nazism.

• There was a high proportion of aristocratic German officers, who felt at home in the Islands where feudal-originated Fiefs continued.

• The Islands’ success was survival. This was assisted by the numbers evacuated in 1940, so there were fewer mouths to feed, and by the skill of the Islands’ Purchasing Commission, sourcing food in occupied France.

Memorial to those evacuated from Guernsey

• The lack of a post-war tribunal meant records for historians are poor. In the UK there is a Churchillian paradigm of the British as victors not victims. In the Islands, there is no equivalent paradigm view of Occupation.

Strongly recommended, but to be read slowly and thought about deeply.

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