The start of the German Occupation
The five-year German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War Two came as a shock to many. They viewed Jersey as a safe island unlikely to be targeted due to its relatively small size.
The big question for many islanders in the summer of 1940 was whether to stay in Jersey or evacuate to England. After the German occupying forces took St. Malo on 22 June, and France surrendered, Jersey was in range of enemy guns. Britain decided that defending the Channel Islands was impracticable due to the risk of loss of life on the islands. Compulsory evacuation was also ruled out. As a result, it was up to the people to make their own decisions. About 6,500 people decided to evacuate to the British mainland. This left about 40 thousand people in Jersey when the occupying force arrived on 1 July 1940.The Island was demilitarised, with British troops withdrawn and the Island’s Lieutenant Governor recalled. The Island Militia also stood down, although they volunteered as one to go to England to join the main home forces.
On 28 June 1940, German occupying forces aircraft machine-gunned Jersey and dropped bombs, killing ten people. On 1 July 1940, an ultimatum was issued that white flags be flown and white crosses be painted on the ground. The
German soldiers then arrived, with the Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, who had been made Civil Governor, formally handing over.
At first, about 2,000 German troops were stationed in Jersey. This grew to a much higher average over the five years, with about 15,000 believed to be in the Island at one time.
Life during The Occupation
Although the military occupiers made orders as and when they saw fit, day-to-day government was in the hands of a devolved States ‘Cabinet’. This was known as the ‘Superior Council’, headed by the Bailiff and included politicians representing 8 government departments.
Food was a vital concern. Outside sources were cut off except for small quantities from France. Jersey had to become self-sufficient. Farming methods changed drastically, with potato fields given over to corn and disused mills put back to work. Sugar beet was planted, seawater boiled for salt and improvised tea and coffee became the norm. Despite 5 years of often dire shortages, children at the end of the Occupation were in better-than-expected health. This was possibly because of reduced sugar consumption and regular rations of full-cream milk.
Fuel was another scarce commodity, both for heating and cooking. Thousands of trees were felled through the years to provide logs. Motor vehicles were seized by German soldiers, with only essential vehicles allowed on the roads such as those belonging to doctors. Most daily commodities were in short supply and, not surprisingly, a black market soon surfaced.
Economically, the period was abysmal. The Occupation caused large numbers of people to become unemployed and the Island authorities put many of them to work on road schemes. A factory was opened for women to produce makeshift clothes out of the sparse quantities of material available.
The occupying forces flooded the Island with Reichskreditmarks and Pfennigs. The currency had no value elsewhere. Local and English currency soon became scarce, although Islanders still thought in sterling when doing their daily business.
Income tax had to be raised to its highest ever level of four shillings to the pound (which it has stayed at ever since). Over the years, banks had to bail out the Island’s government with about £6 million, accepting bonds to cover debts.
Large numbers of residents who had moved from the UK to live in Jersey had to be supported when their pensions were physically cut off. Under the terms of the Hague Convention, the Island was also responsible for the expenses of the occupying force (including German soldiers’ pay after D-Day).
Education was affected, with both Victoria College and the College for Girls commandeered for German use. Despite a shortage of teachers in Jersey, the school-leaving age was also raised to 15 to keep youngsters off the streets. An order that all children should learn German was complied with, but with little enthusiasm.
Although government responsibility had been devolved, the States still met to pass annual budgets, and the Island’s courts continued to function.
Building defences and slave labour
A year into The Occupation, work began to turn Jersey into a fortress amid German fears that the Allies might try to recover the Channel Islands. The occupying forces brought in thousands of slave labourers from throughout Europe, including an estimated 1,000 Russian prisoners of war. Others came from Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Holland and North Africa. They endured harsh conditions, many of them not surviving the treatment they received.
Islanders were sympathetic, and often put themselves at risk by helping and hiding workers who tried to escape. In one case, a brother and sister – Harrold and Louisa Gould – hid a Russian labourer. They were found out and sent to concentration camps. Sadly, Louisa was killed when she was sent to the gas chamber at Ravensbruck in February 1945. Her brother, Harold, was sent to Bergen-Belsen as was the only British male to survive, suffering a complete loss of memory of pre-war life during his internment. He testified at the Nuremberg trials in October 1945.
To frustrate any attempted Allied assault, beaches were mined in vulnerable landing spots; anti-tank walls of steel and concrete were built; large clifftop guns put in place; camouflaged gun emplacements installed; the walls of Elizabeth and Gorey castles reinforced; steel spikes planted in fields where aircraft might land; and a radar station established at Les Landes. These defences are still in place today as part of Jersey’s tourist industry. The occasional war bomb is still uncovered from time to time.
To ferry the vast amounts of concrete needed, a railway network was created to link with the Ronez quarries on the north coast. Tunnels were driven into hillsides for the storage of ammunition, and an underground military hospital was built with slave labour after D-Day but was never used.
Communication and supplies during The Occupation
In 1942, Islanders were deprived of wireless sets. The local newspaper, the Jersey Evening Post, was censored, so wireless sets had kept them in touch with the war’s progress. Anyone not handing in their wireless set or continuing to use it was liable to a fine or imprisonment. One clergyman, who continued to hide a set in his organ loft, was sent to a concentration camp, where he died.
In the same year, a high-level order was made that all people not born in Jersey, along with their families, were to be sent to German internment camps. About 1, 200 people were dispatched, despite protests by the Island authorities.
The worst period came in the final year, following D-Day in June 1944, which Islanders believed might be a sign that liberation for them was also on the way. They were besieged by the British fleet, with no supplies at all allowed in. Salt, sugar, butter and eventually bread ran out, gas and electricity failed, and water was only pumped at intervals.
The Red Cross ship, the SS Vega, was permitted to call at New Year, bringing in 750 tons of parcels. Despite hardship endured by both occupied and occupiers, the German forces had generally behaved decently towards Islanders, directed by a commander deemed to be reasonable in his dealings. However, three months before liberation, a more hard-line officer was put in charge who resolved to hold out until the end.
A week after Hitler’s suicide, the German forces in Europe surrendered. Jersey was not to be liberated until a day later on 9 May 1945, when British troops arrived in HMS Beagle. A month later, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Jersey and presented a silver cross and candlesticks for the Town Church.
With thanks to Doug Ford at Jersey Heritage for providing the information.