The German Occupation of the Channel Islands from the summer of 1940 to 9 May 1945 now forms an important part of the history of the Second World War.
These islands were the only British territory to be occupied by the Third Reich and for islanders it was a traumatic experience, and today a well documented one.
In Guernsey and Jersey part of the population evacuated to the United Kingdom. In Alderney all but a few islanders left their homes for the mainland, and in Sark the population remained intact.
All the islands suffered an influx of German troops, and the main ones were heavily fortified with reinforced bunkers and light and heavy guns. Hitler considered this as part of his Atlantic Wall, which was built to withstand any invasion by Allied Forces. As Hitler’s war machine swept through France, fears were growing in the Channel Islands regarding a possible Nazi invasion.British troops were pulled out of the islands, which were given an open town status.
However, enemy aircraft made raids on both Guernsey and Jersey on 28 June 1940, killing civilians and inflicting considerable damage.
At St Peter Port Harbour a line of lorries loaded with tomatoes intended for shipment to the United Kingdom were attacked, leaving them on fire and drivers killed alongside their vehicles.
Guernsey was now at war and the 21,000 residents left on the island following the evacuation, waited anxiously for the next development.
It came two days later on the Sunday when, in the early evening, Junker transports landed at the airport and disgorged the first members of the German Occupation Force. Later, the German troops were about equal in number to the remaining civilians.
By the Monday the occupying forces were firmly established and showed their power by issuing, through the local newspaper, the conditions under which they would rule.
There appeared the sinister warning that if islanders did not obey the regulations then the town of St Peter Port would be bombed.
The threat was never carried out, although there were occasions when the German commandants did get rather angry.
For example when telephone lines were cut near the airport and when a few residents escaped by small boats to England.
Civilian courts of law continued to operate throughout the occupation, because crime did not stop with the arrival of the enemy. Apart from stealing there were many offences involving cyclists. With petrol scarce, there were few civilian vehicles on the roads, the owners switching to pedal power.Initially, the food in stock in Guernsey was sufficient to sustain the reduced population, but as the years wore on the situation became more difficult. People had to improvise in a bid to maintain some reasonable standard of living.
The local authority, with some support from the occupying forces, managed to establish trade links with France.
These links were vitally important to Guernsey as meat, flour, medical supplies and other necessities were imported from the Continent.
Both the islanders and the occupying forces suffered during the final stages of the war because of food shortages.
A welcome relief was the Vega, a Red Cross chartered vessel, which made six trips to the islands with Red Cross parcels, flour and medical supplies.
At the start of the occupation the Guernsey authorities sent a group of workers to Alderney to gather cattle, food stuffs, medical supplies and certain equipment and bring it back to Guernsey. Additional food was also grown in Alderney, which was the place where thousands of slave workers met their death.
But as the place was more heavily fortified and both slave and forced labour workers arrived, the Guernseymen were withdrawn.
Back in Guernsey efforts were being made to produce salt and vinegar. Others were busy growing tobacco plants, drying the leaves and processing them to produce cigarettes. Bramble tea was another product of the war years.
Always there was uncertainty in the minds of islanders regarding the immediate future, and they had good cause for this. The deportation to the Continent of all English-born residents and others with military connections was ordered.
Many families were split in two for the duration of the war, but here again the Red Cross came to the aid of the islands by arranging for brief messages to be exchanged. Some such messages were couched in a type of code. One message read: ‘No more Sea Breezes,’ informing the recipient in the UK, that a house by that name had been demolished to make way for a single gauge railway, which ran from St Peter Port Harbour to the west coast carrying cement for the building of bunkers.
As the island became more heavily protected from invasion, beaches were placed out of bounds for locals, but ormering was allowed in specific areas. Fishermen were also permitted to take their boats to sea, although a soldier had to accompany them, and there was a limit to the distance allowed from shore.
Having been attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe, islanders had to get used to the fact that they were now living in German-occupied territory and that the Allied Air Force could be expected to attack.
This happened on a number of occasions, when the target was usually of a military nature. But, on one occasion blast bombs were dropped in St Peter Port Harbour, where a U-boat was suspected of hiding. The explosion blew out the windows of most of the shops in Town, but nobody was injured – a miracle!
During the first period of the occupation spying and commando raids were carried out by British forces, both in Sark and Guernsey. On Les Casquets lighthouse off Alderney the British landed and removed the German unit stationed on the isolated rock.
The occupation proved a difficult time for most people, but it did draw islanders closer together. There were lessons to be learned from such an experience, but most would have preferred to have skipped such education.
Once the German surrender documents had been signed aboard a warship off Guernsey, the British troops landed on 9 May 1945. We saw the first British troops in five years, and it was like a double tonic.
So began the long road back to prosperity. The evacuees returned to their homes in the islands. Businesses were restarted or founded. The growing industry flourished, then began to diminish in size, with tomato production becoming less popular and flower and pot-plant production filling the vacuum. Now the finance industry is dominating the commercial scene. It has been a long haul back from those war-stricken days to a stabilised community.
In an uncanny way the uncertainties for the future, although different in character, are still in people’s minds. But perhaps this is true of all communities, even tiny ones like Guernsey and her neighbouring islands.