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(A part of) Britain under the Jackboot

Where friend and foe shared the same church...
The Luftwaffe fraternised with "bobbies"...

by Alan Gill

A Lutheran pastor ran the brothels, a Catholic priest was asked (but refused) to say a Mass on Hitler's birthday, an Anglican vicar obtained a dispensation from the Fuhrer to sing "God Save the King".

These are part of a strange and little known series of events which began 65 years ago this week, when German armed forces invaded the only part of Britain they were allowed to occupy - the postage stamp community of the Channel Islands.

Most Britons themselves hardly know about the German 'conquest' and occupation of the small group of islands - Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm. They are understandably shocked at photos showing German officers seeking directions from very British bobbies, a Wehrmacht band marching past Lloyds Bank and similar unlikely scenes.

The occupation itself was an odd affair. The enemy was actually "invited". This happened in June 1940, after the fall of France, when Winston Churchill decided the islands were indefensible. Their undefended state was announced over the BBC on June 23, but the Germans didn't hear it! A note was sent via the neutral Americans.

On June 30, a German pilot landed in St Peter Port, Guernsey's main centre of population, but found the airport building unattended. He left hurriedly, accidentally leaving his service pistol behind when two British planes flew overhead. Four German transport aircraft returned later the same night and formal occupation began.

In Jersey it was much the same. Leslie Sinel, a printer on the local Jersey Evening Post, said he and his wife were in a St Helier cinema when they heard the sound of planes landing. Realising there was "nothing we could do about it", they stayed to watch the rest of the film. When they came out there were German soldiers in the high street. "Oddly enough, they got out of our way, stepping on to the road, when we approached."

On other islands too, the arrival of the Germans had a sense of unreality. A case in point concerns the small island of Sark - ruled for many years by its famous Dame (Sybil Hathaway), and her American husband, Robert.

Sarkees regard even Jersey people as foreigners so the Germans must have seemed little different. When the Germans arrived Dame Hathaway sent her maid to meet the two officers at the front door. From the living room she heard them wipe their feet. "At least they're gentlemen," she told her husband.

Close to Sark is the tiny islet of Brecqhou, whose defence militia force (unlike that on Jersey and Guernsey) declined the order to disband. In practice, the defence of Brecqhou was undertaken by 70-year-old John Perio, on his donkey Carabelle.

Perio patrolled Brecqhou equipped with a rifle, tartan kilt, tunic and gumboots, and told a reporter: "I'm not having any Nazi planes over here. Just let Old Nasty try." He was somewhat put out when the Germans - who were possibly unaware the island existed - failed to invade Brecqhou.

(Actually, a small party of Germans was briefly stationed on Brecqhou a year-or-so later. Perio got his own back by teaching them patriotic songs in the island pub. An officer who spoke English was indignant when he called unannounced and found the proud men of the Wehrmacht singing "There'll always be an England".)

The Germans saw conquest of a tiny part of Britain as something of a public relations coup. Ah! You may ask. But were the islands really part of "Britain"? The island group, geographically (but no longer linguistically) closer to France than to England, is technically a British Crown dependency. The islands have internal self-government, but the British monarch is head of state.

Not that this entirely settles the issue. When I visited Jersey a few years ago a man flicking a duster in the council offices told me a story about an incident in the same room in 1940. The unthinkable had happened; Jersey was under the jackboot. A German officer walked into the council chamber and demanded that the picture of King George VI be taken down. The man delegated to do it refused, telling the officer: "The King is still in Buckingham Palace." The German smiled confidently: "We'll be in England [the mainland] next month." To which the man replied: "WE conquered England in 1066."

The early years of the occupation were chivalrous. One Chief of Civilian Administration, Baron Hans von Aufsess, was so well liked that his name appears as an honorary Channel Islander in the book "Guernsey People".

Inevitably, a degree of fraternisation occurred. At a social function in the Jersey capital, St Helier, I was introduced to a man, born during the occupation, who proudly told me that his first name was Winston. He said his mother had chosen the name in order to "cock a snook" at the Germans. Later, another participant told me that in reality the baby's mother was having an affair with a German soldier. They had called the child Winston to put others off the scent.

On the religious front there were several problems some of which have been mentioned. There had long been argument about whether Catholic parishes were part of an English diocese or one in France. The Germans made things worse by importing a priest from Normandy who was alleged to have Vichy sympathies.

Anglicans were allowed to continue with normal services; even to say prayers for King George VI and to sing the National Anthem. Certain hymns - "Fight the Good Fight", "Onward Christian Soldiers" - were under suspicion. Germans had their own religious services in the same places of worship. Leslie Sinel recalled: "We went in as they came out. We could still smell the dubbin on their boots."

Sinel became friendly with a "very decent" Lutheran padre who was appalled when ordered by a senior officer to supervise the running of brothels (staffed by women brought in from France) set up for the convenience of German troops.

It is easy to make fun of this "comic book" invasion and occupation of the Channel Islands. In reality, islanders suffered considerably, with shortages of food and medical provisions among the least of their worries.

In 1942 a large number of slave workers were brought from the continent to work on German fortifications and the building of Jersey's now famed underground hospital. There was a belief that the island group would have strategic value against the anticipated sea-borne invasion of Europe. In fact the allies passed it by. Many imported slave workers - among them a large number of Jews - died from exhaustion or through industrial "accidents" caused by the speed of the work at hand. Probably some are buried amidst the concrete.

Worst of all was the situation on the small island of Alderney, where the entire island was turned into a prison. The British Government, perhaps for reasons of national pride, has long made it extremely difficult for journalists and others to gain information about events on the island.

Alderney is the most remote of the Channel Islands, and is the closest (a mere 12 km) to France. At the beginning of the occupation the Germans evacuated the entire civilian population of the island, as a result of which the only eye-witnesses to what went on are prisoners or Germans.

From time to time English newspapers have "discovered" Alderney and published stories of prisoners being strangled, hanged, beaten on barbed wire and hurled from the island's high cliffs. Alas, the stones cannot speak, and the truth of the claims is largely untested.

As the war dragged on, particularly after the D-Day landings, decent Germans - at least those at the helm - were overruled or replaced by Party fanatics. The most infamous of these was Vice-Admiral Friedrich Huffmeier, who had effective control of the islands in the last six months of the war.

Huffmeier believed that by holding on to the islands at all costs, Germany could use the archipelago as a bargaining counter at any peace conference that might be convened.

This hardcore Nazi, who ordered the captain of the Red Cross ship Vega to fly his flag at half-mast when the news came of Hitler's suicide, led a charmed life, surviving numerous assassination plots. He was also bold - planning raids on the English mainland to avenge the liberation of France.

In early 1945 the British realised that they faced a major problem in how to regain the Channel Isles without serious loss of life. In late April an Allied ship appeared off Alderney and signalled proposals for surrender. Huffmeier replied "Ihr Angeboot ist uberflussig" ("Your request is superfluous" or colloquially "Get lost").

On May 7, as Churchill formally announced the surrender of the rest of Germany, the demand was put again. Huffmeier's representative, a nervous young naval officer, Armin Zimmerman (who later held senior rank in NATO), kept the rendezvous with the ships HMS Bulldog and HMS Beagle. Taking a deep breath, he told those on board that Huffmeier, who declined to attend, had authorised him to discuss an "armistice", not a "surrender". His hosts replied that it was "surrender" or nothing.

Zimmerman took another deep breath and said his instructions were that the British must withdraw or they would be fired upon. Later wiser council prevailed. On May 8 - a day after the surrender of German troops in mainland Europe - Huffmeier and his men formally surrendered.

The events of long ago are now featured in tourism promotion. A poster I observed during my stay showed a German gun emplacement and the words "Jersey - Plenty to keep you Occupied". It was withdrawn after complaints of bad taste.

Note: Friedrich Huffmeier faded into obscurity after having been released from internment in 1947. In 1950 former slave workers recognised him as a volunteer worker in a European displaced persons camp, where - still wearing his Admiral's greatcoat, now minus epaulettes - he was handing out religious tracts. He was last heard of as a Lutheran lay missionary in the former Belgian Congo.

Alan Gill was for many years the religious affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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