Jersey at war: island life during the German occupation
It’s often forgotten that the British territories of the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces for nearly five years of WW2. Although it’s sometimes characterised as a ‘soft’ occupation compared to those elsewhere in Europe, the reality brought immense hardship to the people of Jersey, which bears evidence of the island’s struggle today…
At midnight on 16 June 1940, 20 ‘little ships’ set sail, heading south from Jersey. Mostly manned by older men and teenagers, as many men of military age had already departed the island to help Britain’s war effort elsewhere, the small vessels sailed in the dark towards St Malo on the French coast. Some of the crew had never sailed before. But they were playing a vital part in Operation Aerial (sometimes known as ‘Little Dunkirk’), a desperate and dangerous operation that saw these small craft ferrying troops from the port to ships moored in deeper water. Around 21,500 Allied troops were evacuated from St Malo over the next four days, and years later the significance of the operation was recognised by the Admiralty. The Jersey residents who had taken part were awarded a distinctive defaced red ensign (a British civil maritime flag ‘defaced’ in this case with the badge of the St Helier Yacht Club), and today, the club proudly displays a plaque with the names of the ‘Jersey Little Ships’ that took part.
But on 19 June 1940, as the German army advanced through France, and mere days after new prime minister Winston Churchill had declared “we will fight on the beaches” – it was decided that the Channel Islands (made up of the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey and including the smaller islands of Alderney, Sark and Herm) were too difficult to defend, and of questionable strategic significance to warrant military protection. Occupation by the German forces was now inevitable.
Through hurried and confused messaging, residents of the islands were given the choice to evacuate – which meant leave their homes, jobs, families, and lives as they knew them – or decide to remain and face an unknown enemy.
Ships were sent to evacuate anyone who wished to leave, and queues formed in St Helier that lasted for days. Ralph Mollet was secretary to the Bailiff of Jersey, and he kept a diary of the occupation (a practice later banned by the German occupiers). On 19 June 1940, he wrote of the “long queue of people five and six deep extended as far as the Opera House, Gloucester Street, some standing for at least ten hours.” Most of the Channel Islands’ Jewish population, aware of the imminent arrival of the Nazis who had already passed anti-Semitic laws and enacted brutal violence upon Jews across Europe, had already left for England. Twelve registered Jews remained on Jersey.
Panic and confusion reigned as residents decided what to do. “The telephones were working without cessation,” wrote Mollet. “Everyone was asking his neighbour what he was going to do. Many buried their valuables. The sound of gun fire ceased in the evening, and a considerable proportion of the population of St. Helier slept in the country.” The confusing nature of the evacuation, compounded by the limited number of vessels, meant that while 23,000 islanders registered to leave Jersey, only 6,500 actually did.
"We were having supper when we heard the noise, the disturbance, which was the planes coming over La Rocque and we went into the back garden at home.” Graham Bree was a child in Jersey on 28 June 1940, when German aerial forces targeted St Peter Port in Guernsey, and Jersey’s largest town, St Helier. "There were the German planes,” Bree told the BBC in 2020, “which appeared very, very low and very menacing, approaching the house and heading towards the harbour in St Helier".
The subsequent, devastating aerial attack – part of the German plan for subjugation of the islands that was codenamed ‘Operation Green Arrow’ (Grüne Pfeile) – killed 9 people on Jersey, with a further death toll on neighbouring Guernsey. In any community such losses would be deeply felt, but particularly on such small and close-knit islands, almost every resident was connected to one the casualties. It marked the beginning of an occupation that would last almost five years.
A ‘soft’ occupation?
The first German occupiers arrived in Jersey on 1 July 1940, astonished to find the islands undefended (they had mounted their previous aerial attack under the impression that civilian farming lorries moving around the island were troop carriers). German Major Albrecht Lanz was met at the airport at 6pm by the island’s Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, and the Attorney General, CW Duret Aubin. Two hours later Coutanche, who reportedly did not wish the Union flag to be lowered by the Germans, went to Fort Regent and lowered it himself. A swastika flag was soon flown from St Helier’s Parish Hall, and on 2 July a series of orders was issued that included the ominous line: “We will respect the population of Jersey; but, should anyone attempt to cause the least trouble, serious measures will be taken.”
But, contrary to the fears of many in Jersey who expected that the worst was still to come, the beginning of the occupation was relatively peaceful. Compared to the occupations of France and the Netherlands, the Channel Islands experienced a much ‘softer’ occupation. The islands were a symbolic prize for Adolf Hitler – his advisors spoke of his inselwahn or ‘island madness’ – and as well as a valuable propaganda coup, it was marked by ideological difference, as he regarded the British as more ‘equal’, a people to rule rather than oppress or eradicate.
Some restrictions were immediately placed on civilian life, with radios confiscated and curfews imposed. Use of German currency – Reichsmarks and pfennigs – became obligatory, most vehicles were commandeered by the Germans, and islanders were required to cycle on the right side of the road. Diaries from the time report a growing sense of isolation as news was cut off from the mainland – and in worst cases, feelings of abandonment and despair that the island communities had been left behind – but the communities were broadly unmarked by violence. For the few Jews who had remained in Jersey though, life would change drastically as measures were introduced against them. Early law changes meant that all Jewish businesses had to display a sign stating the shop was "Jewish owned” or a “Jewish Undertaking”, while another law banned Jews from holding the position of ‘higher official’ on the island.
The fact that these laws were implemented by senior Jersey officials remains as evidence, for some, of collaboration with the regime. Others have defended the approach by Bailiff Coutanche and the island’s officials, asserting that they believed they were acting as a buffer between occupiers and residents, and had little choice but to accept the demands of the Germans. How far their actions went in assisting the German occupiers is a topic that remains under debate today.
In the early stages of the occupation, the environment was seen as one in which German troops could relax. Indeed, just one week before the invasion, Jersey was still advertised as a holiday destination. Many contemporary reports from Jersey folk mention that troops were polite and well-mannered. One Channel Island resident, Pearl White-Regan describes how the profile of the occupiers changed: “They were perfect at first because they picked the cream of Germany. The men that came over first were very polite, some had been educated at Oxford… we had all the terrible men at the end.”
Nevertheless, the Nazi occupation of Jersey was comprehensive – there could be as many as one to two Germans per islander – there’s no doubt that the German presence led to immense privation, particularly in the final years of the war. Trade with other territories halted almost immediately, and fewer destinations for important Jersey exports such as potatoes and milk contributed to widespread unemployment across the island. The demands of feeding the German troops also led to chronic shortages, and following D-Day in June 1944, the situation worsened as the Allies attempted to deprive the German occupiers. One resident Diane Conway recounted to the BBC in 2016 how "people went down [to the beach] to get limpets" to make limpet stew, until eventually "the rocks had no limpets at all".
The occupation, explained author Duncan Barrett in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, was characterised by a ‘make-do-and-mend’ attitude driven by personal ingenuity. Blackberry leaves became a substitute for tea, acorns for coffee and boiled sugar beet was a common source of ersatz sugar. Stinging nettles replaced vegetables, and with nothing wasted, ‘potato peel pie’ became a common treat. With cars having been confiscated, precious bikes became the mode of transport and when tires wore through, they were replaced with hosepipes. Others found they could make the soap ration stretch further by “boiling ivy leaves till quite soft and adding one half packet of soap powder and one tablet of soap”.
Listen: Duncan Barrett tells the stories of Channel Islanders under German occupation in World War Two, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
The occupation also put unprecedented strain on bonds within the communities, as some regarded German soldiers differently. There are reports of children who were given sweets or ice creams by soldiers missing their own children back at home, who were unable to understand why their parents disliked these German visitors so much. In other cases, some residents took to trading goods in an illegal ‘black market’ which exploited a desperate captive market, and were regarded as traitors by others in dealing with the Germans.
There were much harsher recriminations for any women who fraternised with the enemy. Perhaps inevitably, given the influx of young and fit German soldiers to the island while many Jersey men were away, some island women socialised and took up relationships with occupiers. Census reports for the island show that the birth rates, which had dropped dramatically at the beginning of the war, began to creep up again during the occupation. One Jersey woman Alexandrine Baudains – known sometimes as ‘Ginger Lou’ – became the mistress of a high-ranking German official, and aided the occupiers by denouncing residents who defied the regime. After the war she was the target of an angry mob, but she and her son George escaped violence by taking shelter in prison and was exiled to England. Though motivations and relationships differed, as a group these women were branded ‘jerry-bags’, and they suffered abuse and ostracization both during the occupation and afterwards.
In stark contrast to this ‘softer’ occupation for residents of Jersey, the inclusion of the islands in Adolf Hitler’s military strategy meant a much more brutal reality for many others. Jersey became a cog in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defences – the fortifications that stretched from Norway to the Spanish/French border. Showing just how vital Jersey was to Hitler’s plan, the island used one twelfth of the reinforced concrete of the entire Atlantic Wall.
It was a year into the occupation that the transformation into a fortress began. It’s estimated that around 5,300 enslaved workers were shipped to Jersey to labour on the new constructions. They were brought against their will, from countries including France, Spain and Poland. As many as 1,000 prisoners were brought from the Soviet Union – these enslaved people from Eastern Europe were regarded as untermensch or ‘sub-human’, and treated with wanton brutality. The workers toiled in dangerous conditions to build anti-tank walls, bunkers and tunnel complexes. Labourers were housed in labour camps on the island, including Lager Wick in Grouville.
For the Channel Islands’ Jewish population too, the impact of occupation cannot be understated. The deportation of foreign-born Jews had started in April 1942, with the remaining Jews on the Channel Islands following in February 1943. In later years, writers such as Guernseyman Frank Falla – who was informed upon and deported for covertly sharing BBC news reports – brought greater attention to untold stories of those who suffered, and an archive of every deported islander exists in his name. Dr Gilly Carr of the University of Cambridge wrote in 2019 of the difficulty of the island’s official reckoning with this history of persecution, a process that “could not begin to take place until after the 50th anniversary of liberation, when people were ready to look back and reassess the events of 1940–45”.
Though there was no organised resistance movement in Jersey, given the size of the island and regular searching which meant that it was extremely difficult to conceal any such organisation, many islanders put themselves at risk by helping and hiding workers. Jersey shopkeeper Louisa Gould hid a Soviet man named Feodor Burriy, known as ‘Bill’, at her house in St Ouen for almost 18 months. Tipped off by a neighbour in 1944, the Germans found evidence at Gould’s home. During her subsequent trial she reportedly said: “I have to do something for another woman’s son.” She was found guilty of harbouring Burriy and eventually transported to Ravensbrück, where she was killed by gassing in February 1945, just two months before its liberation. Today, a plaque on her former home commemorates her actions.
There were many smaller instances of resistance, too. Islanders as young as 14 were taken into custody for offences such as daubing “V” for victory signs around the island, spreading anti-German propaganda, listening to the radio, and breaking the curfew. Twenty one Jersey men and women died in Nazi prisons and camps in Europe, having been tried and deported for breaking German occupation laws.
Across Britain on 8 May 1945, celebration reigned as the population on the home front marked the end of the war in Europe. Winston Churchill’s speech crackled onto the airwaves to announce victory, and also the freedom of “our dear Channel Islands”. Not forgotten by many residents though were the actions of Churchill in 1940 who, in their eyes, had abandoned the islands to occupation. He is regarded as a controversial figure in Jersey to this day.
For the residents of Jersey the final reprieve came the following day, 9 May, when the surrender was signed on board HMS Beagle and British troops arrived at St Helier Harbour. “Bells started ringing all over the island, there were people everywhere, my father put his flag up, it was absolutely wonderful,” says White-Regan. “We never saw another German around our house again, they were gone.”
By the end of 1945, most of those evacuated or deported had returned, but to a changed island. Much evidence of the German presence was scattered around the coasts and valleys, and some remains today as testimony to the island experience. The Jersey War Tunnels, a partially completed ammunition barracks and underground hospital complex in St Lawrence, is a chilling reminder of the experience of the forced workers, but also tells the extraordinary story of life in Jersey during the character-defining occupation years.
However, to many islanders, it seemed that such hardship on a broader stage was quickly forgotten. When discussing the occupation of France, Anthony Eden, foreign secretary during the war, later remarked: “It would be impertinent for a country that did not suffer occupation to carry a judgment on another one that suffered one”, crucially dismissing that a small part of the British Isles were occupied.
What’s certain is that the occupation is unforgotten in Jersey. The 9 May anniversary continues to be marked with Liberation Day celebrations across the island, and commemorative projects, and the legacy of the war looms large in the island’s history. Created to mark the 50th anniversary of Jersey's liberation in 1995, many of the island’s residents contributed to the Occupation Tapestry, which contains over 7,500,000 stitches over 12 panels and took nearly 30,000 hours to make. A thirteenth panel, commissioned in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Liberation, reflects upon the many ways in which the community have and continue to passionately mark the regaining of freedom all those years ago.
The tapestry is just one of many exhibits across the island that commemorate the islanders’ experiences of WW2.