Life under Nazi rule: the occupation of the Channel Islands

Occupied by the Germans between 1940 and 1945, the Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to have been seized by the Nazi regime. To coincide with the release of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, History Extra talked to Duncan Barrett, author of Hitler's British Isles, about what it was like to live under German rule…

Actress Lily James and actor Michael Huisman looking at each other in a still from the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Recently released in UK cinemas, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is an adaption of the internationally bestselling novel of the same name. Set in Guernsey in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the film follows the story of a young writer as she learns what it was like to live in the Channel Islands under German occupation. To coincide with its UK release, we spoke to Duncan Barrett about the real history behind the film…

Advertisement

Q. What was it like to live in the Channel Islands during the German occupation?

A. It was extremely tough, but compared to the German occupation in France or Holland it was a much ‘softer’ occupation. The attorney general of Guernsey, Ambrose Sherwill, actually referred to it as a ‘model occupation’, which very much captured the essence of what the German authorities were trying to achieve. Hitler saw it as an opportunity for a bit of PR – he wanted to prove that the Germans could run an occupation without the abuses of power and violence that were happening elsewhere. He considered the Channel Islands to be his ‘stepping stone’ to the British Isles.

At the same time, for five years the residents lived an existence that wasn’t completely free. They couldn’t speak freely, they were living under curfew and they were often struggling for food. Before the war, the island had been massively reliant on importing and exporting with the mainland. They managed to do a certain amount of trading with France – the Germans actually allowed that – but after D-Day [the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944], they were cut off and began to starve. Towards the end of the war, the question wasn’t whether the allies would win, but whether they would die of starvation before the island could be liberated.

How did the local residents view the Germans?

I interviewed hundreds of residents for my latest book, Hitler’s British Isles, and something that came up repeatedly was this idea that “there were Nazis, and there were Germans”. Many local people saw the Germans as normal men who had found themselves in uniform. While there were a few real Nazis – individuals committed to national socialism and Hitler – the majority of Germans on the island were just ordinary soldiers who wanted to go back to their homes and families. Some of them were actively looking for opportunities to form friendly relationships with the locals and to prove that they weren’t the kind of monsters that they had been painted as by Allied propaganda. I think it helped that the people in charge of the occupation were these German aristocrats who, if anything, were quite suspicious of Hitler and his fascist ideology.

Obviously not every Guernsey resident felt the same way. Many of the men who had served in the First World War, and who were perhaps too old to fight in the Second World War, found it difficult to accept the presence of the Germans. From their perspective, they had “beaten them once”, and now they were back again – this time right on their doorstep.

I would also argue that the so-called ‘model occupation’ became harder to sustain as tensions grew and trust began to break down. This was exemplified in an instance relatively early on, in 1940, when two local Guernsey lads who had signed up to the British Army returned to the island on a reconnaissance mission. They were in a precarious position: if they were discovered and classified as spies, then they could be shot. When the Germans became aware that there were British soldiers on the island, they set an ultimatum: the soldiers were to hand themselves in by a certain date and they would be sent to a prisoner of war camp to live out the remainder of the war in safety. The soldiers did hand themselves in, but the Germans went back on their promise and they were sentenced to death. Although they were granted a last-minute reprieve on Christmas Eve 1940, by this point one of the men’s fathers had already committed suicide. The handling of the situation led to a lot of people losing trust in the Germans.

Did the Germans and the Channel Islanders live together?

Depending on the area, there could be as many as one to two Germans per islander. Many of them lived in people’s houses, so if you had a spare room, then you were likely to have a German living with you.

A still from the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society showing a man and woman dancing at a formal event
Glen Powell and Lily James in ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ (2018).

You previously said that the islanders’ relationship with the Germans was reasonably civil, in some cases even friendly. Why, then, were people outraged when women had relationships with German soldiers?

It was one thing to be polite to someone, but it was a massive taboo to actually be in a relationship with ‘the enemy’. This was the case for both sides – the Germans could be in trouble for forming relationships with the local women­ too. But when you have tens of thousands of young men and women in one place, it’s inevitable what will happen.

The women who entered into relationships with Germans were called ‘jerrybags’, and there was this assumption that they were doing it for selfish reasons – to get more food or luxuries like lipstick and silk stockings from Paris. I think for some of the local men, the resentment that they had about the occupation was targeted at these women. Those who were discovered to be having these illicit relationships had their heads shaved and were ‘tarred and feathered’ – had liquid tar and feathers poured over them. I interviewed a man who was involved with tarring at least one of these women, and he told me that the ‘jerrybags’ were considered just as much ‘the enemy’ as the Germans.

I was quite shocked to hear how angry people can get about this subject even all these years later. Having a relationship with someone from the ‘other side’ was considered much worse than some of the wrongdoings that – to me – seemed more deserving of anger: collaboration, dodgy trading with the Germans, etc.

How were Jewish people living in the Channel Islands treated by the Germans?

It varied between the islands to some extent. In Jersey a number of Jews were deported along with other islanders – they were treated comparatively better than many other Jews in occupied Europe and survived the war. But a couple of Jews did die as a result of the occupation and the impossible new German laws – for example, one man’s shop was forcibly closed and he committed suicide, and another had a mental breakdown. In Guernsey, three women who were deported ended up at Auschwitz and were killed there.

Most Jews had already evacuated from the islands before the Germans arrived. Others remained undiscovered or in hiding. In Jersey, for example, one physiotherapist hid a Jewish woman in his basement for years while he treated the German soldiers in his consulting room directly above.

What might a British occupation have looked like? Would a ‘model occupation’ have been possible?

Hitler’s ‘model occupation’ in the Channel Islands was possible because there wasn’t much resistance. This was for two reasons: firstly, Britain didn’t have the resources to fight for the islanders, and the local people had been told not to resist; secondly, the geography of the Channel Islands would have made it very difficult for a potential resistance to hide and organise ­– the islands were very small, flat and easily searched.

In comparison, resistance in German-occupied France was possible because the Maquis [rural guerrilla bands of resistance fighters] were able to disappear into the mountainous terrain from which they took their name. So if the Germans had invaded Britain, I think people would have been able to fight back in a way that just wasn’t possible on the Channel Islands.

Were there moments of rebellion?

While there wasn’t a resistance in the militarised sense of the word, there were definitely moments of rebellion – acts of arson and graffiti, for example. Throughout Europe there had been a massive campaign, partly encouraged by the BBC, to encourage people to chalk up V-signs on buildings. This happened in Guernsey.

There was humanitarian resistance too. Although the Germans treated the local people reasonably well, they imported slave workers from various European countries to build the fortifications on the island. A large number of these people were Russians who were treated particularly badly by the Nazis, who viewed them as “Untermenschen” (sub-human). The locals would feel terribly sorry for them, and would offer them food and shelter. When the slave workers escaped, locals would often let them hide in their homes.

People were always pushing the boundaries of what they could get away with. I spoke to a woman whose husband got himself into a rather difficult situation when a German came to his farm to ask how many “swines” he had. “I don’t have any swines,” he told the German – although he did, in fact, have two pigs hidden in a secret pig sty. The German heard the animals grunting and became very angry with the man. The pig-owner had to pretend that he hadn’t understood the original question – and luckily, he got away with it.

People didn’t always get off so lightly. Some ended up in prison or even lost their lives for going against German authority. There was one woman, for example, who was working for a pro-Nazi Swiss chef. He greeted her one morning with the usual “Heil Hitler” and she replied: “To hell with Hitler!” She ended up going to prison, but she became a local hero of sorts. Speaking your mind could get you into a lot of trouble.

What happened after the Germans left the island, and what was the lasting impact on the people?

It was extremely difficult for everyone. Tens of thousands of islanders had been evacuated to Britain just before the Germans arrived on the Channel Islands in 1940, and when they returned there was a difficult period of reintegration. There was a feeling among the islanders who had stayed that the ones who had left had been cowardly, while the ones who had left felt that they had experienced the Blitz and been properly “at war” while their friends and relatives at home had been “making friends” with German soldiers. It took a long time for these two sides of society to make peace with those different experiences.

A still from the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society showing a group of people looking at a pie
Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Courtenay, Katherine Parkinson, Penelope Wilton and Michiel Huisman in ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ (2018).

Are the Channel Islands a symbol of resilience against the odds? How does this image of them as ‘collaborators’ sit within their history?

There were people who did denounce their neighbours or became paid informants working directly for the Germans, but it would be unfair to call the vast majority ‘collaborators’. To this day, the locals are very aware that this idea exists about them. I interviewed one woman who was a small girl at the time of the occupation. She had an autograph book that contained some friendly notes from the Germans soldiers she got to know. Although these were just notes written to a child, she was very worried about showing them to me in case I thought she had been a ‘collaborator’. So there was definitely this feeling among the locals that they were judged by the outside world for even quite innocent interactions like that.

Although there were instances where the people in authority made questionable decisions to keep the peace, you have to remember that everyone was in a very difficult situation and it’s easy to judge actions in hindsight. I feel a degree of sympathy for the islanders because they were really abandoned by Britain during the war.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was released in UK cinemas last month, depicting life on the island of Guernsey in the aftermath of the German occupation. Did people really eat ‘potato peel pie’?

Yes, the title of the film is not an exaggeration – potato peel pie really was a dish that people were eating at the time. It was a meal you could make if you only had potatoes, with potato peelings on top.

Duncan Barrett is the author of Hitler’s British Isles, which is due to be published by Simon & Schuster in June 2018.

Advertisement

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is currently out in UK Cinemas, starring Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode and Glen Powell.