Reviewed by: Juliet Gardiner
Author: Barry Turner
Price (RRP): £20
In 1945, soon after the Channel Islands were liberated, Captain JR Dening, an MI5 officer, wrote: “It was generally agreed that the majority of the inhabitants of the island – Norman peasants with all the limitations of character and outlook – view German and Englishmen with almost equal indifference as long as their material prosperity is unaffected”. Once the battle for Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark was over, the battle for the reputation of the islands began: craven, pusillanimous collaborators with the Nazi occupiers? Or realistic pragmatists, co-operating with their new masters to ameliorate the worst excesses of occupation?
Only of course there was no battle for the Channel Islands. The British government demilitarised the islands and allowed German forces to occupy them with hardly a shot being fired in defence. Despite Churchill’s fine oratory, the reason why the only part of the British Isles to be occupied in almost a thousand years was surrendered, was one of military expediency: the cost in terms of men and weapons would be grossly disproportionate to their usefulness to Britain at a time when western Europe was collapsing like ninepins in the face of the advancing German troops, and the survivors of the British Expeditionary Force had limped home from Dunkirk.
The German occupation, unwelcome but relatively benign at first, grew harsher as the war progressed and food grew increasingly scarce. It was particularly punitive towards the largely Russian workforce imported to fortify the islands as part of Hitler’s fabled Atlantic Wall stretching from Norway to Spain. But Barry Turner also points an admonitory finger at the confusion of the British government, whose dealings were characterised by incompetence, ambivalence and bungled attempts at realpolitick.
This was seen during the botched evacuation of the islanders (often referred to as refugees to their chagrin, since they were, of course, British citizens); the boy’s own plans for Operation Tomato to recapture the islands; and in their liberation the day after VE Day.
All this was crowned by arguments as to whether several of the islands’ chief administrators – who had been prepared to supply the names and addresses of Jews and non-native-born islanders to be deported to labour camps in Germany – should be awarded knighthoods (13 OBEs were also handed out). However, none of the islanders who risked cruel German retribution by sheltering escapees and runaway Russian slave labourers were so honoured.
The occupation of the islands remains a truly gripping story that continues to have purchase on the British imagination since, for Hitler, it was a model occupation, a rehearsal for what would have happened in Britain should a German invasion have succeeded. Turner tells it well. He is largely sympathetic to the islanders’ plight, taking the view that they had little option but to comply with their overlords, unsupported as they were by mainland Britain of which they had always thought they were part – albeit a strangely feudal and undemocratic part.
Juliet Gardiner is the author of The Thirties: an Intimate History (Harper Press, 2010) and Wartime: Britain 1939–1945 (Headline, 2004)