Discover Guernsey's Occupation Story
From Occupation to Liberation (1940 - 1945)
The German Occupation of the channel islands began one week after the British government had demilitarised the islands fearing for the safety of civilians should there be any conflict. The codename for this was “Operation Green Arrow” and the initial German Air Force reconnaissance flights mistake civilian farming lorries for troop carriers. On the 28th of June 1940 , the German Air Force, not knowing of the demilitarisation, bomb and machine gun multiple sites on the island. The attacks killed ten people and wound many more. A few days later on the 1 of July 1940 General Richthofen, The Commander of the German Air Forces in Normandy, dropped an ultimatum from the air demanding the immediate surrender of the island. White flags and crosses were placed in prominent positions, as stipulated by the Germans, and later that day Jersey & Guernsey were occupied by air-borne troops under the command of Hauptmann Gussek with the Navy transporting soldiers from St Malo.
The below photos have been provided to us by families of the invading soldiers.
Under the occupying forces, one of the greatest hardships was the lack of news from the mainland after the Germans had outlawed the use of crystal radio sets. Some individuals risked imprisonment by making their own sets and spreading the frontline news. Horse-drawn traffic became an increasingly regular sight as petrol shortages became severe, and many vehicles were converted to use gas. The price of bicycles rose, and their use was restricted to those connected to essential services. The German’s ordered all traffic to drive on the wrong side of the road. The island was also moved to Central European time. Hitler ordered the conversion of Jersey into an impregnable fortress. Thousands of slave workers from countries like Russia, Spain, France, Poland, and Algeria built hundreds of bunkers, anti-tank walls, railway systems, as well as many tunnel complexes. In late 1943 the Tunnel Complex H40 (now known as the Guernsey Underground Hospital) was ready as an emergency casualty clearing station able to cope with up to 500 patients. All of the fortifications built around the island were part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’. Today traces ofWW2 defences and wartime occupation can be discovered across the islands.
In June 1941, islanders responded to a radio appeal from Britain to the peoples of Nazi-occupied Europe to put up ‘V for Victory’ signs. The appeal was not specifically directed towards Channel Islanders, but a few bold people joined in nevertheless. Such signs were painted on street signs, houses and walls. The sabotage provoked a strong reaction from the Germans who threatened to punish whole neighbourhoods if the culprit was not found. Islanders helped to hide forced workers that had escaped, shared news from illegal radios, some escaped with detailed plans of bunkers. All of these actions were seen by the German forces as military crimes, with heavy penalties if caught. Some islanders made the ultimate sacrifice for others.
One of the most common questions we are asked on our tours is whether there was any attempt by the British to get back the islands. Operation Constellation was the code name of one of the missions planned by Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1943 to take back the Channel Islands. ‘Operation Coverlet’ was the name given to the Guernsey part of the operation. After a period of heavy bombing, Guernsey would be taken back at force. Approved by most of the high command, no air support was offered due to what was seen to be as an excessive loss of civilian life. The liberation of the Channel Islands would have to wait until after D-day.
Guernsey Defences 1943
On the 6th of June 1944, the Normandy landings marked the initiation of ‘Operation Overlord’, the invasion of northwest Europe by the Allied forces. This signalled the beginning of the end of the German occupation, but it was not until nearly a year later that the islands were finally liberated. The maps below show the route of the 82nd and 101st Paratroopers, who passed incredibly close to the islands. Major David Thomas, regimental surgeon of the 508th PIR, like most of the other in the regiment, took off from England on his first combat jump and stated this:
“We took off and headed out over the English Channel. As far as you could see were C-47s We got no flak until we passed the Channel Islands. Shortly thereafter we did a left flank and went into Normandy”.
The Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944 profoundly affected the food and economic situation of the islands. Supplies which had previously been imported from German-occupied France were cut off. In a memorandum handed by the Bailiff to the commander of the German forces on 31 August 1944, Dr R N McKinstry, the medical officer of health, stated of the islanders: “Many are in a very poor condition, so the extra reduction in food values will have a serious consequence for them.” The British government reminded the German commander that it was the duty of the occupying authority to feed the civilian population. On 12 November, the German authorities allowed the Bailiff of Jersey, Alexander M Coutanche, to send a message to the British government giving details of the state of the islands’ supplies. The Home Office issued a letter on 9 November 1944, proposing that the Joint War Organisation (JWO) take definite action to help the islanders. The government would provide facilities for sending food parcels to British civilians on the islands, subject to the same conditions under which parcels were sent to prisoners of war. The ICRC would supervise the supply and distribution of the parcels. The German government agreed to accept a supply of food to the islands. The JWO estimated it would need to supply 300,000 food parcels and 10,000 diet supplement parcels (for the ill) to the islands for the first five or six weeks. The JWO had several ships operating a shuttle service between Lisbon and Marseilles. The government asked the organisation to provide one of their ships to transport the supplies, and the Vega was chosen for the duty. The Bailiff of Jersey announced in The Evening Post on Friday 8 December 1944 that: “I am officially informed by the German military authorities that a Red Cross ship was, weather permitting, due to leave Lisbon on Thursday, December 7th, for the Channel Islands. The ship will call at Guernsey first, en route for Jersey.” They were also informed that letters for the Channel Islands’ civilian internees in Germany would be collected by the Red Cross ships. The Red Cross’ SS Vega left Lisbon on 20 December, carrying food parcels and diet supplies for the ill. She arrived in Guernsey with her life-saving cargo on 27 December and in Jersey on 31 December. The food parcels were provided from the British Commonwealth supply stores in Lisbon and included 108,592 Canadian-packed parcels and 11,200 New Zealand-packed parcels. The Vega sailed five more times. In relief voyages between February and April 1945.
Photos and information provided by the British Red Cross
On the 6 May 1945 a delegation of German officials met with Jersey’s Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, and the Attorney-General to discuss the developments in Europe and their impact on the islands. The German Command were defiant and no reference to surrender was entertained. Instead, the Germans portrayed their defeat as a shift in focus towards a union between the powers in a new fight against Russia. As if to illustrate this sentiment, the German Commander of the Channel Islands, Vice-Admiral Huffmeier, responded to the British Army’s request for capitulation by stating that he only received orders from his ‘own Government’. Despite the nonchalance of the German occupying forces, which were still officially recognised, Jersey’s preparations for liberation began to take noticeable shape. On 8 May the Allied units that made up Force 135 received their orders to move to their marshalling camps in Portsmouth. The main body of the Force was due to arrive in the islands on 12 May, however, a small contingent of Force 135, including their Commander, Brigadier AE Snow, left for the Channel Islands aboard HMS’ Bulldog and Beagle the morning of 8 May. Together with the units of Force 135, this first party consisted of a team of officials responsible for negotiating the terms of the Germans’ surrender. The front page of the Jersey Evening Post carried Jersey’s first confirmation of the Allies’ victory in Europe, and islanders were informed that Winston Churchill would broadcast the Nation’s first official announcement that afternoon at 3.00pm. Crowds began to gather at various locations to hear the announcement that would declare their liberation. Islanders waited patiently amidst the heavy air of expectation. At 3.00pm Winston Churchill crackled onto the airwaves. The Prime Minister’s words announced the end to the war in Europe and the “unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe”. When, amidst great cheers across the island, he uttered the words, “our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today”. Island-wide flags and decorations sprang up.
At 7.15am on 9 May, on the quarterdeck of HMS Bulldog, Second-in-Command for Guernsey General Siegfried Heine signed the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the German Command of the Channel Islands, affecting their capitulation. On completion of this, General Heine was then ordered to “immediately cause all German flags and ensigns now flying in the Channel Islands to be lowered”. At Midday, an overjoyed Bailiff Coutanche accompanied a German delegation led by the island Commander, General Major Rudolf Wulf, aboard HMS Beagle anchored in St. Aubin’s Bay, where the separate surrender of Jersey was to take place. Arriving at the same time in St. Helier’s harbour was a small naval inspection party sent to report on the health of the Islanders, who were promptly overwhelmed by an enthusiastic crowd delighted at seeing their first liberators landing on Jersey soil. The task force included many Channel Islanders who were forced to leave in 1940.
Below is an overlay of a German WW2 map and a recent map of Guernsey, thanks to On the World Map for the map.