WORLD

THE GHOSTS OF WAR

NEWLY RELEASED DOCUMENTS SHED LIGHT ON THE NAZI OCCUPATION OF BRITAIN’S CHANNEL ISLANDS

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 4 1993
WORLD

THE GHOSTS OF WAR

NEWLY RELEASED DOCUMENTS SHED LIGHT ON THE NAZI OCCUPATION OF BRITAIN’S CHANNEL ISLANDS

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 4 1993

THE GHOSTS OF WAR

WORLD

NEWLY RELEASED DOCUMENTS SHED LIGHT ON THE NAZI OCCUPATION OF BRITAIN’S CHANNEL ISLANDS

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Joe Miere leads the way into a 20-foot-high tunnel hacked out of the rock of a hillside on the outskirts of St. Helier, capital of the Channel island of Jersey. On a typical summer’s day, hundreds of chattering tourists crowd into the dark hole, paying $7 apiece for a glimpse of an unusual attraction: a sprawling underground complex built by forced laborers working on British soil under the orders of the German army. But on a chilly December morning, the tourists are long gone and Miere has ample time to guide a lone visitor through the eerie labyrinth that is Jersey’s most striking reminder of an episode most local people would just as soon forget— the occupation of the Channel Islands by Nazi forces during the Second World War. Half a century after the caverns were hewn out of the hillside, they remain dry and solid. The German engineers, Miere notes wryly, “built this place to last.”

Now, the islanders have been given another unwelcome reminder of a part of the past. In December, the British government opened its archives and made public 26 bundles of documents about the occupation. Scheduled to remain secret until 2045, the papers shed new light on the ordeal of the only British territory that endured Nazi occupation. Once again, outsiders sifted through yellowing documents for evidence that leading islanders collaborated with their masters or built fortunes on wartime profiteering, and that women—contemptuously labelled “Jerrybags” by other locals—slept with German soldiers. The papers revealed little that islanders did not already know. But they reopened old wounds and set Britons thinking about how they might have reacted had Hitler’s forces overrun their country.

For most local residents, preoccupied with maintaining Jersey’s status as a prosperous tourist destination and tax haven a dozen miles off the coast of Normandy, the war is a distant memory. Along with the other Channel Islands,

it is a self-governing dependency of the British Crown. The Queen rules not as monarch of the United Kingdom, but as successor to William, Duke of Normandy, who stormed across the English Channel in 1066 and did what Hitler failed to do: conquer mainland Britain. The islands have always been dominated by an elite of leading families, and ever since the Germans surrendered on May 9, 1945, their leaders have been largely content to draw a polite veil over the divisive wartime years.

But for some older islanders, including 66-

year-old Joe Miere, the occupation still poses troublesome questions. Miere was just 14 when German troops occupied the Channel Islands in June, 1940, and he and his boyhood friends staged small-scale acts of sabotage against the Germans, such as cutting telephone wires and stealing gasoline. In 1944, he was imprisoned for seven months by the Nazis for those activities, and later served as curator of the museum that now occupies the underground caverns that the Germans intended to use as a hospital. The museum includes an

exhibit of letters and photos recording islanders’ resistance to the invaders. But not all resisted, and Miere maintains that the British government should have tried those suspected of collaborating, as well as local officials who showed themselves pliant to the occupiers. “They should have brought it all out into the open, and settled it in 1945,” he says. “Instead it’s like a boil that keeps festering.”

In fact, there were few cases of outright collaboration. Some local women did have af-

fairs with German soldiers—and at least 435 illegitimate children were born as a result. The newly released documents include a report by Britain’s wartime intelligence service, Mi-19, which said: “Numbers of women, including a surprising number of married women, formerly considered respectable, have carried on and lived with Germans.” When the Germans surrendered in 1945, many of the women were roughly treated by angry locals, who shaved their heads or tarred and feathered them.

Other islanders betrayed their neighbors in more blatant ways. Maurice Green, a 65-yearold retired printer in St. Helier, says that his

father, Stanley, was betrayed by a man who still lives only a mile from his house. Stanley Green built radio transmitters that locals used to send secret intelligence reports to London. In early 1944, the occupiers arrested him and sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, which he survived. Maurice Green says he knows the man who informed on his father, but does not hate him. “When he gets to heaven, God’ll sort it out,” says Green.

More controversial was the behavior of the island’s own authorities who remained in place throughout the occupation. Although the Germans imposed harsh conditions on the 18,000 foreign workers they brought in to build the islands’ elaborate concrete defences, they treated the Channel Islanders relatively well. For the islanders, outright resistance was almost impossible. Some 30,000 German troops were stationed among only 65,000 locals and the islands’ militia had been evacuated to the mainland before the invasion. To ensure that islanders survived the occupation, local officials ordered their people to obey German orders. But they also passed German laws, including anti-Jewish regulations, through their assembly. Miere and others maintain that island leaders went too far in co-operating with the occupiers. In one notorious incident in September, 1942, local authorities helped the Germans identify 2,100 Jews and English-born residents of the islands to be deported to camps in Germany. Local police accompanied German soldiers who rounded up the deportees. “They were frightened old men,” Miere says of the wartime leaders. “They could have done much more than they did.”

The official view was quite different. After the war ended, British officials investigated accusations of collaboration and decided not to try anyone. Instead, they moved 40 people who had been denounced as traitors off the island, and left others who had co-operated with the Germans to face “financial sanctions and social ostracism” from their neighbors. At the same time, Britain handed out knighthoods and other honors to local leaders, despite accusations that they had been overly energetic in enforcing German regulations. The government gave no such honors to those arrested or deported by the Germans.

Still, most older islanders are impatient with I and sometimes hostile towards outsiders who i pry into their past. The line between collaborait tion and simple survival, they insist, is a fine s one. And those who did not experience occupation should not pass judgment on those who did. “If England had been occupied, it would have been the same,” says Sir Peter Crill, Jersey’s bailiff. “There are bound to be heroes and there are bound to be collaborators. Human nature is no different here.” Meanwhile, the islands’ remaining wartime secrets remain hidden. The last seven sensitive files of occupation documents are to stay sealed until 2045—when anyone connected with the murky events of half a century ago will be dead.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in St. Helier