The Channel Islands were the only part of the United Kingdom to be occupied by Nazi forces during World War Two. The Channel Islands suffered accordingly and while what happened on the islands was small-scale when compared to countries such as France or Poland, the impact of the Nazi invasion on the Channel Islands was marked.
The German Army invaded the Channel Islands on June 30th 1940. From that day on the day-to-day lives of the islanders changed markedly. Some decided that they had no other choice but to work with the Germans and were branded collaborators. Others chose passive resistance. For Hitler the islands held enormous strategic value. The most fortified sections of the Atlantic Wall were in the Channel Islands. However, Hitler’s assessment of the islands was wrong. Winston Churchill immediately gave them up as lost and recognised that they had little strategic importance to the UK while the Nazis made great use of their occupation in propaganda films.
The Nazis occupied the Channel Islands for five years. The most important impact on those who lived on the islands affected the Jews or those classed as Jews. On October 18th 1940, a law was passed on the Channel Islands that required all Jews to register with the civilian authorities. Those who were involved in this within the government were led by Clifford Orange. He was severely criticised by the islanders after the war in Europe ended because of the zeal he put into his work. What condemned Orange was the fact that he classed those who were not Jews as Jews. Nazi law stated that if you had one grandparent who was a Jew, you were a Jew. Orange applied this rigorously. However, it is known that at least 2 families were classed as Jews when, in fact, they did not come within the Nazi criteria. This was blamed on Orange. It would be easy to criticise Orange and those who worked for him but they themselves were subject to Nazi law. If Orange had fallen foul of his task it was certain that his masters would have arrested him.
In May 1941 the Nazi authorities confiscated all Jewish businesses on the Channel Islands. None of the owners received compensation.
Rumours spread among the islands as to the treatment of the Jews. However, it is now accepted that there is no evidence of any male Jew being arrested from the islands population. It is known that three Jewish women were arrested and that they were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Rumours circulated within the islands that some Jewish families had committed suicide rather than face the traumas of being taken prisoner. However, such rumours were never substantiated and were almost certainly based around Allied propaganda.
In September 1942, the German authorities announced that all British subjects on the Channel Islands who did not have permanent residence papers would be deported. The police on the island were required to enforce this. 2,200 were deported to Nazi Germany for the duration of the war.
As the war developed, the islanders became more and more opposed to the Nazi occupation. The German occupiers had taken control of the islands minimal media outlets – primarily newspapers and radio. As a result, illegal newssheets were printed. The most famous was the Guernsey Underground News Sheet (GUNS), copies of which were frequently thrown into the back of Nazi cars or posted in town/village squares. Those who produced ‘GUNS’ were betrayed by an islander called Paddy O’Doyle and received sentences from between 10 and 15 months in a German prison.
By March 1943, the German authorities on the Channel Islands believed that radio broadcasts from the mainland were having more and more of a detrimental effect on the islanders. Listening to the BBC was made illegal and all radios were confiscated. The islanders tried to get around this by building their own crystal sets but getting parts for these were extremely difficult.
POW’s from the east of Europe had been brought as slave labourers to the Channel Islands to build the Atlantic Wall. Some escaped and were helped by the islanders. Punishment for helping slave labourers was severe. Two elderly sisters were accused of betraying those helping escaped labourers but after the war no substantial evidence was gathered against Lily and Maude Vibert and they were not tried and therefore never found guilty.
Only one public execution took place on the Channel Islands during their occupation. The story is odd and tragic. Sixteen Frenchmen left occupied France with the intention of joining the Free French in the UK. They landed in the Channel Islands but believed they were in the Isle of Wight. Giving themselves up to the ‘English’, they were arrested by the Nazis. The leader, Francois Sourbet, was put on trial and shot by firing squad.
The lives for the islanders changed dramatically after a British commando raid codenamed ‘Operation Bassault’ in October 1942. Ten commandos landed at Hog’s Back, in a raid that was meant to give heart to the inlanders and to destabilise the Germans on the island. In fact it only served to make the Germans tighten up security on the island and further restricted the lifestyles of those who lived on the Channel Islands. In total six commando raids were carried out on islands that Churchill had specifically stated had no strategic value.
After D-Day, and in fear of more sizeable commando raids, the Nazis adopted a more strict approach to controlling the islanders. All the beaches were mined and put out-of-bounds to the civilians on the islands. The islands were used as a base for treating German soldiers injured in the battles in northern France after the Allies had broken out of their beachheads on June 6th. Once more and more of northern France was freed from Nazi control, more and more Channel Islanders tried to get there to escape Nazi rule on the islands.
Once it became clear that Nazi rule in Western Europe was coming to an end, the people on the Channel Islands turned on those they considered to be collaborators. The people on Sark were all classed as such by those on the larger islands. However, the small size of the island meant that the people there had little choice but to do what they could to get on with the German occupiers who could have made their life a great deal worse if they had not. Women on the islands who had become too friendly with the Germans were also targeted. Known as ‘Jerry Bags’ or ‘Horizontal Collaborators’, life became difficult for them if they remained on the islands once the Germans had left.