Hitler considered the Channel Islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm – a valuable landing stage for the invasion of mainland France, as they sat just 20 miles off the French coast. Winston Churchill, however, thought they held no strategic importance for Britain and decided to de-militarise them and leave them undefended.
The Germans invade
As the German army stormed through France in June 1940, some 30,000 Channel Islanders (one third of the total population) were evacuated. Once the initial panic was over, the rest decided to stay and tough it out, mainly on Jersey and Guernsey.
On 28 June, the Luftwaffe bombed Jersey and Guernsey, unaware that the islands were undefended. They killed 44 people. Two days later, Luftwaffe personnel took control of Guernsey airfield. There they met the chief of police, who informed them that the islands were undefended.
The following day, a detachment of troops arrived on Guernsey and that afternoon the German flag was raised. More arrived later and their attention turned to the other islands.
Jersey surrendered on 1 July and soldiers were swftly stationed. Islanders had to show their compliance by flying white flags over their houses.
Sybil Hathaway, the Dame of Sark, received German officers on 2 July. They assured her she had nothing to fear and the island’s garrison of just ten men arrived on 4 July.
Alderney, meanwhile, was almost completely empty, but was garrisoned by a company of troops. Herm, the smallest of the islands, was visited by German soldiers on 25 July, although they did not set up a permanent station there.
Life under Nazi rule
A curfew was imposed between the hours of 11pm and 5am and ID cards had to be carried. The sale of spirits was banned. Later, wirelesses were banned and all British-born Islanders were deported to Germany.
A register of Jewish people was created and all Jewish business had to publicly identify themselves. Some were deported to concentration camps. Cars were requisitioned and the Germans controlled the food grown by farmers and caught by fishermen. Anyone caught trying to escape to Britain was imprisoned or shot – if they didn’t drown.
Four concentration camps were built on Alderney – the only ones on British territory. Alderney became the most heavily fortified of the islands, built by slave labour.
Resistance and collaboration
Whilst there was no consolidated resistance movement as there was in France, V for Victory signs were painted around the islands, underground newsletters were written, and guns and ammunition were stolen from German stores. Some Islanders assisted their Jewish neighbours and fed slave labourers. On Jersey, letters sent to the Commandant by informants were intercepted by the Post Office and destroyed. Many who did collaborate were attacked after liberation.
The beginning of the end
The D-Day landings in June 1944 came as both a blessing and a curse. Whilst they marked the beginning of the end for the German occupiers who relied on supply lines from the continent, they also meant that food lines were cut. As supplies dwindled, everyone began to starve. However, after negotiation with the Home Office, the Germans allowed the Red Cross’ SS Vega to deliver food, saving many of the Islanders’ lives. The Vega continued to bring food parcels even after the British liberated the islands on 9 May 1945.