Only a few miles off England’s south coast, the Channel islands endured five years of German occupation, bearable at the start but soon to turn harsh and brutal.
Despite their heroic efforts to help save the Allied forces fleeing from Dunkirk, Churchill deemed the islands indefensible making their occupation by the Germans an inevitablity.
On the island of Jersey, the War Tunnels (otherwise known as Hohlgangsanlage 8) tell the story of this occupation through photographs and audio descriptions, room-settings, and animations, in a one kilometre walk through underground galleries that make up the complex.
It is a story that is often overlooked as Battlefield Tours of France gain in popularity: how territory belonging to Great Britain was occupied by the enemy and left to fend for itself: how even when the 1944 Normandy landings heralded the end of the war, the islands were refused aid because it was thought that the Germans might also have benefitted. With their supply routes cut off for the last eight months of the war both the local population and the occupiers were close to starvation as they foraged for grasses, berries and anything that was remotely edible.
In June 1940 Whitehall did gave the islanders the option of leaving within 24 hours or remaining on the undefended island but only 6,600 made the journey to other parts of the UK.
The Tunnels show tableaux of life on the island during the occupation, food stuffs available, life seeming not too bad at the beginning. But this changed by October of 1940 when the first Order to register all Jews and Jewish businesses was issued. As the occupiers’ grip tightened and radios were confiscated, food grew scarcer and all British-born islanders were deported to an unknown fate.
The displays of life during the occupation are fascinating, whether it is the photographs of handsome, young, blonde German soldiers relaxing on the beautiful beaches, or how the locals made tea from bramble leaves and coffee from acorns and roasted parsnips and how even the hospitals had to use sand mixed with ash to wash the patients.
What I found most distressing however, were the photographs of the POWs from Europe and Africa, Algerians, French, Russians and Poles and Spanish Republicans who had fled from Franco. It was the Russians and Poles, however, who were treated with the utmost barbarity and brutality, abused and beaten, literally, to death, as the Germans regarded them as subhuman – untermenschen. Staring into the camera, their starving bodies swaddled in old clothes tied with rope, their feet wrapped in rags, the utter despair in their eyes haunts me still.
Locals told me that these POWs were just shovelled into the walls when they died and were buried there, but I cannot find any proof of this.
The harsh life lived by the POWs and the occupation of the islands could not have a better showcase than these War Tunnels and I would urge everyone to visit them on their next trip to Jersey.
Bus No 8 will take you there from St.Helier, the entrance fee is only £10. 50 for Seniors, £11.50 for other adults and £7. 50 for children. The Tunnels are open March 1st – 31st October seven days a week. For those wishing to drive themselves, it is easy to find the tunnels and driving on Jersey is made very comfortable for visitors, with an island speed limit of 40 mph!