The Sunday Times (30 May) featured a front page story with this headline: “Exposed: Horrors of Channel Islands concentration camps”. The article reported that official documents describing the German treatment of prisoners on Alderney — where thousands died — would be published for the first time.
That may well be the case, but the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands in general, and Alderney in particular, is already well known. Alderney, one of the smaller islands, has been described as the biggest “crime scene” in British history. As the Times reported, “Britain later refused to bring any war crimes prosecutions and appears to have failed to help countries seeking to do so”.
At the centre of the story is Eric Pickles, Tory grandee and “United Kingdom Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues”. Pickles said that people deserve to know why Britain failed to prosecute a single German in relation to war crimes committed in Alderney. He added: “What happened does not reflect well on the British government at the time, and we are eager to ensure the full facts are understood by the nation”.
But what happened on Alderney was not the only war crime carried out by the Nazi occupiers of those islands. On all the islands, civilians were deported by the Germans to the continent to engage in forced labour, or sent to internment camps. In Guernsey, the handful of Jews living there were handed over to the Nazis by local authorities and taken to death camps. The collaboration between local officials and the Nazis is well documented. One of the little museums on Guernsey even displays the letter sent by local leaders to the Germans listing the names and addresses of the island’s few Jews.
The really dark secret about German war crimes in the Channel Islands, which Eric Pickles does not mention, is not only that no Germans were ever punished for them. It is this: local leaders quickly reached an accommodation with the Nazi occupiers. There was no organised resistance to speak of, and certainly no acts of violence committed against the Germans. The only Germans who died in the Channel Islands were killed by British commandos, not by local partisans.
After the war, the British government was keen to be seen to punish traitors who had openly taken the side of the Germans. Most famously, William Joyce, an Irish-born Nazi who did radio broadcasts as “Lord Haw Haw”, was arrested, tried and convicted of treason in a British court. He was hanged in Wandsworth prison in early 1946.
But this was not to be the case in the Channel Islands. For example, the Dame of Sark, Mrs Sybil Hathaway, was investigated after the war by the Military Investigation Branch, which concluded that she “has also been guilty of friendly and ingratiating behaviour towards the Germans … [she] has preserved her property and privileges intact throughout the occupation; her gardens have not even been modified by wartime agriculture”.
Hathaway was a fluent German speaker, encouraged the teaching of German to students in the local school during the occupation, and seemed to get along with the occupiers. The investigator concluded that “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that had Great Britain been defeated people such as Mrs Hathaway and the Bailiff of Guernsey would have been qualified for the title of Quisling”.
Instead of being arrested at the end of the war, Hathaway was rewarded with a royal visit, as were the other island leaders.
Our national mythology features a heroic island nation, united in its determination to stand up to Hitler, with the promise that a German invasion would be met with determined resistance — fighting them on the beaches and on the hills and in the streets, and never surrendering. Unlike the less courageous Europeans on the continent, there would be no collaborators here.
The real history of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, however, tells a different story.