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The Occupation Of The Channel Islands

Ancient History | August 2, 2019

Village of St. Aubin, Jersey. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Nestled along the coast of France's Cotentin Peninsula in the English Channel, the British Crown Dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey are among the most fascinating destinations in Europe for any World War II history buff. From June 1940 until May 9, 1945, the people of these islands lived under occupation in the only British territory lost to the Germans during the entire war.

The unique and tragic story of these islands has inspired historians, authors, and filmmakers since the end of the war. Even Netflix got involved when their original film The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society debuted in 2018. The real story, however, wasn't as romantic or simple as some of the books and movies make it out to be.

Antique map of the Channel Islands. Source: (gettyimages.com)

The Channel Islands

Divided between the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, the seven inhabited islands of the area are a unique territorial legacy of the Norman Conquest. While the Normans lost control of their territory on the European mainland in the 13th century, they managed to retain these small islands in the English Channel. Though not properly a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government in London is still responsible for their defense and international relations.

Today, the islands are popular with tourists for their beautiful coastlines and charming villages, but the main industries are banking and financial services. Much like Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands have low taxes and business-friendly policies—something we all need to keep in mind when those lottery tickets finally work out.  

St. Peter Port, Guernsey. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Invasion

During the early years of World War II in Europe, the British and French suffered a series of catastrophic defeats at the hands of the advancing Germans. After the fall of the Low Countries in 1940, the government in London made the decision to secretly withdraw all military presence on the islands.

After the fall of France in May 1940, the fate of the Channel Islands was sealed. The islanders facilitated the evacuations of children, civilians, and remaining British and French forces on the mainland as best they could, but there weren't enough boats to get everyone to safety.

Not knowing that the islands had been demilitarized, the Germans first attacked from the air on June 28th, 1940, and more than 30 civilians were killed. Two days later, after realizing that the islands were undefended, soldiers landed at the main airport, and the nearly five-year occupation of the Channel Islands began. 

German military fortifications on Jersey. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Occupation

The Germans imposed a series of changes on the islands to make them easier to administer. A new currency was introduced, traffic shifted to the right side of the road, and they even changed the time zone to match mainland Europe.

Unlike in many conquered territories, the local governments of the islands were largely left in place to run civil life under strict supervision. The islanders were faced with unimaginable moral dilemmas, but nobody thought occupation would be easy. Understanding their situation, officials decided to passively cooperate in the aim of maintaining normalcy and avoiding harsher conditions. Despite allegations of collaboration with the occupiers, modern historians have praised these leaders for doing all they could to protect the civilian population under the circumstances.

Life for ordinary people was challenging even during the best of times. Food and fuel were scarce, arbitrary searches and harassment were common, and ordinary consumer goods became luxuries. Over the course of the occupation, more than 2,000 island civilians who committed no crimes were arrested, deported, and imprisoned in Germany. Records also indicate that three Jewish islanders were murdered in the Holocaust—Auguste Spitz, Marianne Grunfeld, and Therese Steiner were deported to Auschwitz in April 1942 and never returned.

British VE-Day memorabilia. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Liberation

After almost five years of occupation, liberation finally came on May 9th, 1945, nearly a year after the D-Day landings less than 100 miles to the east. The islands were heavily defended by the Germans but did not hold much strategic significance, so the Allies decided to instead focus all their resources on the advance to Germany for the rest of the war.

Hitler committed suicide on April 30th, 1945, and news quickly spread that the war was all but over. German forces released their prisoners on May 8, and Winston Churchill declared to the world that the war in Europe would end at midnight. The occupying forces signed the formal documents of surrender at 7:15 in the morning the next day. On May 10, British forces ceremonially raised the Union Jack, bands played, and the celebrations continued for days on end. Each year since May 9 has been celebrated as a public holiday in the Channel Islands.

Tags: The Channel Islands

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!