The occupation of the British Channel Islands from June 1940 to May 1945 rarely features in the popular narrative of the Second World War nor has it, for the most part, captured the attention of writers, Mary Chamberlain tells Historia in her review of Duncan Barrett’s When the Germans Came.
There are exceptions both in fiction (including my own recent novel The Hidden) and in non-fiction by historians such as Paul Sanders or journalists such as Madeleine Bunting whose The Model Occupation, first published in 1995, has been the most comprehensive (and, within the Channel Islands, controversial) study of the occupation. She, too has now turned to fiction, drawing on her extensive research for Island Song. A younger generation of historians and archaeologists are now emerging, such as Gilly Carr or Caroline Sturdy Colls, asking different questions of that troubled period of Britain’s past. Duncan Barrett’s new social history of the occupation is therefore a welcome addition to this literature.
Jersey, Guernsey and Sark were occupied within days of each other at the end of June, 1940. There had been some evacuations of children, some women, and men who had signed up in the armed forces, prior to the invasion. Only on Alderney had the entire population left. Those who remained were forced to adjust and find their own ways of survival alongside, and under, an army of occupation whose numbers were swelled by the labourers, and officials, of the Organisation Todt who provided the manpower (mostly enslaved) to build the islands’ defences.
In the view of the islanders, Churchill had abandoned them twice – once in 1940 when he demilitarised the islands and left them to the mercy of the invaders and then again in 1944 when the allied forces could not or would not deviate from their course to liberate them. The bitterness was palpable.
The scope of Barrett’s history is impressive. He juggles three historical balls: the political course of the invasion, from the triumphant entry of the Nazis, to their demoralised and starving end; the civilian leadership treading a fine line between defence of their peoples and an increasingly volatile and demanding occupier; the population of the islands manoeuvring to survive in a harsh and bewildering environment. Civilians, occupiers and slave labourers were all trapped and, after the allied invasion at Normandy, under siege and coping with the very real threat of starvation. It was, in many ways, a peculiar occupation as both sides became imprisoned within an island fortress.
The issue of collaboration has been one of the most contentious subjects surrounding the occupation: at what point, if at all, did the accommodation of the leaders – the Dame of Sark, Sybil Hathaway, and the bailiffs of Guernsey and Jersey, Victor Carey and Alexander Coutanche respectively – lead to connivance with the Nazi regime? Equally, in the quest for survival, when does working with the regime fuse into working for it, or befriending a young, lonely German soldier, become treachery? Barrett’s subtlety lies in his refusal to pass judgements. He presents the issues fairly and sympathetically, leaving it to the reader to decide on the moral probity of individual actions or the political and social expediency which drove them.
And yet, in all the claustrophobic intensity of the occupation, Barrett has also captured something of the joy and optimism that many of his informants, young men and women at the time, could not suppress: the efforts to entertain, to keep up civilian morale, to find love and lose it. But this is pitched against the bravery with which many of the islanders stamped their mark against the invaders – losing, in the process, liberty and in many cases, life. Those contradictions of survival live side by side.
Barrett spent months living in the Channel Islands and talking to as many people as possible who remembered the period. Now very old, they had for the most part been children or young adults at the time. He supplemented his oral histories with contemporary accounts, both published and unpublished.
The result is an eminently readable, enjoyable and informative social history of the time, a fascinating and nuanced account of five years of occupation, rich in detail and insights into survival and accommodation. Barrett takes us through the period, revealing not only the chronology of the occupation from invasion to liberation but, with careful and telling moments, its psychological, emotional and social impacts. And that is what history should do.
Read more about When the Germans Came.
German soldiers standing in King Street, St Helier: via Wikimedia