On June 28, 1940, one week after France fell to Germany, a squadron of Luftwaffe bombers appeared over the small town of St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey. The British government, recognizing the impossibility of defending this five-mile-wide dot of land in the English Channel, just 20 miles from the coast of Normandy, had declared Guernsey and its neighboring island of Jersey demilitarized areas. But, as Guernsey residents like to say even today with a certain sardonic humor, “the Germans apparently didn’t receive the message.” A few minutes of bombing and strafing left 29 civilians dead.
Two days later, the first Germans landed on the island’s tiny airstrip. And so began five years of Nazi rule over the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans during the war.
Guernsey is exceptionally beautiful, full of wooded coves, rugged cliffs, winding lanes bounded by ancient stone walls, Norman manor houses, and pubs more English than England’s.
Driving around the island one is likely to glimpse on one side a Neolithic standing stone in the middle of a green field stretching down to the sea, on the other a 14th-century church, and then straight ahead find the picture-postcard scene sent askew by a towering concrete observation post left by the Germans.
It’s always been a place that was more than a little quirky, part Monty Python and part Alice in Wonderland. Though possessions of the Crown for 1,000 years, ever since the locals pledged their continued allegiance to the Duke of Normandy—that’s now Queen Elizabeth II—the Channel Islands never became a part of England or the United Kingdom; to this day the islands (population 160,000) each have their own currency, legal systems, strangely titled officials (bailiff, doyen, greffier, procureur), distinctive if rapidly dying dialects of Norman French, and insulting terms for the residents of the other Channel Islands. The weekend I visited Guernsey the big news was the first-ever election on the even tinier island of Sark, an autonomous state within Guernsey that was Europe’s last remaining feudal territory, ruled by the hereditary seigneur. Guernsey’s major business these days is its offshore banking industry.
The German occupation was thorough and bizarre. Hitler, obsessed with the symbolic significance of holding a piece of British territory, poured resources into holding the islands far out of proportion to any strategic significance. Guernsey had evacuated most of its schoolchildren and about a third of its adult population in the two weeks before the Germans arrived, leaving some 22,000 residents; Hitler sent 15,000 troops to take charge. The Nazis ordered drivers to change from the left to the right side of the road, numbered the island’s meandering roadways, and made German language classes compulsory in the schools that remained open. The occupiers threw up a bristling ring of shore defenses and brought in thousands of slave laborers to dig 700 bunkers and tunnels. The local movie theater featured German propaganda films and military brass bands paraded through St. Peter Port.
At the German Occupation Museum I met Richard Heaume, a native Guernseyman who began collecting war relics as a boy in the 1950s and has since become one of the island’s leading occupation preservationists. “Right after war everyone wanted to forget,” Heaume told me. Bunkers were filled in, and even the huge naval guns were cut up and sold for scrap.
The museum is Heaume’s labor of love, and it is direct and unsparing. Along with an astonishingly good collection of militaria and other artifacts—Nazi guns and vehicles, German signboards and posters, odds and ends of daily life under the occupation—is an understated frankness toward the moral ambiguities of the era. There were heroes and cowards. A notice from the German military government warned that “any persons marking walls with ‘V’ signs or insults against the German Armed Forces are liable to be shot.” Nearby in the museum hangs a rock marked with a V dating from the occupation. A group of men calling themselves the Guernsey Underground News Service, who typed up and circulated on tomato-wrapping paper a secret daily newspaper, were caught in 1944 and imprisoned.
But there were also informers and collaborators. A woman on Jersey who gave shelter to an escaped Russian slave laborer was informed on and sent to Ravensbrück, where she was killed in the gas chamber. The island authorities meekly went along with German orders to register Jews—a bit of Hitlerian obsessiveness that would seem almost comical, given the absurdly tiny Jewish population of Guernsey, were it not for the fact, as the museum’s walls informed me, that the three Jewish women on the island perished in Auschwitz.
One can read about Hitler’s belief in the Thousand-Year Reich, but seeing it on the Channel Islands is another thing. The fortifications the Nazis built on Guernsey are staggering in their elaborate sense of permanence. These are not the hasty erections of the British or Americans; they are the work of people who worshipped war, who saw war as a perpetual state of mankind. Heaume showed me a copy of the book the local commanders produced to impress the authorities in Berlin: lovingly executed watercolors and architectural drawings documenting every gun emplacement, tunnel complex, and bunker of Festung Guernsey—Fortress Guernsey.
As we drove to the southwest corner of the island, I spotted four of the island’s famous brown-and-white-spotted Guernsey dairy cattle grazing in a field stretching down to the sea; there are not many left today on an island where land is at a premium and the cheapest property an outsider can purchase starts at $1.5 million. And then dead ahead, dominating the rocky coastline, was the five-story naval observation tower at Pleinmont, a concrete version of one of the Easter Island statues, out of scale, anthropomorphic with its oversized mouthlike slits.
Heaume took me into the restored bunker of a 105mm gun position at Fort Hommet; he spent 30,000 pounds on the project back in the 1990s, removing piles of debris and painstakingly recreating the interior as it was during the war. It was almost too neat; I was drawn more to the decaying old fort at the headland where the Nazis had built a mammoth bunker crazily fused into a Napoleonic-era tower, erected by the locals to keep the French from invading back in the first years of the 19th century.
Everywhere the past and present juxtapose oddly. I certainly never would have noticed it, but Heaume pointed out to me a series of new houses that used German 88mm gun emplacements as their foundations. A Neolithic tomb in the midst of a green hillside was used by the Germans as an ammunition storage depot. A bunker along the coast road is the innocuous backdrop to a bus stop.
Up on the higher ground overlooking a bay on the west coast that the Germans feared might be an Allied invasion point, a house was being erected over a gun-bunker complex that will serve as its strange new basement.
Nearby we tramped across a soggy field, through a muddy fenced yard now used for paintball wars, and there amid a few vines was a series of concrete steps leading down into a vast subterranean labyrinth. Our flashlights lit up graffiti of recent vintage scrawled below Nazi eagles and slogans about victory over England. Room after room led on—the site provided housing for 72 men, storage for stacks of 12-inch shells, trolleys to move them to the gun, tunnels leading to a radar site on the other side of the tiny country lane.
After D-Day, the Allies decided to simply bypass the Channel Islands to avoid a needless and bloody fight, so Guernsey entered an even stranger chapter in its history, ruled by a cutoff German garrison and slowly starving to death. Most of the 700 horses the Germans brought as draft and riding mounts were eaten; were it not for a Red Cross ship that was finally allowed to bring in food parcels, thousands would have perished. The islanders’ suffering only came to an end in the spring of 1945, after Germany surrendered.
But May 9 is still celebrated as Liberation Day there; in a place where 4,000-year-old monuments still stand in farm fields, the history of a half-century ago is not about to vanish.
When You Go
Guernsey is a one-hour flight from London (schedules and fares at aurigny.com and flybe.com), and is also accessible by ferry from England and France (condorferries.co.uk). Many Guernsey hotels offer two- or three-day “short break” packages that include accommodations, meals, airfare, and car rental at a substantial saving.
The German Occupation Museum (44 1481 238205) leads guided walks and “occupation rambles” through some of the fortifications and bunkers.
Where to Stay and Eat
The Fermain Valley Hotel is on a beautiful wooded hillside overlooking a sheltered cove and also has Guernsey’s only Michelin-star restaurant (doubles from $250 in summer; fermainvalley.com, 44 1481 235666). Les Douvres, a former 18th-century manor house that’s been converted to a pub, offers nice bar lunches as well as bed-and-breakfast accommodations ($150 for a double; lesdouvreshotel.co.uk, 44 1481 238731). Locals recommend Le Nautique and The Absolute End in St. Peter Port for the best local seafood.
What Else to See
Hauteville House, where the French writer Victor Hugo lived in exile for 15 years (and where he wrote the novel Les Misérables), is open for tours from April to September.