During World War II, the only British soil to be occupied by the German Armed Forces were the islands of Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel. This occupation lasted five years. The aftermath is still visible with the underground Jersey War Tunnels located at St. Lawerence.
War is declared
Before war was declared in 1939, Jersey was a tourist destination for Brits. With its milder weather and glorious beaches, even in 1940, the government was encouraging tourism to the channel. In June 1940, with the advancing German forces in France, it was decided that the channel islands were of no strategic significance and the crown decided to not defend the islands. Locals had until 10am the next morning to choose to stay with the uncertainty or head to England.
A vast majority of islanders stayed in Jersey, not knowing what the future would hold. On June 30th 1940, the first German soldiers arrived. Trucks loaded with potatoes were mistaken for trucks loaded with weapons and the resultant bombing resulted in 9 fatalities.
At the start of July, Jersey surrendered, and German rule began. Time zones changed to fit with mainland Europe, and the remaining government did their utmost to ‘collaborate’ to protect the local islanders. There was no guidance on what to do in a situation like this, but the safety and survival of the 40,000 people who stayed.
Times were tough, with all means of news from the British Isles being halted and limited food rations. As much as the locals may have wanted to be resistant to the German rule, a sense of passive self preservation seemed to make more sense. The Germans were ruthless, with imprisonments and hard labour at what may be seen as ‘minor indiscretions’ such as owning a wireless radio.
The Atlantic Wall
The Island of Jersey became part of the grand Atlantic Wall project. Along with most of mainland Europe and Scandinavia, the fortified coast became the first line of defence from an imminent Allied attack. There was an immense amount of propaganda from German about occupying these British nations and what it would do to the British morale. A lot of structures remain, with one of the more complex and intact areas at the Hohlgangsanlage tunnels (also known as the Jersey War Tunnels)
So many resources were sent to fortify the Channel Islands as part of the Atlantic Wall, that other areas were more defenceless, including the beaches at Normandy.
Jersey War Tunnels
More than 1,000 metres of networked tunnels sprawl 50 metres deep into the shale of central Jersey.
This network of tunnels acted as ration stores, shelter, military quarters and even as a hospital. A secret labyrinth on British soil for the German armed forces.
More than 5,000 slave labourers worked on its construction which was a dangerous and delicate process. The shale ground was not as solid as the granite expected and there were plenty of cave-ins and collapses. It was 12 hours of back-breaking labour for the prisoners sent here from all over Nazi Europe.
The exhausted workers were treated harshly, but the Russians suffered the most. They were seen to be sub-human, and were treated like animals. Many are known to have died from disease, malnutrition, accidents and exhaustion.
Freedom is not just a word to those who have lost it.Frank Keller
Visiting the Jersey War Tunnels
Today, the War Tunnels tell the compelling story of life in Jersey under occupation and features a series of thought-provoking galleries looking at the diverse experiences of all those who lived through it, whether Jersey, British or German.
The tunnels end with reflections on occupation, freedom and reconciliation.
The main entrance to the war tunnels are located in St. Lawrence, which you can drive or cycle to, or you can get the 28 bus from Liberation Bus Station. There is a cafe there and a garden of reflection to enjoy.
Entrance price is around £15 and can spend a good 2 hours exploring the site.
To book tickets and find out more information head over to the official website at https://www.jerseywartunnels.com