British Land Under German Boots

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Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now. Here's the first installment:

FOREST, Guernsey - Sailing on the MS Caribbean Princess, one of those monster cruise ships that carries thousands of mostly geriatric passengers from one tourist destination to the next, our first port of call was St. Peter Port, on the Channel Island of Guernsey. 

Though on the French side of the English Channel and bracketed by the Cotentin Peninsula and Brittany, the eight permanently inhabited islands are unmistakably British, going back nearly 1,000 years to the reign of William the Conqueror. The biggest two islands, Guernsey and Jersey, are British crown dependencies - called Bailiwicks - with their own governments and even own currencies (though they'll happily take your Sterling Pounds at a 1-to-1 exchange rate).

The most remarkable part of the islands' history, however, was the five years during which they were NOT under British rule. Ja, in 1940, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht showed up, as the Channel Islands became the only British territory that fell under Nazi occupation during World War II.

After the fall of France and the near annihilation of the British forces on the continent in June 1940, it was evident that Channel Islands could not be defended. The British quietly evacuated the islands and demilitarized them - but never bothered to tell the Germans about it. The Luftwaffe made a probing air raid on June 28, killing 33 civilians in Guernsey. Only then did the British government notify Berlin - via the American embassy - that the islands were no longer defended and the Germans were welcome to them.

Life under the Nazi boots wasn't easy, but make no mistake, also not quite as harsh as what was experienced in the German-occupied eastern territories. The first thing the Germans did - aside from having a military parade - was make everybody drive on the right side of the road and change the time from British time to Central European time. Gradually, the Germans would station up to 100,000 troops on the islands, though the Allies never even contemplated an invasion.

The remnants of the German defensive works - erected with the help of 16,000 slave laborers imported to the islands - are still evident today on the shores of Guernsey. And the life and times of those five years are faithfully chronicled at the German Occupation Museum.

Located in the town of Forest, about a 15-minute bus ride from St. Peter Port, the German Occupation Museum is housed in an inauspicious one-story building surrounded by farms (yes, there are plenty of Guernsey cows on Guernsey). But once inside, you'll find a rich collection of armaments, munitions, automobiles and uniforms, as well as documents retelling the stories from 1940-1945. You can easily spend two hours walking through the museum's packed exhibits.

Closer to St. Peter Port, there's another, smaller museum also devoted to the wartime experience of the Channel Islands. La Vallette Underground Military Museum is located inside the underground tunnels the Germans built to store massive quantities of oil, though ironically it was never used during the enitre war. This museum has an interesting exhibition of all kinds of paraphernalia confiscated from all German service branches (Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine), as well as wartime posters and documents.

The war officially ended for the Channel Islanders a bit later than for everybody else in Europe, as the British had to arrange for ships to bring troops and supplies to the islands - there's a transcript (available at both museums) of the somewhat humorous exchange between the British and German commanders on how the surrender should be handled, with the British requesting the Germans maintain order until they arrive.

The worst period of the war for the islands was its final 11 months, following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, as the Germans could no longer resupply the islands after losing control of the French coast. Winston Churchill wanted the German garrison "to rot," but that also meant the islanders under occupation were rotting with the Germans. With acute shortages of food and fuel, the Red Cross finally had to intervene. Between December 1944 and the end of the war, the ship SS Vega made six trips from Lisbon to keep the malnourished population fed.

The Channel Islands are not hurting for much now, as the economy is booming, thanks to the special status that allowed them to become a financial hub and tax haven - in 2008, Jersey's GDP per capita was the highest in the world. The islands, though, are still known for the rich dairy products produced from those Guernsey and Jersey cows, and potatoes.

Our stop at Guernsey was brief - a mere four hours - but long enough to get a lot of history out of it. Next up, 'The Saddest Place in Ireland.'

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