After Winston Churchill decided that no attempt would be made to defend the Channel Islands from German invasion, each island took its own decision as to whether evacuation was necessary.
24 hours warning
It all happened very suddenly in Alderney. On 22 June a notice pinned to a government office door informed islanders that the Admiralty had been asked to send a ship to evacuate them, but there was no confirmation that this would happen. At 6 o'clock the following morning church bells rang to notify residents that six Royal Navy ships that would take 1,500 of them to England were approaching Braye Harbour, and so virtually the whole population left.
Of the 12 who remained, five opted to be taken to Guernsey, leaving but seven islanders to witness the occupation of their island by elite German troops for five long years.
Unlike in the larger islands of Jersey and Guernsey, where thousands remained to see and suffer the German Occupation, what went on in Alderney was largely unseen and unrecorded.
That is probably why the Germans chose to build four camps in Alderney to house 4,000 forced labour workers, who worked on extensive fortifications. The camps included SS Lager Sylt, the only Nazi concentration camp on British land.
Island in ruins
By 1944, over 3,200 German troops were also based there. Conditions were poor and when the islanders eventually returned on 15 December 1945, their beautiful island lay in ruins. Houses had been ripped apart and doors used as firewood. Land mines were scattered everywhere.
How many of these workers, and others housed in the camps, died is a matter of considerable debate. The British Government's estimate following post-war investigations was, for several decades, limited to 370. However, it is now estimated that over 700 people died on the island – a figure given credence in the Visit Alderney website's historical section.
In recent years there have been claims that the figure was far higher. A 2017 article in the Daily Mail suggested that 40,000 prisoners died in the camps, a figure since supported by some Jewish researchers, who suggest that the island is covered in mass graves of thousands Jews who perished in the camps.
The Daily Mail article also suggested that a complex to launch V1 rockets at the English south coast was also being developed in Alderney prior to D-Day. It was claimed that these rockets would have carried chemical weapons and would have been aimed at troops preparing for the June 1944 invasion.
These claims have been ridiculed by island historians and it is interesting that when a documentary putting the death toll at 700 was aired in 2019, no mention appears to have been made of the earlier 40,000 figure.
Whatever the truth of the death toll, it is never likely to be confirmed because all groups concerned have steadfastly resisted any suggestion of archaeological digs on sites which may or may not contain graves, individual or otherwise. What is known is that troops from SS units took control of the Nordeney and Sylt camps in 1943 and that Jews were sent there to meet a certain fate.
Times of Israel
The Times of Israel reported in 2017, following the Daily Mail article:
- "Jewish inmates were sent to [Alderney] as a satellite of the Neuengamme concentration camp. At both camps, the Jews were kept in separate “pens”. Even among the untermenschen, or inferior people, a hierarchy was to be maintained.
- "Although these were not explicitly extermination camps, most slave laborers did not leave Alderney alive. The dangerous, exhausting work to which they were subjected for 10 to12 hours a day, starvation rations (sometimes further diminished by widespread SS corruption and theft), rampant dysentery and unforgiving Atlantic storms which lashed the island saw to that.
- "So, too, did the Germans’ utter disregard for the lives of those they regarded as subhuman: survivors later recalled summary executions, vicious beatings and savage punishments meted on those caught stealing food or cigarettes.
- "There was little or no respite from this living hell: it was near-impossible to escape the island, while, unlike on Jersey or Guernsey, there was no local population from whom occasional acts of pity — warmer clothing, a morsel of food — might be forthcoming.
- "For those who did survive to tell the tale, their recollections of the heavy mists which frequently hang over Alderney stand as a metaphor for the cloak of secrecy about what occurred here."
The Times of Israel article suggest that the 'cloak of secrecy about what occurred is only now slowly beginning to lift' but little or nothing has emerged since to confirm the extravagant claims of 40,000 deaths.
Many Alderney residents believe that the truth lies in British and German archives and have called for documents relating to their island's occupation, which they believe are still being kept secret, to be released.
On 8 May, the Channel Islands began to be surrendered. Jersey and Guernsey celebrate Liberation Day on 9 May, Sark on 10 May and Alderney people recognise 16 May as the day their island was returned to them. However, 15 December is celebrated as a public holiday as the date when the islanders began to return and the enormous clear up operation began. For the subsequent 2 years, Alderney ran as a communal farm and slowly the island was repaired.
There is little photographic evidence in existence of the war years; limited to date to a handful of German propaganda pictures. But an album of photographs and other material which was offered for sale in 2018, gives a fascinating insight into the social life of the Alderney garrison.
It is somewhat ironic given the fate of the majority of the island's non-German residents during the Occupation years, that one page of the album should contain a picture of ballroom dancers with a May 1944 message from SS Obersturmfuhrer Braun:
- "Fur die bereiteten frohen stunden auf der Kanalinsel Alderney herzlichen Dank" which translates as "For the happy hours on the Channel Island of Alderney, warm thanks."
Another page, also with a ballroom dancing photograph, contains the signatures of six German soldiers about to leave on 5 June 1944, the day before D-Day, expressing 'thousand thanks'.
A third page, shows their evacuation ship apparently moored in St Malo on 1 July 1944, having left Alderney a week earlier and, presumably, stopped in Guernse or Jersey. What happened to them after this is uncertain, because the Allies were closing in on the Normandy and Brittany coast and St Malo surrendered to the Americans seven weeks later.
Somehow the album clearly made its way back to the owner's homeland and emerged last year when it was offered for sale. We have no idea who bought it, but its significance was only recognised when the images, still on the auction site, were spotted and copied for Jerripedia.
The album, the contents of which appear to date from late May to June 1944, contains photographs of two concerts, one a seemingly grand affair somewhere indoors, and the other in a garden.
One shows a group of five smiling women in front of a building with a red cross in the window and the doctor's sign 'Inselarze Revier' on the railings.
It seems unlikely that they were going to attend the concert – they dressed in daytime attire, and possibly not appropriate to early summer. A second photograph of four women in long evening gowns seem much more suitable to an evening concert.
The three photographs of the concert itself suggest that it was a very grand affair, with a 13-piece band, including a conductor. The drapes in front of their music stands bearing an outline of Alderney and the number 197 have been provisionally identifying them as members of a Luftwaffe unit.
Everything suggests that this was an important event in Alderney's wartime social calendar.
Two further photographs show probably members of the same ensemble performing an outdoor concert for a group of German officers and women.
Other pages of the album include a drawing of Alderney's cliffs, a photograph of a woman with a bicycle somewhere on the island, and a poem commencing 'Bungalow on Alderney …' with another photograph of the ballroom dancers.
Finally there is a typed programe for 'Die grosse Buhnenschau', which was performed twice on 29 May 1944 – a matinee from 3 to 5.30 pm, and an evening performance from 7.30 to 10. This programme bears a number of signatures, presumably of the performers.
Not only is there no other record of any similar event in Alderney, but we are not aware of a set of photographs of a similar nature for the German garrison in Jersey or Guernsey.
Two articles from the Frank Falla Archive on imprisonment in Alderney
Notes and references