Interview with Graf von Schmettow
This interview by Ted Vibert was first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966.
To most people in the Channel Islands during the war the name of Graf Von Schmettow stood for the 35,000 German troops stationed in the islands. His was the name the islanders associated with the deprivation of their freedom; he was the enemy, the hated Nazi. He represented Hitler and it was his name that signed the orders which controlled, by force of arms, the wills and actions of an entire people.
After the war, when part of the full story had been told, this former military Commander-in-Chief of all the islands was to be seen in a different light. As a man of high honour and of great kindness and compassion. A Prussian soldier of the old school who believed passionately in the correct behaviour towards people. A man who had risked his career and, indeed, his life to constantly plead for the people of the Channel Islands who were under him.
His repeated efforts to ease the burden of the Channel Islanders made him something of a joke among the rabid Nazis in France and Germany — a joke which was to become deadly serious when he was suddenly recalled six months before the end of the war in a Hitler purge to answer for "softness with the enemy and lack of Nazi zeal".
Count Von Schmettow, from Silesia, arrived in Jersey in 1940. He had spent a lifetime in the German Army and his father was a personal friend of the Kaiser. He joined the Cavalry in 1909, was wounded on the Eastern front during the first World War and later lost a lung when he was gassed on the Western front, where he had command of an infantry division.
He was in hospital in France with a recurrence of his old war wounds when he heard that Germany had taken the Channel Islands.
- ”As I lay in my hospital bed I thought what a nice command that would be and tried to imagine what the islands were like.”
Two days later he was given the job. And so was to begin one of the most fascinating military occupations in modern warfare. Von Schmettow himself calls it "a unique five years, quite unlike anything that has ever happened before in war history”.
Last month the Count and Countess revisited Jersey for the second time since the end of the war. He visited all of the islands and while in Jersey stayed at the home of L A Landick, who arranged an exclusive Jersey Topic interview and acted as interpreter.
Tommies and Jerries
As I shook hands with him I remembered the game we used to play as children during the Occupation, called Tommies and Jerries. We had been taught by patriotic parents to hate Germans because they were the enemy and had taken away our freedom. So this game we played ended with all of us rushing a stake on which hung limply a sack stuffed with grass. As we drove our bamboos into the sack we chanted : "Take that from the King of England, Count Von Schmettow".
He sat opposite me, tall and erect and with bushy parobolic eyebrows. He was a man I no longer hated because I had grown older, the war had been over for a long time and I had read many accounts of how he had made life easier for us.
I asked him why Germany had occupied Jersey, what it had achieved and who had given the orders to take the Channel Islands.
- "The whole purpose of the occupation of the islands was strategic. The German High Command felt that by taking the islands and then turning them into fortresses, the guns of Germany could be turned to France to control the whole of the French coast from Cherbourg to St Malo without tying down artillery and men all the way along the French coast. It was also possible from the Channel Islands to control the sea lanes around Cherbourg, which were very important ones. A signal to all operational commands in the west from Berlin in June of 1940 said that the capture of the British Channel Islands was necessary and urgent. So you can see that we were very determined to take the islands."
Were you surprised that the islands fell so easily — that they were in fact open towns, or did you expect some resistance?
- "No we were not surprised for we had taken this into account in our planning. It was obvious to us that the islands could not really be defended without long planning and work on fortifications and there could not have been time to do this. We could not see Britain releasing vital manpower and equipment to fight a battle for the islands when they were so sorely pressed everywhere else".
You say Germany was determined to take the Channel Islands. But had there been a spirited defence, had Britain sent troops over, would Germany have fought a pitched battle?
- "Yes, we would have done and it would have been a very unfortunate one for the civilians in Jersey. With our air and sea striking power we could have hit the islands very hard, with disastrous results. The decision to declare the islands open towns was very sensible.”
There was little resistance movement during the whole of the Occupation. In fact at times the the relationship was coldly cordial. This has often been criticised by people who did not endure the period. Did you lose any respect for Channel Islanders for not resisting?
- ”There is a difference between a brave man and a brave fool. The attitude of the people was a very sensible one for there was very little that they could do in the form of resistance which would have any point or purpose. A few young men showed great spirit in getting out of the island to join the English forces and fight for their country and I admired them for this.
- ”During the whole of the Occupation the people stayed loyal to their country and again I admired them for this. And throughout they acted with good sense.”
Why was so much effort put into making the Channel Islands so impregnable?
- ”Having occupied the islands, we had to hold them. Firstly because we considered them to be strategically important and secondly, to lose them, would have given the British a morale booster that we could ill-afford. I was constantly asking for more troops and defences for had we been attacked soon after we occupied I doubt if we could have held out. Hitler was also aware of this and in 1941 he issued a direct command that the permanent fortifying of the Channel Islands to convert them into impregnable fortresses had to be pressed forward at maximum speed.”
You were always being accused of softness towards the people of the Channel Islands and took great risks to protect them. Why did you do this?
- "It was never a matter of being soft but of being sensible. I felt when I was given the command that if the people acted correctly I could instil into my troops strict and correct behaviour. Then the Occupation could go on without human unpleasantness leading to reprisals and, perhaps, death. I am sure that had we not started off on this correct footing the people of the islands would have retaliated and most of our time would have been taken up with dealing with the population instead of letting us get on with our job of having a strategic base. It was for this reason that I asked for the Channel Islands to come under its own administration unit and not be grouped under the administration for France. I protested to my superiors that to carry out the repressive measures of France in the Channel Islands where condition were so different, was illogical. It was to create a better understanding of the Channel Island position that I got a historian to write a history of the Channel Islands which I sent back to Germany. I was, soon after my arrival, able to get permission to modify or rectify, on my own responsibility, the regulations which were supposed to cover the Channel Islands".
He paused, smiled and went on:
- "My pleas for favoured attention for the Channel Islands became something of a joke. I remember when I was visited by General Obert, head of the 16th Army and he opened his talks with me by saying 'don't tell me — we're going to hear more about your special circumstances'. I was able to reply that conditions certainly were special in comparison with all the sabotage, resistance and trouble that he was having in France".
Do you believe that had the first Commander-in-Chief been a true Nazi who would have abused his power, that the Occupation of the Channel Islands would have taken a completely different turn?
"This is very difficult for me to answer. Who can predict these things? All I can say is that the islands knew what it was like to be under a rabid Nazi when Vice-Admiral Huffmeier took over from me. Life was certainly quite different.
(Von Schmettow was recalled at the end of February 1945, on the grounds of ill-health, although he had not seen a doctor for 15 months. On his return to Germany he had to face disciplinary action for being too kind and then he disappeared in the general confusion as Germany neared defeat.)
There were many rumours about gas chambers and deportations. Just what were Germany's plans for the people of the Channel Islands?
- ”Had Germany won the war I believe it was Hitler's intention to turn the islands into a vast 'strength-through-joy' holiday place. What would have happened to the population of Jersey no one knows, for no plans had been made at all. Certainly during the war there were several abortive attempts by the planners in Berlin to evacuate the population, particularly when food became so short. I fought this because it was a ludicrous idea — in any case 9O% of the population were employed in keeping vital services going. Our civil servants had strange ideas. I was once ordered to ensure that every battalion had its own cow during the food shortage. What a ridiculous idea this was."
Near the end of the war repeated efforts were made by the British Government and by Eisenhower to get you to surrender the islands. You refused to do this – even though you knew that Germany must lose the war. Why did you not surrender and then wait for the inevitable end?
- ”You are asking a soldier of many years why he did not turn traitor and commit treason on his country. That is very difficult for a professional soldier to do. It was impossible for me to do.”
When you look back on the occupation of the Channel Islands for five years what is your outstanding memory?
- "More than anything, I think of the outstanding leadership in both islands by the officials who found themselves in almost impossible positions. Their handling of the situation was quite exemplary. I remember, too, the intense loyalty of the people of the Channel Islands to their country and their King. I am firm in my belief that the occupation of the Channel Islands will go down in military history as unique in which mutual respect of the population and the occupying forces for each other was the ruling factor. It is my sincere hope that one of the pleasant memories of the population of the islands in what was an unpleasant five years for them was the high standard of behaviour by troops who were, in effect, the conquerors for that long period of five years."
And so I left him. A man I no longer hated and for whom the people of the Channel Islands can feel some measure of gratitude.