Wartime ‘Resistance’ in the Channel Is

This is a review I originally wrote for the LRB, but which was crowded out by Brexit pieces. The Literary Review, however, took a shortened version, which appears there this month: https://literaryreview.co.uk/no-man-is-an-island-2. Here is the original (3000-word) article, if anyone’s interested.

Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands. German Occupation, 1940-45. By Gilly Carr, Paul Sanders and Louise Willmot. Bloomsbury Press, xiii + 375 pp., 2015.

The Second World War has always been a sensitive topic for Channel Islanders. The only part of the British Isles occupied by the Germans – run by two Kommandanten, military and civil, with most of the usual Nazi paraphernalia, like draconian laws, forced immigrant labour, expulsion of Jews and internment camps – they came up with hardly any serious native ‘Resistance’ at all, as that word is generally understood. To MRD Foot, the historian of European Resistance movements during World War II, they appeared ‘an embarrassment’, by comparison with, for example, occupied France, Norway and Denmark. Several Channel Islanders collaborated with the enemy, as indeed was the case in those other countries, and even in Britain itself; the difference being, however, that virtually none of the other Channel Islanders took up arms or plotted in any significant way against their occupiers, which might have compensated for this, and given them and their descendants some retrospective dignity and pride. Gilly Carr, who is from Guernsey stock, set out on her research for this book, as she confided to a local newspaper, ‘furious’ at this reputation, and determined to set the record straight. ‘Fury’ is perhaps not the best mood in which to start a piece of objective research. In November 2010 the Guernsey Press anticipated her findings with the unambiguous headline: ‘Cleared at Last’. In the event Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands doesn’t quite justify that verdict, or, I would say, anything close to it; but it does furnish a revealing picture of how a not very heroic people – probably like most of us – managed to cope with the difficult circumstances of a basically irresistible enemy occupation, well short of active collaboration on the part of most of them.

To expect much more of the islanders was probably unreasonable. Abandoned by the British government as not worth holding on to even before their capture in July 1940, demilitarised apart from a few shotguns, skimmed of most of their fighting-age men, geographically much closer, of course, to the French coast than to the English, which made escape difficult, with few natural hiding or plotting places, and with a German garrison far bigger, proportionately, than in any other western European occupied country – Paul Sanders claims that Germans were actually thicker on the ground there than in Germany itself; against all this, ‘proper’ – that is organised military – resistance was almost out of the question. There were other factors militating against it. Jersey and Guernsey’s political organisations were almost feudal – Alderney’s and Sark’s more so. The islands were ruled by traditional elites with scarcely any democratic input, and no proper political parties before the war. A ‘Jersey Democratic Movement’ sprang up in 1942, but that confined its attention to reforming the island government after the war. Trade union organisation was rudimentary. Women knew their place – there were fewer in paid jobs than on the mainland. So there was no strong tradition of collective popular protest. This meant that if the Germans got the elites onside, which they managed to do, they had little to fear from the wider population. They were also fairly clever in not alienating that population unnecessarily. British-born Channel Islanders were deported, and of course Jews, but not gentiles who had been born there. They were allowed to live pretty normal lives in the main: adequately nourished (there are lots of farms in the Channel Islands); their Christian worship respected, except the Salvation Army for some reason (the uniform?); and not forced to labour for the occupying forces, with eastern Europeans (called ‘OTs’, for Organisation Todt) being shipped in for that. There was some oppression: the most resented form was the confiscation of wireless sets from June 1942, and pretty draconian punishments for anyone caught listening to the BBC or spreading its news; but no islander, so far as can be ascertained, was put to death for that, though it was theoretically possible. Although not formally organised, the Channel Islanders were fairly close-knit, and news of that sort of atrocity was bound to spread. Hence what appears to be their relative quiescence during the war.

Serious resistance was limited to the tiny Jersey Communist Party; a Salvationist Major, Marie Ozanne, who refused to change into civvies and constantly railed against the occupiers’ ‘reign of terror’: she was imprisoned and died shortly afterwards, but probably not due to bad treatment, thinks Louise Willmot; a couple of lesbian surrealist artists, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, brought up in a different political tradition in France; and a few maverick individuals. The Communists made sketches of German fortifications with the hope of getting them to the Allies, and circulated propaganda. ARP wardens – many of them First World War veterans – used their relative liberty of movement to spy. A couple of individuals made and distributed illegal crystal sets. Gangs of naturally ‘rebellious adolescents’ tried sabotaging German vehicles (smearing tar on the seats was a favourite trick), cutting cables, turning signposts, and stealing the Germans’ Christmas mail. Schwob and Malherbe sought to sow dissension among the occupying troops by circulating a collage of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas – in flagrante? it’s not made clear – superimposed on a photograph of German soldiers. They were nothing if not enterprising. None of this came to anything; but at least they tried.

To fill in the gaps, and make sense of their claim that the islanders were pretty resistant really, the authors of this book have broadened their definition to include symbolic protests, like chalking ‘V’s (for Allied Victory) on walls, wearing patriotic badges in their buttonholes (but behind their lapels), and sporting national colours. A football match on Jersey in May 1944 was attended by 4-5,000 spectators, who apparently treated it as a patriotic demonstration because of the colours of the teams’ shirts: red and white for the Corinthians, blue and white for St Clements. (Afterwards the Germans forbad the Jersey Evening Post from advertising any more sporting fixtures.) There were also acts of simple disobedience, some of which were trivial – like refusing to shake hands with Germans – but others of which were significant, and could bring serious retribution, like listening to the radio and offering help to escaped prisoners and OTs. Young women caterers used to secretly spit in the Germans’ soup. Clergymen included encoded scriptural references to the war in their sermons. Escaped prisoners and forced labourers were sheltered for months in attics, cellars and barns. Anti-German jokes were circulated. (‘Why are the Germans going to close St Joseph’s church? Because there’s a canon in the pulpit.’ That must have slayed them). Eighteen civilian Guernsey policemen were tried in 1942 for pilfering from German depots, which could be claimed to be patriotic and redistributive, except that some of the goods stolen were from islander-owned stores (‘ah, but they were going to be sold to the Germans’), and consisted of hard liquor, which may not all have reached the poor. Adolescents (again) enjoyed interrupting newsreels with catcalls whenever Hitler appeared, and the ‘exaggerated saluting of everyone in uniform (including the postman)’; but this, as Willmot admits, was ‘cheek, not resistance’. I remember getting up to the same sorts of tricks in school. Still, it helped sustain morale.

What was notably lacking was any kind of significant protest on behalf of the Jews who were forced to register in 1940, and then deported to the Continent, some to their deaths, in 1942-3; acknowledged here, with regret, by all three authors. Only a handful of members of the islands’ Councils objected; which contrasts with the protests they did put up when members of their own staffs, or families, or – perhaps more tellingly – Freemasons, were selected. Some degree of anti-semitism is likely to have lain behind this (though Paul Sanders points out that prominent and rich Jews were protected); together with what David Fraser elsewhere has described as the ‘gross and immoral utilitarian calculation’ that it was worth sacrificing a few Jews for the good of the wider community. There were also not believed to be many Jews remaining on the islands, most of them having left for Britain on the outbreak of war; and it may be that the islanders were ignorant of their likely fates. Individually, several Jews avoided registration and extradition with the help of brave neighbours, one of whom, Albert Bedane, was posthumously awarded Israel’s ‘highest Holocaust honour’ in 2000 in recognition. Much the same could be said of the ‘OT’ system, against which there was almost no public protest, and quite a lot of animus manifested against the forced labourers themselves – resentful of their begging and even stealing to keep alive on their meagre rations of thin potato soup and hard bread; but still several examples of individual humanity – food, clothes, shelter, concealment – towards those who tried to abscond. Much of this kind of charity was meted out by the islands’ doctors, who were also by and large the bravest in their open defiance of the authorities, probably because they knew they couldn’t be dispensed with; and clergymen, who kept their heads down more, but acted the good Samaritan when they could. Whether this made up for the islanders’ lack of collective effort in defence of these unfortunates must be a matter of individual judgment; so long as the context is taken into account.

One piece of that context is of course the position taken up and the guidance given to their compatriots by the formal rulers of the islands, who continued in place throughout the war, and then, as Paul Sanders points out, became ‘the only collaborating administration in the whole of occupied Europe that remained in office in the post-war era.’ Whether or not that is to their credit is another matter of judgment, and one of the two major moral questions raised by this book. (The other is whether ordinary people were justified in following their guidance.) The general tenor of the governments’ approach is indicated by this statement by Ambrose Sherwill, president of Guernsey’s ‘Controlling Committee’ at the start of the occupation, expressing his hope that

this occupation [may] be a model to the world. On the one hand, tolerance on the part of the military authority, and courtesy and correctness on the part of the occupying forces, and on the other, dignity and courtesy and exemplary behaviour on the part of the civilian population.

That implies collaboration, but in the vaguest terms. In October 1940 however Sherwill was succeeded by the Reverend John Leale, who even before the invasion had been a good deal blunter.

There must be no thought of any kind of resistance, we can only expect that the more dire punishment will be meted. I say this, the man who even contemplates resistance should the Germans come is the most dangerous man in the Island, and its most bitter enemy.

Sanders thinks that went unnecessarily far. The excuse for this kind of approach, of course, was that it sheltered the islanders from more direct German rule, which was bound to be more onerous. The advantage to the occupiers was that they didn’t have to rule directly, which might have provoked more active and dangerous resistance from the people, and warned the British in Britain – who were of course the next stop on Hitler’s schedule – of what they might expect. Leale and Sherwill both claimed that they had saved countless lives in this way, which they may have done. Whether this had any adverse impact on the Allied cause in the war is doubtful. All these authors think that nothing the islanders could have done in the islands could have contributed to the broader strategies of either side. So why risk innocent lives for no gain?

Answers to that question at the time may have depended on who you were in Jersey and Guernsey; less on your class or occupation – all three authors agree that ‘resisters came from all social groups’ – than on which island you lived on, and how old you were. Jersey saw the largest incidence of resistance, for many reasons, most of them circumstantial. On both islands the 17-25 age group was far and away the most active when it came to minor sabotage, ‘symbolic resistance’ and ‘cheek’; with older people being the most generous in sheltering escapees – obviously, because they owned the houses to hide them in – and the veterans of the ARP the most able to indulge in espionage activities. The youth of the saboteurs and tricksters went against them among the general population, however, by associating their ‘resistance’ with youthful high spirits at best, hooliganism at worst – at any rate, not with ‘patriotism’ – and so seeming to play to the normal anti-‘youth’ prejudices of their more respectable elders. Some of the youths actually admitted to getting a buzz out of their adventures, which was supposed to cheapen them. The Guernsey police’s liquor thefts raised similar suspicions. In societies as basically conservative and middle-aged as these – literally, because most young men had been evacuated to the mainland in the summer of 1940 – law-breaking appeared more reprehensible morally, as well as strictly legally, than it clearly did to the young. Sanders calls it ‘rule worship’.

This was heightened by the awareness, or perception, that rule-breaking by a small minority could endanger the lives of the rest of them. ‘Most people were furious’, recalled one Guernesiaise at the end of the war, referring to an illegal escape. ‘Aren’t they selfish? Now we shall be punished.’ ‘Selfishness’ was a common accusation. Most of the roughly 1,300 islanders who were tried for all offences by German courts in the 1940s – around two per cent of the total – were regarded as simple ‘troublemakers’ by apparently the bulk of the population, who had little sympathy even for the most clearly ‘political’ of them while they were serving their sentences, often in dreadful German gaols or concentration camps. One after-effect of this was that when they were liberated and returned home they weren’t widely welcomed as the heroes they perceived themselves to be, and as their fellow resisters from the other occupied countries generally were. One who proudly sported a badge made by her sister with the words ‘Political Prisoner 12516’ and ‘victory 1945’ embroidered on it quickly removed it when she found it was attracting more hostility than admiration. Gilly Carr speculates that this might have been because such shows of defiance could be implied to cast the more compliant majority in a poor light. More salt was rubbed into the wound when the 1946 British New Year’s honours list was published, featuring knighthoods for three of the collaborating governors, including Leale, and CBEs, MBEs and OBEs scattered among their underlings; and none at all for any of the resisters. It was as if, post-war, both the official and the popular judgment was against the very idea of resistance to the islanders’ former Nazi overlords, which as a result was seen as a mark of poor judgment, at the very least, if not actual shame.

Some islanders will have actually collaborated with the Germans – beyond, that is, the actions of their formal rulers. There’s not much about this here – it’s not, after all, the subject of the book – but there are hints scattered through. Louise Willmot for example doesn’t shrink from the topic of ‘horizontal collaboration’ – Jersey and Guernsey women (or ‘Jerrybags’) who had sexual relations with German soldiers – though she excuses much of it as the results of opportunistic bargaining (for extra food), the shortage of young vigorous British men, and in some cases genuine romantic attachment. Estimates of the number of babies born as a result of these liaisons vary from 60 to 900. Interestingly, these women were not victimized as badly after the war as in France, despite threats from a group of ‘Underground Barbers’ to mete out the same punishments to them. Another example of direct collaboration, the invisible elephant in the room, is the betrayal of resisters by anonymous informers among the general population, without whom the Germans could not have caught as many saboteurs, radio-listeners, escapees and V-signers as they did. Some of them may also have been ideological collaborators: that is, secret Nazi sympathizers, though they don’t appear in this book. (The only small hint is a claim by one 1930s Victoria College schoolboy – later a communist – that most of his wealthy fellow-pupils had been ‘Franco men to a lad’, which may be felt to be close enough.) That was surely to be expected; Britain had plenty of her own native Fascists, after all. Maybe – just maybe – the Foreign Office files of the Occupation that we are told here are still ‘closed’ to researchers will tell us more about this. That’s the other side of the picture. If we wanted to draw up a moral balance-sheet of the Occupation – which, as all these authors point out, is far from a simple matter, and probably best not attempted – these traitors, or pragmatists, would need to be included. But every country had them, often with less excuse than the Channel Islands.

In this sense what provoked Gilly Carr’s ‘fury’ in setting out on her part of the research here – the devaluation of the Channel Islands’ resistance to the Occupation – can be at least partly attributed to the islanders themselves. Puffing up the resistance would have implicitly damned the reputations of the ‘timorous majority’ who (as elsewhere) did not resist in any significant way. It certainly would have undermined the authority of the Channel Islands governments, whom the British needed to carry on their rule after the victory. The resisters had been resisting them, too. For years afterwards there was widespread opposition on the islands to granting amnesties, even, to prisoners of the Occupation, let alone compensating them, or erecting any kind of memorial to them of the kind that can be found all over continental Europe today. (There are one or two on Jersey now.) This book, with others, may be said to restore some of these awkward people’s reputations, at long last, but in a way that merely emphasises their weaknesses in the context of their time and place. The Guernsey Press may be disappointed. But as Willmot puts it, the islanders ‘deserve to be judged according to the conditions they faced and the limited choices available to them.’ That must be right.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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2 Responses to Wartime ‘Resistance’ in the Channel Is

  1. William (Bill) McCormack says:

    Can you tell me anything about the Irish nurses working in a Jersey hospital during the occupation? I am writing about Dr Ambrose Charpentier, whose daughter Agatha Bott was (briefly) imprisoned for rebuking a fellow-nurse who associated with German soldiers. Charpentier’s signficance lies in his having been Roger Casement’s intermittent G. P. from 1902 to c. 1913.


    • Sorry I can’t help. You’d best ask the authors of the book reviewed here. It’s interesting about the Casement link – which, again, I can’t remember from my work on Casement (re the Congo) many years ago.


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