The small-scale raids that took place around Alderney and the other Channel Islands are well recorded; however, this planned raid was something completely different. This would have been a full-scale invasion of the island with the intention of holding it for a week during 1942.
The attack would have involved a force of 6,000-7,000 personnel from all services—a vastly different proposition from anything planned before. An estimated 4,800 men to land on the island.
It raises many questions; why hold it for a week and then leave? Why do it at all? What would it achieve, especially in the first half of 1942? This blog post will look at all these questions and more.
Whilst researching something else, I listened to an interview on the IWM website with General Michael Stephen Hancock, part of which he talked about his role in this proposed raid and the training that was undertaken in early 1942.
Before I start with an explanation, there are a couple of things that would be useful to set the scene, particularly for those not familiar with Alderney or its location. This will help understand the reasons for the proposed raid and the challenges they may have faced if it had been executed. If you are already familiar with Alderney, then feel free to skip past this bit.
Alderney is the most northerly Channel Island and approximately ten miles from La Hague on the Cotentin Peninsula. You can see it on the map below with the red pin.
Map from Google Maps.
The island is shown on the map below, and it is 3 miles (5 km) long by 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide. The size of the island is essential for understanding some of the challenges the proposed raid may face.
I remembered that I had come across a few references to this planned raid some time ago when reading the diaries of General Sir Alan Brooke, later 1st Viscount Alan Brooke. The references to the planned raid did not provide much information but are of interest because it involved those at the highest level of the armed forces and the prime minister Winston Churchill.
Frankly, the diaries do not give you a lot to go on. It is also important to note that his diary entries are obviously from his perspective and need to be tempered by reviewing other documents from the time. I decided to search the National Archives and various other sources to see what I could find.
Brooke notes on 28 March 1942 that “Mountbatten was still hankering after a landing near Cherbourg where proper air support is not possible.”
It is fair to say that Brooke found Mountbatten quite irritating at times, not least because of his status and his relationship with Churchill. Brooke found it frustrating because he frequently stayed with Churchill at Ditchley Park and Chequers from late 1942. This gave him the opportunity to discuss his ideas and try to get Churchill onside.
Now Lord Mountbatten was known for his love of a hair-brained scheme, and this certainly would seem to be one. However, he was not alone in these ideas of actions in the Channel Islands. Vice-Admiral John Hughes-Hallett also advocated operations to retake the Channel Islands by force at various times during the war.
These were discounted for many reasons. Primarily because of the massive loss of life, this would have caused the civilian population let alone the inevitable casualties of any invading force. One must remember that an estimated 8% of all the concrete used on the Atlantic Wall was poured into the fortifications of the Channel Islands by the end of the war. The fortifications in the Islands contained more armaments than the 350 miles of the nearby Normandy coastline.
The other Channel Islands were also of less significance for the Allies from a strategic point of view aside from the other challenges mentioned above. The fortification and sinking of men and resources into the Islands are often referred to as “Hitler’s Island Madness.”
Alderney would have been a different prospect as only approximately seven civilians were left on the island. However, many forced workers on the island would have also become casualties. During the war, Alderney was heavily fortified and became one of the most heavily armed sections of the Atlantic Wall. Alderney was designated a Festung (Fortress).
Alderney had gun batteries that could prove troublesome to any attack on Cherbourg at a later stage in the war but not in the summer of 1942. Later in the war, in June 1944, the 150 mm guns in Battery Blücher on Alderney fired upon the American troops on the Cotentin Peninsula. Subsequently, the British warship HMS Rodney attacked the gun battery, which cost the lives of two German soldiers.
What purpose could risking so many lives to occupy the island for a week serve war effort? There appears to be some speculation that such a raid could have been used to appease Stalin that the Allies were serious about mounting operations to open a second front, but surely this would have been too small scale.
Another reason that they considered the raid to be of value was that the Germans were using Alderney as a control centre for U Boats in the area returning to or leaving the French ports.
In his book “The German Occupation of The Channel Islands” Cruickshank states that Mountbatten first raised the idea of a an operation to take Alderney at a meeting of his staff on 6 March 1942.
Brooke notes in his diary on 8 April 1942, “Very difficult COS attended by Paget, Sholto Douglas, and Mountbatten. Subject-attempt to assist Russia through action in France. Plan they had put up was a thoroughly bad one!!” This would indicate some substance to the assertion that the raid may have been partly for this purpose.
Mountbatten briefed the Chiefs of Staff Committee on 16 April 1942. His initial plan was to take and hold Alderney permanently. His reasons for doing so were:
A) The island would provide a base for small craft to be used to attack the German’s convoy route from the Channel ports down to Bay of Biscay.
B) It could be used to site a radar installation to extend Fighter Command’s radar coverage.
C) It could be used as an emergency landing strip.
D) To open a second front in a small way.
The plan changed many times during the course of April and early May. Not least changing from a plan to hold the island permanently to a plan to hold it for a week.
The interview with General Michael Hancock sheds more light on the plan and just how far preparations went.
“The object of the operation was only to hold the island for about a week, and the stated objects in the Chiefs of Staffs um appro… approval of it were, (I cannot remember in what order they were), but they included three things, and I don’t know that I can remember them all, but one of them, (which surprised me having had nothing to do with the political side of things) was in order to satisfy the clamour for a second front. Seems a little surprising, I suppose for a small-scale thing like this, but still, it was not all that small scale. We are talking about 7,000 men that sort of size.”
“A lot of men to put on such a small island. It is the island is what three miles by one something about that, but the Germans were holding it with four or five thousand.”
“Secondly, to put out of action, er, their control of their submarines, which they did from there with radio control etcetera and thirdly, to hold it long enough, so the Germans might think we intended springboards for the invasion of France and might withdraw something from the Russian front.”
“Wishful thinking, I suspect. We had allocated not only for this not only for this, but we had also been allocated a Parachute Battalion.”
“One of the snags was that the island is about a mile wide from the northwest side, north, east side and southwest side. The prevailing wind, of course, is across that, and in those days, you jumped out of an aircraft with 20 men, one after the other, and the mathematics of it are that if you do this and everything goes perfectly, you drop two or three men in the sea, either before you start or at the end of the run.“
“This was one of the difficulties at any rate, in the end, after I suppose three or four weeks of planning and rehearsal and so on. It was called off because it was recommended the RAF, who would have to give us a great deal of support beforehand, would lose several hundred aircraft, and they could not afford it at the time.”
So how far did they get with the plan?
“We got as far as having a particular beach and the Isle of Wight, which had the right characteristics tarted up a bit with certain little floating jetties, but to make it similar to where we would be landing in at Alderney. We did rehearsal landings on it.”
When asked why they expected such significant losses, he explained
“It was heavily defended, very heavily defended. I don’t know, but that is what we were told.”
He wasn’t wrong; Alderney was indeed heavily defended. Now I know this link is a Wikipedia one, but it does stack up with all of the reference sources I have checked at the time of writing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortifications_of_Alderney#German_fortifications
Brooke notes in his diary on 6 May 1942, “Arrived just in time to go to COS meeting to turn down proposed attack on Alderney Island [Channel Islands] as a large raid by Guards Brigade.”
So why did they turn it down, given the immense effort put into planning and training? These extracts from that meeting explain the discussion and the reasons. They even considered scaling back the operation to a single day.
A significant problem was the gap they would have between the bombing of the island and the landing. Given the small size of the island and the lack of accurate bombing in 1942, it was doubtful how effective it would have been in softening up the defences.
In 1942 it would only have been possible for fighters to provide cover for fifteen minutes at a time. The Luftwaffe would have been able to operate from airfields only twenty miles from Alderney where as the RAF would have had to operate from airfields more than seventy miles away. This partly explains the massive commitment of aircraft that would have been required.
Overall, they felt that the casualties would not be worth the dividend from such an operation. You can read the complete deliberations in the extracts of the War Cabinet Chiefs of Staff Committee minutes below.
Churchill was still keen for a raid, perhaps spurred on by Mountbatten. Brooke notes in his diary of 11 May 1942, “At 12 noon we had meeting with PM to discuss the giving up of the attack on Alderney, and raids planned as alternatives.”
The minute of this meeting is not very clearly scanned in the national archives, but you can get its gist. (Blue text added to clarify the feint wording)
Even at this stage, they didn’t discount resurrecting the operation later in the year. It did make an appearance later in they year as Operation “Aimwell” with the intention of a smaller force and only holding the island for twenty four hours. This was also cancelled.
Going back to the interview with Hancock, he talks about what happened next.
“So as we were there and all geared up for such an operation, an alternative operation was planned as a raid on the French coast. Somewhere in the … between Boulogne and Dieppe, I forget where but in that sort of area, and so we then started planning for that instead. And they got us in, I suppose it must have been the end of May, early June, and we are about then getting into the ships ready to go, and we were all in our ships with these funny little radios off Spithead, and the weather was foul.”
“That is why I remember the ship was flat bottomed pitching and, and so all these six-seven thousand men but in the ship sitting there we sat down for three days. The weather showed no sign of abating. And they decided then that it was too long or risks to security over us being there for three days. Without anything happening were too great. So, the whole operation was called off. We were sent back to Scotland.”
Ultimately some of what they planned was used in the planning and execution of Operation “Jubilee”, the raid on Dieppe.
I wonder what the impact would have been on the civilian population of the Channel Islands if the raid had gone ahead, given the deportations following other raids later in the war.
If you find this of interest, I can highly recommend visiting Alderney, where you can visit some of the fortifications. You can find details at Visit Alderney.
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Thanks to my brother Matt Le Huray for his patience in proofreading these longer blog posts. Any typos in the shorter ones that I put out are nothing to do with him 😊
© Nick Le Huray