It is that time of the year when we remember the liberation of the Channel Islands. Those not familiar with the topic may wonder why the title is “Liberation Days” rather than “Liberation Day.” This is because whilst Guernsey and Jersey were both liberated on on 9th May the other Islands had to wait.
Sark was liberated a day later and Alderney not until the 16th of May. There is a story that Sark was only liberated on the 10th because smoke was spotted by the forces in Guernsey and they sent some men to investigate as they were worried that the German forces had set fire to buildings. I cannot find anything to substantiate this often repeated story.
The anniversary has always been a day for remembering the impact of those years, those that didn’t live through it, as well as celebrating the liberation. In the morning remembrance services are held in the Islands along with the traditional parades. In the afternoon islanders celebrate in a multitude of ways and there is a cavalcade of military and civilian vehicles of the time.
When contemplating what to write about for the 77th Anniversary I thought about writing about the celebrations and Islanders thoughts but these are covered every year in the media and by various commentators since the very first liberation.
I decided to run a poll on Twitter and a couple of history groups to see if readers wanted me to blog about the celebrations or blog about the process of the surrender and how the senior Germans behaved in the run up to liberation.
It wasn’t really a surprise that the poll massively went in favour of a blog about the latter and the impact on both the civilian population and their own personnel.
Many of the Germans were just as keen for their war to end as everyone else. It was just some of the senior officers that were committed to holding out even after it was clear the war was over for Germany.
I wrote a blog about an ordinary German soldier called Erwin Grubba who makes it quite clear how many of them felt during the winter of 1944 and through to the eventual liberation of the islands.
At the end of the war, of course, they knew it was lost, and I talked to one who had been a Hitler youth and of course, he was very glum. He wasn’t a bad lad and he was quite a nice chap. He said to me, so what will happen now is they will grind, grind us to dust, and we will be like slaves.Erwin Grubba
I said, well, this is you forget, you see, you are thinking of the mentality that you’re brought up to have but you are now facing somebody who does not have that same philosophy. You can’t expect that they will put laurels on your head but at the same time, they will not treat you as you or your Führer would have treated the conquered nations if the war had gone the other way. They were depressed, naturally, I mean their ideas are shattered.
They had really believed in it, you know, to them that must have been a severe blow. But again, that was only a small clique that thought that way. Because the ordinary soldier the ordinary person there was totally sick of it. They wanted to go home that’s all they wanted that so only thought was at the capitulation was well, when can we get home?
You can read his whole story and his further experiences on the occupation and Liberation experience here.
The key player from the German side in the run up to the liberation was Vizeadmiral Friedrich Hüffmeier. He had previously commanded the German battleship Scharnhorst (from 31 March 1942 to 13 October 1943). From 25 July 1944 to 26 February 1945, he was Island commander of Guernsey before eventually forcing out his superior Lieutenant General Rudolf Graf von Schmettow as fortress commander for all of the Channel Islands. Von Schmettow was the nephew of Gerd von Rundstedt commander of OB West (Commander-in-Chief West).
Hüffmeier was an ardent Nazi. Which can be the only explanation for why he achieved such a high rank given that by all accounts he was pretty rubbish at commanding ships. He was also hated by the crews of the ships that he commanded.
John Winton notes in his book Death of the Scharnhorst that the crew had a very low opinion of their commander.
But it took only a short time for Scharnhorst’s ship company to decide, to a man that ‘Poldi’ Hüffmeier was a walking disaster area. They believed he owed his appointment more to social influence than to ability, and he quickly showed himself a poor seaman, with almost no talent at all for ship handling.
Their view that he was a walking disaster area is supported by some of the events that happened whilst he was commander. Winton records that he ran the Scharnhorst aground off Hela in Poland, wrapped a buoy wire around the starboard screw whilst leaving harbour and collided with the submarine U 523 whilst on manoeuvres in the Baltic. All of these incidents required dockyard repairs.
After leaving Scharnhorst and before arriving in Guernsey he held the post of Chief officer in the Wehrgeistiger Führungsstab. This post literally translates as “Military Spiritual Leadership Staff” which was the naval branch of the Armed Forces National Socialist Leadership Staff. Essentially this meant that he oversaw the posting of officers to naval units, ships and submarines. These officers were responsible for maintaining morale and keeping the forces motivated by spreading the propaganda of the National Socialist Party and gave political and ideological instruction.
This was an example of how the party infiltrated the German Armed Forces and operated in a similar way to the Soviet political commissars. It is therefore unsurprising that he was constantly complaining in radio messages to Berlin that von Schmettow was “too soft”. This was all part of his ultimately successful prolonged campaign to oust his superior.
At this point you might be surprised to find that we rewind to 1944, because 9 May 1945 was not the first time that the Germans had been in negotiation, of a sort, to surrender.
Whilst von Schmettow was still in command an attempt to secure the surrender of the Channel Islands was made during September 1944. If they had accepted this opportunity it could have spared the islanders and the German personnel going through the hunger winter of 1944/45.
At the time the Islands were caught in a pocket and effectively under siege.
The allies took the opportunity following the June 1944 landings in France to try and encourage the occupying forces to surrender. In an attempt to get them to do that they mounted a psychological warfare operation dubbed “Rankin C” during which they dropped leaflets to encourage them to surrender.
The first attempt to achieve a surrender by direct negotiation happened on 22 September 1944. Having secured the assistance of a high ranking German officer, who had been captured in 1943, Major Chambers boarded an R.A.F. launch at Carteret and proceeded towards Guernsey under a white flag. I have read a number of differing accounts of this and decided to go back to primary sources to establish exactly what happened.
The intention was that Chambers would meet with von Schmettow and invite him to come and meet the German officer understandably said he was not willing to go ashore or aboard a German vessel. The German officer is only identified in the reports of the raid as Mr Black. Subsequent to earlier accounts being written it is now believed that Mr Black was in fact Gerhard Bassenge. He was captured in North Africa in 1943 and spent time in Trent Park a luxurious camp for high-ranking prisoners. Dr Helen Fry refers to Bassenge being the General in her book “The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II”. They were kept in luxury because it meant they would talk freely amongst themselves without realising that the British were listening through hidden microphones.
Letters had been dropped to arrange a meeting off the south coast of Guernsey. On arriving at the rendezvous point they found no German vessel waiting to meet them. Chambers decided that they should proceed to St Peter Port and try to make contact. On approaching St Peter Port a German vessel, not under a white flag, approached them. Extracts from the official report about what happened next.
This was certainly a brave effort by Major Chambers, who received a DSO for his actions. The full account and his medal citation are here if you would like to read it.
Now you have to ask yourself why did von Schmettow not entertain the meeting. Particularly as by all accounts he was a professional soldier of the officer class rather than a Nazi. Indeed it is now fairly widely accepted that he often did his best to mitigate the demands of Berlin and to water down their demands. That is not to discount of course the terrible things that went on which he had little ability to prevent such as the treatment of the slave workers, deportations etc.
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.
If he had decided to surrender he could have saved the islanders and his own personnel from a terrible winter of hunger and deprivation.
I can’t help but feel that he may also been influenced by the real villain of the piece Hüffmeier but that is just supposition on my part.
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.Interview with von Schmettow in Jersey Topic magazine
If you want to read the whole interview it is in the link here.
There is also a short film of him being interviewed by Channel TV in the 1960s which you can find here and covers a range of topics including deportations, treatment of the forced workers and why he didn’t surrender.
There is also a note in the Daily Herald – Monday 29 June 1964 of him being consulted about some glass phials washed up on a Jersey beach.
Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD
Back to Hüffmeier who as you will have gathered from the above was not a pleasant character. Having forced von Schmettow out, the islands now had a barely competent fervent Nazi at the helm. What could possibly go wrong?
He was so determined to hold out that he once told Jersey’s Bailiff Alexander Coutanche. “We shall never surrender, in the end you and I will be eating grass.”
His personnel were starving and were reduced to eating limpets, stealing islanders pets and eating them. The islanders had a very tough time and only survived because of the deliveries eventually made by the Red Cross ship Vega.
When liberation finally came it became apparent that, on the orders of Hüffmeier, vast stocks of supplies had been held back over that winter because he wanted to have provisions to hold out. My blog post about about Erwin Grubba explains this in more detail. Click the link to learn more.
Fast forward to April 1945 and Hüffmeier addressed senior officers in the Forum Cinema in Jersey and told them that it was important to defend the Channel Islands against any attack by the allies. He was also labouring under the impression that it was still possible that they could hold the Islands and that Germany would not lose the war. Deluded, bonkers, incompetent I will leave you to draw your own conclusion.
The German unconditional surrender of the German High Command had been agreed on 7 May 1945 to take effect from 00:01 on 8th May.
It was feared that the Channel Islands may not have heard the news or that Hüffmeier might decide to fight on alone rather than surrender. Force 135 was dispatched towards the Islands. Signals were sent and eventually a reply was received by the British advising that he was willing to send a representative to meet the British ships off of the Les Hanois at noon on 8 May.
In the book The German Occupation of the Channel Islands by Charles Cruickshank he records that “They rendezvoused with a German mine-sweeping trawler at noon to find that Hüffmeier had sent a junior naval officer, Kapitänleutänant Armin Zimmerman, 19 who was authorised to do no more than discuss armistice terms. He was given a copy of the surrender document and a letter from Snow to the Commander-in-Chief stating that either he or his properly accredited representative must come prepared to accept unconditional surrender. There was no question of an armistice.
Before he left the Bulldog Zimmerman warned that his commander had guaranteed safe-conduct to HM ships as far as the rendezvous only. If they stayed where they were they would be fired on by the shore batteries. He pointed out that the general cease-fire was not due until 00.01 hours on 9 May and that as it was still 8 May the coastal guns would open fire.”
Brigadier Snow responded that he was to tell Hüffmeier that if they were fired on he would hang in the morning. Discretion being the better part of valour the British ships moved back a few miles.
Some commentators assert that Zimmerman was sent in order to delay or frustrate matters. Another reason may have been that Hüffmeier was worried about his own security as he had uncovered a plot by some of his officers to poison him. He used to walk to Castle Carey to drink hot milk each day and some officers loyal to von Schmettow had plotted to poison him there. They were unsuccessful and were transferred to the Island of Herm to fend for themselves.
The Rev. Ord records in his diary in late April 1945 that he was told by a German that ”The “Admiral” (Hüffmeier?) says he can hold out till 1946, but this is just bluff. It is believed he will be assassinated, probably by a group of conspirators. It is said already that there have been attempts on his life, and sinister-looking guards parade the road outside his residence.” So this may be why he sent Zimmerman.
Zimmermann was sent back and only after Hüffmeier had received a direct order from General Admiral Karl Dönitz was he willing to Surrender. A signal came that General major Heine, second in command of the Channel Islands and commander of Guernsey, would come to the same rendezvous at midnight.
As it was after midnight when Heine came on board. Hüffmeier could no longer threaten to fire on the destroyers. Snow therefore decided to move from Les Hanois to St Peter Port.
The surrender was duly signed by Heine on the quarterdeck of the Bulldog at 7.14 a.m. on 9 May. It features in this short film.
There is another film where you can see Hüffmeier being described as “pretty browned off.”
Following the surrender Brigadier Snow transferred to the Beagle, which anchored off St Helier at 10 a.m. to receive the surrender of the garrison of Jersey. Generalmajor Wulf, the Inselkommandant, was ordered on board but failed to put in an appearance. Snow said he must be found immediately.
Eventually he turned up. He was at first ‘somewhat arrogant and aggressive’, but after Snow had expressed his severe displeasure (which he was well qualified to do) he was reduced ‘almost to tears’ and duly signed the surrender.
Snow returned to Guernsey on 12 May and received Hüffmeier’s surrender. Hüffmeier explained that he could not hand over his sword as he had destroyed it in accordance with orders.
Hüffmeier was promptly shipped off to a prisoner of war camp where he remained until release in April 1948. He died in Germany in 1972. Living a quiet life and not really appearing in the post war media with the exception of the below.
I recently found this article which was somewhat surprising it fails to mention that he was was an ardent Nazi as outlined above. He was quite prepared to let the Channel Islanders and his own men starve rather than surrender which is completely missed by this article.
Zimmermann went on to serve in the post war German Navy and rose to the rank of Admiral.
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© Nick Le Huray