“LET’EM STARVE!” – A CONTROVERSIAL COMMENT! WHAT DID CHURCHILL MEAN?

On the 27th September 1944 Churchill is reputed to have scrawled a note on the bottom of a report put forward to the War Cabinet “Let’em starve. No fighting. Let them rot at their leisure.” A picture of the report is at the end of this blog post.

The report was produced following a request from the Germans to arrange the evacuation of all of the civilian population of the Channel Islands with the exception of men of military age. Rather than do this or mount any form of operation to liberate the islands the British Government reminded the German authorities of their responsibility under the Geneva Convention to adequately feed the population.

Over the years this has become a very controversial comment with various historians and islanders interpreting it differently. Some felt that he meant just the German garrison, others felt that he meant both the garrison and the islanders.

The aspect that is always focused on is the lack of food and Churchill’s refusal to allow a supply of the islands with food. The rationale for this was that it was felt that the Germans would take the food for themselves. The islands effectively formed a prisoner of war camp which didn’t require guards but meant that a large force of German resources were tied up there rather than being able to be deployed in mainland Europe.

At the time the Islands were caught in a pocket and effectively under siege.

Map of the Channel Islands and the pocket of German resistance
Illustrated London News Feb 1945

There are some factors that don’t seem to have been taken into account by some commentators. Most notably that Churchill’s comment was made days after an attempt to get the Germans to surrender. They had however refused to even entertain the idea. One would imagine that he would have taken this into account in making his assessment.

This 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. 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.  You can read the full account of it here

If they had decided to surrender they could have saved the islanders and their own personnel from a terrible winter of hunger and deprivation.

Eventually following an appeal from the Bailiffs of Jersey and Guernsey an International Red Cross ship the SS Vega made five trips to the Islands prior to the liberation in May 1945. The first arriving in Guernsey on 27 December 1944. A further visit was made in June 1945.

The ship delivered food parcels designed to supplement the meagre food supplies of Islanders. The parcels were designed to provide an additional 462 calories a day. To give some context that is the equivalent of eating two Snickers bars or slightly less than one Big Mac.

SS VEGA in St Peter Port Harbour Image from BBC.co.uk
Newcastle Journal – 31 January 1945

Without these food parcels things could have been much worse. If you want to read more about the food situation from a German soldier’s perspective go to my previous blog here . For a civilian view point I blogged about the doctor’s story here .

The report with Churchill’s comment scrawled on the bottom.

Whatever the true reason or reasons were some islanders held it against Churchill for the rest of their lives.

You may be reading this and wondering why the Channel Islands were not retaken by force. There are a multitude of reasons but first and foremost the loss of life that would have occurred amongst the civilian population would have been immense. It would also have mean’t that a vast amount resources would be taken away from the main front on mainland Europe. That is a blog for another day.

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I will be adding more as time permits. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it on social media or add a comment if you did. Feedback is always appreciated.

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© Nick Le Huray

Author: Nick Le Huray 🇬🇬

Guernsey based amateur historian. Interested in the Occupation of the Channel Islands and wider Second World War history.

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