It might surprise you to learn that, despite having arrived in the Islands on 30 June 1940 in Guernsey and 1 July 1940 in Jersey, that the full scale fortification of the islands wasn’t ordered until October 1941. Particularly given that there are so many fortifications dotted all over the islands as reminders of this time.
Initially they arrived in relatively small numbers. When Hubert Nicolle came to Guernsey in early July 1940 on Operation Anger, he estimated the garrison to be some 469 men. These were mostly based around the airport and St Peter Port. You can read about Operation Anger here .
This was far from the peak in numbers during the occupation which Charles Cruickshank estimates in in his book there were approximately 12,000.
In 1940 and early 1941 the fortifications were of a less sturdy nature being made out of sandbags such as that seen in the picture below of an anti aircraft position at the airport and were constructed by the troops themselves. these were known as feldmässige Anlage (field-type construction).
These were deemed appropriate at the time as the Germans were planning Operation Seelöwe (Sealion) to invade Britain. The German High Command did not see the need to waste time and resources in fortifying the islands on a more permanent basis.
Once Sealion had been put on hold in the spring of 1941 Hitler started to pay more attention to the defence of the Channel Islands as he became afraid that that the islands may be taken back. He really didn’t want that to happen as he revelled in the propaganda value of holding them.
His concern was probably not misguided at this point as the British Government were actively considering such an operation. This was Operation Attaboy which I wrote about here. They were considering this even though they had already decided that the Channel Islands were of little or no strategic value to either the Allies or the Germans. There were however other drivers for this which you can read about in that blog.
Initially some heavier defences were constructed by a German construction battalion in the Spring of 1941. But Hitler was not satisfied that this would be enough. Having personally reviewed plans of the Channel Islands he finally decided that the Channel Islands should be turned into a Festung (Fortress).
‘The time had now arrived … when plans and prospects of German strategy had to be re-examined. Directive No 33 dated 19 July, had contained an instruction of the type to which in those days we had become unaccustomed: in the West and North, the possibility of attacks on the Channel Islands and the Norwegian coast must be borne in mind.’General Walter Warlimont – July 1941. Source Channel Islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark (Battleground Europe) – George Forty.
Warlimont’s assessment wasn’t too far off the mark as by 1942 the British were again considering retaking Alderney to appease Stalin. This was Operation Blazing which you can read about in my blog here. This Operation reached quite an advanced stage.
So by October 1941 Hitler decided that something had to be done. Below is the order from October 1941. The bits in italics are explanatory comments from George Forty whom the order is quoted from.
1. Operations on a large scale against the territories we occupy in the West are, as before, unlikely. Under pressure of the situation in the East, however, or for reasons of politics or propaganda, small scale operations at any moment may be anticipated, particularly an attempt to regain possession of the Channel Islands, which are important to us for the protection of sea communications.Source Channel Islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark (Battleground Europe) – George Forty.
2. Counter-measures in the Islands must ensure that any English attack fails before a landing is achieved, whether it is attempted by sea, by air or both together. The possibility of advantage being taken by bad visibility to effect a surprise landing must be borne in mind. Emergency measures for strengthening the defences have already been ordered, and all branches of the forces stationed in the Islands, except for the Air Force, are placed under the orders of the Commandant of the Islands.
3. With regard to the permanent fortifications of the Islands, to convert them into an impregnable fortress (which must be pressed forward with the utmost speed) I give the following orders:
a. The High Command of the Army is responsible for the fortifications as a whole and will, in the overall programme, incorporate the construction for the Air Force and the Navy. The strength of the fortifications and the order in which they are erected will be based on the principles and the practical knowledge gained from building the Western Wall (ie: the Siegfried Line).
b. For the Army: it is important to provide a close network of emplacements, well concealed, and given flanking fields of fire. The emplacements must be sufficient for guns of a size capable of piercing armour plate 100cm thick, to defend against tanks which may attempt to land. There must be ample accomodation for stores and ammunition, for mobile diversion parties and for armoured cars.
c. For the Navy: one heavy battery on the Islands and two on the French coast to safeguard the sea approaches. (This was to be the heavy battery on Guernsey – Batterie Mirus. The two on the mainland were to be on the Cherbourg Peninsula and near Paimpol on the Brittany coast, but they were never installed, two 20.3cm railway guns being put there instead -one in each location).
d. For the Air Force: strongpoints must be created with searchlights and sufficient to accommodate such AA units as are needed to protect all important constructions.
e. Foreign labour, especially Russians and Spaniards but also Frenchmen, may be used for the building works.
4. Another order will follow for the deportation to the Continent of all Englishmen
5. Progress reports to be sent to me on the first day of each month, to the C-in-C of the Army and directed to the Supreme Command of the Armd Forces (OKW) – Staff of the Fuehrer, Division L. (signed) ADOLF HITLER
As a result of this order Organisation Todt under Fritz Todt was to provide labour for the construction of the fortifications. The exact amount of workers brought to the islands is still a matter of debate even to this day. Some estimates put it at 16,000 plus across all of the Islands. I will be dealing with the story of the slave workers in a future post.
It is even more incredible that so many fortifications were constructed when you consider that a large part of the workforce were shipped to France to replace the workers from there that were sent back to Germany following the Dambusters raid in May 1943.
In his report to the Historical Division, Group West, written in May 1948 Rudolf Graf von Schmettow outlined what happened after the fortification order had been given. Extracts below.
The scale of the fortifications that were built were enormous and proved to be a detrimental to the the rest of the Atlantic Wall. Valuable resources were used up in the Channel Islands that could have been used in Normandy. News of the scale of fortifications reached the British government as can be seen in the article below.
The British were well aware of the fortifications construction through those that escaped the islands successfully and through a large number of photo reconnaissance flights over the islands.
If you want to look at some of the photographs of the constructions can be found in my post below.
In all 244,000 m³ of rock were excavated out of the Channel Islands, only a little less than the 255,000m³ in the whole of the rest of the Atlantic wall, this is documented in Charles Cruickshank‘s book.
The Festung Guernsey book recorded that 616,000 m³ of concrete had been used in Guernsey. Almost 10% of all the concrete used in the whole Atlantic Wall.
There are more pictures and information on fortifications in my page on places to visit tab.
In addition to the concrete constructions the order to fortify the islands led to the first full scale minefields starting to be laid in October 1941. These were extensive and in Guernsey alone there were over 69,000 recovered after the liberation. I will be blogging about this in the coming weeks so sign up to the mailing list if you want to be notified of future posts.
Fancy a walk through some of the bunkers in Jersey but can’t get there in person? Never fear Jersey War Tours have virtual tours of a number of sites that are just amazing. The link to them is here https://www.jerseybunkertours.com/3d-bunker-scans
You can find out more about their work on this in this video.
As the war started to draw to a close and victory was in sight thoughts of some islanders that had been evacuated already turned to what should happen to the fortifications were already a source of hot debate as can be seen below.
This continued to be a much discussed issue in the immediate post war years.
To finish up the blog there is a video from a few years back that may be of interest.
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© Nick Le Huray