Many articles and books about the occupation of the Channel Islands focus on local people or those in command of the occupying forces. I thought it might be interesting to share the perspective of a German who was sent to Guernsey in October 1943. Along with my thoughts on his observations and how they compare with experiences of Islanders.
I found an interview, conducted in 1987, whilst looking for something completely different in the Imperial War Museum archive. I must admit I wasn’t planning on writing a German perspective on experiences during the occupation quite this early on. Having listened to the tapes of the interview, researched him some more and considered his comments compared to other accounts I thought it might make for an interesting blog.
As with all interviews conducted many years after the war it is important that we remember that the passage of time may lead to things being forgotten or misremembered. We also have to consider that they may not have been aware of the wider picture. I have therefore added some context from other sources.
Erwin Grubba1 served with the Infantry Regiment 583 minus IId Ben, Grenadier Regt, which had originally been assigned to the Eastern Front. He was immensely relived in late 1943 to be sent west from the Eastern Front. Indeed he described it as “his route to salvation”.
The journey took four weeks to get to France by train travelling in cattle trucks. Eventually arriving in Paris where they were deloused before being allowed to mix with the populace.
Shortly after this he was sent by train to St Malo in Brittany to embark for Guernsey in the Channel Islands. St Malo continues to this day to be the main port for modern ferry links to the Channel Islands from France. The German troops of course did not travel in the comfort that modern day travellers enjoy!
Upon arriving in St Peter Port he first saw a Guernsey policeman looking like a “typical English Bobby” and adverts for Fyffes bananas. This made him feel that he was on to a cushy number compared to his experience of the war so far.
In reality by the time he arrived in October 1943 the bananas wouldn’t have been seen for over three years. He was later to find himself caught in what he described as the hunger winter of 1944/45 following the Normandy Invasion and subsequent fall of Brittany.
He was billeted in the Parish of St Martin on the south coast of the Island but was mostly on duty on the west coast of the Island. The billet was near the headquarters of his unit.
Ordinary routine began which was the usual army routine with stand to in the morning, parades and night duties, most of it being guard duties, shift work.Erwin Grubba
You went on duty, and manned concrete bunkers at nighttime and you went off again at six o’clock in the morning and took your guard duties as they came. There were drill exercises and a lot of military exercises went on the island to the great annoyance sometimes on the farmers and other locals.
Today that would only be a twelve minute drive but during the occupation, particularly the latter stage, it may have taken much longer because of lack of mechanised transport and fuel.
Some photographs of the Vazon bay area he would have been guarding are in the gallery below. These are all taken by me over the last couple of years and may help to give some context to what follows later.
Erwin found Islanders to be fiercely loyal to the Crown rather than Westminster2. The footnote explains the history behind this. Prayers for the Royal Family continued to be said at church services throughout the occupation. He was frequently reminded that they were Guernsey men and women and not English. They were stubborn in nature and wouldn’t back down from getting their point across. This trait continues and hence the nickname of “Guernsey Donkeys”.
During the interview he recalls that Islanders behaved, on the whole, absolutely correctly and that he wasn’t really aware of any collaboration, although undoubtedly there was some. Islanders had no choice but to sell goods to the occupying forces or have them confiscated or reprisals for failing to comply. This certainly ties in to other accounts that I have seen.
We were surrounded by Germans and if they decided they wanted to they would come in and look around the house in case there was anything they wanted, because there were days when if they decided for example they wanted blankets, they would roll up to your house with a van, ring the bell and say right we are confiscating blankets and they’d strip your house of blankets.Dorothy Hurrel-Langlois3
He also notes that the Island authorities and the police force had no choice but to comply in order to limit the impact on the local population.
They had the sense of logic to say well you lads are also here, not because you wanted to come. You were forced to join up and come and occupy the islands. Not because you wanted to and you want to go home as much as we want you to go home.Erwin Grubba
The farmer that I was friendly with near my billet. always used to say that I love your your singing when you march off in the morning to your exercises but by gum I wish you would go all the same. Because it’d be nice to be free again.
He also mentions that there was no real resistance for fear of reprisals. Whilst it is true that there was no organised armed resistance their were other acts of resistance. Armed resistance would have been pointless on such a small Island as there would have been nowhere to hide and reprisals would have been severe. I will be blogging about resistance but if you want to know more now I highly recommend the Frank Falla archive which can be found here.
Whilst RAF attacks may have caused damage to local properties he still recalls that Islanders openly grinned and gave the thumbs up. They were just pleased to see the RAF. Towards the end locals could often tell if the RAF had been over as there would be leaflets dropped and suddenly some people would have English cigarettes which had been dropped3.
He became friendly with a man who had fought in the Great War and had lost a an arm. He understood that Erwin no more wanted to be here than he wanted him to be here.
I once met a chap who had been wounded he lost his arm and the Battle of Cambrai in the First World War and I stopped him so I could ask the route away to somewhere.Erwin Grubba
As always I spoke English and then he showed me his hand and he said, Look, I lost that in the first world war against your chaps. My father was there as well. So one we became friends. After that, he said, I know what it’s like, at the second.
His first cup of tea ever that he was given by another acquaintance was unlikely to have been real tea as this was a very precious commodity and nigh on impossible to obtain by the time he arrived in the Island. It was more likely to have been a substitute tea made of leaves of the common bramble that had been dried. I guess if you hadn’t had tea before you wouldn’t know the difference!
I got along very well with them. And of course, very soon when they knew your attitude in any case, as in my case, they became quite friendly.Erwin Grubba
I mean, I had my first cup of tea with a lady. Her husband was an accountant and they lived on Vazon Bay in a bungalow. They had a little boy who was just about four years old, and she asked me into the house, you know, come in and have a cup of tea, and I sat down had my first cup of tea by a fire side, real fire, you know, the first open fire I had ever seen, being used to living in a Berlin flat and and then we talked about literature and Dickens.
His farmer friend like many others suffered losses of livestock. These losses occurred due to theft, by triggering mines if they wandered into the many mine fields that were laid or explosives rigged on poles in fields to prevent glider landings. Estimates are that there were approximately 71,000 mines laid in Guernsey in around 115 minefields.
Considering that the Island is only twenty five square miles this is a large amount of mines. This doesn’t include the other munitions that were deployed around the Island such as the estimated 1,000 roll bombs on the cliffs of the south coast.
Erwin was responsible for laying some of the mines and for recording their location. The German forces kept meticulous records of their minefields which at least meant that come the end of the war it at least made them easier to clear.
He remembers seeing Russians forced to work on fortifications in 1943 and early 1944 but doesn’t recall seeing them after that. That is because many were moved to Alderney or back to France. He also doesn’t recall how they were treated or what their accommodation was like. Suffice it to say after the liberation of the Islands their barracks were burnt down rather than trying to clean them up.
Some of the occupying forces were Georgians. It was very difficult to communicate with them and as time progressed they had their weapons taken away and were assigned low level tasks. This was because of a fear of them turning on the the Germans when they realised they were on the losing side.
Erwin remembers when they heard the attempt to kill Hitler and that he had survived a friend of his expressed his disappointment. A sentiment that seemed quite common amongst the lower ranks as they just wanted the war to end and to go home.
He had to be wary, yet there was a definite anti-war feeling amongst his comrades.
In 1944 I remember when the fellow who read the news said “An attempt has been made on the Fuhrer’s life, but fortunately his life was saved”, whereupon a voice from the ranks said “Oh shit they messed it upErwin Grubba
Erwin was lucky as his ability to speak English soon led to him to easier duties than the usual boring guard duties. Radios were confiscated from the civilian population in June 1942 and as Erwin spoke some English he was sent to seek out illicit radios.
His efforts were a lot less diligent than others. He would merely enquire if the householder had a radio and when they replied that they didn’t have a radio he would leave it at that. It is hardly surprising that nobody admitted that they had a radio as the penalty ranged from a fine of up to 30,000 Reichsmarks, six months in prison or deportation to a camp in Europe.
Islanders took great care to hide radios. They were mostly crystal radios that had been constructed following the confiscation of the traditional radios. As these crystal radios were smaller it made them easier to hide. Examples of where they were hidden include in light fittings, books and clocks.
During searches by other German soldiers one woman threw her crystal set into a pan of boiling water to prevent detection and another hid it where no gentleman would look!
The occupying forces were allowed to have radios and had their pick of them from the radios that had been confiscated from Islanders. My great grandparents had a German billeted in their home. He had a radio and would sometimes leave it turned on and tuned to the BBC. He would then announce that he was going for a walk and a smoke so that they could listen to the news.
During the last few months of the war he became reliant on news from the BBC to know what was happening. The local newspapers being controlled by the Germans of course didn’t tell the actual news.
I was privileged knowing that this farmer friend looked after me too. He had a radio in a in a drawer, chest of drawers under some cushions in his bedroom. When I used to come in in the evening after duty, he came down rather sheepishly, and I said, What’s the news today? He said, on the radio or whatever, you know but by that time, we knew we could trust each other. He knew I wouldn’t shop them as I regarded to the whole thing as a joke anyway, looking around houses and just asking for, for radio sets. I mean, nobody will openly admit it anyway, it was a stupid thing to doErwin Grubba
Once the news that Brittany had fallen reached the Island he, like many others in the occupying forces, knew the end was nigh. Unfortunately for him and for the Islanders there was no chance of the German authorities in the Channel Islands surrendering until the end of the war. Essentially forcing a siege of the Islands.
Following on from his search for illicit radios he had to undertake other duties during the last winter of occupation or has he described it the “hunger winter” of 1944/45. This winter of food shortages took its toll on both the civilian population and the occupiers. It led to deaths as noted by Erwin and indeed the lasting effects of the suffering during this period led to long term illness and premature deaths of those that lived through it. The extreme food shortages during this winter meant that there was a need to guard the crops in greenhouses and fields.
He spent many evenings sleeping in greenhouses to guard the crops to ensure that they were not stolen by the occupying forces or by locals. He used to sleep in the greenhouses with his MP40 at his feet. Theft was punishable by death if caught and they had orders to shoot anyone attempting to steal if necessary.
In the winter of 1944/45 things were so desperate that even the risk of being shot did not deter thieves and he recalls a German soldier being shot. The lack of food was so great that they had to change their duties to allow them to sleep. Instead of six hours on duty this was reduced to two hours. A staple of their diet by this stage was nettle soup.
My ribs were showing like a key on an accordion. In fact, one day I was on duty with my steel helmet on and probably with the pressure of the helmet I keeled over.Erwin Grubba
We organised concerts, we had literary readings, even a cabaret to take our minds off things and the hours of duty were cut. For instance there was a compulsory forty winks period in the afternoon after our so-called lunch, which was nettles boiled in seawater. I mean these are all signs of decay aren’t they, when an Army has to do that?
During this time the civilian population suffered severe food shortages and but for the five visits of the International Red Cross ship SS Vega during the last six months of the occupation they would have suffered more. 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.
During the time following the D-Day invasion and into the last months of the war he knew of three German soldiers that lost all hope and committed suicide.
The more fanatical of his comrades naievly thought that when the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) began “this is it they are coming to get us” which of course was never going to happen. The Islands would remain under siege until May 1945.
In the last days of April when Hitler committed suicide, my Farmer friend and his wife had two boys David and Leslie. Little David was the younger one, I had just come off duty and it was about six o’clock in the morning dawn was just arriving and I’d gone to bed.Erwin Grubba
I hadn’t been in bed five minutes when I was a knock at the window, it was a bungalow. I always had the window open for like to hear the ebb and flow of the sea. His little head poked through the window and he said “Hitler’s dead”. All I did was say “Hooray”, turned over and I slept like a log until midday.
Now I probably was the first one who knew because he had heard it on the BBC and later on of course the army headquarters over the wireless must have got through to us. Then came the official announcement from our captain “we’ve been told that Hitler had died a hero’s death in the Battle of Berlin you know, the usual version, but I knew that at least six or seven hours ahead thanks to little David, from my farmer friend next door.
Islanders started flying flags days before the official surrender to the liberating forces was announced and he knew it was over. This came as a relief to him. He realised that the only way to get rid of the Nazi regime was for Germany to lose the war. He didn’t think of it as a defeat of Germany but the defeat of a regime.
He, like his father, believed a better Germany could come out of the ashes of the war, although, he was later shocked when images of quite how bad the devastation of German cities was. He had of course not received any news from home since shortly after the Normandy landings.
There was bitterness from a few of the unconditional surrender as it had echoes of the end of the Great War.
There had to be total and utter elimination of any traces of the Nazi regime in all shapes and sizes. Having said that, nobody I think at that time, if they had been told that within a very short span of time, there would be a German army again, within the NATO context. You know, nobody would have believed that, they really thought well we all really thought this was a total end of any military form of government or military inside Germany, we would become a totally demilitarised country.Erwin Grubba
The professionals of course, were glum about it. Obviously, any professional soldier knew it was the end of his career, and they should try to readjust themselves to try and you know, get other jobs. That’s what they did in captivity, studying things even ordinary things like arts and crafts like joinery and pottery and whatnot.
Amongst his comrades there was only small clique of Nazis most were ordinary and just wanted to go home as they were sick of it.
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?
Nobody new it would take three years before they get home.
After the initial landing by the allies on May the 9th 1945 it took time to organise what to do with the German forces.
They took their time. It gave us an opportunity with almost a week to 10 days of being on our own. We never saw a Tommy until them and that gave us time to celebrate often in conjunction with the civilians. Really, really well. I had my first magnificent meal me a pig was slaughtered we had cauliflower and cutlets and opened a bottle of wine.Erwin Grubba
There were stores on the Channel Islands for emergency situations, you know, to the year 2000 to hold out for the Führer. There were concrete bunkers and concrete shafts underground not only for hospitalisation, but also food. When the war was over, all of a sudden now having starved us through the winter they suddenly released tins of fat, tins of liver sausage and bottles of wine, everything they had been hoarding them all through the winter, which would have helped quite a lot of people. So now of course there was the second warning given out instantly be careful and don’t eat too much of it because, I remember in fact, their was a Russian boy, Georgian. He died because of overeating kind of stuffing himself like that.
They certainly took the opportunity to party and celebrate the end of the war in Europe.
I had to be supported by the Sergeant Major on one side and another Corporal on the other to get back to my billet and to my bed, because I had knocked back the wine a bit too much, but we had a great celebration.Erwin Grubba
His quartermaster wanted to make a list of all their weapons and ammunition but Erwin said just make a pile you are not a soldier now. Some weapons were just thrown down drains or into ditches which explains why in subsequent years many turned up. Whilst waiting for orders they just sat around, there was no drill, and waited to hear from the British.
The delay gave him time to go and say goodbye to his Guernsey friends. His first encounter with the British forces was some eight to ten days later.
Six cyclists from the Royal Artillery in Portsmouth came near our barracks and stopped as they didn’t quite trust us, so I stepped forward, cheeky me as usual and said “How do you do, have you come to collect our weapons?”Erwin Grubba
“Oh no, we were just told to patrol and see you are behaving yourselves”. I asked one what he did in civvy street and he told me he was a taxi driver, and that was my first encounter with the British forces face to face.
After a few more days they were called to a collection point, The officers were separated from the other ranks and they were marched to the harbour. There they were loaded on to landing craft. They were then taken to England and on to captivity.
One aspect of the interview with Erwin that I find interesting is that he states that the Islanders were lucky that the German administration were not Nazis. Indeed he states that Count Von Schmettow and others were more of the old Junker class of officer. He recalls that many of the officers were well educated including Cambridge and Rhodes scholars. Indeed one who translated the works of former Island resident Victor Hugo into German.
Whilst this is up for debate and may be argued to be the case for Von Schmettow it would seem that Erwin was either unaware of or forgotten that Vice Admiral Friedrich Hüffmeier, former commander of the battleship Scharnhorst, who took over from Von Schmettow was indeed a nasty piece of work. That however is for a future blog!
1. Grubba, Erwin Albert (Oral history) IWM Archive
2. Islanders owe their allegiance not to the British government but to the Queen of England through the sovereign’s ancient title of ‘Duke of Normandy’.
3. Hurrell-Langlois, Dorothy Catherine (Oral history) IWM Archive reel 2