Recently Dr Gordon Barclay was getting a hard time from some quarters on Twitter, for taking the position that Churchill did not abandon the Channel Islands. Having been tagged by a mutual friend, Andy Bryson, I tweeted a very brief overview of my view of the situation and the oft repeated “Churchill abandoned the Channel Islands and forgot about them” commentary.
It wasn’t possible to cover it in detail in a series of Tweets so I thought I would address it in a blog post. Where the idea of abandonment came from, how it was perpetuated and was it true?
There are a number of reasons this narrative has arisen, and to be honest I did have it on the list of things to blog about but just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. The above has spurred me on to address it now.
The ground rules!
It is important to remember that unlike today, when we take instant communication and access to information for granted, this was not the case during the war years and for many decades thereafter. Sat here in front of my PC with an iPad and iPhone to consult the archives, newspapers and search the information from my own personal collection it is easier to get an overview of what was happening.
Much of the evidence I will present in this blog post was not available until many years after the cessation of hostilities and indeed in some cases not available to the public until recent years.
I am writing this with the benefit of access to this information and viewing it with an objective 2022 lens. Given the emergence of information over time if I had been writing this in the 1950s or 60s my view may have been different.
Where did this come from?
Arguably this comes from a number of sources dating as far back as the summer of 1940. There are also other events or perceived lack of action throughout the war which also relate to this idea that Churchill abandoned and forgot about the Channel Islands.
Firstly it came from the occupation of the Channel Islands in the summer of 1940. The British Government declared us a demilitarised zone with no defences. Some view this as being abandoned to suffer our fate.
This caused a bit of a commotion at the time in the House of Lords. You can read about that on my post here. This was caused by Lord Portsea who will feature further down this blog post.
For the next five years sentiment amongst some Channel Islanders was that no thought was being given to retaking the islands or what was happening there. You will see why later in this blog post.
The next key point was the advent of D-Day in Normandy on 6 June 1944. This created a false hope that Liberation would be imminent. With the French coast being visible from all of the Channel Islands and the sounds of aircraft over head as they dropped airborne forces and bombs on France, as well as the naval bombardment, hopes were raised that the occupation of the Channel Islands would end soon.
This turned into a feeling of disappointment and that the Channel Islands had been forgotten about. You can read about this in my post about “False hope and fear” blog.
The final nail in the coffin for Churchill’s reputation, with some, was the withholding of permission for food to be provided to the islands for several months. Eventually the requests for permission to help from the International Red Cross were granted. I dealt with the interpretation of Churchill’s “Let’em Starve” blog post.
How was it perpetuated?
Lord Portsea, himself a Jerseyman, was very vocal in the House of Lords for the entirety of the war. These protestations by Portsea were widely reported in the British press and also in the Channel Islands Monthly Review, a monthly publication for those that had left the islands. These were widely read by those that had been evacuated and those that had left to serve in the forces. I wrote about Lord Portsea here
Portsea wasn’t alone in campaigning, but he was certainly the most vocal, although others sought to make political capital out of this both during and after the war.
Lack of information in the Channel Islands as to commando raids and intelligence gathering operations contributed to this feeling. Only the capture of some raiders in 1940 and the ‘Sark raid’, Operation Basalt, were widely known about within the islands themselves.
One example of this is the M.I. 19 interview with two Guernseymen that escaped from Alderney in 1944.
Within the islands there was restricted access to news from outside and German propaganda in the local newspapers added to this. Following confiscation of radio sets islanders turned to making crystal radio sets to listen illegally and at some risk.
The lack of broadcasts or mention of the Channel Islands on the BBC added to this feeling of abandonment and that we were forgotten. This was a deliberate decision by the British government as there was a concern that such broadcasts may cause more difficulties for the islanders. There was a perception, rightly or wrongly, they may cause the Germans to introduce further measures.
Lack of information immediately post war other than very general short articles in the newspapers or the Channel Islands Monthly Review meant nothing was done to disagree with this view.
All of the above took hold over the war years. Over such an extended period of time and in the absence of evidence to the contrary these beliefs became entrenched. Rumours and speculation always gather momentum with a lack of information. They take on a life of their own and become a ‘truth’.
Was it true?
To consider the facts one needs to break it down into the various events that led to this feeling of being abandoned and forgotten. Addressing each aspect on its own merits and considering the evidence available.
June 1940 and occupation
Let’s address the situation in the run up to and the invasion of Guernsey on 30 June 1940 and Jersey on 1 July 1940. One has to remember that this was an extremely fast moving situation which meant that some decisions were reversed
As early as 1925 the Channel Islands had been identified as of no strategic significance and too difficult to defend. This was partially due to the advent of the aeroplane and in particular the bomber. In June 1940 a number of memoranda were produced to assess what was to be done with the Channel Islands.
The memorandum then concludes as follows:
If the enemy effected a lading on these islands it would be essential to eject him as a matter of prestige, and an operation to ensure this would necessitate a diversion of our forces.C.O.S.C. (40) 430. 10 June 1940 “Defence of the Channel Islands, Memorandum of the Chief of Imperial General Staff,” by Field Marshal Sir John Greer Dill. Held at the National Archives, Kew, File reference CAB 80/12 Page 160
The Committee are asked to consider the danger and effect of the Enemy’s attack on the Channel Islands and to decide what steps if any shall be taken to strengthen the defences
Following on from the above there was a further consideration dated the same day in another memorandum, extracts of which are set out below.
These memoranda were considered at meetings of the war cabinet on the 12th and 13th of June. At the meeting at 10 a.m. on 13th June they concluded that it was pointless to send the two battalions mentioned in the memorandum above.
On the 14th of June the position was considered again and decided to defer the position until the Chief of Air Staff had considered the RAF requirements.
Events were moving every quickly and following on from the 18th of June a memorandum (CAB 66/8/38) was circulated that despite the above it was necessary to use the aerodromes in Guernsey and Jersey to provide support to the B.E.F. being evacuated from Brest and Cherbourg.
A further meeting on 14 June 1940 again talked about demilitarisation.
The problem with what was agreed in respect of “no declaration of demilitarisation should be made by them unless they felt it advisable” was to have tragic consequences. A meeting on the 15th June went on to reinforce this decision.
The meeting of the War Cabinet on 19th June 1940 was the meeting that sealed the fate of the idea of defending the Channel Islands as you will see from the minutes below Churchill felt that the islands could be defended by the Royal Navy. He was eventually persuaded otherwise.
At the War Cabinet meeting on the 21st of June 1940, they were informed that the military evacuation was complete.
On the 22nd of June 1940 a notice was drafted to declare the islands demilitarised. As noted in the minute of the 14th of June there was reluctance to release this. It was felt that releasing this notice too early would invite the Germans to invade. Unfortunately, this meant that the Germans went on to Bomb both Jersey and Guernsey with significant loss of life. You can read about it here. Occupation followed on the 30th of June 1940 and in Jersey’s case
I have seen the idea bandied about that the Channel Islands could have been defended in the same fashion as Malta. This argument simply doesn’t hold water for many reasons not least our geographical location so close to the French coast. There was also a complete lack of anywhere for the population to shelter in the event of sustained bombing or naval bombardment.
The map below will give you some idea of the challenges that would have been faced.
Malta had immense strategic importance to both the allies and axis forces so it was worth devoting men and resources as well as risking the cost to lives on the island. As you will see as you read on this was not the case for the Channel Islands.
One must remember that in June 1940 the British were smarting from Dunkirk and also facing the prospect of invasion. Precious men and resources could not be spared to attempt to prevent the Channel Islands being taken by force.
Our proximity to the French coast also meant that the Luftwaffe would have been able to operate from airfields that were only a few minutes from their target. The RAF on the other hand would have only been able to operate from airfields in the south of England which would mean that fighter aircraft would have only had approximately fifteen minutes over the islands before having to return to refuel and re arm. This would involve a round trip of some two hundred or more miles as opposed to sixty to eighty miles for the Luftwaffe. This continues to be an issue when planning the proposed operations to retake the islands. You will see this problem considered later on in this post.
Even if the Channel Islands had been able to be held initially the logistics of keeping them re supplied would have been impossible. The Germans were to find this out after D-Day in 1944. The allied occupied French coast meant they were unable to get anything but a few ships through to the islands.
No attempt or plan to retake the islands?
This aspect of the of the myth is patently untrue. At the time nobody outside of those involved in the plans would have been aware of them because by their very nature they were secret. The British population were therefore unaware of these at the time, including those Channel Islanders that had left the islands. Those still in the islands equally so for obvious reasons.
There were a number of detailed plans to retake one or more of the Channel Islands throughout the war. They reached differing levels of planning and training.
The first of these was Operation Attaboy in March 1941 which I wrote about in detail here.
The second was Operation Blazing strangely enough one year later than Operation Attaboy. My detailed analysis of Blazing is here.
Operation Constellation was a plan in March 1943 that considered retaking one or all of the Channel Islands. This became Operation Concertina when they again chose Alderney.
If you read my blog posts linked above, you will see that Lord Mountbatten and Vice-Admiral John Hughes-Hallett amongst others were frequently pushing plans to retake the Channel Islands right from the outset. Often to the extreme annoyance of General Sir Alan Brooke.
Churchill was also involved in supporting the plan some of these operations.
“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.”Brooke notes in his diary on 6 May 1942
In addition to these large-scale operations there were many more smaller raids and the order to pursue this course of action as early as the 2nd of July 1940.
These gave rise to a number of operations running right up to December 1943, after which raids were stopped due to preparations for D-Day.
The initial flurry of raids in 1940 were Operation Anger 8th July 1940, Operation Ambassador 14th / 15th July 1940 and an intelligence gathering mission on 3rd / 4th September. You can read about these operations here.
In addition to these raids the following raids were carried out.
Paul Woodage of WW2TV was kind enough to have me on to talk about Commando Raids on the Channel Islands which also covers the planned large-scale operations discussed above. You can watch it on the YouTube link below.
What about negotiating a surrender?
It is frequently overlooked that there was extensive leaflet dropping following D-Day to encourage the garrison to surrender and at least one if not more attempts to secure a surrender. The October 1944 edition of the Channel Island Monthly Review notes a brief account of what happened.
Should you wish to find out more about this daring operation to attempt to secure a surrender, using a German General who was a POW, you can read about it here.
Nobody outside of government was aware of this comment at the time but when it emerged there was much debate over whether Churchill meant the German garrison or the population as well. You can find my analysis of this here.
The comment was interpreted by many to be applicable to both the German Garrison and the population. Take a look at the blog to understand this complex situation.
The assessment in this blog post is in no way a criticism of those that were alive at the time and formed this view. I would have formed the same view had I been sat here trapped in Guernsey for five years and suffering numerous privations.
I will let you form your own opinion as to whether you think Churchill is guilty as charged or not guilty. Hopefully the above analysis will provide you with the information to draw your own conclusions.
It would however be remiss of me not to throw in my two penn’orth! Having looked at the evidence that has become available over the years, which I have set out above, I believe that Churchill is not guilty of abandoning or forgetting the Channel Islands.
My rationale for this opinion is:-
The Channels Islands were totally indefensible by 1940. Any attempt to defend them would have just led to them being bombed into submission. This would have resulted in enormous loss of life and some of you reading this may never have been born as a result.
The various intelligence gathering operations and commando raids clearly demonstrate that the Channel Islands were not forgotten.
Planned operations to retake one or more of the Channel Islands despite the fact that they were of no strategic advantage demonstrates that we were not forgotten. These operations didn’t take place, but were very seriously considered, trained and planned for, something that they wouldn’t have expended time, effort and resources on if we were forgotten or abandoned.
Churchill was not making these decisions alone. Whilst he was the figurehead of the government, he was guided by the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff.
Whatever else he might have done wrong throughout his career and whatever else you think of him I don’t think on this occasion he is guilty as charged.
That’s all folks
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. I suspect I may get some incoming flak for this post. Ironic given the one thing we didn’t have in 1940 was anti-aircraft guns.
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© Nick Le Huray