Britain’s silent anniversary

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, an anniversary that few in the British Isles are likely to celebrate. The occupation lasted for five years, from 30 June 1940 to 9 May 1945. In the final year, after the invasion of Normandy in 1944, the German occupiers – along with the Channel Island citizens – were under siege, locked in a grizzly dance of survival. The pain, hardship and humiliation of those years are difficult for mainlanders to imagine, although the story was a common one across occupied Europe. For this reason it is not a part of the war which fits into the British story of victory, although the notion of the plucky little Channel Islanders has its resonances with the spirit of the blitz.

There was, inevitably, a darker side to the occupation which was, at times, very dark indeed. The occupying forces needed ‘comfort’ – not just the Wehrmacht but also the men from Organisation Todt, the civil and military engineering corps of the Reich who drafted in, and controlled, the labour required to build Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.  Accordingly, brothels were set up on the islands, two in Jersey, two in Guernsey and one on Alderney. Little has been written about the women drafted in to service these and other brothels – in all an estimated 34,000 women in 500 brothels across occupied Europe.

Sexual violence was not considered a crime against humanity as defined by the International Military Tribunal in 1945 so, unlike other war crimes, the evidence was not collected. Nor did the women speak out after the war – out of shame or fear, or both. Women suspected of sleeping with the enemy – for whatever reason and under whatever circumstances – were subject to brutal vigilante justice on the continent and in the Channel Islands.

As a result, we know very little about these women. Were they voluntary sex workers? Were they coerced? Or were they convicted prostitutes who commuted a prison sentence for service in the Wehrmacht and Organisation Todt brothels?

We know that women were part of involuntary Russian and Ukranian OT workers brought into the Channel Islands in 1942, many of whom, I am guessing, were destined to service the OT brothels. The brothel for the Wehrmacht in Jersey was, according to British Intelligence, staffed by ‘licensed French women,’ whatever that meant. Volunteers? Perhaps. The SS in Alderney enticed French women with money, but their use as forced prostitutes is in no doubt once they arrived: they were not paid, were subject to compulsory monthly medical inspections, punishments, imprisonment and, if infected, ‘ruthless’ dismissal. Some of the women were ‘Algerian’ which adds another layer of political and racial complexity. On Alderney alone, in 1943, we know there were ‘about 100’ women. We have no names; British intelligence believed that the Channel Island brothels were evacuated after the Normandy landings in June 1944 yet the evacuation reports of Displaced Persons in Jersey and Guernsey in May 1945 indicated at least fifty Dutch, Spanish, French, Romanian and Polish women were still there.

If the women were one story of barbarity and displacement, there was another. There were 16,000 or so slave labourers under the command of Organisation Todt in the Channel Islands. They were housed in appalling conditions in camps across the islands, fourteen in Jersey, five in Guernsey, five in Alderney including a temporary camp. One camp, Lager Sylt, became a subsidiary of Neuengamme under the authority of the SS in 1943. On the Channel Islands, as in the rest of Europe, a small part of the local workforce was employed as skilled labour, but the majority of workers (some as young as fourteen) were either political prisoners or forcibly brought in from all over Europe, in particular Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and French North Africa to work as slave labourers – 27 nationalities in all.

The working and living conditions were inhumane, starvation and brutality was routine, mortality and morbidity high, accidents rife: labourers were buried alive in rock falls, drowned in concrete footings, shot. In Lager Sylt, the only concentration camp on British soil, there was evidence of further war crimes in particular: arbitrary murder, acts of cruelty and barbarism, bodies left to rot or thrown into the sea. Prisoners starved and froze to death. Some of the sick were sent back to Neuengamme, where they were probably murdered. It is not known how many prisoners died, but the numbers run into thousands.

Although there was evidence of war crimes on the Channel Islands, none of the perpetrators were brought to trial in Britain. The post-war government, focusing on the future and drawn into the emerging Cold War, were reluctant to advertise that part of the British Isles had been under enemy occupation or to draw attention to Nazi atrocities committed there, lest this gave a propaganda advantage to the Soviet Union. Largely as a result of this, the story of the prisoners and survivors of labour and concentration camps on British soil has not been widely told – any more than the story of women trafficked by the Nazis in the Channel Islands and elsewhere has been heard.

There are few memorials to the labour and sacrifice that these men, and women, made. Perhaps as we remember glorious moments of the Second World War, we should also remember its other victims who survived, and died, in the British Isles. Breaking silence is one way of remembering the past and sometimes fiction is the best resource and tool for the job.

A few Q and As

What’s The Hidden about?

 

It is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation in World War Two. An unexpected visitor forces Dora, a German Jewish refugee trapped by the occupation, and Joe, a young Irish priest, to confront a time they thought buried in the past, and as the story unravels we see how their lives entwined and mirrored each other. For Dora hid her Jewish identity while Joe hid a terrible secret. It’s a story about survival, and shame, about truth and betrayal, about passion and guilt. It’s a story about love and hope.

 

Why did you write it? What were the inspirations behind it?

 

One of the untold stories of the Second World War are of women trafficked into prostitution in occupied Europe – and the Channel Islands. There were five Nazi brothels in the Channel Islands, two in Jersey alone. Who were these women? How did they survive? What happened to them after the war? There’s very little known about them because sexual violence was not considered a war crime in 1945 so evidence was not collected. What we know was allusions connected incidentally to other war crimes. I wanted to bring that story to life.

 

Other crimes against humanity were committed, in the 25 or so labour camps on the Channel Islands and especially in the only SS run concentration camp, Lager Sylt, on Alderney but no one was prosecuted at the time, for reasons we can only guess at.

 

We’ve forgotten these stories because the tale we tell ourselves of the Second World War is one of English exceptionalism, of little Britain standing up to the goliath of occupied Europe and hides what we have shared with Europe, what we have in common.

 

I wanted to explore all of these.

 

Did you do much research?

I read everything possible on the occupation, and I went to the National Archives to read the original papers relating to it, in the hope of finding something on the women in the brothels and the war crimes committed.

 

As sexual violence was not a war crime, nothing was collected specifically on that. But I did find, in the interviews with the German SS prisoners after the war, an oblique reference to them, from the German Commandant of Alderney, Obersleutnant Schwalm, who remarked that when he took command in 1943 there were about 100 women whom he ordered to be quartered together and on whom he imposed strict visiting hours, and another reference from the garrison commander, Wilhelm Gerhardt, who commented that he’d tried to recruit volunteers in Paris to clean and cook, but the only women who applied were ‘streetwalkers, good time girls and criminal elements.’ Their use as coerced prostitutes is in no doubt: they were subjected to punishments, imprisonment, forced medical examinations, were ‘ruthlessly’ dismissed if infectious and were unpaid.

 

On the war crimes, the evidence collected by the Director of Public Prosecutions had been sent to Moscow, and no copy kept in the National Archives, but I did find the ‘Wanted Report’ on Maximilian List, the commandant of Lager Sylt until 1944, for crimes committed under his command.

 

Why did you move from writing history to fiction?

 

Historians tell stories, I’ve always loved writing, and I wanted a break from academic history into another form of storytelling.

 

Was the transition hard?

 

I was, and am, on a steep learning curve. On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But historians make an argument from the evidence. Novelists create a world from possibilities. A novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is, can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate.

 

What are you working on now?

 

A contemporary thriller, set in London. Watch this space.