Lockdown fantasies…

I was honoured to be invited to contribute to the blog from the acclaimed Solitudes. Past and present research programme, under the directorship of the brilliant Professor Barbara Taylor, at Queen Mary, University of London. So, here it is – and while you’re at it, do browse the website, and read some of the other extraordinary contributions!

The Forgotten

It is 1958. The Cold War is about to enter its deadliest phase. John Harris, a London school teacher and Betty Fisher, a typist from Hatfield, meet at the inaugural meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They fall in love, but their affair is abruptly ended when Anatoly, a Russian diplomat, enters their world. They find themselves unlikely and unwilling protagonists in the paranoid world of espionage and nuclear warfare which began, for both of them, but in very different ways, in Berlin in 1945. For neither John, nor Betty, are who they appear to be…

Told in two time frames, and places – London 1958 and Berlin 1945 – The Forgotten is a story of war and its aftermath, of truth, accountability, love and trust.

The Forgotten will be published by Oneworld in September 2021.

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.