Defending Jerrybags

The German occupation of the Channel Islands still haunts Britain's image of itself at war. The Jerrybags who slept with German soldiers are a reminder that the bulldog breed collaborated too. But Colin Smith argues that we should not jump to conclusions-the Islands were unlike any other part of occupied Europe
April 19, 1997

On one of those rocky islands that came to the English crown with William the Conqueror lives a certain lady-I will call her Mrs Bovary. She has been called much worse.

Every Sunday Mrs Bovary is driven to church by her husband in their large estate car with automatic gears. They are a handsome old couple, the sort whom it is easy to imagine in their prime. She petite with shapely legs giving no clue to the arthritic hip. He lean, silver topped, just slightly stooped.

They enter the church together, she leaning gently on his left forearm. They nod to their friends who nod back and return their mouthed, "good mornings." They are what their generation call "comfortable" and their clothes are of the kind you find in the long established upmarket department stores in English provincial towns. After the service they linger for a while outside the porch of the church, chatting to other members of the congregation.

Later, she takes his arm and he leads her along a winding path through the overcrowded graveyard, the lichen covered headstones of some of their French speaking ancestors on either side, down to the expensive imported car. He holds the door open for her, takes his place at the wheel, and either drives them sedately home or, during the winter months, to the hotel which gives good off-season luncheon rates where they sometimes invite friends to join them for a Sunday roast. Most of these friends know the couple's story. There are probably few people of their age group who were born on that island who do not.

By the end of the war, when the Nazi fanatic who commanded the Channel Islands reluctantly abided by the terms of Germany's unconditional surrender, Mrs Bovary had had a son by a German soldier. She was by no means alone in this. But unlike the other women, who were mostly single or whose husbands were in British uniform somewhere off the island, Mrs Bovary had quite recently married and her husband had not been one of those young men who had flocked to the colours in September 1939. There was a family business to run and he had elderly parents.

Mrs Bovary's lover went away. Some say he meant to return but was killed by the British somewhere near Caen in the summer of 1944. Mrs Bovary remained with her husband and he brought up the son she had borne by her Wehrmacht lover as if the little boy were his own. They had several children together as well. They became grandparents several times over. Her "German son" married a local girl and, being in a job in which he meets the public, is well known in their small community. His provenance is occasionally whispered about to a stranger by those who cannot resist such vintage gossip, although they are always careful to add what a good chap he is. Sometimes, perhaps if you have been away from the island for a while, you might run into him and find yourself reminded of his story. If he catches you looking at him in a ruminative sort of way he generally responds with a shy looking smile that makes you feel a bit of a heel. After all, his stepfather forgave his mother for bringing him into this world over half a century ago. It is only the Fleet Street diaspora which pretends to believe that the rest of us ought not to do the same.

islanders outraged by "Jerrybags" who slept with enemy, ran the headline in the The Times just before Christmas last year. The news peg was the public record office's decision to release the last of the secret files about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Isles. The outrage the headline referred to was as old as the files themselves.

The word "Jerrybag" made its first appearance in The Times in December 1944, a good five months before the end of the war when the Channel islanders, cut off by the allies, were facing starvation. "The only people who can get any food now are the collaborators and the Jerrybags and there are a few hundred of each kind," wrote the anonymous correspondent in a letter smuggled off the island.

Escapees from the islands had been telling British intelligence this sort of thing for the last four years. None the less, the letter seems to have been the first public indication that members of the bulldog breed might be capable of behaving just as shamefully as some of those funny foreigners who had so easily surrendered to the Germans in 1940. The Jerrybags were out of the bag.

Six months later, a few days after the uncontested liberation of the islands following Germany's surrender, both The Times and the Daily Mirror ran stories about the number of women who had given birth to children fathered by Germans. Most of the figures quoted were gross exaggerations. Jersey's "800" was probably under 200. The Germans themselves admitted to 80. Nevertheless, it was enough for Churchill who never visited the only British territory to come under the jackboot.

Roy Mourant, a Jerseyman who escaped to liberated France in 1944 and later became chairman of Jersey's agricultural federation, blames the false figures on some of the escapees relating the St Helier rumour mill to gullible interrogators from MI19-a wartime intelligence organisation which debriefed escapers. "If seven out of ten of our women slept with the Germans that would have meant every German soldier on the island had a girlfriend," he pointed out after the latest Jerrybag saga.

This time newspapers went one step further. They extracted from the files the names of some of the better known performers of la collaboration horizontale, causing some consternation among the grandmothers of contemporary St Helier and St Peter Port where surnames lack variety among those of undiluted Norman stock.

What is it about the British that every now and then we cannot resist teasing and prodding this particular wound to the national psyche until we have it nicely throbbing all over again? How long will it be before our fascination fades with what, after all, is just a footnote to Britain's enormous sacrifices of blood and treasure in the second world war?

For the islands themselves their five years of occupation by the most terrifying army ever seen on the continent of Europe has become a selling point. In recent years, the substantial fero-concrete bunkers and underground hospitals provided by the wretched slave workers of the Organisation Todt have given a fillip to a tourist industry finding it difficult to compete with Mediterranean packages. "For Hitler, possession of the Channel Islands was seen merely as the first step towards the invasion of mainland Britain," declares the latest Guernsey tourist board brochure.

And this, of course, is the source of the wound. This is why we cannot leave it alone. This, we tell ourselves, is what it would have been like if Britain had been occupied. If the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain, if the Few had been fewer and the army, scarcely recovered from its ordeal at Dunkirk, had been crushed in another blitzkrieg.

It was just 26 days after Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, that a daring Luftwaffe pilot touched down on Guernsey airport and confirmed that the RAF were no longer in residence. Instead of stubborn defiance, instead of taking on parachutists with pitchforks and "you can always take one with you," there were obsequious local authorities and helmeted bobbies opening car doors for German staff officers. Germans were required to wrestle in the shadows but only with Jerrybags putting up their token resistance. For all Churchill's fine words, not only did this British turf surrender but it surrendered without firing a shot and no resident Channel islander took a German life throughout the occupation.

"It is hardly possible to believe that a German invasion would have met with near-uniform sturdy resistance," says the author Angus Calder in his book The Myth of the Blitz. "The history of the Channel Islands, British territory under German occupation, suggests that timid people, lookers-after-number-one and easy-lifers would have collaborated in considerable numbers."

Calder's book was a relatively gentle attempt to blow away the propaganda smoke screen so well laid by the Crown Film Unit and others in the early 1940s. It attracted predictable controversy but was nothing compared to the reaction that greeted the release of the last of the secret files on the Channel Islands. Under the headline, "We'd have collaborated too," Brian Sewell wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: "Our sense of moral superiority over Johnny Foreigner, the Frog, the Kraut, the Polack and the Yid is entirely without foundation, a fanciful delusion that distorts the attitudes to Europe of many who govern us... We have no business to feel superior even to the Channel Islands, for we deceive ourselves if we protest that we would never have collaborated, never have provided our share of little quislings, never have settled old scores against political adversaries, and never have agreed to the persecution of the Jews."

In a much gentler way, the same point is made by Madeleine Bunting, a Guardian journalist. Bunting's The Model Occupation, is by far the best history of the occupation though, inevitably perhaps, Channel islanders, who generally dislike the idea of outsiders illuminating this dark period of their lives, point to trivial mistakes and omissions.

The book was published in 1995 by HarperCollins to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the islands' liberation and is notable for locating some of the Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish and German anti-Nazis who survived the brutal slave labour camps on Alderney. In her epilogue, Bunting writes, "If Britain's national identity is to adjust to the development of European integration in the late 20th century, so the stock of Britain's wartime legends will have to be expanded to encompass a common European legacy of 1939-45; the history of 60,000 British citizens under German occupation offers a vital link to the continental experience of the second world war." While Bunting hardly achieves the peaks of repugnance and self-loathing scaled by Sewell and others her conclusion is just as wrong.

churchill almost persuaded the war cabinet to put up a fight for the islands but the services were against it. They pointed out that the archipelago was too close to the French coast, Alderney is only nine miles away, and to defend their long and vulnerable supply lines with England would absorb ships, aircraft and troops badly needed elsewhere.

Once the decision that the islands were not worth fighting for was taken, the few British servicemen there were withdrawn and the war cabinet regarded them as demilitarised in the same way the tottering French had demilitarised Paris. But unlike the French, the British government, conscious of the importance of maintaining public morale, were in no hurry to reveal they had abandoned British territory, particularly territory with fond memories for holidaymakers from all over the British Isles.

As a result on 29th June 1940, ten days after the last British soldier had departed, Heinkel bombers killed 32 civilians in air raids on St Helier and St Peter Port. This was intended to be part of the softening up process of Jersey and Guernsey for an invasion that, much to their astonishment, the Germans were at last informed through the US embassy in London they were no longer required to mount.

The first island to be occupied was Guernsey, smaller than Jersey-about 24 square miles compared to 45-but closer to England. First to arrive was a Luftwaffe reconnaissance party which flew over it several times and then landed. They were handed a letter in English that had been signed by Bailiff Victor Carey, the elderly head of the Guernsey States of Deliberation. It read: "This island has been declared an open island by His Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom. There are in it no armed forces of any description. The bearer has been instructed to hand this communication to you. He does not understand the German language."

Exactly a year before the islands' beaches had been crowded with people enjoying what the newspapers were already suggesting might well be their last summer of peace, possibly their last summer. In London air raid drills and the issue of gas masks and Anderson shelters were already taking place. Channel islanders pitied the holidaymakers who would have to return to the big British cities on what the islanders always insisted on calling "the mainland" though geologically their mainland is continental Europe.

By the time the Germans arrived in the high summer of 1940, all but a score of Alderney's 1,400 civilians had already left and on Guernsey, where there were suggestions that the island would starve without food imports from Britain, almost half of its 41,000 population had gone. But less than one fifth of Jersey's 50,000 evacuated after Alexander Coutanche, the bailiff, made a rousing speech at a public meeting in St Helier's Royal Square in which he declared that he and his wife were staying and this was no time to burden England with refugees.

Ten thousand of the more adventurous and patriotic young males had already departed having volunteered for the armed forces shortly after the outbreak of war-traditionally Channel islanders must be conscripted directly by the sovereign and then only when the throne itself is deemed to be in danger. This was the highest percentage of volunteers from anywhere within the empire and, as is often pointed out on the islands, their absence might well explain why there were hardly any attempts at armed resistance.

This lack of resistance is sometimes cited, along with Jerrybags and other forms of collaboration, as a good reason why the occupation of the islands should be regarded as a humbling reminder that, when the chips are down, the British do not behave any better than any other Europeans. Certainly, it provides handy ammunition for the left to bait the kind of flag wavers who saw the boys off to the Falklands high on Churchillia and the bulldog spirit.

But the circumstances on the islands between June 1940 and May 1945 were very different from the rest of occupied Europe and it is hardly comparing like with like. The concentration of German troops to civilians was higher even than in Germany itself. At one point there was one soldier for every two civilians occupying Guernsey's 24 square miles. And the Germans liked to regard the islands as a sort of laboratory sample of Britain. By Nazi standards the islanders were treated with kid gloves. At least in the first wave the troops were well behaved, stepping off pavements to let ladies go by and spending lots of money in the shops.

Perhaps the starkest difference with much of occupied Europe is that Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Sark were never fought over. There was no great battle as there was the following spring for Crete where the defeated British Commonwealth forces gave the German paratroopers a very bloody nose and left behind enough determined stragglers to guide and inspire a fierce Cretan resistance. Special Operations Executive, which organised murder and mayhem all over the Nazis' conquered territories (except for occupied Russia), did not mount a single operation on the islands, though by early 1944 they were operating in nearby Brittany with sufficient ease to drop agents by launch rather than parachute.

Yet despite this lack of encouragement from London there were heroic, spontaneous acts of resistance for which some people suffered lingering deaths in hell holes of the Nazi penal system, including concentration camps. Charles Machon, a compositor on the Guernsey Evening Press started the Guernsey Underground News Service. Its BBC news bulletins countered the crowing columns of extravagant battle claims the German-controlled local newspapers were obliged to print. Machon and his team had a two year run before they were betrayed by an Irishman-some seasonal agricultural workers from the Irish Republic had remained on the islands. They were interrogated by the Geheime Feldpolizei, the special investigation branch of the military police. After torture, they were then sent to prison in Germany where Machon and one of the others died from beatings and starvation.

On Jersey the Bulletin of British Patriots and similar underground newsletters were produced, one by the island's tiny Communist party which also sheltered a German deserter called Paul M?lbach who was trying to start a mutiny among the Wehrmacht. Several Jersey families, at considerable risk to themselves, hid escaped Russian and Ukrainian prisoners. On Guernsey, Marie Ozanne, a staunch member of the Salvation Army on that very methodist island, protested so passionately to the Germans about their maltreatment of the slave labourers employed on the island's defences that they beat her up. She died a few months later. Canon Cohu, an Anglican priest, died in Spergau concentration camp after being accused of disseminating BBC broadcasts to hospital patients-the rumour mill says by a young woman having a baby by a German. In the last months of the occupation some Jersey youths-there were far more teenagers on Jersey because fewer people had been evacuated-stole some weapons and explosives in readiness to assist the British landings they longed for.

Stanley Green, a cinema projectionist in St Helier, was arrested on the relatively minor charge of possessing a radio which normally meant a few months' local imprisonment. But the Germans suspected he was involved in more serious things. An informer had told them he had built a radio transmitter-it never seems to have occurred to any of the British intelligence agencies to leave one behind or smuggle one in. He was sent to Paris where the Gestapo pulled out his fingernails in Fresnes prison without getting him to admit that they were right. After the Gestapo was done with him the intrepid Green managed to smuggle a camera into Buchenwald, where he cleaned human fat out of the crematorium ovens, and survived to produce the pictures at Nuremberg.

These were the heroic few. Most people did not resist apart from making sure they turned up at the funerals of British sailors and airmen or chalking up the odd V for victory. Instead, they followed the instructions of their feudal masters in societies which years after the war islanders stoutly declared to be "classless" and "nothing like England" because, devoid of party politics, paternalism concealed the rift between the governors and the governed.

"The public are notified that no resistance whatsoever is to be offered to those in military occupation of the island," ordered the Guernsey controlling committee which, as a wartime expedient, had removed what little democracy the islands had. The committee was nominally still in charge having traded their obedience for a promise from the Germans that the populace would be allowed to continue to pray for the health of His Majesty. Jersey took a similar line. The attitude of both bailiwicks is understandable. If the professionals from the services had decided that resistance was useless, why should the amateurs disagree?

One much quoted German report called the islanders "obsequious peasants" but that would include Charles Machon and his nephew Herbie who was flying spitfires with the RAF. And if there were no mass acts of resistance there were no mass acts of collaboration either. There was no milice torturing and killing their own countrymen. There were no Waffen SS recruiting sergeants luring young men into the international fight against Bolshevism at a time when Norway, France, Bel-gium and Holland all raised SS divisions for service on the eastern front. One of 16 Guernsey policemen convicted of pilfering from both German and civilian food supplies was paraded with a handful of British renegades recruited from PoW camps and invited to join one of the SS divisions. But he redeemed himself by refusing and paid the price.

As Bunting points out, there was moral confusion. A first world war veteran, wounded at Cambrai and with a son serving in the RAF and a daughter driving ambulances in the London blitz, saw nothing wrong in volunteering for paid work for the Germans among the starving slave labourers on Alderney.

At his first meeting with the Germans Major Ambrose Sherwill, Guernsey's procureur du roi (attorney general) and president of the controlling committee, defiantly laid on the table the military cross he had won for gallantry in the trenches. Yet only a few weeks later Sherwill appeared to fall into a propaganda trap when he made an English language broadcast for German radio praising the "exemplary conduct" of the German troops on Guernsey. But there was a good reason for this.

Sherwill, who had sons of his own in the forces, was desperately trying to create the right atmosphere for two young Guernsey officers who had been smuggled on to the island in civilian clothes to be treated as prisoners of war rather than be shot as spies. Second Lieutenants Hubert Nicolle and James Symes had become marooned on Guernsey, let down by the Royal Navy who felt the weather was too rough to pick them up. During the same period eight Guernseymen put to sea in a fishing boat with a dodgy engine and reached England 19 hours later.

Sherwill was furious with London for sending Nicolle and Symes in the first place. As a lawyer he felt it was most improper to declare a place "demilitarised" and then start raiding it. To make matters worse, they were there as the final installment of an inept series of raids by the newly formed commandos which had already left behind seven prisoners without inflicting a single German casualty.

Eventually, Sherwill persuaded the officers to give themselves up only to see them condemned to death and himself, one of 13 Guernsey civilians arrested with them, packed off to the Cherche Midi prison in Paris. Symes' father, who had been a prisoner of the Germans in the previous war, killed himself before he could hear that his son had been reprieved and the Germans had agreed to treat both officers as prisoners of war. Sherwill and the others were eventually released and allowed to return to Guernsey. The old soldier, who received a knighthood after the war, made no bones about how decently he thought the Germans had behaved.

Decent or not, the islands' police were requested to identify people who might be suffering from terminal Jewishness as defined by the Nuremberg race laws. They found 17. Unlike the French they did not round them up, but presented reasons why they did not really qualify-they were married to local gentiles, they had been baptised Christians and so on. It was not a level of dedication that would have inspired Eichmann.

As a result, no Channel Island Jews perished in the Holocaust. The three women the Germans eventually deported from Guernsey and murdered at Auschwitz were all, as far as the Nazis were concerned, citizens of the Reich, two Austrians and one German-speaking Silesian Pole. None of them had been on the island more than three years. They appear to have had no idea what was in store for them and walked down to the boat which took them away escorted only by friends. One of them, a Viennese called Therese Steiner who was an accomplished pianist, had drawn attention to herself by badgering the Germans for news of her parents whom she had last heard of in Leipzig.

On the islands there were plenty of threats but the only executions were of German soldiers, usually for desertion or stealing food, except for one brave French boy who tried to row to England to join de Gaulle and landed on Jersey instead. By contrast, when two Jerseymen who survived the capsizing of their escape craft were discovered to have photographs of German fortifications they got away with prison sentences.

Of course there was sexual fraternisation. In 1944, two days after St Malo fell to the Americans, Baron von Aufsess, the head of civil affairs for the German military, was in Jersey observing how young Brits and Germans continued to enjoy the scenery and each other. "...complete amity still reigns between the German soldiers and the local girls," he noted in a diary entry that appears to draw heavily on his own dedicated research on both sides of the Channel.

"The English woman is astoundingly simple, effortless and swift in her love making. While the French woman involves herself totally in the game, which she likes to be conducted on intellectual lines, for the English woman it is a surprisingly straightforward physical matter. This direct and uncomplicated fashion of making love is not to be underrated; in its openness and honesty it precludes all that is wanton and furtive."

Less than a year later the baron would be a prisoner of war employed as a farm labourer near Hadrian's wall while, in the rubble of the Reich, British civil affairs officers, often less sophisticated fellows than von Aufsess, were trying and failing to prevent Montgomery's army from fraternising with German women. That 12 years of Nazi propaganda should still leave room for Tommybags must be a touching tribute to the frailty of human nature.

And back on the islands, some of the children of the Reich were already showing themselves to be tall for their age, particularly noticeable among communities where for generations the males have tended to be on the stocky side. Perhaps it is for this reason alone that several of the "German boys" grew up to be policemen.