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Quiet Occupation by German Troops on Britain’s Channel Islands

May 10, 1995 GMT

ST. HELIER, Jersey (AP) _ Maurice Gautier was 13 and playing on the beach when he heard the German planes that plunged Britain’s Channel Islands into World War II.

``There was a lone fighter and three Heinkel bombers coming very low and fast toward us and firing,″ he said. ``They zoomed over us and over the town and then we heard their bombs exploding. We were scared, but not so much as to stop us trying to dig bullets out of the rocks after they’d gone.″

It was June 28, 1940, and France, just 14 miles away, had capitulated to the Germans six days earlier. Now the German planes machine-gunned the island of Sark and bombed Jersey and Guernsey to test the defenses.

There was none. British soldiers had gone, and the raiders killed 44 people without opposition.

In London, 180 miles northeast of Jersey, Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet had decided the islands were strategically worthless and could not be defended without great loss of life.

The British evacuated nearly 23,000 islanders who wanted to go, leaving 60,000 others to their fate. Even though Allied forces invaded nearby Normandy in mid-1944, the islands remained in German hands until the war ended.

The islands celebrate liberation on May 9, a day after V-E Day, because that is when British troops arrived on Guernsey and Jersey. Sark was freed May 10 and Alderney only on May 16, one of the last places in Europe to be freed.

The Channel Islands, the oldest possession of Britain’s monarchy, were the only British territory occupied by Germany.

German troops landed on Guernsey on June 30, 1940, on Jersey July 1, on Sark July 3 and on Alderney July 4.

``The occupation brought out the best and the worst in people,″ said Rita Sweeney, a Jersey resident who was 19 in 1940. ``Some collaborated and some didn’t. Most tried to live it out with as little trouble as possible, but it wasn’t very nice.

``If you had a family you never knew who would be taken next and put in prison. Daughters who knew their parents had something hidden, like a radio, would denounce them to get food or silk stockings. The Germans would take people away and not tell their families where,″ she said.

Still, the Germans were keen to show for propaganda purposes that they could be well-behaved occupiers on British soil.

``It was nice there, better than being in Russia,″ said Willi Joanknecht, a German navy signalman from Paderborn who was on Guernsey. He married a local girl, Dolly Edwards, and now lives in England.

``I was very frightened and I hid for the first days when the Germans arrived because we had been told they ate babies and raped girls in the first World War,″ Mrs. Joanknecht said.

``There was hardly any resistance on the islands because it wasn’t worthwhile,″ she said. ``But we heard Churchill on the radio saying, `Do what you can,′ and we went to the beach and mixed up the Germans’ clothes and threw their boots in the sea when they were bathing.″

Norman Le Brocq, a Jerseyman who was 17 in 1940, said he was bitter after the war about island officials who signed off on German orders and ``the local police who helped the Germans round up non-natives for internment in Germany.″

Long after the war, he learned from official papers that Britain’s government had ordered local officials to keep order, ``so they hadn’t much choice.″

Le Brocq escaped detection while printing anti-Nazi leaflets throughout the occupation. But he was fired from his job in the fuel department in 1943 for revealing names of privileged people who were getting more than their ration.

He said there were several small resistance groups. Among them were Post Office clerks who surreptitiously opened letters to the German secret police. When they found one from an informer, they alerted those who had been informed against, saving many from prison.

``The islanders had no alternative to what happened,″ said Asa Briggs, a British historian whose book, ``The Channel Islands: Occupation and Liberation 1940-1945,″ was recently published. ``They were isolated. The islands are too small and there were too many Germans,″ he said in an interview.

By 1943, there were 40,000 German military and civilians on the islands, or two for every three islanders.

Most Jews had been evacuated, though three women who remained were arrested and were murdered at the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland. About 2,400 people in all, mostly non-natives, were deported for internment in Germany.

The Germans prepared for a British attack that never came. Their gun pits, observation towers, tunnels and antitank walls are maintained by the Occupation Society and are very much a part of today’s sightseeing stops.

The worst part of the occupation was on Alderney, the island nearest to England and therefore a key to the English Channel.

Out of sight because Alderney was totally evacuated, German engineers built a fortress with more than 2,500 slave laborers _ Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Spaniards and French Jews. Hundreds of prisoners, barely clothed, wretchedly fed and brutally treated, died in foul conditions.

Ted Misiewicz, 69, now a retired architect in London, was transported from his village in eastern Poland to Alderney.

``We were living skeletons,″ he said. ``Twenty percent of the workers died from lack of food, the winter cold, the brutality of the Organization Todt guards and lack of resistance to disease. There were between 4,000 and 5,000 of us building fortifications when I was there and over 1,000 of us died.″

Misiewicz, who fled to France, is believed to be the only successful escapee from Alderney.

After the Allied landing in Normandy, the islands were cut off from food and medicine and the Germans restricted fishing. The islanders made coffee from acorns, tea from bramble leaves and flour from potatoes.

``In the last months of the war people in their 50s and 60s were dropping dead from starvation and weakness,″ said Mrs. Sweeney.

An appeal to the International Red Cross _ supported by the hungry occupiers _ resulted in the neutral ship Vega bringing food parcels from Portugal on several visits beginning in December 1944. One grateful family christened its new-born daughter Vega.