History Wars World War II

These are the only Brits who endured Nazi occupation

All prisoners struggled in the camps, but guards typically gave orders in German and prisoners built relationships in continental languages.
Logan Nye Avatar
nazi occupation
German soldiers in British Channel Islands in the 1940s.

Great Britain stood firm, but never quite alone, against the Nazis. The sacrifices of British service members, spies, and even average citizens held the Third Reich at arm’s length across the English Channel. The British people, rallied by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, promised to fight on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields and the streets, and more. But five islands did fall to Germany. The Channel Islands stand just 20-45 miles from the coast of France and suffered German attacks and Nazi occupation.

Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, and just a few days later, Churchill took the tough decision to demilitarize the Channel Islands.

The islands had little strategic value, and it made sense to let them go rather than risk Royal Navy assets. So Britain ordered an evacuation starting June 19. The evacuation is critiqued as being poorly planned and executed. Regardless of why, only half the population of Guernsey and a fifth of Jersey made it out. Smaller islands got most or all of their population off.

Life under Nazi occupation

Life got rough for the remaining residents, mostly on the larger islands of Guernsey and Jersey. First, Britain kept the demilitarization of the islands a secret. Germany thought they were still occupied and attacked a line of trucks with a bombing run. The trucks only contained tomatoes, but 44 civilians died in that and other attacks.

The abandonment of the islands triggered arguments in Parliament. As Lord Mottistone described it, “We surrendered a place where the flag of Britain has flown for 800 years,” without firing a shot.

Germany occupied the islands on June 30. The troops instituted German laws and norms on the islands. Traffic was forced to reverse to driving on the right, the currency was changed to the Reichsmark, and clocks shifted to German time. For more than four years, German soldiers stole from residents, abused suspected dissenters, and deported Jewish people and resisters. Despite the risks, some residents did resist.

The most prominent of them, Frank Falla, used an illegal radio to listen to British war news and then published a newsletter. This newsletter served as a lifeline for those resisting German propaganda. But an unknown informant eventually ratted out Falla. The Germans deported him and hundreds of others to concentration camps in France and Germany as political prisoners.

The living hell of those deported

British islanders deported to the continent faced one of two hells. A few were deported to standard prisons, which was dangerous and miserable, but at least it wasn’t industrial-scale slaughter like in the camps. Most islanders traveled between multiple prisons and concentration camps.

Many islanders only spoke English, which became a problem in the camps. All prisoners struggled in the camps, but guards typically gave orders in German, and prisoners built relationships in continental languages like French, German, Polish, or Russian.

Some islanders could speak French and fell in with French prisoners, but many only spoke English and were completely socially isolated. Some survivors described being the only person in the camp who spoke English, leading to extra beatings from annoyed guards.

And, as Britain continued to resist German invasion and then launched its own attacks against German forces, guards took out their frustrations on the captive islanders in camps. In Frank Falla’s case, he was forced with other prisoners to dig unexploded bombs from the ground.

Imagine being singled out for extra attention in a concentration camp.

As British forces liberated concentration camps, they looked for the Channel Island survivors. American troops liberated Naumburg Prison on April 13, 1945, freeing Falla and the last surviving Islanders.

At least 21 islanders from Guernsey and eight from Jersey died in prisons and camps.

When Churchill announced the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, he said, “Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight tonight. And our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today.”