Long empty tunnel with subdued lighting
Dark tourism,  Jersey,  War

Jersey under occupation: the War Tunnels

In June 1940 France fell to the advancing Nazi army and was occupied. The British government decided that the Channel Islands, just off the Normandy coast, were of no strategic importance and would not be defended. The islands were effectively demilitarised, and the residents were faced with an impossible choice. Should they stay and face occupation or go, leaving behind families, friends and possessions?

For those who stayed, the period of occupation was long and difficult. Jersey surrendered on 1st July, a day after Guernsey, and the smaller islands of Alderney and Sark soon followed. It would be nearly five years before the Channel Islands would be liberated, on 9th May 1945. During those long years the islanders suffered under the loss of freedom and the imposition of new laws including the confiscation of possessions; restrictions on fishing, public gatherings and much more; a curfew and ban on using the beaches; rationing and other privations; and perhaps worst of all, the loss of freedom of speech.

The Jersey War Tunnels

Large tank and mannequin soldier
German tank at the entrance to the tunnels

The islands were heavily fortified by the Nazis. On Jersey an extensive network of tunnels was dug, over 50 metres underground. Their purpose was to allow the German occupying infantry to withstand Allied air raids and bombardment in the event of an invasion. The Nazis used more than 5,000 forced and slave workers from nations across Europe to dig this complex. They lived in harsh conditions; although how they were treated seems to some extent to have varied according to nationality, with the Russians suffering worse treatment than, say, the Spanish or Dutch. My assumption is that this was because the Russians were actively engaged in fighting the Nazis while some other nations had surrendered and been occupied.

Later, in 1943, the tunnels were converted into an emergency hospital as the tide of war turned against the occupiers. Today they are open to the public to visit. A series of exhibits tells what it was like to live on Jersey during those years of occupation.

Visiting the tunnels

Replica ID card
Replica ID card

When you visit the tunnels you are given a gender appropriate ID card with your entrance ticket, and told to look out for ‘your person’ among the photos and information boards.

As you walk through the tunnels different display areas each tell one aspect of the history of the island during that period: the British decision not to defend the Channel Islands; the difficult choice facing the islanders, with only 24 hours in which to opt either to stay or be evacuated; life here under German occupation; and eventual liberation on 9 May 1945 – a date still marked each year by a public holiday.

The following more detailed descriptions of each section of the story are taken from the Jersey War Tunnels website, but the photos are of course all my own.

To Leave or to Stay?

As the UK announced that it would not defend the Channel Islands, residents were faced with an impossible choice – to stay and face the unknown enemy or to go, leaving behind families, friends and possessions.

Information board with old photos
Display describing the experiences of some who chose to leave
First Contact

As German troops arrived in their thousands, Jersey was firmly under the jackboot. Discover those uncertain days as the occupied learned to live with their occupiers.

The Paper War

With little physical resistance to deal with, it wasn’t long before the German command began interfering in daily life. Its main weapon – a formidable bureaucracy, generating new laws and orders on a daily basis.

Daily Life

As restrictions and shortages increased, daily life for islanders became more difficult. This recreation of a Jersey home during the occupation gives an insight into the make do and mend mentality that kept residents going throughout these dark years.

Old-fashioned sitting room with fireplace and dark wood furniture
Replica 1940s house
Whispers & Lies

Under occupation, accepted realities change for good. In a small community where trust is everything, can neighbours and friends still be trusted? Whispers and Lies gives you an idea of how things change when huge strains are placed on the bonds that hold people together.

Cooperation & Resistance

Nothing is as it seems and choices are hard to make. And how do you resist when you have no weapons? Examine the dilemmas faced by everyone during the occupation, from the UK government to the island’s leaders and islanders in their daily lives.

OT Gallery

This impressive interactive exhibit will reveal more about this prolific engineering organisation, its methods and the people who, willingly or not, worked to build Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and changed the face of Europe forever.

The Unfinished Tunnel

Men toiled with picks and shovels, loading rocks into trolleys and pushing them back up to the tunnel entrance. In the semi-dark and the damp, with the constant fear of rock falls, this back-breaking work went on in 12-hour shifts. You experience it all through an interactive audio-visual experience in the unfinished tunnel itself.

Partly dug tunnel and rusting equipment
The unfinished tunnel
Fortress Island

Far in excess of their military significance, the Channel Islands used one twelfth of the reinforced concrete of the entire Atlantic wall. Had the Nazis deployed these resources more reasonably, they could have doubled the strength of the Atlantic wall and had a profound effect on the Allied advance.

Under Siege

After D-Day, the Channel Islands were cut off from all supply routes through France. The last year of the occupation was characterised by hunger and desperation.

Desperate Times

In the final months of the occupation, islanders became desperate. Food shortages were acute and with no knowledge of when the war would end, the Island entered its darkest times.

Old-fashioned kitchen table with teapot, cups and saucers
1940s kitchen
Air Raid Shelter

Step inside a replica air raid shelter to get a feel for the conditions, noises and bleakness of the situation faced during World War II.

Liberation

Discover the event that islanders will never forget: 9 May 1945. Finally, after five years of occupation, British forces arrived to free the Channel Islands. Scenes of happiness and relief characterised this most wonderful of days, which is still marked by a public holiday and celebrations today.

Faded photo of people waving flags
Liberation celebrations

Individual experiences: Clifford Cohu

As to the people on our ID cards, we found them both. The man on my husband’s card, Clifford Cohu, was one of many islanders who did what they could to resist the occupation. When war broke out he was rector of St Saviour. With three of his parishioners he acquired an illegal radio set; German authorities had banned their use by islanders, as the sign in the Paper War section above makes clear.

Replica ID card for Clifford Cohu
Replica ID card

The Island wiki tells his story; here are some extracts:

‘The set was owned by John Nicolle, a farm labourer; Arthur Dimmery, a gardener, was the set’s “guardian” – he was responsible for digging it up and reburying it after use; Joseph Tierney, a gravedigger at St Saviour, typed up the information; and Cohu, who also performed chaplaincy duties at the General Hospital, provided information about the course of the war to various patients. Cohu was also known on at least one occasion to ride along the Parade in St Helier shouting the news. …

Cohu was arrested on 12 March 1943, and on 9 April the case came to trial. … He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for “failing to surrender leaflets and […] disseminating anti-German news”. Other people caught at the time normally expected to serve between 2 and 6 weeks; the harshness of the sentence reflected the severity with which the authorities viewed the conspiracy. Given the length of the sentence, Cohu was deported from Jersey in July 1943.

Cohu was taken first to the Fort d’Hauteville at Dijon, then to Saarbrucken in December 1943. By March 1944 he had reached Preungesheim, near Frankfurt-am-Main, where he was kept in solitary confinement and forced to work. Food and heating were both inadequate. Cohu’s wife Harriet … was informed that on 30 August Cohu had been released to an internment camp at Naumburg-am-Saale, near Leipzig. This was in fact untrue: Cohu had been sent on to Straflager Zöschen, where he arrived on 13 September 1944. A Czech, Premysl Polacek, witnessed the beating that the enfeebled Cohu received at the hands of the SS guards, who singled him out as der Englischer. Weakened by this he contracted dysentery and died on 20 September 1944, aged 60.’

Individual experiences: Lucille Schwob

My Lucie was a French artist who was sentenced to death by firing squad for leaving inflammatory notes on German staff cars. She later had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the intervention of the Bailif (the governor of the island who had been left by the British with the unenviable role of running the island under the Nazis).

Replica ID card for Lucie Schwob
Replica ID card

Later I found out more about Lucille Schwob online and it turns out she was a fascinating woman. She was born in 1894 in Nates, France, to a Jewish family. Her parents sent her to school in England; and she later went to the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she started to experiment with photography, mainly self-portraits. She adopted the pseudonym Claude Cahun, deliberately non-gender specific. At the age of 17, she met Suzanne Malherbe, a graphic artist who worked under the name Marcel Moore. Moore became her lover and companion and, later, her step-sister, after Cahun’s father married Moore’s widowed mother. During the 1920s they lived in Paris, collaborating on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages.

Information board with old photos
Display board mentioning Lucie Schwob

The following is based on the Wikipedia article about her, with minor grammar and factual corrections (the latter based on other sources):

In 1937 Cahun and Moore settled in Jersey. Following the fall of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as resistance workers and propagandists. Fervently against war, the two worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC reports on the Nazis’ crimes and insolence, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing the fliers in soldiers’ pockets, on their chairs, and in cigarette boxes for soldiers to find. Additionally, they inconspicuously crumpled up and threw their fliers into cars and windows. Moore spoke fluent German, a secret kept from the Nazis. The leaflets were written as if written by a German officer and signed ‘The soldier without a name.’

In many ways, Cahun and Moore’s resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions, using their creative talents to manipulate and undermine the authority which they despised. Cahun’s life’s work was focused on undermining a certain authority; however, their activism posed a threat to their physical safety.

In 1944, Cahun and Moore were arrested and charged with listening to the BBC and inciting the troops to rebellion. But it took some time for the trial to take place as authorities found it hard to believe that old ladies, which is how they presented themselves, could take on such a resistance. The death penalty was finally commuted to imprisonment. They were freed when the island was liberated from German occupation in 1945. However, Cahun’s health never recovered from her treatment in jail, and she died in 1954. She is buried in St Brelade’s Church with her partner Marcel Moore.

We only chose to visit the tunnels because we woke up to rain that morning. But we both found them absolutely fascinating, so we ended up being grateful for the bad weather!

I visited Jersey in 2018

20 Comments

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Most interesting, that you for all this info. It must have been a terrible sensation, being abandoned by one’s government like this. I would never go to that air shelter replica though. And hear the sounds! 😮

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It was actually reading your Ramsgate Tunnels post that made me think I should write about these, so thank you for the inspiration as well as the comment 🙂

  • Easymalc

    Another excellent post Sarah. The Jersey War Tunnels are an experience not to be missed that’s for sure. I was particularly interested in your description of Fortress Island – “Far in excess of their military significance, the Channel Islands used one twelfth of the reinforced concrete of the entire Atlantic wall. Had the Nazis deployed these resources more reasonably, they could have doubled the strength of the Atlantic wall and had a profound effect on the Allied advance” . I wonder why the Nazis thought the Channel Islands needed to be defended so strongly after they were virtually handed over to them by the British.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Malcolm 🙂 I think Hitler saw the islands as a potential stepping stone to Normandy and I also read that they wanted to minimise the number of troops needed to defend the islands so they could focus on the war in the east of Europe.

  • Anna

    Such an interesting history. I didn’t even think of these islands and what happened to them during the war. Now I know.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I don’t think many people would be aware of their story outside the islands. The War Tunnels do a great job of highlighting what happened here. Thanks Anna!

  • salsaworldtraveler

    Thanks for sharing the story of the Channel Islands. This was the first I realized Germany occupied English territory in WWII. It sounds like a big strategic mistake though.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you found this interesting. Jersey, like the rest of the Channel Islands, isn’t part of England or even of the United Kingdom. But they are Crown Dependencies, which means that the UK is responsible for their defence and for international relations. Jersey has its own independent laws, elections, and representative bodies, as does Guernsey the other main island in the group. But because of the Crown Dependency situation, they relied on the British Army for defence and protection – however Churchill made the strategic decision that to defend them would drain resources from where they were more badly needed.

  • margaret21

    Somehow, perhaps because they’re so near and yet so far, the Channel Islands have never been on my Must Visit list. Yet oddly, I have read quite a bit about their occupation. But this account is more vivid yet. It really brings into the open how this little piece of Britain really suffered during that period

    • Sarah Wilkie

      To be honest we only went to Jersey because we had to. It’s a long story but the shortened version is that when I was sorting probate after my mother died I discovered that a small portion of her savings had been moved by the bank to a holding over there and UK probate didn’t apply. I needed Jersey probate too and I could either pay a Jersey solicitor quite a large sum to organise it for me or I could do it myself, which necessitated an in-person visit to their court. It turned out that my husband and I could buy flights to Jersey and two nights in a decent St Helier hotel for only a little more than the solicitor would charge, so I decided on the DIY option and had a little weekend away, thanks to Mum!

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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