During WW2, the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans, the only British territory under Nazi rule. The recent film ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ based on the bestselling book of the same name, is set during the occupation. Rupert Parker went to investigate
I enjoy reading the book but am slightly disappointed that it’s a complete work of fiction. The American author, Mary Ann Shaffer, never visited the island, although she was grounded by fog at the airport on her way back to the USA. Her inspiration came from browsing books in the airport bookshop, and looking at maps. As a result the main locations in the novel don’t exist. Mind you that doesn’t stop American tourists trying to seek them out.
I talk to Molly Gihet in the La Valette Underground Military Museum in St Peter Port. Guernsey’s tiny capital. She was nine when the war started and she’s written books about her experience. Her family stayed when most people got on the boats and left, as her father couldn’t bear to leave his sick grandfather behind. She tells me that, although times were hard, the Germans weren’t all bad. She was treated to occasional bowls of soup and they turned a blind eye when she pilfered potatoes for her family. Still, food was short, communications were limited and nobody knew what the future might hold.
In the neighbouring island of Alderney things were completely different. The entire population was ejected since the Germans were creating a fortress to defend the English Channel. Ironically many people were settled in the North of England, near Alderley Edge, bureaucrats thinking that the name might remind them of home. They were replaced with thousands of slave labourers, shipped in to build the fortifications, and worked in terrible conditions.
Alderney is tiny, around 4 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. Its history as a fortress dates from Roman times, but most of the fortifications were built in the 19th century to deter attacks from the French. The Germans incorporated these as part of their Atlantic Wall, adding a network of bunkers and watch towers. 70 years after the end of WW2, most of these are still intact, and they’re now officially recognised as part of the island’s cultural heritage.
St Anne, Alderney’s diminutive capital, is really just a couple of cobbled streets, bursting with history. The island began to prosper as a refuge for privateers, government sponsored pirates, in the early 18th century. The Le Mesurier family, from Guernsey, became heredity governors, running the place as their private fiefdom. This lasted until the end of the Napoleonic Wars when privateering was ended and smuggling suppressed, and the last Le Mesurier handed the island to the crown. There’s an excellent museum in St Anne which, as well as dealing with the early history, has many artefacts from the German occupation.
I take the coastal path round the island, an easy day’s walk, but longer if you want to explore the fortifications. Alderney’s population has been shrinking and most live in St Anne so it’s an entirely rural exercise. Starting at Braye Harbour, I follow my nose west and find deserted beaches and reach Fort Tourgis, the largest of the Victorian fortresses. Most of it is dangerously dilapidated but Cambridge Battery has been restored and you can see how the original Victorian fortifications were adapted by the Germans. There are plans for a self-contained luxury resort here, but locals scoff at the idea.
Further on, near the airport, I pass remnants of what were the slave camps, now not much remaining. The crowning glory is the Anti-Aircraft watch tower, perfectly preserved. You need to get a key from the tourist office but from the top you get fantastic view over the island. As you might imagine it’s surrounded by bunkers and gun emplacements, all lost in the vegetation. Of course no attack came as Winston Churchill decided it was not worth losing lives to take something which had little military importance. Some of the Victorian fortresses have been turned into private residences and you can stay in both Fort Corblets and Fort Clonque.
Alderney is also a mecca for birders. It’s worth taking a boat out to Burhou Island, a sanctuary for 11 species of breeding birds. Puffins make their home here between March and July and this is the furthest south you’ll find them. There are impressive Gannet colonies on the Les Etacs and Ortac rocks, between them making up 2% of the world’s population. And don’t forget the basking Atlantic seals near Burhou Reef.
When the islanders returned from exile at the end of WW2, the British army were engaged in a massive clean-up operation, removing barbed wire and dismantling the guns. It took a long time for things to get back to normal but the lasting tragedy is that people started speaking English, rather than the Alderney Norman dialect. Unlike in Guernsey, Auregnais, is now completely extinct with the last recorded speaker passing away in 1960. The Germans left many bunkers, fortresses and batteries, but on the way, they unwittingly wiped out a language.
Tell me more about Guernsey and Alderney
Visit Guernsey has information about the island.
The Guernsey Autumn Walking Festival takes place between 15 and 30 September.
Visit Alderney has information about the island.
Aurigny flies direct from London Gatwick to Guernsey, starting at £72. It also offers direct flights from London Stansted, Bristol, East Midlands, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford and Norwich. Return flights between Guernsey and Alderney start from £95.
The Gatwick Express is the fastest way to get to the airport from central London.
Hotel de Havelet is a convenient place to stay in St Peter Port, Guernsey.
The Brasserie in the Old Government House Hotel and Spa has good food in a stylish setting.
Farm Court, in a quiet part of St Anne, is a comfortable B&B in Alderney.
The luxury boutique Braye Beach Hotel is right on the seafront and has an excellent restaurant.
Le Pesked serves authentic French food in the centre of St Anne.