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Going underground on the Channel Islands

We explore wartime as it was on the Channel Islands – the only British territory to be occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War – plus the islands’ classic tourism charm

The underground wartime Hospital on Guernsey is today an eerie experience

It’s hard for us modern Brits to imagine what wartime occupation must’ve been like. Perhaps the best place to go to find out is the Channel Islands.

These stunning isles between Britain and France, with their hot climes, miles of lovely coast and relaxed pace of life, have long been a popular holiday destination. Indeed, during the first year of the Second World War, the British government relaxed restrictions of travel between the UK and the Islands to encourage people to take morale-boosting holidays.

No one was expecting invasion. There was apparently no strategic benefit to the German forces to take the likes of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Sark; or so the British government reckoned, without thinking of the propaganda value to Germany of having occupied British territory.

When they got wind that the Germans were on their way, efforts to evacuate 25,000 people from the Islands started, with most going to England. Evacuation started with children; there was hardly a family left undivided by the end.

The Islanders left behind had a tough five years under Nazi rule. Increasingly restrictive new laws were enacted; communications with loved ones who had been evacuated became tougher; resistance attempts largely failed; jobs fell and fortifications went up. And prison camps were built. Alderney, left almost deserted by evacuating Islanders, held around 6,000 inmates in four camps, including two concentration camps; 700 had died by 1944.

Liberation came in May 1945, when Islanders finally heard Churchill’s words on the radio: “Our dear Channel Islands are to be freed today.” When HMS Bulldog landed in Guernsey, the Germans instantly surrendered. At the same time HMS Beagle made her way to Jersey and hoisted the Union Flag at the Pomme d’Or Hotel – liberation HQ, which groups can visit and stay at today, a key site of Island history.

Liberation Day

Liberation Day, 9 May, is the most important bank holiday in Guernsey and Jersey, a time of great rejoicing for the Islanders, and it’s well worth timing a visit to coincide with the festivities.

In St Helier, Jersey, there are services of thanksgiving and other events in Liberation Square, the Royal Square and the Weighbridge. Details will be released closer to the time – check jersey.com.

In Guernsey the annual celebrations take place in St Peter Port, site of the HMS Bulldog’s landing. Again, details of 2018’s have yet to be released – check visitguernsey.com.

Both islands have a wealth of attractions offering insight into life under occupation.

Liberation for Jersey

On Jersey, head to the Jersey War Tunnels. Built as barracks and ammunition stores for the occupying forces, these tunnels today tell the story of the occupation on all sides – the daily struggles for island residents and for all the authorities: Jersey, British and German.

Fireworks in Guernsey for the annual Liberation Day celebrations

Outside the Tunnels, the Garden of Reflection and the woodland War Trail offer opportunities for quiet contemplation.

Five miles away is the Channel Islands Military Museum, in a German bunker built as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. It has a large collection of artefacts used at the bunker during the war, when it was manned by 12 men, as well as from the wider island.

To see the happier side of Jersey’s wartime history, take a group to the Occupation Tapestry Gallery at the Maritime Museum in St Helier. This award-winning tapestry was made by the people of Jersey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the island’s liberation.

The interactive Maritime Museum is well worth a visit itself, showing how Jersey’s history has been shaped by the sea. It’s split into three zones – Elements, Boats and People – and shows visitors how to understand the tides, how to design a ship, and how to understand the island’s heritage through the context of its location.

Liberation for Guernsey

Guernsey has even more Occupation-themed museums to choose from.

The German Occupation Museum houses an extensive collection of original items and documents, some of them very rare, and stems from when island schoolboy Richard Heaume would pick up spent bullets in the fields around his home. Today, this is an impressive museum, with its centrepiece a walk-through of re-created scenes of wartime St Peter Port, called Occupation Street.

The German Occupation Museum on Guernsey offers a walk-through of wartime island life

German Military Underground Hospital is one of the most dramatic Second World War sites of the Channel Islands. The largest construction on any of the Islands, this 7,000m² maze was carved out of solid rock by slave workers, built underground to avoid detection by overhead planes (given its dual purpose as an ammunitions store), and today is a rather damp and eerie experience.

La Vallette Underground Military Museum covers the island’s role in the First World War as well as the Second. This one is set in a complex of tunnels built by the Germans to store fuel for their U-boats, these too built by slave workers, and it has a large collection of memorabilia and militia from both World Wars.

Located in St Peter Port, German Naval Signals HQ was responsible for all radio traffic to and from Germany and the other Islands. It was the last operational Signals HQ that was running up until 9 May 1945, using the Enigma code machines that were being decoded by staff at Bletchley Park. Over half of the complex has been restored to its wartime appearance.

Other things to do

There’s much more to the Channel Islands than wartime history.

Jersey’s famous zoo is a delight, founded by the naturalist and TV presenter Gerald Durrell, who wrote My Family and Other Animals. His belief was that zoos should be run as reserves and conservation areas for endangered species, and that belief informed his vision in creating Jersey Zoo as a pioneer in species regeneration. 

Today, the zoo offers a wide variety of delightful and often critically endangered animals to see – including gorillas, orangutans, lemurs, meerkats, Andean bears and otters, as well as birds, amphibians and reptiles. There’s a lot of interesting history about Gerald himself, too.

Also on Jersey, the Nigel Mansell Museum in St Helier is an exciting glimpse into motor racing history, housed in a fantastic Art Deco building. It tells the story of the Formula One 1992 champion’s rise to greatness, using his actual trophies and racing cars, plus detailed interviews with Nigel, photos and exciting video footage. We’re told the great man even pops in from time to time.   

On Guernsey, groups can usually visit the island home of famous French author Victor Hugo, Hauteville House (closed in 2018 for restoration work).

This is where he wrote Les Misérables as well as some of his other most celebrated works, and there’s more to the man than the books. You can learn about his 50-year romantic affair with French actress Juliette Drouet, and his exile from Paris which brought him to this beautiful island for 15 years. The house’s lovely gardens are still open for 2018, and local guides also carry out walking tours of Victor Hugo’s Guernsey.

Choose from a large range of museums dedicated to the Channel Islands’ Occupation story

Fort Grey is a fine Martello tower, one of three constructed on the island in 1804 to defend against attacks from France, and now houses an interesting shipwreck museum. It tells the story of over 100 shipwrecks along the perilous reefs of Guernsey’s west coast, as recently as 2003, when the brand new – unfinished – Romanian ship Vermontborg broke free of its tow and grounded. For a couple of weeks in January that year, the massive hull was something of a local attraction.

It’s also home to the preserved remains of a Roman shipwreck – a ship that caught fire and sank around 280AD.

Fort Grey is one of the three Guernsey Museums (the others are Guernsey Museum at Candie and Castle Cornet). All three warmly welcome group visits.

Getting there

The Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are perfect for UK groups wanting a continental break. There’s good weather, there’s no exchange rate to worry about, and there’s tax-free shopping. In Condor Ferries, there’s an excellent, group-friendly and hassle-free way to travel to the islands, and groups of 10+ get 20% off.

Condor also offers day trips to the islands. You can take a group to Guernsey and back from Poole, a journey that takes three hours – just long enough to relax on board and enjoy the ride, have a meal and do some duty-free shopping, before four hours or so of exploring the island.

Day trip options between Jersey and Guernsey are also available from Condor; the journey takes as little as one hour.

For excursions to the smaller islands – Alderney, Sark and Herm, where traffic is almost entirely banned – boat excursions are available from Guernsey. 

Group planning

Visit Jersey and Visit Guernsey are both committed to welcoming group bookings, with helpful information and itineraries available online.

Visit Jersey: 01534 849774

Visit Guernsey: 01481 234567