The Channel Islands: Occupation and liberation

During the second world war, the Channel Islands were the only British territories to endure German occupation. On 9 May 2020, the islands will mark 75 years since their liberation. This article explores how they came to be occupied and how the occupation was debated in the House.

On 3 September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland. Although the Allies were superior in terms of industrial resources, population and military manpower, the German army has been described by author Charles Cruickshank as the “most efficient and effective fighting force for its size in the world”.  

When the German army completed its invasion of Poland, it turned its attention towards Western Europe. By mid-June 1940, the evacuation from Dunkirk had taken place and the French government had surrendered. The German army was now focused on Britain.   

The Channel Islands lie 80 miles south of the English coast. Made up of four main islands—Jersey Guernsey, Alderney and Sark—they are dependencies of the British crown and not part of the UK. Instead they are administered according to local laws and customs.

Demilitarisation and evacuation

During the interwar years the UK authorities took the view that the Channel Islands had no strategic significance for Britain. The islands were open to attack from the air and sea, with their defence deemed costly, if not impossible. It was also believed that the islands would be an economic liability for the enemy, rather than a strategic advantage.

On 15 June 1940, the British Government decided that the islands would be left undefended. They were demilitarised and several days later it was announced that those who wished to evacuate should register to do so. The islands each handled the evacuations differently; however, priority was generally given to women, children and men of military age. In their studies of the period, Charles Cruickshank and Madeleine Bunting both have argued that for the most part the evacuations were poorly planned and executed, with a lack of communication between the islands and Whitehall.

Invasion

The Channel Islands were deemed of special importance to the Germans due to their value in terms of propaganda. Their invasion was also considered as a test for the occupation of Britain. Later on in the war, the islands were fortified as part of the Atlantic Wall, a series of coastal defences built by the Germans to protect against Allied invasion. 

By the end of June 1940, the German army had turned its attention towards Britain and the Channel Islands. Although the islands had been demilitarised, the Germans were unaware of this fact. As a result, on 28 June 1940, a bombing raid cost the lives of 44 islanders.

Following several other raids and indecision over the size of force needed, German forces landed in Guernsey on 30 June 1940, with the invasion of Jersey taking place the following day. Alderney—totally empty of its population—was invaded on 2 July, with a small detachment leaving Guernsey for Sark on 4 July. The invasion was announced to the British public via the Times on 2 July, with Cruickshank arguing that the German press “made the most of the event”, stating that the panicked evacuation of troops and equipment showed that “England was finished”.

Debate in the House

The House of Lords debated the situation on 9 July 1940. Members drew attention to the financial plight of the both the evacuees and those who remained. Concerns that the islands had been abandoned were also raised by several Members. For example, Lord Portsea, a Jerseyman, stated:

The islanders at once understood the full meaning of demilitarisation. They found it was a very near relative of abandonment, a breaking of ties that were more than 800 years old, a breaking of ties with the Crown of over a thousand years.

Lord Mottistone echoed these sentiments, expressing his dismay that “we surrendered a place where the flag of Britain has flown for 800 years” without firing a shot. In addition, Lord Strabolgi called for an explanation as to why the islands were left undefended, suggesting that a select committee could be appointed to examine the issue.

However, other Members, such as the Earl of Radnor, stated that he agreed with the decision to demilitarise and evacuate the islands. He argued that “in these days of air warfare they were probably indefensible” and that an attempted defence would probably have led to such harm that the islands would have been completely destroyed. However, he also expressed concerns over the way the evacuations were conducted, and the conditions evacuees had experienced on reaching the mainland.

Responding to the debate, the Lord Chancellor, Viscount Simon, said that he shared the feelings of concern and distress that other Members had spoken of. However, he stated that the British Government had taken the actions it had in the face of the unexpected: the collapse of the French army. Responding to comments questioning whether the withdrawal from the islands was an isolated case, or the beginning of a new policy, he stated that “this incident, lamentable and distressing as it undoubtedly is, is a totally isolated case”. Viscount Simon also referred to previous comments made by the Leader of the House in a different debate, stating that:

His Majesty’s Government have not the least intention of abandoning any possession in any part of His Majesty’s Dominions, because here we are fighting for our own fortress and our own homes, and we will carry that through, whatever befall, until we have vanquished the foe.

Liberation on 9 May 1945

The D-Day landings in 1944 signalled the beginning of the end of the German occupation. However, it was not until nearly a year later that the islands were finally liberated. The liberation was announced by the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, on 8 May 1945. In a statement to the House of Commons, he announced that “our dear Channel Islands will be free tomorrow”. The following day, after five years of occupation, HMS Bulldog arrived in Guernsey. A declaration of unconditional surrender was signed on 10 May 1945.

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Photo by Charley Coleman. Photo shows Battery Lothringen, at Noirmont, which was one of a series of fortifications built by Germany during the occupation of Jersey.