Grouville Common during the German Occupation

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An Article by Michael Ginns published in the 1973 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

As one of the last few open spaces in Jersey's fast vanishing countryside, Grouville Common is an area which, rather surprisingly, is little known to the public in general. Surprising, that is, until one realizes that it is an area to which access by motor car is forbidden, with the result that only those ardent walkers the members of the Royal Jersey and Jersey Eastern Golf Clubs are really familiar with the 160 vergees of dry, sandy grassland which go to make up the Common.

Situation

Bounded to the east by the Royal Bay of Grouville, to the south by building development of the 1920s and '30s, and to the west and north by the east coast road and Gorey Village (as well as by the Jersey Eastern Railway from 1873 until 1929), Grouville Common was considered to be an extremely vulnerable point during the recurrent wars with France, which only came to an end in 1815. Notwithstanding the might of Mont Orgueil looming to the north, the length of Grouville Bay was protected by no fewer than six of the so-called Martello towers and two batteries, whilst the Common itself boasted two redoubts; one, built in 1760 and known as Prince William Redoubt, was close to Gorey Village, whilst some 800 yards to the south, and of uncertain age, was Fort Henry. Both were equipped with artillery, four 24 pounders in the case of Prince William Redoubt, but all were removed and the garrisons run down with the end of the Bonaparte menace in 1815.

Apart from some military training and the militiamen of the RMlJ firing their annual musketry course on the rifle range, Grouville Common soon became a centre for sporting, rather than bellicose, activities. From 1843 until about 1906 the Jersey Races were held there, and as early as 1878 the golf course was mapped out, thus laying the foundations for the creation of the Royal Jersey Golf Club, and by 1933, when Hitler came to power, it was with the sport of golf that the Common became most closely identified; there seemed to be no reason why this state of affairs should not continue for generations to come. And yet within ten years the golf course had been obliterated and covered with barbed wire and minefields, Fort Henry found itself possessed of a fire power which would have been unthinkable to military strategists of bygone days, and an intensive network of narrow gauge railways was busily at work removing sand from the beach. How did this come about?

Within a very short space of time following their arrival in Jersey on 1 July 1940, the Germans established a small detachment in Grouville Hall (now Grouville Bay Hotel) from where a sentry was mounted in the small beach hut, belonging to the Jersey Orphanage for Girls, which stood within a stone's throw of Fort Henry. They also moved into Prince William Redoubt, long since renamed Fort William and converted into a dwelling house, whilst Mont Orgueil was manned by a detachment which was installed in the British-Elfine Hotel at Gorey Pier.

Troops from these units took part in weapon training on the Common and a rifle range was once again established, with the butts on the 18th tee and the targets recessed into the bank below the 15th. It is well known that golfers are not easily deterred from their game, and the golfers of Grouville Common were, and still are for that matter, made of stern stuff. Many a shortened round of golf was played during the summer and autumn of 1940, using such of the course that was left, and it was amusing to see a foursome being played as if nothing was going on, while within a few yards helmeted troops blazed away with machine guns and rifles at imaginary targets.

Support Point Henry

When it became apparent that the war would not end as quickly as Hitler had hoped, a minefield was laid on the southern part of the Common, protected by a barbed wire entanglement which stretched in an arc from near the Grouville Hall Hotel to a point just to the north of the present third green. This was in December 1940, and by the spring of 1941 work was in hand to strengthen Fort Henry, work which was intensified following Hitler's "impregnable fortress" order of October 1941. By 1943 Support Point Henry, as the Germans called it, could boast two 10.5 cm guns, in concrete emplacements, which enfiladed the beaches to north and south; two 5 cm mortars in concealed emplacements some 200 yards to the north of the Fort, reached by trenches which burrowed beneath the walls; two light and three heavy MG 34 machine guns; ten flamethrowers; one defensive flak gun and four searchlights. The whole complex was manned by one officer, three NCOs, and 32 men. Fort William was similarly strengthened with concrete emplacements and heavy machine guns.

This display of martial might was to no avail, however, and like those in the majority of Jersey's other fortifications, the guns of Support Point Henry probably never fired a shot in anger. D-Day came and went, the fighting receded eastwards, and the garrison, hungry and despondent, was able to contemplate its eventual fate until Liberation Day swept the lot off into captivity.

A plan of railways and fortifications on the common 1940-45
Trains on the edge of the common

The Narrow Gauge Railway

But Grouville Common had another purpose for the Germans.

During the building of their earlier fortifications in March 1941, and in one of those bursts of activity which occasionally called their supposed efficiency into question, the fortress building pioneers went to all the trouble of bringing over from France several barge loads of sand and gravel, to be used in the production of the vast amount of concrete that they required for their purpose. Eventually realising that they were bringing coals to Newcastle, they discovered that the sand in Grouville Bay (really a fine grit rather than pure sand) was ideal for their use and began to remove it by the lorry load from Gorey village slip, using commandeered vehicles with local drivers.

With the stepping up of the fortress building programme in October 1941, and with the arrival of the Organization Todt - that polyglot band of voluntary and conscripted workers supervised by German overseers in their khaki uniforms - the demand for sand multiplied beyond belief. By January 1942, the nucleus of a 60 cm railway system was in operation with two Deutz diesel locomotives each drawing trains of ten side tipping quarry wagons.

The line began from a point adjacent to the old Gorey Village railway station and, after running parallel to the main road for some 200 yards, curved in a wide sweep towards the beach. On attaining the crest of the dunes above the beach - the concrete anti-tank wall having yet to be built - the line now ran due south for a further 200 yards ending in a headshunt, which was preceded by a trailing junction which led down to the beach itself. A further trailing junction and headshunt took the line south once more, and at its maximum it stretched as far as Fauvic, ending immediately opposite the property known as La Mielle du Parcq. A further connecting spur was added to the layout at a later date to enable loaded trains coming from the direction of Fauvic to climb to the summit of the dunes without having to reverse.

The trains were loaded by two mechanical shovels, one large and one small, and these left vast pits on the beach at the end of each day's work. The shovels had to be driven above the high water mark each night, particularly on high spring tides, when it was also necessary to secure the railway track with cables and sleepers sunk deep into the sand, to prevent the whole assemblage from being swept away.

To enable themselves to instal the railway and its ancillary equipment, the Germans had earlier - in September 1941, to be precise - ordered the removal of a row of some 30 unsightly wooden beach bungalows which a speculative builder had been allowed to erect along the shore line for a distance of some 300 yards to the south of Fort William. Living as we do in an age which is conscious of the need to preserve natural amenities, we can only look back in bewilderment at the short sightedness of those in authority at the time, who permitted these eyesores to be constructed. Some of these bungalows were modest one-room affairs, whilst others bordered on the palatial, but eyesores they were nevertheless, and the writer is not alone in thinking, from an aesthetic point of view at any rate, that their peremptory demolition was one of the few acts of long-standing value that the Germans initiated.

Sand by sea

By May 1942 the removal of sand from the beach had been stepped up. Three more Deutz locomotives had joined the original pair, and the entire quintet plied to and fro from eight in the morning until six in the evening, six days a week, each drawing trains consisting of eight wagons. This was two less per train than when the operation had commenced, but a spare set of eight wagons was also in circulation. The procedure was for one Deutz engine to bring its loaded train up from the beach and uncouple from it on a loop line near Fort William; it would then run into the other arm of the loop, be attached to the spare set and the entire unit would then return to the loading point on the beach. The loaded train was now split into two by a smaller engine which proceeded to propel four wagons at a time up an embankment which led onto a wooden pier; here the wagons discharged their loads into lorries waiting beneath. The footings of this pier can still be seen today, partly obscured by grass and litter, alongside the layby where the ice cream vans park. The layby itself was constructed by the OT as part of the complex.

Another point where sand was transferred from rail to road was to be found where the large car park is situated today. Despite the attentions of a mechanical shovel loading an endless queue of lorries all day long, the trains always kept up the supply and the heap of sand grew larger daily.

Although the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, the conservation of petrol became of paramount importance and to this end an experiment took place at the beginning of May 1942, when a motor barge was deliberately beached and loaded with sand by mechanical shovel. This was an attempt to move large quantities of sand to the west of the island by water, and although the experiment failed initially because the vessel was unable to float off the beach with its heavy cargo, and had to be off loaded, the OT quickly overcame this problem by extending the railway along the surface of the road to Gorey Pier. Here the barges berthed and were loaded by the wagons discharging directly into the vessels' holds by means of wooden chutes.

Unable to cope with the currents off La Rocque with their own engines, the barges were towed to St Helier or St Aubin by the States tug Duke of Normandy, the French tug Georges Guyemer, or the German navy tug FK 01. On arrival at either port, the sand was again transferred to lorries or to metre-gauge railway trucks and conveyed to building sites in the west of the island.

Reserve stock

By July 1942 it was decided to stockpile sand in the middle of the Common, and in order to accomplish this, further sidings were laid in front of the Links Hotel (demolished in 1972), and within a month a vast pile of sand about 200 yards long, 100 yards wide, and standing some 50 feet high, was sprawling across greens and fairways and growing in size daily. The reason for this reserve pile is not hard to find; by mid-1942 all the beaches around the island which were not protected by granite sea-walls, dating usually from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, had been sealed off by the Germans, who had erected the massive concrete anti-tank walls which can still be seen today. Only Grouville Bay remained unprotected, a state of affairs which could not have pleased the German Army and which led them to bring pressure to bear on the OT to remedy the omission. The reserve stockpile of sand was the result, in order that the railway might be lifted from the beach, a task which was accomplished, and the anti-tank wall built, in 1943.

Meanwhile, a steam shovel was assembled on the spot, and this was employed to load the lorries which came to the stockpile along a hoggin road, which had been laid across the Common using rubble and stone from La Crete Quarry, at Anne Port. This quarry was used by the Germans until mid-1942, when the crushing plant broke down. This was of little consequence; the OT would have abandoned it in any case, as they were unable to connect it to their island-wide rail network. By way of replacement they started to rehabilitate the long defunct Les Maltieres Quarry, situated behind Gorey Village, a task which was not without its problems as Les Maltieres had for some time been used as the parish rubbish dump.

Railway to St Helier

The quarry was connected by rail to the existing network on the Common, and stone from Les Maltieres was used in the construction of the bunker at Gorey Pier, demolished during the winter of 1972/3, and also taken by rail to the Old Harbour at St Helier whence it was conveyed by barge to Elizabeth Castle and used in the construction of the fortifications there. This was made possible by the extension of the 60 cm gauge railway from Grouville to St Helier, more or less following the route of the old Jersey Eastern Railway. Work on this extension began in March 1943, and was completed by June of the same year - rather late in the day, as it transpired, for the major part of the work on this island wide system of fortifications was finished by this date.

Russian remains

There was much speculation at Grouville in August 1943, when the steam shovel unearthed some human remains near the Links Hotel. A preliminary enquiry suggested that the bones were those of a young male and had been there for some five years. On the day following, an even larger quantity of bones came to the surface and, after a proper examination had been carried out, it was officially declared that they were the remains of several Russian soldiers who were among a large contingent that had been stationed on the island from 1799-1800.

Within a year the work was done and the remainder of the Common enclosed in barbed wire.

It has been unofficially estimated that no less than 2 million tons of sand were removed from the beach in Grouville Bay by the OT; this figure may seem a little high, but it is worth reflecting that every cubic foot of concrete poured in Jersey by the Germans, with the exception of the anti-tank wall in St Ouen's Bay, between 1942 and 1945 was mixed using sand from Grouville Bay.

The German firm responsible for laying and operating the railway was Oltsch & Co, from Zweibruecken, Saar, whilst Les Maltieres Quarry was worked by the firm of Kort & Voegel. The French and Spanish workers were housed in a camp specially constructed at the eastern end of Grouville Marsh and named Lager Wick. Another German firm, J Witt, of Saarbruecken, also maintained a yard on the Common near Grouville War Memorial, but had nothing to do with any of the activities described above.

Rehabilitation

Before the winter of 1945-6 had set in, German prisoners of war, under the direction of Sappers of the Royal Engineers, had started work on the rehabilitation of the golf course. The work proceeded so well that it was possible to play a short round of golf by the spring of 1946, whilst the course was completely re-opened by June of the same year.

Looking at the Common today it is difficult to visualize the wanton destruction that took place 30 years ago, but the scars are still there if one knows where to look. The anti-tank wall, the concrete bunkers in front of Fort Henry and the remains of the mortar emplacements paralleling the second fairway are all obvious reminders. Less obvious, but still there nonetheless, are the trackbed of the railway, the retaining wall of the rifle range below the 15th tee, the road along which countless lorry loads of sand trundled, whilst ever and anon there filters to the surface the occasional dogspike (used for securing railway lines to sleepers), a reminder that the area once played a vital part in the creation of "Fortress Jersey". Grouville Common survived the Occupation, but will it survive the demands being made on it by the island's ever increasing population?

With more and more people starting to play golf each year, the playing areas have to withstand the passage of hundreds of feet and caddie cars, while it must be recorded with regret that the golfers of today are not so conscientious as those of yesteryear and many a carelessly hacked out divot all too often goes unreplaced; add a dry summer to the foregoing and the grass in frequently worn down to the roots.

However, one bright spot remains and it is that the Common is generally safe from intrusion by the motor car - in direct contrast to the Blanches Banques at St Brelade which, unless some form of control is quickly introduced, will soon be reduced to the status of a desert.

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