The first year of the war

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The first year of the war


Coutanche1940.jpg

Bailiff Alexander Coutanche addresses islanders in the Royal Square in 1940


This article on the events between the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1949 and the German invasion of Jersey ten months later first appeared on the website of the Channel Islands Occupation Society


'Phoney war'

On Friday 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. Two days later Britain declared war on Germany. At this time in Jersey the first of many War Regulations were passed by the States. These included: food rationing, black-outs and curfews. However, this state of war was soon called the phoney war as the months passed and nothing had happened. This changed on Friday 10 May 1940, when Hitler launched an invasion of Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France.

While this Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was taking place in Europe, Jersey was getting ready for its holiday season with three weekly sailings from Southampton and a regular air service with Channel Islands Airways. There seemed no immediate concern, although a local defence force, the Jersey Defence Volunteers was formed on 17 May, based on the Home Guard.

Another force in the island was a group of young boys of the Army Technical School, based at St Peter’s Barracks. One of their tasks was to create obstacles on and around the runway during the evenings to prevent any possible enemy landings. Life in the Island continued as normally as it could. Most islanders felt some uncertainty, but few at this time ever thought the Island would be invaded by the Germans.

At 6 pm on Friday 14 June 1940, Jersey’s Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, walked into Attorney-General Charles Duret Aubin’s chamber and listened to the news. It was announced on the radio that the Germans had crossed the Seine at Quilleboeuf. Coutanche knew that area of France very well and knew there was nothing to stop them from coming to Jersey. Coutanche and Duret Aubin immediately went to see the Lieut-Governor, General James Harrison at his office in Pier Road to express their concerns about the situation.

Home Office

After hearing the Bailiffs concerns, General Harrison contacted the Home Office and spoke to Mark Breiter, who was in charge of Channel Island Affairs. He and the Home Office felt there was no cause for concern, but Coutanche was not so sure and told Breiter to contact the War Office and find out what was happening. A short while after speaking to the War Office, he phoned back: the War Office was not at all happy with the situation.

On Sunday 16 June the Bailiff received an urgent message to meet General Harrison. He had received a telegram from the Admiralty asking to send all available craft to Saint Malo to help with the evacuation of troops. William Le Masurier, the Commodore of the St Helier Yacht Club, was asked to assist with organising the smaller boats.

Because of the speed of the advancing German forces, the War Office advised that the evacuated troops, estimated to be in excess of 75,000, be brought to Jersey for safekeeping until transport vessels could pick them up. This would also allow the ships to make repeat sailings to St Malo. The war Office told General Harrison to put Jersey in a state of defence while this happened. However, the German advance slowed because of French resistance near the airport of Rennes St Jaques, which gave some of the larger evacuation ships time to take the British troops direct to England.

Evacuees at the harbour in June 1940

At 11:30am on Monday 17 June, after departing from Bordeaux, General Charles de Gaulle’s flight landed in Jersey for the aircraft to refuel: during which time Jack Herbert, the Airport Manager drove the VIPS to the Alexandra Hotel for lunch as the Airport restaurant was closed. They bought a case of Johnnie Walker Whiskey and departed at 3 pm.

Official communications

The following day Jurat Edgar Dorey, who had flown to London for a cabinet meeting, was told: “The fate of the Channel Islands will be known in a day or two”. There had been much debate in Whitehall as to whether the Islands be defended or not. On Wednesday 19 June the War and Home Office finally decided. The Lieut-Governor received two official communications from London: the first read:

“War Cabinet decision is that the Island of Jersey is to be demilitarised. Further instructions regarding the Lieut-Governor will follow”

The second message read:

“The Channel Islands will not. Repeat not be defended”

On the same day the Bailiff, Attorney-General and other officials were told by the Secretary of State to remain in their posts and continue to administer the islands as best they could. Up to this point the Germans were fully aware of the Channel Islands and had conducted at least two aerial reconnaissance flights. These flights had been at quite high altitude and photographs were inconclusive as to whether the islands were defended or not.

On Thursday 20 June the Bailiff addressed islanders in the Royal Square. He told them the islands would not be defended, but to remain calm and stay in the Island. For those wishing to leave, transport ships would take people to England. Islanders were then faced with a difficult decision: to stay and tough it out or leave the Island, their home and friends and head for a new temporary life? Many people, including the Lieut-Governor, at this point believed the islands would not be occupied by the Germans.

Over 23,000 islanders registered at the Town Hall to leave; however, fewer than 10,000 actually left. Over the next few days St Helier Harbour and the surrounding area was crowded with people, many of whom had driven down and had abandoned their cars.

During the day, the Militia left for the Isle of Wight and by early evening Jersey’s Volunteer Defence Force was disbanded.

Occupation diarist Leslie Sinel wrote: ”There are heart-rendering scenes in the streets of town: everyone appears anxious and bewildered, not knowing exactly what to do.”

Lord Coutanche

Keep calm, don't panic

To try to reassure islanders, the States produced a series of proclamations appealing to everyone to keep calm, not to panic and to stay in the Island.

On the Morning of Thursday 20 June the following message was sent from Berlin to German Naval Group West:

“In order to protect the local sea area, it is necessary to destroy the cable communication from the British Channel Islands to England. Ask permission for motor torpedo boats and minesweepers to support this raid by the Naval Assault Group”

A short while after the German Naval Group West had received this message, another communication arrived from Berlin:

“Occupation of the British Channel Islands is urgent and important. Carry out local reconnaissance and execution thereof. Written orders will follow.”

The Officer in charge of planning the invasion of the Channel Islands was Vice Admiral Eugen Lindau. He reported to Admiral Karlgeorg Schuster, the senior German Naval Commander in Northern France.

At this time the only information about the Island’s defences had been gathered by a German agent who had travelled to Guernsey in July 1938. At the time, the agent had reported he had seen forts and castles but these seemed old and obsolete. The report was inconclusive and out of date. To gather new and more detailed information, Luftflotte 2 (Air Force Command 2) were tasked with taking a series of reconnaissance photographs of the islands.

The German plan to capture the Channel Islands was called Operation Green Arrow (Grüne pfeil). The intention was to launch a raid on the islands using a naval assault Group and several army units, using motor torpedo boats and minesweepers from Northern France. But an attack by sea was soon abandoned after it was felt the harbour and coastal defences in the islands could have been reinforced.

By Friday 21 June the evacuation process was well under way. The Lieut-Governor left in the afternoon, and shortly afterwards the Bailiff was sworn in as Civil Governor: omitting the passage in the oath of office ‘defending the island and its castles against the enemy’ because Coutanche had been told to surrender the island if the Germans invaded.

Over 5,000 pets had been abandoned by those islanders evacuating. The pets were put down at the animal shelter. Staff at the shelter had to work on a shift rota to clear the dead animals. With so many people registering to leave and besieging the banks, limits on withdrawals of £25 (equivalent to £700 in today’s money) had to be imposed.

Many islanders who chose to stay felt abandoned by those evacuating and by the decision of the British Government not to defend the islands. However life got back to normal, shops owned by evacuated islanders were reopened by friends or relatives.

Farmers soon got back to picking and packing potatoes for export, but were told not to block the Harbour and piers with lorries.

Another photograph of crowds at the harbour, waiting for a boat to England

Superior Council

In the States, a Superior Council was formed, headed by Alexander Coutanche as Bailiff, the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and presidents of:

  • Essential Commodities: Jurat Philip Le Masurier
  • Transport and Communications: Jurat James Messervy-Norman
  • Finance and Economics: Jurat Edgar Dorey
  • Agriculture: Jurat Touzel Bree
  • Public Health: Jurat Philip Baudains
  • Essential Services: Deputy William Le Masurier
  • Public Instruction: Jurat Philip Bree
  • The Department of Labour: Deputy Edward Le Quesne

On Sunday 23 June Church congregations were urged to face the current events with calmness and not to panic. The same day Admiral Lindau (Flag Officer, Northern France) made a report based on the study of the reconnaissance photographs which read:

“There are numerous harbour and coastal fortifications and in the harbour area long columns of lorries which point to the presence of troops”

After further meetings with Air Force Command and Army Commanders, it was decided a full scale raid was not advisable: further air reconnaissance was necessary to assess the defence of the islands.

King's message

On Monday 24 June the King sent a message of assurance to the Channel Islands which was published in the Royal Square.

“For strategic reasons it has been found necessary to withdraw the armed forces from the Channel Islands. I deeply regret this necessity and I wish to assure my people in the islands that, in taking this decision, my Government has not been unmindful of their position. It is in their interest that this step should be taken in present circumstances. The long association of the islands with the Crown and the loyal service the people of the islands have rendered to my Ancestors and myself are guarantees that the link between us will remain unbroken and I know that my people in the islands will look forward with the same confidence as I do to the day when the resolute fortitude with which we face our present difficulties will reap the reward of victory.”

On Tuesday 25 June the Department of Labour started working on various schemes to try to absorb unemployment caused by many businesses closing because of islanders evacuating.

The following day German Air Force Command carried out reconnaissance flights over the island and photographed large conveys of vehicles in the Harbour vicinity. - For the several days islanders had reported seeing low flying German aircraft around the island. Most of these sighting were initially put down to rumours, but by late afternoon it had been established beyond doubt that this was true: German aircraft were clearly seen flying low over the harbour during potato shipments.

On 27 June two reconnaissance flights were made over the islands, the crew reporting they had encountered no resistance, even after flying at just 200 metres.

This amateur photograph shows dejected islanders watching as a white cross is painted in the Royal Square

Bombing raid

Friday was a beautiful and uneventful day, hot and sunny: islanders were busy at work and the Harbour was a hive of activity with lorry loads of potatoes ready for export. That changed at 6.45 pm when three German planes swept across the south of the island. There had been no alarms sounding: the aircraft dropped bombs and machine gunned La Rocque, St Helier Harbour, Fort Regent, South Hill and Commercial Buildings.

Several fires started as a result and hundreds of panes of glass were shattered in the Weighbridge vicinity, and some of the stained glass windows in the Town Church were damaged. Several small boats and yachts in the Harbour were destroyed. Ten people were killed: at La Rocque, J Adams, T.Pilkington and Mrs Farrell; Mount Bingham, J Mauger; Mulcaster Street: EH Ferrand and Mr Coleman;Harbour area, R Fallis, L Bryan, W C Moodie and A Parr. Mr Hobbs was killed on the Lifeboat on its way to Jersey. Many more were injured by shrapnel or machine-gun bullets. Guernsey was also bombed at the same time. In total 44 people were killed and 36 injured.

At 9 o'clock that evening, the BBC declared the Islands to be demilitarised. Part of the reason the Home Office did not declare this earlier was that it was felt that it would be bad for morale; abandoning British subjects.

Early the following morning BBC Radio World Service announced that the Channel Islands had been bombed by the Germans, making the attack sound as if it occurred after it had been announced the islands were undefended.

Two separate air raid alarms were sounded during the day but there was no attack and by evening curfew had been reimposed and the use of motor vehicles restricted.

On the Saturday Admiral Schuster attended a meeting in Berlin to discuss Operation Green Arrow. It was agreed that the attack had to be more than just a raid. The estimate of the assault force needed was reduced from six battalions to one for Jersey and Guernsey and a company for Alderney. The troops would be from the 216th Infantry Division which was close to Cherbourg. Support would be given by Luftflotte 3.

Airport landings

On the Sunday German planes swooped low but there was no attack. British aircraft were also seen flying low over the island. A further reconnaissance flight over the islands took place, to access damage and response to the raid. Despite Reuters’ repeating the BBC announcement that the Channel Islands were demilitarised, Admiral Schuster decided a further ‘armed reconnaissance’ be scheduled for the Monday. However, late on Sunday afternoon news arrived that Hauptmann Liebe-Pieteritz had landed at Guernsey airport, although having to depart quickly as three RAF Bristol Blenheim’s appeared, he reported the islands were undefended.

Early on the Monday morning German planes flew over the island at a very low altitude and dropped surrender ultimatum messages addressed to the local authorities. One landed in Bath Street and two at the Airport.

These called for white flags to be flown from all buildings and white crosses to be painted in prominent locations, including the Airport, Fort Regent and at the Weighbridge. All communication with England ceased at 8.15 am. Just before noon a lone Dornier Do17 flown by Staffelkapitan von Obernitz with radio operator Oberleutnant Richard Kern was seen flying over the Island and a short while later it landed at Jersey Airport, but later flew off heading towards France.

After von Obernitz and Kern had reported back at Cherbourg, the first wave of troops boarded the first of many Junkers Ju52 transport planes destined for Jersey.

At approx 3 o'clock The first Germans arrived. The Bailiff and Duret Aubin were summoned to the Airport. They were greeted by six German Air Force Officers. The Germans already had a civilian interpreter with them, most likely from one of the hotels. The first thing one of the Germans said to Coutanche was ‘you realise you are Occupied?’ To which Coutanche said 'yes'.

By the early evening around 100 German soldiers had arrived: The Occupation had begun.
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