Government of Jersey during the Occupation

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Alexander Coutanche

The policy of the German invaders of the Channel Islands was to allow the existing civil administrations to continue to govern their communities, according to new rules laid down by the occupiers. The policy of the island administrations was to do so, in order to provide a buffer between the Germans and their communities, and forestall any excesses by the occupying power

There was an uneasy co-existence for five years leading to much criticism of the States of Jersey, whose approach was described by their fiercest critics as collaboration.

But historians have generally come to agree that on balance a far from desirable situation was handled reasonably well by the island politicians and administrators and the German civil servants who, as far as civilian matters were concerned, by-and-large made up the controlling power.

Before the war

Before the Second World War started Jersey's government functioned much as it had done for nearly 200 years. Civil administration was under the control of the Bailiff, who was appointed by the Crown and presided over the States of Jersey and the Royal Court. The Court consisted of 12 Jurats, who were elected by the people and served for life. There were also two Law Officers, the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, also appointed by the Crown.

In earlier times the Royal Court had been the body which made and executed laws, subject to the overall authority of the Privy Council, and with the States of Jersey acting largely in an advisory role. But this position changed over the years and in the 18th century the legislative and judicial functions were split between, respectively, the States of Jersey and the Royal Court. This division was something of a technicality in that the Bailiff and Jurats continued to dominate both assemblies.

The Crown also appointed a Lieut-Governor, who was in overall charge of all military matters and acted as a link between the Privy Council and the island government. Over the years the Privy Council came to interfere less and less in island affairs, although it retained, and still does to this day, the right to veto on behalf of the sovereign, any legislative changes the States wished to implement.

The States, in addition to the Jurats, included the 12 parish Constables, elected by their parishioners for three-year terms, the 12 Rectors, appointed by the Crown for life, and, by 1939, 17 Deputies, one for each of the country parishes and two each for the three electoral districts into which St Helier was divided.

Although overall control of the island was vested in the States of Jersey Assembly, the day-to-day business of government was undertaken by a number of committees, each consisting of three Jurats, three Rectors, Three Constables and three Deputies. The senior Jurat would be appointed to chair the committee.

Superior council

This photograph in the Jersey Heritage collection is described as showing the 'Supervisory Board in 1941'. There is no other reference to this board in the Jersey Heritage website and it is not mentioned in any of the major histories of the Occupation, including Jersey Under the Swastika, the account of the island's administration during the Occupation by Ralph Mollet, secretary to the Bailiff. We have been unable to discover any information about the role of this Supervisory Board, which appears to have been a committee of the parish constables. It includes: P W C Briard, Constable of St Grouville; S Benest, Constable of Trinity; C P Billot, Constable of St Martin; J W Baudains, Constable of St Lawrence; G J Mourant, Chef de Police of St Saviour; J Le Masurier, Constable of St John; F Le Bouitllier, Constable of St Ouen; S G Crill, Constable of St Clement; C J Cuming, Constable of St Helier; J du Val, Constable of St Peter; F J Perée, Constable of St Mary; W Benest, Constable of St Brelade

After war broke out and it eventually became clear that a German invasion of the Channel Islands was inevitable, the Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, who played a much more dominant role in Jersey's government than his counterparts in later years, decided that this committee system would not meet the demands of life in an enemy-occupied island, and he persuaded the States to constitute eight departments, led by a president.

The new departments and their presidents were:

  • Essential Commodities - Jurat Edwin Philip Le Masurier
  • Transport and Communications - Jurat James Messervy Norman
  • Finance and Economikcs - Jurat Edgar Aleck Dorey
  • Agriculture - Jurat Touzel John Bree
  • Public Health - Jurat Philip Melmoth Baudains
  • Essential Services - Deputy William Smythe Le Masurier
  • Public Instruction - Jurat Philip Ernest Bree
  • Labour - Deputy Edward Le Quesne

It will be noted that three-quarters of the presidents were Jurats and that the administration was entirely male. Each president was entitled to choose two States Members to assist in the running of his department.

The Bailiff presided over the Superior Council, which consisted of the eight department presidents, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General. It met for the first time in the Bailiff's Chambers on Monday 24 June 1940.

Senior German officers in the Commandant's office

German administrators

Although the first Germans to arrive in Jersey were military officers, but civil servants and others with a civilian background were soon brought in to run the civil administration, which was based at Victoria College House, under the command of Colonel Schumacher. All communications between the Germans and the island administration were through Col Schumacher and the Bailiff, and the Bailiff's Secretary, Ralph Mollet, acted as go-between, calling at Field Command at least twice daily.

In his diary he wrote:

"I noticed many changes. At the commencement the personnel numbered over one hundred. The officers included four War Councillors, three of whom were Doctors of Law. Twelve cars with chauffeurs were always ready outside the building. The premises were perfumed with the smoke of the very best cigars. Gradually the officers and men were replaced by low category men, and the strength reduced to about a quarter of the number, three only of the original staff being left, with only one War Councillor, and the cars reduced to two small ones to be used only when necessity arose.
"Some of the staff were pleasant and others very difficult, but they were all very polite. They spoke either English or French. I had always to maintain a discretion, always bearing in mind that I was dealing with the enemy."

Arrangements for government

The German proclamation issued a week after they arrived in Jersey set out clearly that the island administration was to continue to function as before, under the Germans' overall control:

"The Civil Government and the Courts of the Island will continue to function as heretofore, save that all Laws, Ordinances, Regulations and Orders will be submitted to the German Commandant before being enacted. Such legislation as, in the past, required the sanction of His Britannic Majesty-in-Council for its validity, shall henceforth be valid on being approved by the German Commandant and thereafter sanctioned by the Bailiff of Jersey. The orders of the German Commandant heretofore, now and hereafter issued shall, in due course, be registered in the records of the Island of Jersey in order that no person may plead ignorance thereof. Offences against the same, saving those punishable under German Military Law, shall be punishable by the Civil Cour4ts, who shall enact suitable penalties in respect of such offences with the approval of the German Commandant."

On 11 October 1940 the Royal Court registered an order made by the Chief of the Military Administration in France directing that orders of the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army in relation to the territory of the Military Administration in France should apply to the Channel Islands. A large number of such orders were subsequently registered by the Royal Court.

Bailiff Alexander Coutanche photographed with German officials on 3 January 1945

The Council at Work

Twenty years after the end of the war Lord Coutanche, as the wartime Bailiff then was, wrote of the process of government during the Occupation:

"As soon as they were appointed by the States in June 1940 the Presidents of the various Departments, with their clerical and technical staffs, established themselves in separate offices in some convenient place. The Presidents attended daily; the other members of the Departments very frequently.
"Except at moments of crisis, when it sat constantly, the Superior Council met regularly once a week. Each president reported upon the work of his Department and decisions were made on the many problems which arose.
"During the Occupation the States met on 23 occasions only. By general consent they met only when absolutely necessary, for instance to deal with the Estimates and the Budget and to enact such legislation as required, constitutionally, to be passed by the Assembly.
"The Presidents of the Departments were in constant touch with their opposite numbers at Field Command. The Field Commander dealt personally with matters of major importance at conferences at which the Bailiff normally represented the insular government, with one of the Law Officers, together with a President or other representative of one or more Departments to advise him.
"The Law Officers dealt directly with the Judge and Officers of the German Military Court in relation to criminal affairs and other matters of a purely legal nature."
A cartoon by Norman Rybot depicting members of the Superior Council welcoming a Swiss admiral representing the Red Cross


Coutanche accepted that the work of the Superior Council and its relationship with the enemy was not universally admired, but wrote:

"There is no doubt that the Superior Council fulfilled the highest hopes of its creators and that, during nearly five years, it administered the government of the island in a way which, to say the least, was acceptable to the great majority of the people. Inevitably it had its critics. Under the wartime Council system there were members of the States who were not members of any one of the eight Departments and they naturally were disappointed and sometimes critical. But apart from this, the island was constantly alive with rumours, many of them false, which it was impossible for the Council effectively to deny or explain.

After the war there was a complete review of the island's system of government. The Jurats and Rectors were excluded from the States, which reverted to a committee system, with just seven members on each committee. There is no doubt that Lord Coutanche would have liked the cabinet system of the Superior Council to continue, with himself in the chair, but that did not happen. He and subsequent Bailiffs became further and further removed from the centre of government and, when a cabinet system was eventually re-created in the 21st century, it was with an elected Chief Minister and not the Bailiff as president.

Picture gallery

1945 letter to the Bailiff from the Chamber of Commerce president

Edwin Hettich was president of the Jersey Chamber of Commerce when he wrote this letter to the Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, thanking him for his role during the German Occupation
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