When Englanders look to escape their busy everyday lives, many hop a ferry or turboprop for the short trip to the Channel Islands. Located in the English Channel off the French coast of Normandy, the easy-going archipelago welcomes with its windswept coasts and beautiful beaches, colorful fishing villages and cattle-dotted fields, bird-filled wetlands and more sunshine than any other place in the British Isles.
So it is difficult to imagine that these bucolic islands were once under the brutal occupation of the Nazi regime. Yet from 1940 to 1945, the Channel Islands had the dubious distinction of being the only English territory to fall under the Wehrmacht or German army.
The islands are not part of the United Kingdom per se, but rather dependencies of the Crown with their own administrations and laws. (Their residents are still considered British citizens, though.) Once part of the Duchy of Normandy, the archipelago was taken by William the Conqueror during the Norman Invasion of 1066, and has remained a British possession ever since. During World War II, Winston Churchill demilitarized the Channels in order to concentrate vital forces on other fronts. Their close proximity to France, however, made the islands a strategic point from which Hitler could invade that country.
On June 28, 1940, German forces bombed Jersey and Guernsey; left undefended, they immediately fell and, two days later, German troops raised the Hakenkreuz (swastika) flag on these peaceful shores. A third of the population was evacuated; the rest was left to deal with the strict curfews, banning of radios, and requisitioning of property. Many Jewish residents were sent to concentration camps, four of which were built on the island of Alderney.
While Channelers have often been accused of too easily capitulating to the Nazis and even collaborating with them (which some did), recently discovered documents in Guernsey offer detailed accounts of a quiet resistance movement and the often gruesome punishments for those who were caught feeding slave laborers or sending underground messages.
The D-Day landings in June 1944 brought hope to the Channels—along with increased isolation and starvation. (Red Cross packages were eventually sent in to avoid a major famine.) Finally, on May 8, 1945, the Germans released all political prisoners on the islands and, the following day, the Union Jack flew once more.
Every year since, Liberation Day, May 9, has been celebrated across the archipelago with parades, concerts, and other activities commemorating the islands’ freedom. On our Discoveries of Coastal Europe expedition, we call on the Channel Islands over May 8 and 9, 2018, allowing our guests to take part in the jubilation. Complimented by tours of several WWII bunkers and the German Occupation Museum, your Channel island experience is sure to liberate the spirit.