These days when there are something like ten thousand books a month being published here in the UK alone, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a subject that hasn’t already been ‘done to death’ as everywhere you look there are literally hundreds of books all on the same subject, (just Google ‘Adolf Hitler’ or ‘Waffen-SS’ to see just how many in this particular genre alone!)
So whilst some are good and some indifferent, the ‘Holy Grail’ has always been to find something new and so I‘m excited to bring news of a book that I’ve personally long wanted to see… and which has now arrived on my doorstep: ‘The German Tunnels of Guernsey, Alderney & Sark’…
I am even happier that this wonderful new reference work has been researched, written & produced by friends & colleagues in ‘Festung Guernsey’, the private group of individuals that have took up the earlier cudgels of Guernsey Tourism’s initiative ‘Fortress Guernsey’, to continue the excavation, restoration and promotion of so many of the Bailiwick’s German fortifications. Long involved with myriad structures on the surface, the group has now successfully turned their attention to what actually lies beneath the islands of Guernsey, Alderney, Herm & Sark: a complete network of differing tunnels, all of which were excavated during the Nazi Occupation of the British Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945.
I must admit that I have been totally fascinated by these incredible tunnels for many a long while now and so I’m very pleased to say that this new book is everything I’d hoped for… and more… for in truth I was expecting more of a slimmer volume, but this is a chunky, well-produced, good looking, photo-rich, heavily researched reference work that I’m only too delighted to add to my own personal library of Channel Island Occupation books.
Written by Ernie Gavey, with contemporary photos by Steve Powell, this gorgeous, glossy, high-quality, paper-back boasts some 350 pages and 600 colour & B/W photos, including a fantastic selection of really fascinating war-time & post-war ‘then and now’ shots, allied to some delightful reprints of the sumptuous colour-plates from the original German ‘Festung Guernsey’ presentation volumes of OT architects’ plans.
Not only is this a lavish, exhaustive and well-documented account of just how busy the Organisation Todt was with its tunnelling activities in the Bailiwick, (and how the States and the islanders viewed the varying tunnels post-war), but it is also a carefully and fairly crafted commentary that will hopefully finally lay to rest some of the wild stories spun relating to the alleged atrocities involving ‘slave labour’ that went on during the construction of these incredible underground caverns.
Built for a variety of reasons, though primarily for storage and the secure housing of ammunition stocks down away from feared RAF air-raids, every time the question of these tunnels, (and indeed all of the concrete fortifications across the islands), arises here on the mainland, there is always seemingly somebody ready to opine erroneously about: ‘how many Russian slave labourers were killed and thrown into the concrete and so whichever tunnel you are in or concrete gun-emplacement you are looking at, it is probably a war grave containing the remains of these poor wretches from Russia, Ukraine, Poland etc, who died under the harsh treatment and who were simply pushed into the concrete foundations or tunnel linings when their lives expired..!’.
Whenever you start talking about this subject, there will always be some idiot making such fanciful claims whereas, yes, the conditions for the ‘Forced Labourers’ were undoubtedly extremely tough and it must have been pretty unpleasant for the men as they worked hard to excavate these tunnels and build the enormous fortifications, (that are now a symbol of Channel Island occupation), for their Nazi masters…and indeed a large number did die during this dangerous work…, but such fanciful tales of 100’s of Russian Forced Labourers being thrown over the cliff or buried in the footings, are just that, fanciful, and should be avoided at all costs!
Therefore, with all of the accurate facts available and compiled by these Guernsey ‘keepers of knowledge’ this captivating account of the German’s tunnelling proclivities, together with some of the best photos & plans of the resulting underground storage facilities and their myriad uses, (post-war as well), is a totally fascinating read. Especially so given my own interest through both my 5-year consultancy for ‘Fortress Guernsey’ and my years of research in advance of my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’.
It was not surprisingly perhaps, that during both of these terrific career periods that I became totally absorbed by this whole tunnelling question and to which I recently returned in a recent Blog when I talked about the U-Boot/Luftwaffe refuelling tunnels that now hold the superb museum of Peter & Paul Balshaw at La Valette, Guernsey,which are also well documented in this new book.
In ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ my crew and I also filmed in two of the magnificent tunnel complexes featured in this book: Guernsey’s Underground hospital at St. Andrew, (Hohlgang.40 Lazarett), and at the late Derek Traisnel’s fascinating small museum in the tunnel of Hohlgang.12 under St Saviour’s church on Guernsey, (a fascinating back-ground story in itself), where much of the German occupying force’s ordnance, equipment, steel helmet’s & gasmasks and so forth were put into deep storage and sealed, just after German surrender in May 1945.
Exploring, and then filming, in both of these tunnels was a most eerie & exciting experience as I very much caught a real feeling of the former German occupying forces’ presence… perhaps I should look at German hauntings next..!
The final chapter devoted to the post-war scrap drive of the late 1940s and early 50s is a true collector’s delight, (both in terms of photos of the German equipment that was uncovered and copies of the letters between the States Government and the various scrap companies). It is tinged with a certain sadness though when realising just how many tanks, vehicles and items of German equipment were pulled out of those previously sealed-up tunnels only to be put to the scrap-dealers’ oxyacetylene torches… though thankfully Richard Heaume MBE ‘did his bit’ and managed to save a number of rare pieces for his superb German Occupation museum in the Parish of Forest…
On another personal note arising from this last chapter: in my teens I had lucky cause to visit a very large and hugely famous Film Properties supply company out in the sticks of Wiltshire, (way before my long & very happy association with the Bailiwick of Guernsey), and in one of their many stables housing literally tons & tons of military equipment of all hues, (what an Aladdin’s Cave!), were pile-after-pile of rusted German steel helmets, standing 8 or 9 lids high, which were destined to be used to dress various up-coming movie battlefield scenes.
I was informed that all of these helmets had come directly from Guernsey’s very own St Saviours’ Tunnel during one of those early scrap drives… indeed I was given one of the piles containing 8 rusty lids as a memento of my visit, including one that, under the rust & dirt, actually bore a Waffen-SS decal…now that’s an interesting subject for another day..!)
But back to the book… and even if you have only a passing interest in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, the gripping topic of these Bailiwick’s OT-built tunnels will certainly appeal to many and I cannot recommend this lovely tome highly enough as Ernie, Steve & their colleagues in Festung Guernsey have done a stunning job, for which I heartily congratulate them all… whilst thanking them personally for producing a book I have always longed to own..!
If you are in Guernsey look out for them at Richard Heaume MBE’s German Occupation Museum, (and all good tourist outlets), or if you are not lucky enough to visit this beautiful part of the world, you can order via mail-order directly from Festung Guernsey.
..and my advice is: don’t hang about..!
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013