The battle for Alderney's wartime past
Last week, I visited the Channel Island to see for myself the row that has erupted over the history of the Nazi occupation – and how it should be memorialised.
IF YOU had been on Alderney recently, you would have seen a place seemingly at ease with itself. The Channel Island has been celebrating Alderney Week, its annual festival of music, partying, competitions and cavalcades, all of which culminated in a torchlit procession through the island’s main town, St Anne. The weather has been glorious, and Alderney’s three square miles have been thronging with the happy faces of its 2,000 inhabitants, and perhaps a similar number of visitors, many of whom are both well tanned and heeled and have arrived by yacht.
But beneath the surface of Alderney, all is not well. For this is an island that is involved in the most extraordinarily bitter fight between residents, historians, and politicians, concerning exactly what happened there during the Second World War when the Nazis occupied it from 1940 to 1945.
What makes the fight more acrimonious still is that it is not only about history, but also about the whole thorny question of memorialisation. And the fight is not only between residents and historians, but it is also pitting resident against resident and historian against historian. In short, it would be fair to say it is an island once more at war.
Until the fight broke out, Alderney was fairly at peace with itself about the occupation. Unlike Jersey and Guernsey, the population evacuated before the Germans came, and so Alderney never had to reconcile itself with the morally complex issue of collaborating with the Nazis.
However, Alderney remained far from uninhabited. For as soon as the islanders moved out, the Germans moved in, and over the next five years they brought thousands of concentration camp prisoners and slave labourers, who were worked in appallingly brutal conditions to build a mind-boggling series of concrete fortifications that still litter the island.
To house their slaves, the Nazis constructed four camps that were named after German islands in the North Sea – Norderney, Borkum, Helgoland, and Sylt. Of these, Sylt would come under the control of the SS, and was considered a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany.
Overseen by an SS Captain called Maximillian List, prisoners at Sylt were subjected to the most appalling tortures and punishments, and many were worked to death. While conditions were similarly despicable at the other camps, it is chilling – and often overlooked – that Alderney was the home of the only SS concentration camp on British soil.
After the war, a War Office investigation was conducted by Captain Theodore Pantcheff, who interviewed as many witnesses as possible to establish what had happened on the island. Evidence was collated from not only from surviving prisoners and captured Germans, but also from a handful of men from Guernsey who had been brought over to farm the land.
In addition, testimony was also secured from a man called George Pope, an Englishman who had lived on Alderney throughout the war, and who had acted as a harbour pilot for the Germans. While Pantcheff thought Pope may have been a collaborator, others suspect he may have been a spy and sending information to Britain.
After gathering evidence of appalling abuses and investigating grave sites, Pantcheff concluded that 389 forced labourers and prisoners had died, most of whom were buried in what was known as the ‘Russian cemetery’ on a part of the island called Longis Common.
Pantcheff was the first to acknowledge that his figure could not be considered definitive, and it was likely that many more had died.
For decades, however, that figure was largely accepted. When the residents moved back, they were more concerned with rebuilding their homes and their lives. Like nearly everybody in the wake of a global conflict that had killed millions, people on Alderney wanted to look forward and not back.
Similarly, many of those who had committed the crimes on their island – including Maximillian List – managed to spend the rest of their days in peace, the beneficiaries of ineffective and underfunded Allied war crimes investigation teams.
THAT SENSE of peace was to be shattered by two things.
The first came in 2016 in the form of the sudden presence of a drilling rig on Longis Common, that was erected to survey the potential route of a electricity cable that was to connect France, Alderney and Britain – known as the ‘FAB link’.
While a group of residents was concerned about the nature of the relationship between the States of Alderney – the island’s governing body – and the company behind FAB, there were also those who were angered by what looked like the desecration of a mass grave.
Among them was Michael James, who was brought up on Alderney, and is now a dealer in 20th-century furniture, silver, art, and design, who spends his time between the island and Florida.
“The FAB link was a sudden catalyst for people like me to start investigating what had really gone on during the war,” says Mr James. “For too long it all felt brushed under the carpet. I think the real locals – the natives as they like to be known – all want to know the truth. How many really died on our island? The figure of around 400 just seems far low.”
But the spotlight on Longis Common also illuminated another question – how many of those who died on Alderney were Jews? Pantcheff’s report had revealed the burial places of only eight Jews, but some historians strongly suspect there were a lot more.
As a result, no less a figure than the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, voiced his concerns, and wrote in 2019 to the President of the States of Alderney about the ‘possible disruption’ to the burial sites, as a ‘central tenet to Judaism’s approach to the sanctity of such sites is that they remain unaltered in perpetuity’.
The prospect that many Jews were killed and buried on Alderney gave rise to the second thing that was to unsettle the island – the interest that was soon shown by the UK delegation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Headed by Lord (Eric) Pickles, the UK delegation sent a Safeguarding Sites team to Alderney in 2019 to look at the locations associated with the Holocaust, and to advise islanders how to preserve them and to memorialise them.
In July last year, Pickles presented eight recommendations to the Alderney islanders that had been drawn up by Cambridge archaeologist, Dr Gilly Carr, who has specialised in researching wartime sites on the Channel Islands. The recommendations included establishing stones with scannable QR codes on them, as a means of making the signage less obtrusive as the text only appears on a mobile device.
“The beauty of an online site,” Dr Carr told the meeting, “is that it’s invisible.”
“Basically people thought the recommendations were sensible,” Lord Pickles told me week, “and given the modest nature of those recommendations I would have been surprised if that had not been the case.”
However, there are some residents who are absolutely livid at what they see as interference from the mainland, and baulk at the whole idea that the Holocaust took place on Alderney.
When I visited the island, I found people who were violently opposed to what they see as a rewriting of history, and spot an agenda behind memorialising sites like Sylt and Norderney.
Among them is Sue Allen, who tells me that she worked ‘for the Foreign Office’ in a way that suggests it was cover for something more shady.
“These people are trying to accuse Alderney people of being uninterested,” she says, “but the truth is that we are rather fed up of all this. I was in the Foreign Office and I know the background to this. Nobody knows what happened after the Pantcheff report.”
“The problem with these people coming in now is that they have an agenda and they want to say that there is more to this than appeared at the time. There wasn’t a holocaust here – there was slave labour camp. I do not agree with what they are saying. For God's sake leave the people of Alderney alone.”
Another resident, James Dent, expressed similar concerns in the wake of the meeting with Pickles and Carr.
“Many of us are nervous that we should not become some sort of ‘macabre theme-park for Holocaust tourism,” he said.
Perhaps the Alderney resident most splenetically against the arrival of IHRA and indeed other historians is Trevor Davenport, the president of the Alderney Society, and who has spent much of his spare time researching the island’s fortifications and history.
“I have been looking at this for thirty to forty years, and the amount of shit that is coming out is coming out by the cartload,” he tells me. “It’s the same old tripe repeated and repeated. We’re not trying to cover anything up. When you look at the story of World War Two, we’re nothing but a full stop. These people are attention seekers trying to make a name for themselves. These people are off their rockers – Gilly Carr is a nutcase.”
Mr Davenport also accuses another historian, Marcus Roberts, the director of JTrails – the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail, and who strongly believes that there were many thousands of Jews on Alderney – as being motivated by cynicism.
“He’s only saying the Holocaust happened here so that he can bring Jewish tourists here,” says Mr Davenport.
Unsurprisingly, Marcus Roberts – who is Jewish – is similarly incensed by Davenport. In an email seen by me, Roberts recounts how when he visited the island in 2010, Davenport ‘told me “I would be ‘run off the island’ if I insisted on pursuing the topic of the Holocaust. I would describe this as an anti-Semitic ‘hate’ incident.”
Mr Roberts further accuses Davenport of denying the Holocaust took place on Alderney, and points to a recent interview Davenport gave to a website called Coda which stated that ‘Davenport does not believe the word “holocaust” pertains to Alderney, and prefers to discuss the island’s wartime past without the mention of forced labourers’.
But as well as the war going on between residents and historians, there is also much heat between historians such as Mr Roberts and the likes of Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls of Staffordshire University, who has recently published a book and made a TV documentary on Alderney. Sturdy Colls believes the true number of dead lying on Alderney is just over 900, a figure that is hotly disputed by Roberts.
“What we are looking at ‘Nothing Too Bad Happened on Alderney Part Two’,” says Roberts. “Carr and Sturdy Colls are doing just what Pantcheff did. What Sturdy Colls won’t do is to come out and say that thousands died. This restrictive metric of counting is a form of unwitting Holocaust denial. And in certain Eastern European countries this means of counting is used to deny the Holocaust.”
“We feel as Jewish stakeholders that we are deliberately excluded from memorialisation and interpretation on Alderney. Gilly Carr, for example, would not tolerate me being invited to certain seminar or gathering.”
Professor Sturdy Colls was approached by me to comment but did not reply. Dr Carr was approached but refused to comment.
Lord Pickles strongly refutes the charge.
“I think that’s an extraordinary allegation,” he says. “I just can’t understand that at all. IHRA has lots of representatives from the Jewish community. Our leading academic is Jewish.”
So why do the likes of historian Marcus Roberts and resident Michael James believe that thousands of Jews not only came to Alderney, but also died there?
“We have consistent reports from multiple British Intelligence and witness sources that Jews were the majority labour force on the islanders” says Roberts.
“If the standing labour force was between 4,000 to 7,000, over the three year period – with slaves being replaced as they died – there would therefore have been at least 2,000 to 3,500 Jews present at any one time. Over the occupation, some 6000 to 9000 Jews would probably have passed through the camps – and with an average 83 per cent death rate – then it is quite possible that around 5,000 Jews are likely to have perished on Alderney.”
“Thanks to George Pope, we know that on one occasion alone, during a dysentery outbreak in the summer of 1943, some 300 to 400 Jews died.”
Michael James also believes that the figure runs into the thousands. Like Mr Roberts, he also feels that the IHRA is excluding outsiders from contributing to the historical enquiry.
“To parachute in an academic, who appears to have no real in depth understanding of what took place here on Alderney, was a huge mistake,” he says. “There needs to be a wholly independent enquiry into what took place here.”
Mr James will no doubt be delighted with what Lord Pickles has revealed to me, and that there will be a new panel assembled to establish the truth.
“One of the things we want to get going by the autumn is to put together some peer group review of the numbers [who died], so that anybody, whether they’re academically qualified in terms of holocaust history or whether they’re leading academics, can put forward the evidence, and that can be looked at by leading international academics to try to get that figure. I think that would help the debate generally.”
When asked if everyone was invited, Mr Pickles replied: “Everyone is invited to that.”
Such a panel is surely welcome, because the fighting over Alderney’s past must come to a close.
Certainly when visiting the island, it is clear that bad things happened here. On many buildings there are names and wartime dates scratched into the concrete. The gates of Sylt concentration camp still stand near the airport, memorialised by a small plaque. A wall in a building yard is peppered with bullet holes – a sign some say is an execution wall, while others say a shooting range.
At the museum, I am specially shown the distinctive striped uniform of a concentration camp inmate that was found in an islander’s home in the 1990s beneath some floorboards. To look at it is to gaze directly at the product of evil. It is unsettling to realise it was found on British soil – it literally brings things home.
Meanwhile, most of those who have erected their tents on the island’s camp site at Saye Bay will be unaware that they are spending their summer holiday on the site of Norderney camp, where many Jews and others were held, abused, and worked to their deaths.
Clearly, living completely in the past is undesirable, but then so too is forgetting it. A balance needs to be found, to allow what finally needs to happen on Alderney – for the war to be over.
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