LONDON — To the French Jews who toiled and died there it was “le rocher maudit” – the accursed rock. To others, it became known as “Devil’s Island,” “the Buchenwald of the West,” or “Little Auschwitz.”
Alderney is one of the small cluster of islands — an archipelago which includes Jersey, Guernsey, and Sark — which lie in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. Semi-independent, they were nonetheless the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Nazis.
The British mainland may have escaped the horrors of Nazism, but British soil nonetheless witnessed the brutal machinery of death — of slave labor, mass killings, and starvation — which accompanied German rule throughout Europe.
Three miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide, almost all of Alderney’s tiny civilian population was evacuated after the fall of France in June 1940. In their place, the Germans would later ship onto the remote, wind-swept and sea-beaten island a slave labor force of thousands, effectively turning it to one giant concentration camp. Its primary purpose was to fortify Alderney, transforming it into one of the most heavily defended, impregnable outposts of the Reich.
The scale of the horror perpetrated on Alderney is hotly contested. Official accounts after the war suggested that less than 400 of the 3,000 forced laborers — and among them, only a handful of Jews — died on the island. Seventy years on, though, historians and military experts suggest the workforce and the death-toll may have been many times higher — with perhaps as many as 40,000 people losing their lives. Moreover, the number of Jews on Alderney may not have been in the hundreds but instead close to 10,000, few of whom survived the deadly experience.
The Nazis’ plans were personally directed by Adolf Hitler. As the journalist Madeline Bunting recounts in “The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule” the Fuhrer was “immensely proud of his British conquests,” constantly fretting that Winston Churchill might win a propaganda coup by retaking them, and viewing them as a “laboratory for future Anglo-German relations.”
Less whimsically, Hitler also calculated that Alderney held an important strategic value: As part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications, it would help protect the sea channels around Cherbourg, provide the Luftwaffe with anti-aircraft cover and deny the Allies a potentially useful staging post for the opening of the feared Western Front.
Thus from early 1942, Alderney became the scene of massive construction — of tunnels and bunkers, gun emplacements and artillery batteries, roads and a railway line — which would leave it the most fortified of the Channel Islands. With this massive construction came the need for a massive workforce. Labor camps — named after German islands in the North Sea — were hastily erected: Helgoland, Borkum, Norderney and, most notoriously, Sylt.
A small minority of the workers deployed by the Organization Todt, the Reich’s multi-tentacled civil and military engineering group, were genuine volunteers, often hailing from Germany, the Netherlands, France and Belgium.
The vast majority, however, were slave laborers, mostly from Russia, Poland and the Ukraine — although North Africans and Indo-Chinese (rounded up by the French to fill their labor quotas), German political prisoners and Spanish Republicans who had fled Franco only to fall into the hands of the Germans after the occupation of France — also found themselves as chattels of the Reich.
Jews, of course, did not escape this grim enterprise. Jewish inmates were sent to Norderney and Sylt, which came under the control of the SS in 1943 as a satellite of the Neuengamme concentration camp. At both camps, the Jews were kept in separate “pens.” Even among the untermenschen, or inferior people, a hierarchy was to be maintained.
Although these were not explicitly extermination camps, most slave laborers did not leave Alderney alive. The dangerous, exhausting work to which they were subjected for 10 to12 hours a day, starvation rations (sometimes further diminished by widespread SS corruption and theft), rampant dysentery and unforgiving Atlantic storms which lashed the island saw to that.
So, too, did the Germans’ utter disregard for the lives of those they regarded as subhuman: survivors later recalled summary executions, vicious beatings and savage punishments meted on those caught stealing food or cigarettes.
There was little or no respite from this living hell: it was near-impossible to escape the island, while, unlike on Jersey or Guernsey, there was no local population from whom occasional acts of pity — warmer clothing, a morsel of food — might be forthcoming.
For those who did survive to tell the tale, their recollections of the heavy mists which frequently hang over Alderney stand as a metaphor for the cloak of secrecy about what occurred here which is only now slowly beginning to lift.
As one Russian slave laborer, Georgi Kondakov, recounted decades later: “Many times when I was on Alderney I thought death was close. Most of my worst memories come to me now as nightmares; in the daytime I can suppress those thoughts in my subconscious, but against the nightmares I am powerless.”
Perhaps it is appropriate that it is the fate of a burial ground, where it is feared the bodies of many of these victims of Nazism may still lay, which is helping to expose Alderney’s dark secrets.
The France-Alderney-Britain link (FAB)
Next year, work is due to begin on a major energy project — the France-Alderney-Britain link (FAB) — which will link the two countries’ energy grids via the Channel Islands. The 137-mile (220 kilometer) cable will cross Longis Common, the main site used by the Germans to dispose of the bodies of those whom they had murdered and worked to death.
The consortium behind the FAB, which includes the French energy giant EDF, has promised that the subsea and underground cable will avoid known burial grounds and contain an additional protection zone. It also maintains that the graves of many of the victims were exhumed in the early 1960s and reburied in France, and strongly disputes recent reports in the British media that preliminary investigations have caused damage to the main burial ground.
However, opponents of the project remain deeply concerned. A new study prepared for campaigners brings together publicly available maps and diagrams with an as yet unpublished high-definition aerial photograph of the area taken in 1944.
Seen by The Times of Israel, it argues that the exhumation of 316 bodies from the so-called Russian cemetery in the 1960s “led to the myth that all the bodies were removed from the common.” In fact, it suggests, the Longis Common burial area is “far more extensive and complicated” than has been assumed and may contain at least five large mass graves and a cremation pit.
“Due to the possibly larger size of the burial area than that originally considered the proposed FAB link might very well impact dramatically on it,” the study cautions.
Marcus Roberts, director of the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail, shares the campaigners’ concerns. Burials “almost certainly” extend beyond the “official” cemetery boundaries which FAB have said they will avoid, he says. His own recent investigations indicate the bodies of nearly 2,000 prisoners — and potentially many more — may remain at Longis Common.
Roberts, who has carried out extensive research into wartime Alderney and has been asked to report to the Chief Rabbi’s office on the project, also believes there may be multiple burial sites nearby, on the beach and close to the infamous anti-tank wall, where the cable will make landfall before it crosses Longis Common.
A concrete installation 15 feet high and extending for half a mile, the anti-tank wall was probably the largest built by the Nazis and was christened “the wall of certain death” by the Russian prisoners who built it. Its construction cost the lives of the many Jews who also labored on it.
The bodies of some of those prisoners are thought to lie under the wall in the foundations, while the back of the wall contains the bullet holes in front of which prisoners were shot. Atop it are the still-visible names and prisoner numbers of those who lived, and died, constructing a fortification that would never see action.
On the beach in front of the wall there are believed to be burial pits in the sand where an unknown number of bodies were dumped. One of the survivors interviewed by Bunting vividly recalled trucks tipping corpses at low tide into the pits, which were 50-100 meters (165-330 feet) off shore. Each, he believed, contained about 12 bodies. This account was not unique and there is no evidence that these possible burial sites were ever investigated or cleared.
But, argues Roberts, the path of the cable has no room for deviation should burials be found, and the contractors have so far failed to provide a promised plan for how the works will be supervised and human remains protected.
Roberts is also worried about the preliminary work carried out by FAB.
“FAB Link have previously carried out intrusive drilling and prospecting, without warning, close to the known Jewish burial and Russian burial sites and have also dug under the anti-tank wall, very close to an execution site at the wall and carried out some geophysical archaeological investigations,” he says.
On a visit to the site shortly afterwards, he found bone fragments, although he says he cannot be certain they are human ones.
Historical record soon to be destroyed
“The Longis area is quite simply unique and there is nowhere else in Europe that contains so much historical evidence of the extermination by labor program in one single area,” argues Colonel Richard Kemp, Britain’s former commander in Afghanistan who has carried out detailed research into the Nazis’ reign of terror on the island.
“The power of Longis Common and its historical importance is immense. Any one of the millions of missing slave workers could have been buried there and may still be there today. The whole area is therefore sacred to them all. It belongs to them, to their relatives and to the communities across Europe and beyond from which they came. It is their ‘corner of a foreign field.’ It should be preserved and protected forever as an international memorial site,” Kemp says.
Central to the fears of those who oppose the FAB Link running across Longis Common is the belief that both the number of prisoners on the island and the death toll have long been grossly underestimated.
The British military intelligence interrogator who investigated after the war, Captain Theodore “Bunny” Pantcheff, suggested that a mere 389 forced laborers and prisoners — out of a total workforce of 3,000 — died during the occupation.
His conclusions were based on the number of individual burials of slave workers at Longis Common and the churchyard at St. Anne’s in Alderney’s main town. Pantcheff, who went on to live on the island and write an account of the occupation in 1981, proved crucial in shaping an official narrative which has proved hard to shake.
However, Pantcheff’s figures take no account of the multiple eyewitnesses who recalled the Germans throwing bodies into the sea off cliffs or the breakwater, or burying them in the beaches and allowing the tides to take them away. Witnesses also reported bodies being tipped into mass burial sites, such as trenches. Later in the war, the Germans attempted to cover up the extent of the deaths on Alderney by tearing up crosses and leveling the ground at Longis Common.
Evidence seen by The Times of Israel suggests that Pantcheff himself later privately admitted that there had been many more deaths than the official records showed. Indeed, British intelligence reports in 1944 indicated that more than twice as many Russians — 843 — had died over a 12-month period than Pantcheff later recorded had perished on the island during the entirety of the occupation.
Nonetheless, even histories of the occupation published within the last decade maintain that the number of slave laborers of Alderney was probably only slightly higher than Pantcheff’s later estimate of 4,350, and that the death toll was around 1,250.
But it is the scale of the Nazis’ construction efforts which now lead some to conclude that the size of the workforce on Alderney was far in excess of these figures.
Together with fellow former army officer John Weigold, Kemp suggested this summer that, “The sheer volume of fortifications, walls and tunnels outstrips anything else in Hitler’s Third Reich. This huge amount of work could not possibly have been done with just 4,000 workers.”
Weigold and Kemp believe that Pantcheff had been “hoodwinked” by the Germans when he carried out his interrogations after the island’s liberation.
“We know about interrogation, and how prisoners will lie to save their skins,” they wrote. “The Germans he quizzed gave him a highly sanitized and rehearsed version of what had actually taken place.”
‘Up to 40,000 slave laborers died on Alderney’
Kemp and Weigold argue at least 40,000 slave laborers died on Alderney during the war. Their estimate is based on evidence of the actual size of the slave labor workforce, the amount of work done in fortifying the island and the probable attrition rate based on witness reports and accounts of similar construction work elsewhere in Europe.
The Nazi effort on Alderney, in particular the highly secretive work carried out by the SS, is explained, Kemp and Weigold believe, by the fact that the Germans were planning to site V1 rockets, tipped with chemical weapons, on the island. Launched at the south coast of England, the weapons were intended to disrupt the Allied invasion of mainland Europe.
Roberts agrees that “common sense alone shows that 3,000 men could not have constructed the hundreds of concrete structures across the island.”
He believes that the prisoner workforce probably exceeded 30,000 and that the number of camps on the island was not four, but may have reached 13 (although some of these were temporary). He also dismisses Pantcheff’s “improbably low” death rate of 13 percent. Official French records show that the death rate at camps in the Nord Pas de Calais, which were linked to those in Alderney, were 85%.
Historically, the presence of Jews on the island during the occupation has also been downplayed, with their numbers counted in the hundreds. Roberts, however, believes that 9,000 may be a more realistic figure. At least at some points in the island’s penal history, British military intelligence reports suggested, Jews may actually have constituted a majority of the prisoner population.
Many were French Jews who had escaped immediate deportation to the East because they were either married to “Aryans” or considered “mischling,” or “mixed-blood,” by the Nazis. Others were highly educated members of the French Jewish elite, and included a parliamentary deputy, senior civil servants, lawyers, writers and doctors. They were, a 1943 report for the French police noted, “particularly bullied by their guardians.”
Only eight marked Jewish graves were found on Longis Common when the war ended, leading many to conclude, in the words of Bunting, that “only a handful of French Jews perished.”
However, this, too, appears far from the mark. At least 150 Jews, for instance, are thought to have been murdered by the Nazis in two separate revenge killings for Allied bombing raids on German cities. Their remains have never been accounted for.
It is probable that most of the 9,000 Jewish slave laborers on Alderney did not survive their ordeal
Thus, argues Roberts, it is probable that most of the 9,000 Jewish slave laborers on Alderney seem likely not to have survived their ordeal. As he points out, we know of only two convoys transferring Jews back to France: one in May 1944, contained 650 prisoners, some of whom were liberated several months later in Belgium by the resistance.
No justice for Alderney victims
For the victims of Alderney there was to be little or nothing by the way of justice. Pantcheff’s investigation in 1945 concluded that “wicked and merciless crimes” had been carried out on the island.
He named 15 Germans suspected of war crimes who were in British custody, and a further 31 who were in the French, US or British zones of occupied Germany.
Only four men — a Russian kapo and three Germans — were later tried in the Soviet Union, France and East Germany for crimes committed on Alderney. Thus the SS commandant of Sylt, Maximilian List; his deputy, Kurt Klebeck; and Alderney commandant Carl Hoffman, were never held to account for their heinous crimes on the island.
None of Germany’s Alderney war criminals faced justice at the hands of the British. Instead, Britain long maintained that, given that many of the victims were Russian, it had handed over the evidence it had gathered to the Soviets for them to take action, while flatly denying that any of the suspects were ever in its custody.
Seventy-five years after the first slave laborers arrived on Alderney, these lies cannot obscure a simple truth. As one of those who suffered at the Nazis’ hands on the island later suggested: “The British did not want to know that there had been a concentration camp on British soil.”