'Numbers matter because the truth matters'

UK launches inquiry into deaths at sole Nazi concentration camps on British soil

Death toll on the occupied island of Alderney, or ‘Little Auschwitz,’ is hotly debated, as a possibly faulty postwar report has experts saying thousands more may have been killed

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

  • A photo of the Sylt concentration camp on the island of Alderney after the Nazi surrender, May 1945. (Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum/ via Antiquity Publications)
    A photo of the Sylt concentration camp on the island of Alderney after the Nazi surrender, May 1945. (Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum/ via Antiquity Publications)
  • Bunker on Alderney, likely built by slave labor from Sylt and the other
camps. (Andree Stephan/ CC BY 3.0/ via Antiquity Publications)
    Bunker on Alderney, likely built by slave labor from Sylt and the other camps. (Andree Stephan/ CC BY 3.0/ via Antiquity Publications)
  • Illustrative: A German soldier guarding the Atlantic Wall in the Channel Islands during WWII. (Getty images/iStock)
    Illustrative: A German soldier guarding the Atlantic Wall in the Channel Islands during WWII. (Getty images/iStock)
  • The old gateposts to the Sylt concentration camp on the island of Alderney, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0/ John Rostron)
    The old gateposts to the Sylt concentration camp on the island of Alderney, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0/ John Rostron)
  • German soldiers standing at an intersection in Jersey during the WWII occupation of the Channel Islands. (Bundesarchiv Bild)
    German soldiers standing at an intersection in Jersey during the WWII occupation of the Channel Islands. (Bundesarchiv Bild)
  • An anti-tank wall at Longis Bay, on the British island of Alderney. (Marcus Roberts)
    An anti-tank wall at Longis Bay, on the British island of Alderney. (Marcus Roberts)

LONDON — The British government is set to begin lifting the lid on the dark secrets of what some have called “Little Auschwitz” — the island of Alderney, which housed the only Nazi concentration camps to have existed on British soil during World War II.

For decades, official accounts have said that less than 400 of the 4,000 slave laborers shipped to the island — and among them, only a handful of Jews — perished.

But, prompted by suggestions from journalists, historians and military experts that the death toll may have run into the thousands, Britain’s Holocaust envoy last week announced an expert review of evidence into the number of prisoners who died on Alderney during the Nazi occupation.

“Numbers matter because the truth matters,” Eric Pickles, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and a former senior minister, said in a statement announcing the review. “The dead deserve the dignity of the truth; the residents of Alderney deserve accurate numbers to free them from the distortion of conspiracy theorists.”

“Exaggerating the numbers of the dead, or even minimizing them, is in itself a form of Holocaust distortion and a critical threat to Holocaust memory and to fostering a world without genocide,” said Pickles, who heads the UK Delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

While the news of Pickles’s review has been positively received by academics and campaigners, it has also prompted calls for a far wider inquiry into the events surrounding the German occupation — and how senior Nazis escaped punishment for the crimes committed on the islands.

Eric Pickles speaks at a Holocaust Memorial Day event, January 23, 2018. (UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

In a letter to Pickles seen by The Times of Israel, Prof. Anthony Glees, a leading academic who was appointed to advise the War Crimes Inquiry established by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, warmly welcomed the review, but argued that “it should not just focus on the numbers killed, as important as that is.”

Instead, Glees wrote, it should also examine “the vexed question of why those who perpetrated such heinous war crimes were never brought to trial in this country.” The guiding principle of post-WWII war crimes investigations, he adds, was that war criminals were handed over to the country where their crimes were alleged to have been committed.

Glees said Thatcher’s inquiry, which probed how several hundred suspected war criminals surreptitiously came to live in Britain after WWII and led the former prime minister to push the 1991 War Crimes Act through parliament, didn’t examine “the war crimes that were undoubtedly committed in the Channel Islands.”

“This may have been a shortcoming,” he said.

Nazi-occupied Britain

Alderney is one of a small cluster of islands — an archipelago including Jersey, Guernsey, and Sark — that 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.

A 2019 photo of Prof. Anthony Glees. (Courtesy)

Three miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide, almost all of Alderney’s tiny civilian population was evacuated by Britain when, deeming them too difficult to defend, it pulled out of the Channel Islands after the fall of France in June 1940.

Hitler prized his sole British possessions, viewing them, as Nazi propaganda put it, as “the last stepping stone” to the conquest of the UK.

But he also recognized Alderney’s 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.

From early 1942, Alderney thus became the scene of massive construction of tunnels and bunkers, gun emplacements and artillery batteries, roads and a railway line, effectively turning “le rocher maudit” — the accursed rock, in the words of the French Jews who toiled there — into a massive slave labor camp. Over time, the remote, wind-swept and sea-beaten island would become one of the most heavily defended, impregnable outposts of the Third Reich.

Named after German islands in the North Sea, four principal camps were constructed — Helgoland, Borkum, Norderney and Sylt — on Alderney. Sylt was originally one of the smaller camps, but in 1943, together with Norderney, it was taken over by the SS Death’s Head Unit. It became a satellite of the Hamburg-based Neuengamme concentration camp (despite the large distance between them), expanded rapidly in size, and was turned into a concentration camp. Sylt swiftly earned a well-deserved reputation as “the most terrible camp,” as a former Alderney prisoner later testified.

The old gateposts to the Sylt concentration camp on the island of Alderney, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0/ John Rostron)

While a small minority of the workers deployed by the Organization Todt, the Reich’s civil and military engineering group, were genuine volunteers, the vast majority were slave laborers. Most hailed from Russia, Poland and Ukraine, although there were also inmates from North Africa and Indo-China, political prisoners from Germany, and Spanish Republicans who had fled Franco’s fascist regime. Jewish prisoners were sent to Norderney and Sylt but kept in separate “pens.”

Extermination through labor

Alderney’s camps are of interest, the UK government believes, not simply because of their unique status in Britain’s wartime story, but also because of the evidence they reveal about the Nazis’ “Vernichtung durch Arbeit” — extermination through labor — program.

Slave laborers were forced to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, were fed starvation rations and suffered from rampant dysentery and unforgiving Atlantic storms. Predictably, this regime was accompanied by summary executions and punishment beatings.

In his letter to Pickles, Glees, a security and intelligence expert based at the University of Buckingham, says he also wants to see the new expert review conduct “a proper historical investigation” into the role camps may have played in the construction of the Atlantic Wall portions located in the Channel Islands and the interactions and experience of Channel Islanders — if any — with the slave laborers on Alderney.

The review panel will include 11 independent and internationally recognized experts from Britain, France, Germany and Canada. They have been charged with examining files from archives across Europe and will receive assistance from Yad Vashem researchers to help track down relevant documentation related to Alderney. The review’s findings are to be published in March 2024.

The panel is being asked to identify the number of prisoners and slave laborers who passed through Alderney and to assess the number who died on the island during the occupation.

Illustrative; German WWII bunker ‘The Odeon’ in Alderney. The bunker is about three to four stories high and has an anti-aircraft emplacement at the back. Alderney is said to have been the most heavily fortified of the Channel Islands. (CC-SA-Tim Brighton)

The official narrative was shaped by British military intelligence interrogator Cpt. Theodore “Bunny” Pantcheff. His investigation, ordered by the UK government after the islands’ liberation in 1945, didn’t pull its punches.

A rare copy of the report, excerpts of which were published by The Sunday Times in June 2021, found that “crimes of a systematically brutal and callous nature were committed — on British soil — in the last three years” and Pantcheff methodically detailed the horrific accounts of former prisoners.

But, having based his calculations 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 concluded that a mere 389 forced laborers and prisoners out of a total workforce of just over 4,000 died during the occupation. Among their number, he said, were eight Jews.

Pantcheff’s figures, of course, do not include the multiple eyewitnesses who recalled the Germans throwing bodies into the sea, burying them on the beaches and allowing the tides to take them away, and dumping their victims in mass burial sites.

Indeed, Pantcheff later wrote that his count was a “minimum conclusion.”

“My father knew the death toll could be higher, he knew very well he wasn’t going to come up with an absolute definitive number,” Pantcheff’s son, Andrew, told the Sunday Times in 2021. “The number was a conservative number because he’s got to be able to link the deaths he knows about for people responsible for it… I think he erred on the side of conservatism.”

The prisoner toilet block at the Sylt concentration camp on the island of Alderney. (Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University/ via Antiquity Publications)

But just how conservative were Pantcheff’s conclusions? The scale of the horrors perpetrated on Alderney — which the new inquiry is designed to settle — is hotly debated.

“The number has proved contentious because there are many individuals out there with competing theories which are published in the newspapers,” Dr. Gilly Carr, a member of the review panel and a Cambridge University historian, told The Times of Israel. “Fortunately, the many methods for counting the dead were established after the Holocaust, and the team will be following these in their endeavor.”

“The principal challenges we face are that records are scattered in archives across Europe and are not all in the UK. However, we have an experienced international group and I am confident that we will be able to build on existing research to find an up-to-date number,” Carr, a UK delegate to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, added.

Excavating the death toll

Interviewed by The Times of Israel in 2020, Prof. Caroline Sturdy Colls, an archaeologist who has carried out extensive research at Holocaust sites including Alderney and has also been appointed to the review panel, said that coming to an official figure for the death toll on Alderney is “very difficult.”

Colls said at least 700 slave laborers died, while labeling that figure a “very conservative estimate.” However, she added, there is “no evidence that I’ve found in 10 years of archive research to suggest that numbers in the tens of thousands of deaths are in any way credible whatsoever. There is no evidence to suggest that that many people were even sent to Alderney.”

British-born forensics expert Caroline Sturdy Colls. (Courtesy)

However, research conducted by Col. Richard Kemp, Britain’s former commander in Afghanistan, has reached a very different conclusion.

“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,” Kemp and fellow former army officer John Weigold wrote in the Daily Mail in 2017.

Instead, Kemp and Weigold argued, at least 40,000 slave laborers died on Alderney during the war. That 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 government-backed archaeologists and historians have been extremely timid and reluctant to go beyond their ‘certain’ figures, of only between 600 to 900 deaths, when all the evidence… shows that in reality, thousands died, both on and off the island, even if it is hard to come up with a precise number,” Marcus Roberts, director of Jewish heritage organization JTrails, told The Times of Israel.

Roberts, who has also carried out extensive research on wartime Alderney, has previously described Pantcheff’s figures as “improbably low” and suggested that around 9,000 Jews may have been sent to the island — many of whom may not have survived their ordeal. He noted that the French Red Cross estimated that there was an 85% global death rate in camps in northwest France, which were also run by some of the SS guards from Alderney. His own research indicates that camps on Alderney had mortality rates ranging from 50-85%.

Marcus Roberts, director of the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail. (Courtesy)

“It would be equally and perhaps more helpful for the inquiry to come up with the percentage death rate for the different prisoner groups,” added Roberts. Deaths both on and off the island need to be taken into account, he argues, as the prisoners’ journey to death may have ended on the island for some, while, for others, it ended in linked camps in France, or in German camps, where starving and exhausted prisoners were sent to be killed.

Getting away with murder

Whatever the eventual figures, it’s indisputable that the perpetrators of these crimes largely escaped justice after the war.

Pantcheff’s report named 15 Germans suspected of war crimes — all of whom were in British custody, either still on the Channel Islands or the British mainland. He also laid out in painstaking detail the crimes of which they were accused and the evidence underpinning the allegations.

But claiming, in the words of a Foreign Office memo, that “for practical purposes, Russians may be considered to have been the only occupants of these camps,” the UK handed the case over to the Soviets, sending them Pantcheff’s report in late 1945. “The British had washed their hands of the whole matter,” journalist Madeline Bunting wrote in her 1995 book “The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule, 1940-1945.” Pantcheff’s report, of which Britain said it no longer had a copy, didn’t finally emerge until the Russian archives were opened in the early 1990s.

In the meantime, British governments consistently and flatly denied that any of the suspects were ever in its custody after the war.

As Bunting recounted, the reality was more complex. Both the SS commandant of Sylt, Maximilian List, and his deputy, Kurt Klebeck, appeared on a list of 31 other Germans who, Pantcheff wrote, could easily be tracked down in the US, British and French zones of occupied Germany.

When the British authorities were alerted in the late 1940s that List had turned up in a prisoner of war camp, officials responded that he had been handed over to the Russians in 1947 and “no further action need be taken.” List was still living in West Germany in the 1970s and is believed to have died in the 1980s.

Illustrative: A German soldier guarding the Atlantic Wall in the Channel Islands during WWII. (Getty images/iStock)

Klebeck was prosecuted and convicted in a British military court in 1947 for war crimes carried out in a German concentration camp during the closing months of the war. He was released in 1952. British parliamentary pressure for Klebeck — who was supposedly responsible for feeding and clothing Sylt’s inmates — to answer for his crimes on Alderney was rebuffed and he died in Hamburg in 2004.

And Alderney’s commandant, Carl Hoffman, remained in British hands at the “London Cage” prison camp in Kensington, west London, until 1948 when he was released and returned to West Germany. He died in Hamburg in 1974. Meanwhile, rumors were allowed to circulate that Hoffman had been executed by the Soviets in Kyiv in 1945. As The Observer reported last month, only in 1983–– when this lie had been exposed in its pages by Jewish journalist Solomon Steckoll — did the British government finally admit the truth about Hoffman’s evasion of justice.

Noting that Britain takes the chair of IHRA in 2024, Roberts said it runs the risk of being accused of “Holocaust hypocrisy” if it doesn’t come clean about its actions after the war.

“The British Government needs to finally disclose all remaining close intelligence files on the Holocaust on British soil and to account for the way in which it covered up German war crimes, gave leading war criminals and SS men who operated on Alderney protected witness status and eventually allowed them to walk free from British and American captivity,” he said. At stake, Roberts believes, is “a wider issue of justice and moral reparation.”

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