Alderney – Thank God It Isn’t Jersey
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in the September issue of The Abacus
Two thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock.
There were Nazi concentration camps on British soil. The inmates described the Channel Islands as Les Rochers Maudits.
History and Geography
Alderney is the most northerly and third biggest ( three miles long by a mile-and-a-half wide) of the Channel Islands, 60 miles away from the British mainland and 20 miles from the bright lights of Guernsey. The Duchy of Normandy annexed Alderney in 933 AD. In 1042, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (later William the Conqueror, King of the English) granted Alderney to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. After 1204, when mainland Normandy was incorporated into the kingdom of France, Alderney remained loyal to the English monarch as Duke of Normandy. Today, residents of Alderney are subjects of the British Crown, but are not represented at Westminster. Alderney is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union. As of April 2013, there were 1,903 people living on Alderney.
I first took against Jersey when I was actually there but had not intended to be. I was going on a camping holiday to Alderney with a friend and our plan was to travel to Jersey from Weymouth and then get a hovercraft to Alderney.
Unfortunately, there was no hovercraft until the next day and we had no money for accommodation. A Jersey restaurant ripped us off. We tried sleeping on the beach but it was too wet. We tried a shelter in the park but dogs woke us up and we found ourselves wandering the streets at about 5 am A Gestapo-like policeman searched us and threatened to throw us in jail for vagrancy. The TV series Bergerac, which portrayed Jersey as a seething pit of crony corruption and gangsterism, confirmed my view. In more recent years, personal experience of off-shore banking has confirmed in my mind that Jersey is Rip-Off Island.
Alderney was more hospitable. There is a common expression elsewhere in the Channel Islands that Alderney is “two thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock”. Alderney was one of the last places in the British Isles to introduce a smoking ban in pubs, shops and restaurants. Alderney allows people to ride motorbikes without helmets and drive cars without seatbelts. Although peace and quiet attracts elderly people there is, occasionally, a vibrant nightlife. While Jersey hosts offshore banks, Alderney hosts over a dozen gambling website operators. One of these is Full Tilt Poker, which is currently being prosecuted by the US and Canadian governments.
Alderney has two policemen but almost no crime. People do not lock their cars. Because it is quiet and secluded, Alderney has attracted some famous residents, including TH White (The Once and Future King) cricket commentator and poet John Arlott, cricketer Sir Ian Botham, Beatles producer Sir George Martin, actress Dame Julie Andrews.
However, there was something spooky about Alderney. We had thought we would be pitching our tents on a busy campsite. It turned out that ours were the only two tents on a farmer’s rather isolated field, overlooking Saye beach.
One night, something snuffling about outside my tent woke me up. I shone my torch but could not see anything. Another night, I dreamt that there was a small chapel in the field. It was covered in ivy which indicated that no one had gone in or out for a long time. Slowly the ivy began to break as the heavy door painfully creaked open from the inside. My companion told me in later years that he had had the same dream.
Local people liked to scare newcomers with tales of a headless German horseman who was said to haunt the road leading to our campsite. One night, after an evening spent in the pubs of St Anne’s (the only town), circumstances dictated that I had to walk back to the campsite alone. It was a moonless night and at one point, the trees met over the top of the road, forming a dark tunnel. I saw no headless horseman. I survived.
During the Second World War, the Channel Islands were the only part of the British Commonwealth occupied by German forces. In June 1940, around 1500 residents were evacuated from Alderney. The German occupation was a test run for the occupation of Britain.
The Germans built four concentration camps in Alderney, with an estimated population of 6,000. Organisation Todt (OT) was a Third Reich civil and military engineering group named after its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi.
Most OT workers were forcibly recruited, but the real slave workers were citizens of the Soviet Union, mostly from the Ukraine and Jews. OT used forced labour on Alderney to build bunkers, gun emplacements, air-raid shelters and concrete fortifications.
Local people told us that the huge mound beside our campsite had been a German “hospital”. In fact, the campsite is the location of the Lager Norderney camp, which in 1943 was “home” to European slave labourers. Close by is a tunnel from the camp to the beach, which, some allege, was a killing site.
The Germans sent miscreants from other islands to Alderney. This meant that there were witnesses to the brutality. Arbitrary beatings occurred daily for the most trivial reasons such as searching for food in garbage buckets. Witnesses described sadistic games the OT guards played with the prisoners. One set Alsatians on the workers. Another took pot shots out of a window. Prisoners were dragged around until they lost consciousness.
The worst thing was the systemic violence of overwork and starvation. Breakfast was half a litre of ersatz coffee without milk or sugar; lunch half a litre of thin vegetable soup; supper, the same with a kilo of bread between six men. There was systematic corruption by which the Germans deprived the prisoners of their meagre rations. No clothing was issued. The men worked at least twelve hours a day, with a half-hour break, seven days a week.
It is difficult to say with certainty how many perished in the Alderney camps. In his book, The British Channel Islands under German Occupation, 1940-1945, Paul Sanders believes that it is not unreasonable to assume that one third of those who entered the camps died, which mean a death toll of well in excess of 1,250.
Paul Sanders wrote: “Whatever may have been written elsewhere about the exemplary demeanour of German troops in the Channel Islands, in Alderney, an almost imperceptible, yet genuine disintegration of morale took place which found an outlet in corruption, alcohol excess, sexual debauchery and cruelty towards foreign workers.” Officers routinely kept mistresses or “comfort women” and Major Hoffmann opened his own brothel in a quiet corner of the island. On the larger islands, there were routine health checks of prostitutes but on Alderney, VD was out of control.
On their return to their island, Alderney evacuees had little knowledge of the crimes committed on their island during the occupation. They were shocked to see the state of Alderney, with many houses completely derelict. The Germans had used anything wooden as fuel. When evacuee Marion Bates returned in 1945, she noted the absence of birds – Alderney without birdsong suggested that the island had lost its soul. However, the Germans had installed water pipes, electricity and tarmac roads.
The economy has gone from depending largely on agriculture, to the tourism and finance industries. E-commerce has become increasingly important. The residents on Alderney enjoy a 20% income tax rate, and no VAT, inheritance tax or capital gains tax. It is more welcoming than Jersey and Guernsey. Jersey likes no one who is not super-rich and in Guernsey, there are restrictions on incomers buying property. Unlike other Channel Islands, Alderney enjoys an open housing market.
There is a growing stock of commercial property on the island and the States of Alderney are enthusiastic supporters of economic growth. Alderney enjoys a gentle pace of life but still offers a very welcoming environment to dynamic businesses, thanks to high-speed broadband.
The island usually receives about 3,000 visitors a year. There is virtually no entertainment apart from pubs. There is an old-style cinema, which has two weekly showings of films way behind the UK release dates. There are decent places to eat – a choice of Thai, Italian, Indian, pub-grub. Informal dance music events often take place in abandoned bunkers. Families from the mainland come for the white sandy beaches and the dramatic cliff-top walks. ‘Twitchers’ come for the 260 species of birds.
The birds, the soul of Alderney, came back.