Alderney: Hitler’s Island of Death

Alderney is a small island in the English Channel off the coast of France. It is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey which is a dependency of the British Crown but is not a part of the United Kingdom. To the people of Alderney the Queen is the Duke of Normandy.

William the Bastard was the first to be both English monarch and Duke of Normandy. After the battle of Hastings, in 1066, he preferred to be known as William the Conqueror.

In 1204 King John of England lost Normandy to King Phillip II of France. In 1259 a formal treaty was signed making Normandy part of France and allowing the then King of England, Henry III, to retain possession of the Channel Islands, which included Alderney, as the Duke of Aquitaine. Edward III granted a charter to Alderney in 1341. This charter was reconfirmed in 1378 and then in 1394 a new charter was granted exempting Alderney from English tolls, taxes and duties for ever.

A form of hereditary governorship evolved and the island prospered by trading, smuggling and privateering. In 1825 John le Mesurier gave up the governorship in return for a pension from the Crown.

Twenty five years later the English were once again worrying about their traditional enemy, the French, who were expanding their harbor in Cherbourg. The British Navy decided to build a harbor in Alderney and realizing that it was vulnerable they added a huge fortification project. With the influx of soldiers and Irish laborers the local population soon became anglicized. The local language, Auregnais, is now extinct and French disappeared when the whole population of about 1,900 was evacuated during the second world war.

The Victorian era fortifications were never tested. The French became allies during the Crimean War and the island was declared “open” to the German invasion in WWII.

Alderney was selected to become part of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall”, a line of fortification stretching from Norway to the Spanish border. Slave and “volunteer” labor was used and Alderney became one of the most fortified places on earth. There were four labor camps, two of which were run by the SS, and held slave laborers. Officially 400 to 700 people died in the camps but in 2017 military historians Colonel Richard Kemp, CBE and John Weigold wrote articles in Britain’s “Daily Mail” claiming as many as 40,000 to 70,000 deaths. Other historians have refuted their claims. None of the camps were extermination camps. Most of the prisoners were Russian. The are 397 known graves and detailed death certificates were sent to St. Malo.

After D-Day, in June 1944, Alderney was cut off from German supply lines. Most of the German troops and prisoners were moved through St. Malo to Germany. About 3,000 were left behind and faced great privation. They could only receive meager supplies from the other German occupied Channel Islands. The allies decided not to invade because of the heavy fortification and the island was not liberated until after the German surrender in May 1945. The abandoned Germans stripped the houses of their wood for fuel. Wildlife was hunted mercilessly.

When British forces arrived in May 1945 they met devastation. Farmland was covered in concrete, houses ripped apart, 37,000 mines and 65,000 yards of barbed wire had been laid. 500 German soldiers were kept on the island for cleanup and repair. The UK government was in two minds about allowing the evacuees to return but in December they agreed.

All records had been destroyed and so families were given keys and were told which house was now theirs. Furniture was redistributed in a novel way. It was placed in the middle of a field with the islanders lined up on the edges. When everyone was in place a British Major nodded to his sergeant to blow his whistle and the mob rushed to the prize and carried whatever they could back to their homes. This became known as the “Battle of the Butes”.

For two years the island was run as a communal farm with taxes being paid to the Bailiwick of Guernsey for services and to the British government for the repairs they had made.

Today Alderney is a peaceful place whose main industries are tourism and online gambling.

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