The occupation of the Channel Islands in World War II is an often-neglected aspect of the war: here, for the first time, Will Fowler presents an account of life under German occupation peppered with first-hand accounts and details of the political maneuvering behind the scenes. Fowler provides the most comprehensive account of the last German raid of the war: the Granville Raid of March 8th, 1945. The raid was a success, damaging British and American ships taking much-needed coal back to the Channel Islands.
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About the Author
Will Fowler is the author of more than 30 books covering military equipment and from conflicts in the 19th century to operations in Afghanistan and has broadcast on radio and television including the BBC and the Discovery and History channels.
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The Last Raid
The Commandos, Channel Islands and Final Nazi Raid
By Will Fowler
The History PressCopyright © 2016 Will Fowler
All rights reserved.
OPERATION GRÜNE PFEIL: THE INVASION, 30 JUNE 1940
The Channel Islands – in Norman Îles d'la Manche, in French Îles Anglo-Normandes or Îles de la Manche – are an archipelago of British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. They include two separate bailiwicks, that of Guernsey and Jersey, with their respective capitals of St Peter Port and St Helier.
The main islands of the Channel Islands are Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm, the smaller inhabited islands being Jethou, Brecqhou (Brechou) and Lihou; all except Jersey are in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. There are also uninhabited islets: the Minquiers, Ecréhous, Les Dirouilles and Les Pierres de Lecq, also known as the Paternosters, part of the Bailiwick of Jersey; and Burhou and the Casquets, which lie off Alderney. These uninhabited islands can be visited but are a valued nature reserve and secure stopover point for migrating birds.
The Channel Islands were originally part of the Dukedom of Normandy; after 1066, when the Norman prince William conquered Anglo-Saxon Britain, the islands became part of this larger domain. With the passage of time, England won and lost portions of France but the islands remained secure, protected by the fast currents, rocky coastlines and difficult seas that surround them. The advent of steam power in the nineteenth century saw this protection diminished and, with France still the main enemy, forts, barracks and batteries were built to cover the harbours and protect the coastline.
War first came to the Channel Islands on 1 May 1779 when, in support of the American colonists then in rebellion against the British, the French attempted a landing on Jersey at St Ouen's Bay. Early that morning, British lookouts sighted five large vessels and a large number of smaller craft 9 nautical miles off the coast, on a course that made it obvious that they were intent on making a landing. Cutters and small craft supporting the landing fired grapeshot at soldiers of the 78th Regiment Highlanders and Jersey Militia who, together with some field artillery that they had dragged through the sand, had arrived in time to oppose the landing. The defenders suffered a few men wounded when a cannon burst but prevented the landing. The French vessels withdrew, first holding off 3 nautical miles from the coast before leaving the area entirely.
They would be back.
Two years later, on 5 January 1781, a new, more powerful force set out for Jersey. It consisted of 2,000 soldiers in four formations loosely called 'divisions'. Like later commando operations against the islands, the force commander, Baron Phillipe de Rullecourt, was relying on surprise. He held the rank of colonel in the French Army, but was seen in France as an adventurer and the sort of renegade that professional soldiers despise. However, the Baron knew that citizens and soldiers on Jersey would be off their guard celebrating 'Old Christmas Night' on 6 January.
French officers with a more rational approach saw an attack on Jersey as a waste of resources and believed that any lodgement on the island would be short-lived – there would be echoes of this in the assessment by the Chiefs of Staff of Admiral Mountbatten's plans for landings by the British in the Second World War.
Despite this, King Louis XVI was keen to embarrass the British in any way possible and promised de Rullecourt that if he succeeded and captured St Helier he would be promoted to general and awarded the Order of St Louis – better known as the Cordon Rouge because of its distinctive red sash. His second in command was an Indian prince known as Prince Emir, who had been captured by the British during the Anglo-French wars in India. He had been sent to France as a repatriated prisoner of war and remained in French service. Reflecting the attitudes of the times, a British veteran recalled that: 'He looked quite barbarian, as much as his discourse; if our fate has depended on him, it would not have been of the most pleasant; he advised the French General to ransack everything and to put the town to fire and to blood.'
What makes the expedition sound very modern was that it was not officially sanctioned by the French government, and so if it failed it was 'deniable'. Though it had no official backing, funding, equipment, transport and troops were provided by the government. In order to conceal its involvement, the government went so far as to order the 'desertion' of several hundred regular troops to de Rullecourt's forces.
It looked as if the plan might work when 800 men of the First Division landed undetected by the local guard post on the night of 6 January at La Rocque, Grouville. A subsequent trial by the British authorities found that the guards had deserted their post to go drinking. The First Division remained in place during the night awaiting reinforcements. Now the plan began to unravel; 400 men of the Second Division did not make landfall when their ships were lost among the rocks – in British accounts the ships were listed as four transports escorted by a privateer. The winter weather also played a part when the shipping for the Third Division – some 600 men – became separated from the main body and so was unable to land. However, the Fourth Division of 200 men landed early the next morning at La Rocque, bringing the total strength of the French force to only 1,000 – but they still had surprise on their side.
On the morning of 6 January the First Division moved stealthily into St Helier and established defensive positions while the population were still asleep. At 8 a.m. a French patrol entered Le Manoir de la Motte and captured the governor, Major (Maj) Moses Corbet, in bed. De Rullecourt tried to bluff the governor that the French were on the island in overwhelming strength, and threatened to sack the town if the governor did not sign a capitulation. Under the circumstances, Corbet showed considerable moral courage when he said that, as a prisoner, he had no authority and that any signature would be 'of no avail'. However, under pressure from de Rullecourt he eventually signed.
The bluff looked as if it might work when, under escort, Corbet was then pressurised to order Captains Aylward and Mulcaster, the young officers in command at Elizabeth Castle, to surrender. If the castle was secured, St Helier would be under French control. However, not only would Aylward and Mulcaster not surrender, but they opened fire, causing two or three French casualties. The French withdrew.
Though the governor was a prisoner, 24-year-old Maj. Francis Peirson, in command of the garrison at St Peter's Barracks, was beginning to build up a picture of the strength of the invading forces – in modern terminology the information was coming in from 'Humint', or human intelligence: what the locals had seen and heard. Peirson had joined the army in 1772 and was a veteran of the American War of Independence. As he assembled his force at Mont es Pendus (now known more prosaically as Westmount), he knew that his mixed force of regular soldiers and militia had grown to 2,000 men and outnumbered the French two-to-one. He would counter-attack.
In St Helier, the French had camped in the market and positioned captured British guns to cover the likely approaches. Though these guns were a valuable enhancement to their firepower, they had not located the British howitzers that were later to play a significant part in the Battle of Jersey.
Peirson worked fast. He sent the 78th Highland Regiment of Foot, who were part of the Regular Army garrison, to secure Mont de la Ville (now Fort Regent) to block any French withdrawal. When he reckoned they were in position, he ordered the main body to attack. Bluffing, and trying to play for time, de Rullecourt sent the governor to offer capitulation terms, with the threat that if the British did not sign in sixty minutes St Helier would be put to fire and the sword.
He had not reckoned with Peirson and Captain Campbell, commanding the Grenadier Company of the 83rd Regiment of Foot, who simply gave the French commander twenty minutes to surrender.
In Grouville, the 83rd Regiment of Foot had also refused to surrender, and in a somewhat overdramatic but prescient outburst, de Rullecourt is reported to have said: 'Since they do not want to surrender, I have come here to die.'
The French were outnumbered, but would also be outfought. Though they were able to fire the captured cannon once or twice, the British howitzer crew in the Grande Rue directly opposite the market, in the words of an eyewitness, 'cleaned all the surroundings of French'.
If men had not died in the action that followed, the Battle of Jersey would be remembered as a slightly farcical episode. It lasted about fifteen minutes. Many of the British soldiers were so confined in the streets of St Helier that, with no clear view of their enemies, they fired their muskets into the air. Finally, while some of the British regiments, such as the 78th Regiment, 95th Regiment of Foot and South-East, had obviously 'British' titles, the Battalion of St Lawrence and the Compagnies de Saint-Jean sound as if they should have been in the French order of battle.
Using Corbet as an intermediary, de Rullecourt tried bluffing the British commander, saying that the French had two battalions of infantry supported by a company of artillery at La Rocque, only fifteen minutes' march away. Through local intelligence, the British knew the true strength of the French forces. Forty-five elite grenadiers from the 83rd Regiment of Foot held off 140 French soldiers until reinforcements from the South-East Regiment arrived, and this proved to be the tipping point. The French broke, suffering thirty dead and wounded and seventy prisoners. Survivors fled through the countryside, trying to reach their boats, but many were caught.
The fight went out of the French when, through the clouds of gun smoke, they saw de Rullecourt tumble to the ground, hit by a musket ball. Some of the invaders threw down their weapons and ran, but others took up positions in the houses around the market and continued to trade shots.
For de Rullecourt, it was perhaps for the best that his fatal wish was granted and he died from his wounds on 7 January. Earlier, Maj. Peirson, leading from the front, had also been fatally wounded by a sniper in the battle in the square, but his troops, led by Lieutenant Dumaresq, had held their nerve and fought on. Peirson's servant, Pompey, located the sniper and shot him dead. The British took 600 prisoners, who were shipped to England. British Regular Army losses were eleven dead and thirty-six wounded, among them Captain Charlton of the Royal Artillery, wounded while he was a prisoner of the French. The Jersey Militia suffered four dead and twenty-nine wounded.
To forestall similar attacks during the Napoleonic Wars, Martello2 Towers were constructed along the coast. Twenty were built on Jersey and fifteen on Guernsey. They were intended both as lookouts and gun platforms to prevent landings, and can be found at St Ouen's Bay, St Aubin's Bay and Grouville Bay on Jersey and the northern part of Guernsey. One tower, at L'Etacq on Jersey, was demolished by the German occupation force to give a better field of fire for more modern weapons.
Older fortifications were improved, among the most imposing of which is Castle Cornet on Guernsey, which covers the approaches to St Peter Port. The castle used to be the residence of the governor, and indeed during the last throws of the English Civil War, it was the final remaining Royalist stronghold, having in the process lobbed cannonballs into the town. Partly for that reason, apart from the town church, many of today's buildings are of eighteenth-century origin. It was superseded by Fort George, which was completed in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars.
The castle occupies such a tactically significant location that the Georgians built a barracks and battery close by and incorporated the castle into these defences. In surveying many of the existing fortifications in 1940, the Germans pronounced them tactically soundly positioned and went on to improve them further.
In 1852, Fort Hommet on Guernsey, which had begun as a Martello Tower, was expanded, with additional batteries and barracks, the 24pdr cannon replaced with more powerful 68pdr and 8in shell guns. During the Second World War, the Germans recognised the enduring utility of the site and fortified it further, creating the Stützpunkt (Strongpoint) Rotenstein. They also used Fort Albert on Alderney, Fort George and Castle Cornet in Guernsey, while on Jersey, Elizabeth Castle and Fort Henry found new garrisons.
As with all communities in the United Kingdom, the First World War left its mark on the islands. Some 2,298 young men gave their lives in the conflict from the 12,460 (6,292 from the Bailiwick of Jersey and 6,168 from the Bailiwick of Guernsey) who rallied to the colours. Two islanders would win the Victoria Cross (VC) and 212 decorations for gallantry were awarded to islanders. In the Second World War, islanders would fight and die in both the Merchant Marine and the Armed Forces of Great Britain. For infantry soldiers there was a strong affinity with the English county regiments that were the closest to their home islands, such as the Hampshire and Dorset Regiments.
In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the approximate populations of the Channel Islands were: Jersey, 50,000; Guernsey, 40,000; Alderney, 1,500; Sark, 500.
The islands, known collectively as The States, voted for conscription of men aged 18 to 41, to match the mainland's conscription law. A Defence Corps, the Insular Defence Corps and Royal Guernsey Militia, was formed. In the period known as the Phoney War, the islands made a substantial contribution to the war effort. Guernsey voted £180,000 (the equivalent of £8,533,069 in 2012) towards the cost of the defence of the island, and to do so doubled income tax. In March 1940, Jersey raised a loan of £100,000 (£4,740,594) as a 'first instalment'. In a letter to The Times, Lord Portsea, who would defend the interests of the islands throughout the war, referring to them not as The Channel Islands but The Royal Islands, said that if these figures per head of population were extrapolated to the mainland of Britain they would represent £118 million in 1940.
As in 1914–1918, there seemed to be little threat to the islands following the outbreak of war in 1939. However, with the fall of France following the German invasion in May 1940, the British government decided that the Channel Islands were of no strategic importance and would not be defended. Perhaps through a sense of misguided pride, they decided to keep this a secret from the Germans. So, in spite of the reluctance of the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the British government gave up the oldest possession of the Crown without firing a single shot. The Channel Islands served no purpose to the Germans, other than the propaganda value of having occupied a very small bit of British territory. The two battalions who had been stationed in the islands were withdrawn. The island's two lieutenant governors departed on 21 June 1940 with the last of the British troops.
Interestingly, the reasons for the evacuation of troops from the Channel Islands would be ignored by Mountbatten and Churchill when, later in the war, they began formulating ideas for major raids or even the recapture of the islands. The whole raison d'être for the British decision was that they regarded the Channel Islands as being too difficult to defend from German occupation. In coming to this decision, the British government took into account:
1. Difficulties of maintaining supply lines from England, which they knew would be subject to disruption by German sea and air attacks.
2. The likelihood that British garrisons would ultimately have to surrender the islands due to lack of supplies and the propaganda this would provide Germany.
3. Maintaining garrisons on the islands would tie up manpower needed for the war effort, manpower which could be better employed defending England.
4. The likelihood that actively defending the islands would have resulted in German military attacks, causing significant loss of civilian life.
Excerpted from The Last Raid by Will Fowler. Copyright © 2016 Will Fowler. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Operation Grüne Pfeil: The Invasion, 30 June 1940 13
2 Occupation, Resistance and Deportation, 1940-45 28
3 Inselwahn: Island Madness, 1941-44 42
4 Commandos and Raiders, 1940-45 50
5 Operations Anger and Ambassador, 15 July 1940 61
6 The Aftermath of Operations Tomato and Ambassador, 15 July-21 October 1940 70
7 Operation Dryad, 3 September 1942 79
8 Operation Branford, 7 September 1942 86
9 Operation Basalt, 3-4 October 1942 89
10 Attaboy, Blazing, Constellation, Concertina, Coverlet and Condor: The Raids that Never Were 104
11 Operation Huckaback, 27-28 February 1943 113
12 Operation Hardtack 7, 25-26 December, and Hardtack 28, 29-30 December 1943 117
13 By Air and Sea, 1940-45 127
14 Siege and Survival, 1944-45 141
15 Endgame: Kommando-Unternehmen Granville, 8-9 March 1945 162
Appendix I Fortification Order of 20 October 1941 194
Appendix II Operation Dryad Orders 196
Appendix III The Commando Order 203
Appendix IV Order of Battle of 319th Division 206
Appendix V Nestegg Report 208
Appendix VI Articles of Surrender 214