Memories of Nazi occupation remain across the Channel Islands
Jersey’s constitutional status – as a self-governing British Crown Dependency – has essentially been unchanged since 1204. The island has, for the most part, enjoyed more than 800 years of autonomy.
Whilst islanders’ loyalty to the Crown has never wavered, our autonomy has historically been subject to occasional interruptions through attacks, invasions, and occupations by foreign powers. The majority of these over the centuries have been by French forces, which is perhaps unsurprising given Jersey’s geographical location and constitutional history.
Thousands of islanders can directly recall the dark days and events of Nazi rule in Jersey
Yet, if someone in Jersey today speaks of “The Occupation”, there is no question they are referring to anything other than the occupation by Nazi Germany from 1 July 1940 to 9 May 1945. In purely historic terms this occupation could be seen as one of several similar occurrences, but for various understandable reasons the impact of the Nazi occupation plays more greatly in Jersey’s consciousness than any other period of occupation the island has endured.
The primary reason is perhaps because the Nazi occupation is still within living memory.
Thousands of islanders can directly recall the dark days and events of Nazi rule in Jersey, whilst many thousands more have heard stories from their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. These are stories of resistance, rebellion, and defiance, but also of struggle, hunger, survival, and deprivation. Indeed the Nazi occupation is by far the best documented period in the island’s history. By contrast, the last attempted French invasion took place in 1781.
The coast of the island is surrounded by fortifications built to keep French invaders at bay. These castles, forts, and towers were either reinforced, or closely accompanied, by Nazi concrete bunkers and gun towers. They remain as a memory of occupation, so we can rightly never forget, and many are maintained voluntarily by the Channel Islands Occupation Society which does an outstanding job in documenting the Nazi occupation and educating islanders and tourists.
These Nazi fortifications, and other networks of bunkers which can be found inland, provide a daily reminder of the suffering faced by so many from 1940 to 1945. Most of these structures were built using slave labour – mainly (but not exclusively) from Russia, Spain, North Africa, and France. Many descendants of those slave labourers live on the island today, keeping alive the memory of what their forebears endured from of one of the most brutal regimes in history – itself a reason why the Nazi occupation takes precedence in our memory over all others.
The legacy of the occupation, and our liberation, can also be seen through monuments around the island, and in place names. We have Liberation Square (where a statue stands of islanders in 1945 proudly holding aloft the Union flag), Liberty Wharf, and Liberation Station, to name a few. Memorials also recognise islanders who were evacuated to the United Kingdom prior to the occupation, those who were deported to Germany by the Nazis, and those who fought in the Second World War.
Each year, 9 May – Liberation Day – is a public holiday, marked by commemorative events across the island.
In memory and appreciation of the life-saving visits from the SS Vega, which delivered vital supplies between December 1944 and June 1945, islanders continue to show affection and support for the work of the Red Cross throughout the world.
Remnants of occupation are also experienced more routinely through day-to-day activities. Many of our sea walls were built during the Nazi occupation and still serve a purpose 78 years later. Young people will occasionally hold “bunker parties” in summer, where they make use of disused Nazi structures.
The experience and memory of occupation has shaped Jersey. As we see people impacted and displaced by conflict across the world, most recently in Ukraine, we cherish and guard more than ever our liberty, freedom, and self-determination. We will never forget what previous generations endured, and their selfless acts, that have enabled us to enjoy nearly 78 years of uninterrupted peace.
Kristina Moore is the chief minister of Jersey.
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