Alderney's entire population was evacuated in 1940 as Adolf Hitler's forces closed in. What happened next is still largely a mystery.
Across Europe, on May 8, 1945, millions were in jubilant celebration, as citizens gathered in the bombed-out streets of cities and war-torn towns to mark the end of six years of war. But in the British coastal city of Plymouth, a group of British soldiers remained confined to barracks.
They were the soldiers of Force 135, and despite the German capitulation on May 7, 1945, at Reims, their war was not over. On May 9, at the crack of dawn, the two artillery regiments would sail south across the English Channel to liberate the Nazi-held Channel Islands.
The Channel Islands had been occupied in July 1940, the only British territory ever to fall into Nazi hands. On the morning of May 9, 1945, despite the Allied landings in Normandy, the death of Hitler, the fall of Berlin, and the Nazi surrender at Reims, they remained under German control.
Lieutenant Colonel Martiew, who commanded a platoon of 32 men, recalled in an account given in the 1980s that Force 135 had no idea what kind of resistance they would meet in the Channel Islands, which had been heavily-fortified during the five years of Nazi occupation.
“We all hoped that all itinerant U-Boat Commanders had heard about VE Day,” Martiew wrote, in an account obtained by Alderney-based historian Trevor Davenport and shared with Euronews.
Force 135 encountered little resistance from the Germans on the two largest islands, Jersey and Guernsey, which were liberated on May 9, nor on Sark, freed a day later. Martiew recalled “a beautiful morning” in Guernsey, with “fine and sunny weather” and roads “crowded with people.”
But after a few days bedding down on the dunes in Guernsey, the focus of Force 135 turned north, to the only Channel Island still in Nazi hands: Alderney.
The most isolated and northernmost of the Channel Islands - just eight miles from the Normandy coast and set in some of Europe’s most treacherous waters - almost the entire 1,500 population of Alderney had been evacuated on June 30 1940, days before the Nazis arrived.
Within two years, the island had become a vast Nazi military base, home to four labour camps including SS Lager Sylt, a concentration camp. The island had been heavily-fortified as part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’, a network of defences constructed between 1942 and 1944.
By 1945, an estimated 3,200 German soldiers were stationed on the island and as many as 4,000 prisoners, and since the Normandy landings a year earlier they were largely cut off from the Nazi forces in Europe. Even after the German surrender, Force 135 didn't know what to expect.
“We knew little about Alderney except that all civilians had been evacuated and that the seas around the island could be quite dangerous,” Martiew wrote.
The force sailed north from Guernsey on May 16, over a week since the Nazi surrender. Landing on Alderney, Martiew had “an overall impression of greyness, quietness and silence.”
“There was a complete absence of evidence of normal life,” he said.
'Boredom and danger'
Despite his fears, the British force received no resistance from the Nazis still on the island. Subsequently, now as prisoners of war, the Germans were split into three categories, black, grey and white, with the former deported immediately and the latter two groups retained to help clear the island of mines.
It was dangerous work and living cheek-by-jowl with the enemy made it a psychological as well as physical challenge for the young soldiers, Martiew recalled. The men of Force 135 were even dependent on former Nazi doctors for medical treatment and even dental care.
“It is difficult to describe the effect produced by a completely deserted island – empty, characterless houses, an empty cathedral [...] There was boredom and danger,” he wrote.
Over the next seven months, both the British and the German prisoners of war worked to prepare the island for the return of the civilian population. Minefields were cleared, houses were rebuilt, the town of St Annes and its church were restored.
The soldiers and the POWs lived separate lives, Martiew recalled, with their own cooks, barbers and tailors, and each organising concerts and shows. But the sense of isolation was shared, and perhaps even more acute for prisoners with no sense of when they might be released.
“It was necessary to remember that they too might be feeling the isolation of Alderney and so we played them at football and encouraged them to organise their own activities,” he said.
Finally, on December 15, the islanders returned, steaming into the harbour as the British laid on a Guard of Honour. The soldiers headed south to Guernsey while the POWs were shipped to the UK, although a handful remained, marrying local women and settling down in Alderney.
Finally, in June 1946, Martiew - who had been the first British officer to land on the island in May 1945 - was the last one to leave, aboard a fast launch for Guernsey, 41 kilometres away.
Despite the work of Force 135, the locals that returned in December 1945 found their island altered beyond recognition, its windswept landscape peppered with heavy gun-batteries and concrete bunkers that burrowed deep into the fields, hills and cliffs.
As in Jersey and Guernsey, also heavily-militarised, residents of Alderney live among these relics of Nazi occupation to this day, constant reminders of a dark chapter of the island’s history.
But of all of the former Nazi sites in Alderney - if not in the entire Channel Islands - it is SS Lager Sylt that remains the most contentious. Built by the Organisation Tolt in 1942, it held Soviet prisoners of war, German political dissidents and around 400 European Jews.
Surrender, not liberation
Little remains of the camp today, other than three stone pillars that mark its entrance gate and few foundations. In 2008, the local authorities unveiled a plaque on one of the pillars paying tribute to “some 400 prisoners” that died at SS Lager Sylt between 1943 and 1944.
British academic, Caroline Sturdy Colls, has claimed that the true number of deaths on Alderney was far higher.
In her 2019 documentary 'Adolf Island', she used forensic research to estimate the death toll at SS Lager Sylt at closer to 700. She also accused the government of the island of attempting to cover up what happened during the Nazi occupation.
Colls did not respond to requests for comment by Euronews.
Davenport, who is president of the Alderney Society and has written a book on German WW2 defences on the island, says that the new claims are “complete bunkum”.
“By trying to exaggerate things [it] denigrates from the poor bastards that did die over here and were treated so abysmally,” he said. “The story itself is bad enough: why try and exaggerate it?”
Despite it being Alderney’s official liberation day, May 16 is not an event on the island in the same way as it is on May 9 in Jersey and Guernsey and May 10 in Sark. Islanders mark December 15 as well as June 30, when the population was evacuated ahead of the Nazi invasion.
“There is no celebration because we weren’t liberated, there was nobody to liberate,” said Davenport. “It was a surrender.”