The final fortress

During the Second World War Alderney was at the westernmost edge of Hitler's defences - and the site of a prisoner of war labour camp. Sixty years after VE Day it is coming to terms with its past, says Frank Partridge
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The Independent Travel

Allowing a hint of sentimentality to soften his sonorous tones, Winston Churchill ended his VE Day address to the nation on 8 May 1945 with the words "... and our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today." On Jersey and Guernsey, the broadcast was relayed on loudspeakers to large crowds who had gathered in the two main towns of St Helier and St Peter Port, hardly daring to hope that the German occupation of four years and 10 months was at an end. Wild celebrations broke out - curbed only by the lack of very much to celebrate with.

Allowing a hint of sentimentality to soften his sonorous tones, Winston Churchill ended his VE Day address to the nation on 8 May 1945 with the words "... and our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today." On Jersey and Guernsey, the broadcast was relayed on loudspeakers to large crowds who had gathered in the two main towns of St Helier and St Peter Port, hardly daring to hope that the German occupation of four years and 10 months was at an end. Wild celebrations broke out - curbed only by the lack of very much to celebrate with.

In the event, Churchill was ahead of himself. The two ships despatched to the Channel to take the surrender of the German garrisons reached the islands only on the morning of 9 May, which is why the two main Channel Islands are saving their main victory commemoration until Monday.

This left just one last piece of occupied British soil to be reclaimed: the sandy, sunny little island of Alderney, transformed - on Hitler's command - into "the ultimate fortress", a cornerstone of the Atlantic Wall of German defences stretching from Norway to the Spanish border.

By the summer of 1943, before the tide began to turn against Nazi Germany, Alderney was better defended than the coast of France. Crammed into its 2,000 acres of heathland and cliff were five coastal artillery and 22 anti-aircraft batteries, 13 strongpoints, 12 resistance nests, and three defensive trenches. Buried in the soil and sand were 30,000 land mines. The occupiers drove their several thousand-strong labour force of Polish and Soviet prisoners of war to the limit of their endurance - and frequently beyond it. Living conditions in the SS and labour camps were dreadful - rations were meagre; the working day lasted up to 16 hours; loss of life was high.

What made it worse was that the miserable endeavour turned out be militarily pointless: as the Allies gained the upper hand, "Fortress Alderney" and the other fortified Channel Islands were simply by-passed. Thousands of troops had to sit and listen to the war unfolding elsewhere.

By May 1945, Alderney was a scarred wasteland of barbed wire and concrete, from which normal civilian life had been eradicated. It was peopled by nearly 3,000 isolated and dispirited German troops and the pathetic remnants of their slave workers. Food reserves were critically low.

The British were in no hurry to relieve it, and it was 16 May before a small force landed at St Anne's harbour to turn the occupiers into prisoners of war and run up a few Union flags. But this was no triumphant "liberation", with cheering crowds and street parties: there was no one to liberate. The six bells of St Anne's Church couldn't ring out, because the Germans had removed them and turned the church into a food store.

So next week, when Jersey and Guernsey relive the joyous events of 60 years ago, there will be no celebrations on Alderney. The islanders will mark their homecoming in their own way, at a time of their choosing. "At the end of the war, Alderney was an absolute mess," says Trevor Davenport, a historian who has scoured every inch of the island to uncover everything the Germans built. "It had effectively been cut off for months. Houses had been ripped apart for their wood. There were some who thought it should be abandoned for good."

It was seven months before the island was considered safe for civilians to return. Supervised by British troops, 500 German POWs had been kept behind to clean the place, helping to remove the mines and the general detritus of a military occupation.

John Sumner, now on the island's government, was 10 when he returned in December 1945. "Most of the houses were intact by then, and some things had definitely been improved. The Germans had installed running water, a power station, and built a coastal road."

Pete Gaudion was another 10-year-old in that first wave of returnees: "We didn't have to go to school for nine months. It was like an adventure playground, full of bunkers and weaponry. Everything a boy dreams about." It would have been no holiday for the adults, of course, but there was little animosity between the islanders and prisoners: "They realised they'd been part of something that was very wrong," John Sumner remembers, "and they were eager to put it right."

A fortnight after the boys returned, Alderney was cut off by bad weather, which meant there would be no Christmas presents or pudding from the mainland. The POWs attempted to cheer everyone up with a carol concert. "That was another thing they gave us," Pete recalls, "a decent cinema and theatre."

A few days before they were shipped to mainland camps, in July 1946, the POWs staged a farewell concert. The programme is on display at the excellent Alderney Museum in St Anne's, and records a suitably improving and Germanic running order of Beet- hoven, Mozart and Haydn.

An adjoining case displays the other side of the story: a lead-weighted club used by SS officers to move the prisoners along; a ragged striped tunic reminiscent of the uniforms of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. It is said that there was no birdsong on the island for years afterwards. In a renowned haven of gulls, gannets and puffins, that's saying something.

In the late 1960s, a golf course was built on an elevated piece of bracken-covered land that runs along the spine of the island. Today, the outline of a trench is clearly visible, along with machine-gun nests and bunkers. Once you know what to look for, they seem to be everywhere - grey, decaying and brutalist, but are as much a part of the island's furniture as the lighthouse and harbour breakwater. Local golfers, faced with certain blind shots, know precisely which distant gun emplacement or observation tower will give them the correct line to the flag. Whereas other places have wrapped their wartime relics in cotton wool, or bulldozed them in the name of progress, Alderney's post-war development has tip-toed around its military landmarks. To some they evoke images of suffering and death, but to those who want to attract more business to the island they represent potential exhibits in a living museum. As the years chase away the ghosts, former eyesores can be presented as historical monuments.

There are plans to restore some forts and coastal bunkers into houses and apartments. On the lonely south-east coast, a half-hidden former communications centre has been converted into a "Countryside Interpretation Bunker". A flight of steps leads to the heavy door that secured the place against a gas attack. The subterranean rooms housed a nine-man crew, who transmitted their signals from an open-air platform, with a direct line of sight to France. Now, the bunker contains wildlife books, and the platform is used by bird-watchers. Twitching would have been one of the few pleasures for the wartime inmates on their interminable watch.

The best view of France, though, is from an inland hillock where the Germans built a large observation tower that resembles a 1930s cinema and is affectionately known as The Odeon. From it, you get an unobstructed view across the sea to the Cherbourg Peninsula, only eight miles away. On a fresh spring morning, when the light is so clear that France seems near enough to touch, it's easy to understand why Hitler made his costly mistake - and visualised Alderney as a natural stepping-stone on his advance towards Britain.

Could the saddest chapter in Alderney's life be turned to its advantage? Certainly, the island appears to have come to terms with its past: visitors are generally more enthralled by the war than the locals. In St Anne's, perhaps the only village in the world with its own airport and parliament, the meat market at Marais Hall has been converted into a pub and restaurant. The owner is a German, Peter Hein, who settled on the island some years ago and has clearly prospered. A banner is draped across the bar, with a clear instruction to drinkers: "Don't mention the war."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Frank Partridge flew to Alderney with Rockhopper (01481 824567; www.rockhopper.aero) from Brighton City airport; flights are daily except Tuesday, from £119 return. The airline also operates direct flights from Bournemouth, Guernsey and Jersey. Aurigny Air Services (01481 822886; www.aurigny.com) flies from Southampton, Stansted, Manchester, Jersey and Guernsey. Between April and September, a high-speed passenger ferry, Hugo Express (01481 822881), calls at Alderney on a triangular route between Guernsey and Dielette, near Cherbourg. Sailing times depend on the tides. The return fare between Guernsey and Alderney is £34.

STAYING THERE

Maison Bourgage (01481 824097; www.maison bourgage.com), St Anne, opens for the summer on 4 June. Doubles start at £24 including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Alderney Museum (01481 823222; www.alderney museum.org) opens 10am-noon and 2-4pm Monday to Friday; 10am-noon at weekends. Admission is £2.

EATING THERE

Marais Hall (01481 822683), Marais Square.

MORE INFORMATION

Alderney Tourism (01481 822333; www.alderney.net).

Visit Guernsey (01481 723552; www.visitguernsey.com).

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