La Houge Bie and the Jersey War Tunnels, in the Channel Islands
The long dark tunnel echoes with the eerie sound of spades and hammers striking bare rock, and somewhere in the distance the boom of exploding shells makes me jump. I’m inside the cavernous Jersey War Tunnels, which were excavated with picks and shovels by starved and maltreated slave labourers transported to the Channel Islands during the war. This place makes me shiver, and it’s not just from the cold. It feels as if I’m breathing in the suffering of the thousands who toiled here during the occupation.
A little further on, I look into a room where a long mess table is littered with plates. In the ghostly recorded soundscape I hear bursts of laughter, glasses clinking in drunken toasts, and German voices singing “Lili Marlene”. Although the room is empty, the unwashed beer glasses and army jackets draped on the back of the wooden chairs give the creepy impression that the officers have just stepped out for a moment and will soon return.
On the wall, a notice from German headquarters advertises a dance to be held on April 5, 1941 at West Park Pavilion “for German soldiers who will be pleased to welcome their friends as usual. Admission 6d. Curfew at midnight.” That makes me wonder about the Jersey girls who danced with the enemy, and about life here during the war. Who resisted and who colluded? Do people still whisper of what their neighbours did back then?
Yesterday’s tragedies become today’s tourist attractions, and that’s the case with this subterranean museum, which commemorates life during the dark years of the occupation and illuminates the painful past that lies beneath the deceptively innocent landscape of this beautiful island.
Jersey was the only part of the United Kingdom to be occupied by Germany during the war, and although it was not defended by Britain, the ratio of invaders to civilians here was the highest in Europe. The tunnel galleries now trace the course of the occupation, from the shock and humiliation of invasion, to the repression and starvation of the last months. Oral histories of those who lived through it give a chilling picture of life when the shops were empty, food was scarce, fishing was prohibited, radios were confiscated, and the slightest transgression was punished by imprisonment or deportation.
The exhibits also explore the moral dilemma of the islanders by posing challenging questions that invite visitors to put themselves in their shoes. “Would you let a nice German soldier buy your child an ice-cream? He misses his family – would you take him home?”
Some people did. Like the girls who consorted with Germans and were denounced as “Jerry bags” and ostracised. But there were genuine romances, too. I pause at the tragic story of 18-year-old Alice who fell in love with a German soldier. When he decided to desert, she hid him from the authorities, but their secret was discovered and they were both sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to imprisonment, and as they dragged him away to be shot, she was seen waving a tear-stained hankie from her prison cell.
It seems Jersey was a microcosm of occupied nations: while the majority learnt to coexist with the enemy, some resisted, while others informed on their neighbours. An anonymous letter is displayed in one of the galleries: “Why has Jack of Great Union Road got one ton of anthracite coal and a stock of food in his cupboards, when I have none?” Some islanders denounced others for sheltering escaped slave labourers. That happened to Louisa Gould, who was betrayed and deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp where she died.
All this was not so long ago. “I remember seeing long columns of Russian prisoners shuffling along, filthy, dehumanised, being prodded and yelled at by guards,” our guide, Bob le Sueur, says the following day, at the memorial dedicated to Jersey’s slave labourers and forced workers. One of the islanders who helped to hide Russian slave labourers, Bob has received an MBE for his humanitarian work. In blue jeans and a red sweater, he looks far younger than his 90-plus years, with a strong voice, an energetic walk, a hearty laugh and bright blue eyes that twinkle with fun. Bob was part of a network of courageous people who risked their lives sheltering escapees. A compelling raconteur, he tells us his wartime story as we descend below ground again, this time into the German bunker that has become a memorial to their cruelty.
It is chilly down here, and as we wander from one part of the bunker to another, I’m distressed by the recollections of the prisoners who have left messages on the walls. A 14-year-old Polish worker described how dead bodies of labourers were carried, several to a box, and dumped in the harbour. On one wall I see a photograph of Louisa Gould, the woman deported for hiding a Russian prisoner. “My son was missing in action, and I had to do something for another woman’s son,” she had told a friend.
It’s a relief to emerge into the light again, and watch small red squirrels scampering along the grass and scaling the trunks of the oak trees. But our below-ground ventures within Jersey’s landscape are not yet over, and our next journey takes us much further back in time.
Bob leads us to a site erected about 6000 years ago. This is La Hougue Bie, one of the most remarkable Neolithic structures in the whole of Europe. I step through the small entrance at the foot of the massive mound. Walking along the narrow passageway lined with gigantic slabs of stone, I’m astonished how smooth they feel. They were polished by the men who erected this ritual site, Bob explains. On either side of the passage are recesses where chieftains may have been buried. The passage widens at the end into a tiny area that resembles a small altar, and I marvel at the fact that this ceremonial site lay undiscovered for 5000 years. A student poking around the mound about a hundred years ago came across a stone slab, and his discovery led to the excavation of this remarkable site.
The fact that I’m standing in the largest and best-preserved passage grave in Western Europe, built 1000 years before the Pyramids, is mind-boggling enough, but Bob has another surprising fact up his sleeve. This ceremonial site was astronomically aligned to the sunrise during the spring solstice.
With an orator’s sense of drama, he describes the scene here at dawn on March 31 each year. “As the sun begins to rise, its first rays strike the slab leading to the chamber, and then flood the floor with light, until the floor and the entire passage are bathed in a dazzling ribbon of sunlight.”
We emerge from the mysterious ritual site and climb the wildflower-spangled slope towards the mediaeval chapel on the summit of the Neolithic mound. There are actually two chapels here, the oldest of which, the Jerusalem chapel, became a pilgrimage site. Bob chuckles wickedly as he recalls the trick that the dean of this chapel played on gullible pilgrims four centuries ago. He told them that if the Virgin was pleased with their donation, she would give a sign of approval. They didn’t know he had concealed a small boy behind the statue of the Virgin, and instructed him to make it move if the coin was sufficient.
Coins reveal earlier history, too. For decades Roman and Celtic coins as well as exquisite jewellery have been unearthed all over Jersey, but the latest find is the most astonishing. After searching for buried treasure in Jersey for 30 years, two men recently unearthed 70,000 Celtic gold coins, the largest hoard ever found.
But as we explore Jersey’s rugged coast and picturesque bays, memories of the war are never far away. Just past St Ouen’s Bay, we stop at Faulkner Fisheries for lunch and discover that it is located inside a former World War II German bunker. In the fish shop we select our crab and scallops from tanks where weapons and ammunition were once stored. Even on this spectacular coastline, memories of Jersey’s grim past linger.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "Underground Channel". Subscribe here.