Social history is a perspective which brings to light aspects of the ebb and flow of our past in illuminating, sometimes unusual ways, and Hitler’s British Isles is one such example. Duncan Barrett, an author who has made his name publishing best-selling work based around the Second World War stories of ordinary people (such as GI Brides or The Sugar Girls), tackles what could be his largest project yet: telling the largely unheralded story of the Channel Islands and how they faced the unthinkable – Nazi occupation for the majority of the war. Is this a story we even know?
The Channel Islands are of course a cluster of British territorial provinces ironically much closer to the northern coast of France than the UK itself, made up of numerous islands and principally the trio of Jersey, Guernsey and Sark. Barrett’s book covers the breadth of this trio of settings (if skewing perhaps more to Guernsey of the two bigger islands) and provides the surprising narrative of what happened to these islanders after Churchill’s government withdrew, aware of the Channel Islands proximity to Nazi-occupied France, and how they very quickly had to adapt to a colonising force many British people had learned to fear.
As you might expect from any good story, the destiny of the Channel Islands is not necessarily one you might imagine given the goose-stepping invaders present, and Barrett draws out stories, anecdotes and recollections—following months of interviewing islanders, some of whom were even around at the time (he talks more about this on the latest episode of STT Rewind)—which paint a picture of these occupied islands as British territories finding the German forces a lot more complicated than merely the fascist villains they have been painted as by history. Barrett’s historical journey suggests many were humans before they were Nazis, and enjoyed a co-existence with the islanders far more convivial than you might believe.
This is not to say the Channel Islanders had an easy ride. Barrett counterbalances brighter, sprightly stories about childish larks, stiff upper lips, redoubtable matriarchs and unlikely romances with the flickering embers of wartime horror; the disturbing fact than the Nazi war machine drafted Slavic ’slaves’ essentially to the islands in order to build defences against the Allies, leading to devastating human rights abuses; innocent British citizens being shipped off for lengthy, unyielding prison stays in occupied France (some of whom never returned home); or the startling reality of German soldiers, quite happy and content to live in peace with the Channel islanders, terrified of being sent to the Russian Front, aware they were going, in all likelihood, to their deaths.
Hitler’s British Isles therefore depicts a charming reality of a war which was both unexpectedly touching and understandably sobering. Barrett’s prose is engaging, non-judgemental and riven with a clear warmth and affection for a set of islands which reveal a beauty and stalwart level of community that the British mainland often finds difficult to capture. It is a book which opens a window to a corner of a conflict which has defined our last century, and the lives of many of our forefathers, that we rarely peer through. Consider taking the view.
Hitler’s British Isles is now available in all good bookshops.