Jersey’s history is rich thanks to its position in the Channel between two worlds. The island has been fought over for centuries and the traces are there for everyone to see–castles, Napoleonic towers, forts and German bunkers dot the landscape. Jersey Heritage has done wonders to highlight and preserve this military landscape (as well as the heritage and culture of the island in general). If you arrive by ferry, one of the first things you see as you approach Saint Helier is Elizabeth Castle and it is here that we started our second day’s adventures!
Elizabeth Castle guards the entrance to Saint Aubin’s Bay. If you look across the bay, you can see another part of Jersey’s military past, Saint Aubin’s Fort, on the other end. Elizabeth Castle is packed with 300 years of history. Construction began in the late 16th century while Sir Walter Raleigh was Governor. He named the castle for Queen Elizabeth I. The castle came into its own slightly later as a military site during the English Civil War. King Charles II sought refuge here and the fort was eventually bombarded and occupied by parliamentary forces. You can walk out and “occupy” the castle at low tide.
At high tide, the site is only accessible via amphibious castle ferry! We got to take the castle ferry–I think it’s safe to say that we loved it as much as the girls. You get the ferry on the beach by the Castle ticket booth. Elizabeth Castle participates in the Jersey Pass scheme, otherwise, admission is 9.50£. The castle is open from 10-17:30 daily from April-early November. If you’re taking the ferry, regardless of whether or not you’re using the Pass, there is an addition 3£ charge. Young children are admitted for free for both the ferry (you must ask for a free ferry ticket) and the castle. The ferry drove down the beach, into the water and finally started sailing us to Elizabeth Castle all the while playing adventure music–we listened to the themes from James Bond and Mission Impossible! The ferry-bus leaves you in front of Elizabeth Castle by the entrance gate. I think Elise would have been happy to spend the day driving/sailing back and forth between the castle and the shore. We left our strollers by the ticket kiosk, however, we saw several families with strollers on the island. While there are steps (especially in the Mount), the majority of the site is stroller friendly.
Proof of the site’s strategic value, the Germans left their mark all over the island including right in the heart of Elizabeth Castle. The castle mount is crowned by a German Observation and Fire Control tower with a 20mm anti-aircraft gun position on top! Almost immediately upon entering, you can see where slave labors installed tracks and an underground storage area for a searchlight used at the Northeast Bastion. As you continue walking along the site, there’s even a bunker that you can go inside and explore. Laura and Elise preferred staying outside and checking out the (older) 18th century cannons on display. From May to September, the castle hosts living history which seek to bring 18th century garrison life alive. The entire castle area is full of signs explaining the evolution of the castle over the years. While mainly in English, the signs also contain brief French versions. There is an artillery display inside the parade ground barracks. I found the displays well-done, however, I was far more interested in the café upstairs! We visited on a cold, foggy morning and the prospect of a hot drink was more than welcome. The café serves light meals and snacks for hungrier visitors. Bathrooms facilities, including a baby changing area, are also available here.
Warmed by our drinks, we continued our visit and headed to the Upper Ward. Elizabeth Castle is a very elongated site. When you finally reach the German Observation tower, you can look back and see the entire castle as well as Saint Helier and the harbor. You will also see the island’s trash incinerator. If you look at the thumbnail picture on the right, you’ll see a tower and ugly square building on the other side of the harbor. I’m sure there must be a good reason for building such a modern eyesore right in the center of the port area but it escapes me. I decided to mention it as it’s definitely not in the tourist brochures and you can’t miss seeing it–we spent our first day on the island wondering what it was before I finally asked someone. If you want to build your day around a military theme, eat lunch in town and then take the bus to the German tunnels in the countryside (Bus 8 to the Jersey War Tunnels from Liberation Station).
For an in-depth look at Jersey during World War II and the German Occupation, head to the Jersey War Tunnels. The old German Underground Hospital is now a museum detailing life on the island before and during WWII. The Jersey Pass is accepted here as well. If you don’t have the pass, adult tickets cost £11.20. Children under 7 are free. The Tunnels are open daily from 10-18:00 from March-November. While we took Laura and Elise with us, the museum is not child-friendly and they were not interested in the exhibits and Elise quickly fell asleep. It is stroller and wheelchair accessible. If you have small children who sleep in their strollers, time your visit for their nap time and everyone will enjoy themselves. Bring a sweater or a coat with you–it is cold inside! We started our visit wearing just the basics and left with cold hands wearing our coats and scarves!
Originally created as an ammunition depot, the tunnels were converted into a hospital as the war drew on. Parts of the tunnels have also been restored and decorated to reflect their original roles (operating room, communications, etc.). Organisation Todt’s slave labor workforce of Russians, Poles, Frenchmen and Spaniards all helped blast, clear and build the tunnels. The Russian workers were considered sub-human by the Germans and treated accordingly–many died of malnutrition and abuse over the course of the war. Many islanders tried to help these men in spite of German orders, some were even honored by the Soviet government after the war for their efforts.
One of the neat things about the tunnels is the effort made to incorporate oral histories into the exhibits. Listening to a man talk about how his Mother fed a Russian slave laborer who was foraging for food off of her own plate and then how the prisoner came back later with sandwiches to say “thank you” was one of the most moving moments of our visit for me. While oral history is subject to the problems of human memory, it does provide a very direct and personal connection to the past that documents and other artifacts do not always succeed in conveying.
In 1939, Jersey’s population was approximately 50,000 strong. (For comparison’s sake, 85,000 people call Jersey home today.) Most residents were born and bred islanders, many spoke Jersey French. In addition, there were also British-born residents who had moved to the island for health or tax benefits. The exhibit starts with a timeline comparing island life with events in Europe–you can watch the war draw nearer even as the islanders found it “far away.” The fall of France brought the war to the Channel Island’s doorstep–they helped with the evacuation of British troops from Saint Malo!
Churchill decided that the Channel Islands would “not repeat not be defended by external invasion by sea or air.” Islanders had less than 24 hours to decide if they wanted to be evacuated to the United Kingdom or stay and live under Nazi German rule. As you read the displays and look at the pictures, video taped oral histories play. I liked the first hand accounts–most of the speakers were children during the war and their memories add to the exhibit’s power. Some islanders changed their minds at the last-minute and returned home to find their houses ransacked and belongings stolen–by their fellow islanders, the Germans had yet to arrive! The other display which hit an emotional chord was similarly themed–do you resist, do you just try to get by or do you collaborate? How do you interact with your Occupiers? What is the role of the local government vis-vis the occupiers? The exhibits raise these questions from a number of angles including that of Bailiff Coutanche who remained on the island and who had the delicate act of continuing to lead the local government under the Germans. Not everyone sought to resist or escape the island, reading copies of anonymous denunciation letters sent to the German Command and/or Gestapo was a very uncomfortable experience.
Exhibits also deal with deportations, food shortages, and social life/activities during the occupation. A real effort has been made to cover all aspects of occupation life. Not all stories have happy endings and islanders ended up dying in concentration camps across Nazi Europe, others survived but remained haunted by their experiences. While the Allies invaded France on 6 June 1944 and started their march across Europe to victory, the Channel Islands remained occupied! Rather than lose men taking the islands by force, Churchill chose to isolate and starve them into surrender. Food and starvation became a real issue to the German garrison and islanders alike. Eventually Red Cross parcels were allowed in but their distribution was limited to civilians. The British finally liberated Jersey on 9 May 1945, two days after the general surrender on 7 May 1945 which marked the end of the European War. The Tunnels end on the high note of Liberation. It was time to rebuild the trust and lives which had been disrupted for the past five years. I would have liked to learn more about how the island moved on after the war. One of my personal interests is in studying how groups make the transition from war to peace and deal with the aftermath of conflict both on an immediate and generational level. That said, the Tunnels already deal with a substantial period of history and choices must be made.
We left immediately after completing the Tunnels. There is a café and bookstore where you buy your tickets if you wish to spend more time or relax a bit after your visit. If you are using the buses like we were, you need to be a bit more careful with your time. Limited free parking is available to those with cars. Buses run every two hours and you do not want to miss yours! We headed back into town with the sunshine–it was time for the beach and the beauty of today’s Jersey! Looking for “lighter” things to see? Stay tuned…