VERY SOON the Second World War will be something that happened in the previous century and for most visitors to Jersey those years of global conflict are either a very distant memory or just pages in a history book. Nevertheless, for the people of Jersey, the Second World War was a unique and harrowing experience for, during five long years, the Channel Islands were the only British soil to be invaded and occupied by German forces.
Like invaders down the centuries before them, the forces that occupied Jersey in the 1940s have left an indelible mark not just on the history of the Island but also on its landscape.
The most fascinating is undoubtedly the vast underground hospital created by the occupiers when Allied invasion seemed imminent in 1944.
It takes just a few steps into the German Underground Hospital to realise just what a feat of engineering was achieved by forced labourers who were marched from every corner of conquered Europe.
A chill is apparent within moments of entering the echoing entrance tunnel. This is no fabrication, no late twentieth century theme park fantasy.
This is the real thing. Hewn in human misery.
Within yards of the entrance is a section of bare, splintered rock face where a simple plaque records that:Under these conditions men of many nations laboured to construct this hospital. Those who survived will never forget; those who did not will never be forgotten.In October 1941 Berlin ordered that the Channel Islands be made into 'impregnable fortresses' to become Germany's Gibraltar, never to be surrendered. Work began at once to create an underground fortress where an entire army division could be protected from any assault from sea or air.
One such excavation were the tunnels that became the Underground Hospital.
Planned as a bombproof artillery barracks and ammunition store, this amazing complex was never completed, being converted into a casualty receiving station (because of its central location in the Island) in the weeks leading up to D-Day. As Allied invasion loomed, unfinished tunnels were sealed off and sophisticated (for their day) air-conditioning and central heating systems were installed behind massive gas-proof doors.
The kilometre-long tunnels and galleries were blasted out of brittle shale with gunpowder and handtools and then clad in 6,000 tonnes of concrete, which was poured behind wooden shuttering, removed once the mix had set.
Hundreds of forced labourers rounded up by the Organization Todt in France and including refugees from Spain and Morocco, were augmented by Polish and Russian prisoners of war who were treated no better than slaves and dressed in rags. These workers toiled for twelve hours a day, like ants in an underground hell of dust, smoke and falling rock. Serious injury was commonplace with injured workers being pulled from the rockfaces to be replaced by more unfortunates. Surprisingly there were few fatalities; it is believed that less than ten workers and overseers were killed in explosions or cave-ins.
The tunnels are a work of engineering genius. The whole complex was excavated on a slope so that, by an ingenious arrangement of pipes and culverts, it would drain naturally, a system designed to keep the tunnels free of damp and condensation and suitable for storing ammunition. The system still functions today keeping the tunnels, despite their age, amazingly dry.
Fortunately the anticipated invasion (which could have cost thousands of civilian casualties who would not have been catered for in the underground facilities) never took place and the Islands' occupying forces surrendered peacefully on 9 May 1945, a day after the rest of Europe.
Since the 1960s the complex has been progressively and sensitively restored as the definitive museum of the German Occupation of Jersey in a unique setting.
Careful and accurate reconstruction of many of the areas within the Hospital - the operating theatre, doctors and nurses' quarters, wards, offices, stores and several unfinished tunnels - bring to life, with chilling realism, the experience of those who suffered appalling hardships to build the tunnels and offer a glimpse of the subterranean twilight lives of those it was constructed for.
Rare and irreplaceable wartime archive film, much of it shot at enormous personal risk, and one of the largest collections of Occupation memorabilia displayed in a unique environment, bring the experience of thousands of Islanders caught up in war vividly to life.
An exhibition of memorabilia and ephemera assembled by retired curator Joe Miére - who as a teenager was imprisoned by the German secret police for acts of terrorism - poignantly highlights the drama and tragedy of an Island people torn out of their peaceful existence and flung into the turmoil of world war and face-to-face with an enemy literally at the door.
Adjacent to the Hospital, and still largely untouched since the Liberation, is an area to intrigue walkers and military historians alike. Heavily fortified with anti-aircraft gun positions, crawl trenches, barbed wire entanglements and personnel shelters, since the Liberation the area has been in private ownership and has remained an untouched habitat for trees, plants and wildlife.
The area is now open (without any admission charge) for walkers and Occupation buffs to stroll along well defined and obligatory footpaths.
The German Underground Hospital and adjacent Sanctuary Visitor Centre and Restaurant are at Meadowbank, Les Charrieres Malorey, St Lawrence, JE3 1FU Tel: 01534 863442, Fax: 01534 865970 and are open daily from mid-March until early-November from 9:30 am (with last admission at 4:15 pm) and from mid-November to mid-December on Thursday and Sunday afternoons.
Last updated: 11th February 1999 by JerseyWeb