A Nazi concentration camp in the Channel Islands has become the subject of new research into the crimes of the Third Reich in British territory.
Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls and archaeologists at Staffordshire University investigated the living conditions of inmates at the camp of Sylt on the island of Alderney.
The camp – one of two on the island – has not been studied since the end of the war, when a British government report downplayed atrocities there.
Sylt was constructed by the Nazis following the German occupation the Channel Islands in the summer of 1940. British military personnel, along with most of the island’s population, had been evacuated.
Originally intended as a forced labour camp, the prisoners, most of whom were from Eastern Europe, were tasked with building sections of the Atlantic Wall – a system of coastal defences designed to prevent an Allied invasion of the European mainland.
When the SS took over in 1943, Sylt was transformed into a concentration camp – the only one to exist on British soil.
At this time, the camp’s population expanded from around 100-200 prisoners to over 1,000.
In their research, recently published in Antiquity, Professor Colls and her colleagues used noninvasive methods to find out more about living conditions at Sylt.
A mixture of documentary research and geophysical surveys uncovered extremely cramped living conditions for the prisoners, with less than 1.5m2 for each inmate.
‘In my barrack there were around one hundred and fifty men, or perhaps a few more. There were approximately this many in every hut,’ recalls Wilhelm Wernegau, a former Sylt prisoner.
As well as cramped conditions, lice, and general mistreatment led to a typhus outbreak, which may have killed up to 200 prisoners.
The archaeologists also investigated curiosities such as a tunnel running from inside a bath house to outside the camp walls. Electric lighting suggests this tunnel was well used, although no record of its purpose has yet been found – opening the way to further research.
Much of the camp was destroyed by the SS in 1944 after the liberation of France. Alderney, along with the rest of the Channel Islands, were liberated the following year.
This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.
Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls’s research at Sylt on Alderney may encourage MHM readers to learn about the work of the Order of St John / St John Ambulance during the Occupation in Gary Blanchford’s Guernsey’s Occupation Ambulance Service (2013).