Review – Nazi Prisons in the British Isles: political prisoners during the German Occupation of Jersey and Guernsey 1940-1945

2 mins read
Gilly Carr
Pen & Sword Archaeology, £25
ISBN 978-1526770936
Review Iain Banks

This is a welcome addition to the literature on confinement, a topic that has developed from a little-studied phenomenon into one of most vibrant areas within the subdiscipline of Conflict Archaeology. Gilly Carr has been a part of this through her work on the Channel Islands during the Second World War. She has been investigating Lager Wick, a forced labour camp on Jersey, and has many publications on the impact of WWII on the Channel Islands.

This new book examines the prisons used by the Occupation forces to imprison Channel Islanders who were considered to be political threats. Some of these people (men and women) had committed criminal acts of sabotage, theft of military materials, plotted assassinations, and so on. Others were imprisoned for being vocal in their opposition to the Occupation, for black marketeering (which seemed to cover any exchange of goods, including acts of charity), or for refusing to obey the orders of the occupiers.

The prisons on Jersey and on Guernsey were used to hold prisoners while they were interrogated/ tortured, before being either held for the duration of their sentence (if less than six months) or while awaiting transfer to prison facilities or concentration camps in France or the German Reich. The picture is complicated by the fact that both prisons were run as joint entities between the Island authorities and the Occupation force, so that there were areas of the prisons under German military control and others under Islander civil authority. Conditions varied between the two, although none was particularly pleasant.

Dr Carr’s book does an excellent job of pulling together the available sources that reveal the nature and events of life in these prisons. The material is scattered across a variety of locations, and Dr Carr has worked wonders in drawing it together. She is able to present a coherent account of prison life, drawing the distinctions between the military sections and the civilian sections very well, while demonstrating the differences that class and status made in the treatment of prisoners.

Her job is easier in Jersey, where the material is more plentiful, but more difficult in Guernsey, where the sources for any aspect of prison life are scarcer; this is not a fault of the author but of the available material. She is also faced with the fact that the physical remains are problematic as both prisons have been demolished. As a result, there is no chance of looking for graffiti or other tangible traces of the inmates, there are only records made when the buildings were destroyed. It means that the book is far more historical than archaeological, although it is informed by an archaeological perspective.

There are always criticisms to be made, though frequently this comes down to the author not having written the book that the critic wanted. In this case, my main criticism is that the book assumes a lot of prior knowledge as there is little explanation of Channel Island institutions or procedures, while I was also left with a lot of questions. What happened to the warders and governors of the prisons after liberation? They could certainly have been accused of collaboration. How did the factional nature of the prisoners correspond to the Island population, did it have a lasting impact, and was it involved in the reluctance that the Islanders had in discussing the war for decades after it ended? Most of all, I wanted to know the full story of Lucy Schwob – an avant-garde artist who actively worked as part of the resistance in Jersey and one of the most intriguing individuals in the book.

This is a fascinating work, both academic and approachable, and an excellent springboard for further work on the Channel Islands during the Second World War.

This review appeared in CA 371To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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