Their foreboding entrance smothered in ivy, the tunnels gouged out of sheer rock beside Water Lane on the island of Alderney have long terrified generations of the island’s children.
For decades, though, it seemed that was as far as the notoriety of the dank tunnels on the outskirts of St Anne, the capital of the tiny Channel Island, would extend.
That is about to change. An official government inquiry into the full horrors of the Nazi occupation on Alderney, revealed last month by the Observer, has vowed to investigate all new evidence of atrocities, including the grisly Water Lane tunnels where, it is claimed, huge numbers of slave labourers died in their making.
In the months ahead, the inquiry will gather new details of hitherto secret grave sites and mass Jewish burial grounds that, collectively, are likely to redraw the geographical reach of Hitler’s “final solution”.
But not everyone on the island is happy that Alderney’s dark secrets may finally be uncovered. On one side are those relieved it will finally expose how the British government perpetrated an elaborate cover-up to suppress the extent to which Nazi atrocities were perpetrated on its soil. But then there are those who say claims of a cover-up are pure fantasy; that the past should be left to fade away.
Alderney businessman Michael James, 60, is among those who believes Britain is about to face an ugly truth. The treatment of Jewish prisoners on the island, he says, means British exceptionalism is a falsehood: the Holocaust happened on British territory.
“People have to accept the unpalatable truth. The Holocaust happened on our soil. We shouldn’t be frightened of it,” he says, gesticulating at an overgrown meadow that 80 years ago was an SS-run concentration camp.
Others visibly bristle at the mention of the Holocaust and what was once dubbed “Adolf island”. Trevor Davenport, the director of Alderney’s museum, seethes when the Observer raises the issue at his home, a few fields from one of the island’s four Nazi camps. Pointing to the fact that just eight Jews are officially recorded as dying on Alderney, Davenport said linking the Holocaust to Alderney is a “step too far”.
And he accuses Sir Eric Pickles, the UK’s Holocaust envoy leading the inquiry, of “wokeism”.
Yet many believe hundreds, possibly thousands, of Jews may have died on Alderney; and that the UK government subsequently suppressed the death toll to bury an unpalatable truth.
Last Monday the inquiry to determine the exact number of people who died in Alderney during the Nazi occupation, unveiled a website where the latest research into the atrocities will be displayed. Already two military authors – whose work claims the true death toll of labourers on Alderney is at least 100 times greater than the official total of just under 400 – have said they will be submitting evidence.
Above the surging sea and the white crescent of Saye Beach, stands the imposing buttress of Fort Albert. Below the German gun emplacement is a hillside suspected to contain one of Alderney’s secret mass graves.
Last summer Marcus Roberts, the founder of Anglo-Jewish heritage organisation JTrails, revealed he obtained a rare second world war aerial reconnaissance photo from an islander. Roberts used it to identify apparent mass graves. The site was near to SS execution sites and close to where French Jews had built bunkers and gun positions.
“It is possible that French Jews still lay undetected and unremembered at this site. Alderney as yet has not given up all its grim horrors and secrets,” said Roberts.
The suspicion that grisly secrets have still to be dug up appears to be shared by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). A communique from the IHRA sent in February to Alderney’s government cites the suspected mass grave at Fort Albert as among possible “killing sites” it suggests it be examined using crime scene techniques.
The communique adds: “Questions still remain, in particular, about where the vast number of victims were buried.”
Another mass grave, a kilometre from Fort Albert, is also believed to lie on common land close to the sea and, according to James and Roberts, is visible on a separate wartime surveillance photograph.
With the island largely evacuated before the Nazis’ arrival, a pivotal witness to subsequent events was George Pope. One of the few to remain on Alderney during the occupation, Pope identified an open grave on Longy Common “where approximately 200 to 300 Jews were buried”.
Before his death, Pope wrote: “Roughly 1,000 to 1,200 people, Russians and Jews, have been murdered on the island.”
Between these two unexplored mass burial sites lies a bucolic campsite whose holidaying families are almost certainly oblivious to the fact it was once a Nazi labour camp called Norderney – one of four on the island, including an SS-run concentration camp called Sylt.
Records show that hundreds of French Jews were housed at Norderney after arriving from the Drancy transit camp in Paris.
Surviving witness statements from staff at Norderney’s hospital reveal that during just three months from July 1943, “73 Russians, two Frenchmen and one woman died”.
They added: “Most died of starvation and cold as they lacked clothing and only had sacking round their feet.”
Attempts to determine how many labourers were murdered on Alderney have inevitably prompted claims the government inquiry will become overly obsessed with numbers. Others argue raw, credible data is essential when framing Nazi barbarity.
The current official estimate is that at least 389 forced labourers and prisoners died in Alderney. That number came from British military intelligence officer, Theodore Pantcheff, who was sent to Alderney to investigate. “Crimes of a systematically callous and brutal nature were carried out on British soil,” wrote Pantcheff in 1945.
Witnesses reported bodies being thrown from the harbour breakwater or pushed into a ravine near the ramparts of Fort Albert. Further testimony indicated many prisoners perished through a policy of systematic murder known as Vernichtung durch Arbeit – extermination through labour.
Last week James unearthed a document written by Pantcheff that appears to suggest that labourers may have been sent to Alderney from July 1941, six months longer than previously assumed and opening up the possibility that more labourers than assumed were sent to its brutal labour camps.
Hope exists that the review will unearth key missing documents that have bedevilled attempts to understand the Alderney atrocities.
Nursing a gin and tonic in the Blonde Hedgehog Hotel, former island politician Robert McDowall said: “All the records now need to be released. Everything.”
Among the documents still missing is Pope’s entire account and the crucial observations of brigadier Alfred Snow, who liberated Alderney. Snow’s evidence, in particular, will fill many gaps: what horrors did he come across?
In October 1945, Pantcheff’s full report was sent to Moscow because so many of the dead slave labourers were Russian. There it lay in the archives until 1993. The British copy was believed to have been destroyed. However Davenport revealed last week that he had obtained all of Pantcheff’s papers before MI6 requested and seized them, never to be seen again. He warned those expecting devastating new revelations not to get too excited by their contents. “There’s no smoking gun.”
Without visiting the island, it’s hard to comprehend just how ubiquitous evidence of the Nazi occupation is on Alderney. Concrete ammunition stores double as garden sheds; bomb shelters as storage spaces. Last Wednesday the island staged a huge “bunker party” inside an underground Nazi air raid shelter.
As part of the Pickles inquiry, James wants detailed analysis of precisely how many man hours would be needed to build the island’s immense fortifications. Alderney’s slave labourers were forced to work 12-hour daily shifts on a calorie-deficient diet of thin cabbage soup and bread.
The two military authors, Colonel Richard Kemp and John Weigold, are also hoping the inquiry pays close attention to the number of people required to construct the massive array of German defences. They believe the mysterious tunnels beside Water Lane were intended to house V1 rockets loaded with sarin gas.
Both stand by their dramatic conclusion that at least 40,000 labourers were killed on Alderney after it turned into a vast prison camp to construct Hitler’s so called Atlantic Wall. Kemp and Weigold say that if their dreadfully large total is to be proven wrong then others will have to prove Vernichtung durch Arbeit did not occur on Alderney.
“If that figure is to be discredited it will be necessary for the inquiry to demonstrate that extermination by labour didn’t happen or that conditions were much better than understood,” said Weigold.
He also wants investigators to examine how long a labourer could survive on such a pitiful diet. “Will the inquiry be seeking expert medical opinion to answer that all-important question?”
However Davenport, author of Festung Alderney, a book on the island’s German defences, says the Nazis had already built a number of fortifications before the arrival of foreign labour.
Establishing a sizeable death toll is certain to raise questions over a British government cover-up. Certainly it had a motive to do so. After all, it was responsible for the surrender of Alderney, paving the way for the camps where labourers of 26 nationalities were beaten, tortured and starved.
But some reject any suggestion the government attempted to suppress the full extent of Nazi cruelty. “There is no cover-up,” said Davenport. “Who’s covering it up? I’ve never known anybody covering it up. Am I? I have nothing to cover up.”
Many of his island contemporaries disagree, claiming that attempts to expose the truth might be compromised by the choice of experts appointed to Pickles’s panel.
Nigel Dupont, whose grandfather helped rebuild Alderney after the Nazi occupation and who now lives in a house overlooking a beach lined with a huge Nazi anti-tank wall, said: “Who came up with these experts? We know many of them have preconceived ideas of what happened. How can they have an open mind?”
On Saturday Pickles moved to reassure anyone questioning the integrity of his review, stating that all evidence and reasoning “will be available to public scrutiny”.
The former Tory cabinet minister added: “Everyone will be treated with respect. It is not within the spirit of the review to act prejudicial to anyone. The panel have an established record of high professional conduct. They are the top people on this subject.”
He also moved to allay the concerns of Kemp and Weigold, who fear the government is attempting to control the narrative to prevent the issue becoming an international embarrassment. Weigold, who lives close to the tunnels, said: “The inquiry will seek only to substitute the postwar government cover-up with a contemporary academic one.” Kemp, a military analyst who once commanded UK forces in Afghanistan, added: “It’s a whitewash of a whitewash.”
Both have claimed the UK authorities have pointedly refused to consider their controversial finding. However, Pickles said that their research was “keenly anticipated”.
For many islanders the overriding ambition once the inquiry is complete is to ensure the uncovered horrors are never forgotten. James and Dupont are among those who want to see a Holocaust education centre erected on Alderney with the atrocities made into a part of the national curriculum.
“What happened here can never be forgotten. We need to teach our children,” said James.
Islanders also hope the £100m Holocaust memorial planned to be sited in London is influenced by what will be found on Alderney in the months ahead. Some, though, fear the island risks becoming a Holocaust theme park. “Can we not just move on. What’s done is done,” said one resident who requested anonymity.
Dupont, 68, said the “settlers” – the relatively recent Alderney arrivals – were most queasy about uncovering its dark secrets. “I have spoken to many, many natives of my generation and they simply want to know the truth, once and for all. Is that too much to ask?
• This article was amended on 13 August 2023. An earlier version said that the Channel Islands were largely evacuated before the Nazis’ arrival; this should have said Alderney.