As we approach 78 years since the Channel Islands’ Liberation, those of us who did not live through that period of history are once again confronted by the difficulty of fully understanding the harsh realities of the Occupation. How does a community preserve its connection to the past at the point when those events are no longer in living memory? Whilst this question is complicated and deeply troubling, the Islands’ extensive historical archives surely provide some reassurance when facing this challenge.
One such collection that sheds light on life under Occupation resides at the Société Jersiaise in the form of ‘The Green Books’ (so called due to their green covers) – a collection of surveys and field guides which were ordered by Nazi High Command to document war time defences in both Jersey and Guernsey. Also known as Festung Jersey (‘Fortress Jersey’), the Green Books record in meticulous detail how the German Occupying Forces defended each stretch of coastline around the Island.
Whilst the core purpose of these books is to provide a military record including inventories of weapons, personnel and details of fortifications, bases, and other infrastructure – the way they are presented is rather surprising. The concrete and gunmetal of the Nazi’s presence on the island is interspersed with detailed and sensitive renderings of the island’s coastline in watercolour. Painting, drawing, cartography, photography, calligraphy and other creative skills possessed by non-commissioned officers in the German 319 Divisional Cartographic Section were all deployed to produce the Green Books.
Careful, neat and with great artistic skill, this collection is certainly not what you would expect from documents originating from one of the most brutal and challenging times in both local and world history. The books were taken to the UK by British Troops after the island was liberated in 1945. On 29th October 1947 an incomplete set of these books was presented by the War Office, via the Island’s Lieutenant Governor, Sir Edward Grasett, to the Société Jersiaise.
Whilst incomplete, the collection of Green Books provides an excellent resource for local historians and Occupation researchers. I sat down with one such researcher, Paul Burnal, a former soldier whose mother was a child in Jersey during the Occupation. Due to this family connection and his military service, Paul explained that he’s always had a “fascination” with this era of history and, since he retired, he has pursued his interest by writing books about German defences around the island. In this endeavour, the Green Books (in addition to his own field research) have provided him with a wealth of information when researching his own books.
“Having an interest in the German fortifications, the Coastal Defensive System [and] the Atlantic Wall – which I’ve had since I was knee high to a grasshopper – I just wanted to study and research more and more about how the Germans defended the Island.”
He explained that his experience as an Infantryman in the British Army helps him to analyse these defences from a military strategy perspective: “This is what the Infantry would have been coming up against, how would they have overcome that obstacle? How would they have got past those fortifications? When I write my books, I try and look at it from a soldier’s perspective and say: ‘this is the defensive position, this is the weapons they’ve got, this is the land, and this is how the Germans would have defended it.’ So, if you’re attacking this is what you’ve got to get through […] and it is quite frightening.”
And much of that information about the nature of the German defences are detailed in the Green Books, which became crucial for Paul when researching for his second book ‘Defence Sector East’. With their precise level of detail, the books also provided something of a template for Paul when it came to structuring his own writing.
“How the Green Books are laid out, that’s how my books are laid out. I follow the same format as the Green Book […] and I just try and elaborate on it and put a bit more detail in.”
Commenting on the significance of this collection for local and world history, Paul remarked: “I would say it’s vitally important. The German Occupation was probably the most momentous part of the island’s history within the context of the Second World War. I think the fact the Occupiers went to such lengths to show how well they had fortified the islands, it’s amazing.”
However, he expressed concern that, aside from the island’s annual Liberation Day celebrations, interest in this period of history is “waning”.
“Hopefully, interest in the Occupation will never die off. There will always be that element of people who have got that interest and they’ll want to come and look at the Green Books so the fact that we’ve got this collection here it’s a vitally important part of the island’s history.”
The Société Jersiaise has recently digitised its entire collection of Green Books so that they are available to view online for free. Remarking on this, and on the collection in general, Librarian at the Société Jersiaise, Valérie Noël said: “The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles occupied by German forces during the Second World War. They built a series of fortifications designed to make the islands impregnable, as part of the Atlantic Wall. Festung Jersey or ‘Green Books’ are the record of the German wartime defences in Jersey.
“The collection is unique, having been written by the German forces themselves. It is a rich resource for Occupation researchers and contains several drawings, photographs, maps, and watercolours depicting the island at the time of the Occupation. This collection is very popular among Jersey Occupation researchers and its digitisation will allow a wider audience to discover this unique resource.”
Click here to take a look at this remarkable collection which gives us an insight into the grip the Occupiers once had on our Island.
With special thanks to Paul Burnal and Valérie Noël.
Source material: Taktische Übersichten der Festungsbereich Jersey 1944 (A tactical review of Fortress Area Jersey 1944), The “Green Books” by Mark Lamerton
Written by Martha Macdonald