The Channel Islands have had a unique history throughout many conflicts of the world. These small islands, located between England and France, were central as a station for Germany during WWII as a command center. The German forces occupied the Channel Islands from the 1940s until shortly after WWII ended in 1945. Under the rule of Dame Sibyl Hathaway, the small island of Sark and its residents bravely decided to stay in their homes during the occupation and endure German rule.
Before the Channel Islands fell into German hands, the British Government advised the islands to evacuate. Sibyl arranged a meeting with the island residents and stated that she wanted to stay. She believed the Germans would not stay long, assuming the troops would soon leave after running out of food. Many of these people had called this island their home for generations. Needless to say, most of the island’s inhabitants decided to stay. Many English-born people evacuated by boats and ferries, including the island’s only doctor.
The islands of Guernsey and Jersey were bombed on June 28, 1940, bringing about the inevitable occupation. Many Sark fishing boats were gunned down, and German forces landed on Sark a few days later. The German officers included Major Doctor Albrecht Lanz and Major Maass, who spoke English and was there to help translate. They walked up the 350-foot hill to La Seigneurie, the home of Dame Sibyl Hathaway.
Dame Sibyl Hathaway played a large part in the negotiations and the favorable treatment of the locals of the island during the German Occupation. She managed the German officers by enforcing the Germans to follow proper etiquette, allowing her to control meetings and ensuring the German officers remained in good favor with her. She spoke German and was able to communicate clearly with them.
Life Under German Rule
Thanks to the masterful negotiation with the German soldiers, Dame Sibyl Hathaway was able to create a less hostile environment for the people of Sark. While the people were treated better, they still had to endure life in the midst of a war. German soldiers enforced the same German rules as any other occupation throughout Europe, from strict curfews, blackouts, fishing rules, hours of operations of local businesses, and more.
Fishing was permitted to continue in Sark as it was one of the most important industries on the island. In the early years of the occupation, the locals were allowed to travel to occupied Guernsey to sell their catches and purchase petrol from the island. There were also supplies brought in from neighboring Herm and Jethou.
Because of the nature of the occupation, the people of Sark treated the Germans as they would any other tourists. They invited Germans to dinner at restaurants, played sports matches, and treated them cordially, and in return, the residents received the same respect. While life was easier, it was still a challenge. With the number of Germans increasing, it was expected that the people of Sark to pay for the occupation. With no taxes, it was beginning to get harder to support themselves and the soldiers inhabiting the island.
At the beginning of the German occupation, the British Commando raid, Operation Ambassador, developed a plan to land troops in Guernsey. The troops were taken to the wrong island and delivered to Sark due to a faulty compass. The team had explored La Sablonnerie after landing on little Sark, which at the time was not easily occupied. After finding no evidence of German soldiers, the team returned to their destroyer and left the island.
In 1942, a new British commando raid with the intention of landing on Sark, Operation Basalt, was made up of 12 soldiers with the objective of capturing a prisoner. The force landed on the eastern shore of the island and made their way into the interior. They were directed to the Dixcart hotel by a resident, Miss Pittard, where they took five German military soldiers captive. The prisoners began to fight back and yell, causing a fight to break out, resulting in only one captive being successfully taken back and three German soldiers being killed. Miss Pittard was sent to prison in Guernsey for her role in fighting and capturing the German prisoner, where she was eventually transported to Germany.
As the years continued, the occupation became more challenging as supplies dwindled. Radios were consistently confiscated, and visitation to neighboring Guernsey became more limited. Deportation was ordered several times, forcing residents to be deported and sent to German camps. Towards the war’s end, food was incredibly sparse, and German soldiers were fainting in the street due to the lack of nutrition.
The End of the Occupation
As World War II finally began to come to an end, Sark was liberated just one day after the liberation of the other Channel Islands. Once the news of Germany’s unconditional surrender reached the island, the German soldiers locked themselves in their barracks.
Dame Sibyl Hathaway met British troops on liberation to lead them to where the over 200 German soldiers were locked away to discuss the terms of surrender. The prisoners were left under her care while the British soldiers continued to sort out the liberation of Guernsey.
While the German soldiers were under her care, she put them to work. The Dame ordered the removal of mines by the German soldiers, in which two died during the process. She ordered the soldiers to also build the road along the Coupee that joins Big Sark to Little Sark. While many residents were angry at the Dame for her decision to stay on the island, once they saw the destruction of the neighboring islands, they thanked her for all she had done for them.
The German occupation of Sark was a troubling time for the loyal residents of the island. Thanks to the negotiation skills of Dame Sibyl Hathaway, the people were treated reasonably well. There are tours that are run by the locals that take visitors on a journey to many of the interesting sites on Sark that the Germans occupied, including the sites of the British commando raids, German headquarters, the site of the RAF Lancaster crash, and the underground tunnels. Every year, the Bailiwick-wide Heritage Festival honors and celebrates the end of the occupation and liberation of the islands during WWII.