The tragedy, comedy and confusion that reigned on both sides is illustrated by what happened to Britain’s Channel Islands in this summer of 1940. These small islands, part of Great Britain but not of the United Kingdom, are self-governing communities under the British crown. They are all near to France, and by 19 June 1940 Whitehall had decided that they should be demilitarized and declared ‘open towns’.
However with that reticence for which bureaucrats are noted, the men in Whitehall did not announce this decision, probably because the humiliation of publicly yielding British territory could not be faced.
To test whether they were being defended the Germans sent aircraft to fly very low across the islands. As one roared across St. Peter Port on Guernsey, someone aboard the Southern Railway steamer Isle of Sark, sailing from Jersey to Southampton, fired ancient twin mounted Lewis machine-guns at it. The Germans decided that there was a military force on the islands. As a result Heinkel He 111 bombers bombed and machine-gunned the two principal towns of St. Helier in Jersey and St. Peter Port, Guernsey, on the evening of 28 June. There were many casualties, and only after this did Whitehall admit that the islands had been demilitarized.
The German monitoring service missed the demilitarization announcement put out by the BBC, and it was the United States ambassador in Paris who made sure the Germans knew of it. The commander of the German naval forces in northern France was engaged in a conference on the subject of the Channel Islands when he received the news by telephone. It was decided that occupation would be a propaganda coup. Luftflotte 3 assigned ten Junkers Ju 52 transport planes as well as fighter, bomber and reconnaissance units to the task. Army Group B were to provide soldiers, and naval craft were prepared for the assault on the beaches.
Most importantly film camera-men, photographers and writers were sent to Cherbourg and attached to all the participating units.
Meanwhile a Dornier Do 17P – a version of the somewhat outdated ‘flying pencil’ relegated to reconnaissance duties landed, apparently on a whim, at Guernsey airport. Locals told the pilot that the islands were undefended. When the Dornier returned to its base, a few Luftwaffe personnel were given rifles and flown across to the island formally to take it over. The next morning another Dornier piloted by Oberleutnant Richard Kern flew to Jersey airport. He took over there armed with nothing more than his pistol.
These enterprising men of the Luftwaffe had, of course, completely spoiled the propaganda invasion. To make things even more humiliating for the assembled invasion force, their own start was delayed by fog.
The Channel Islanders’ first sight of the rank-and-file German occupation forces was good enough to persuade them that they were specially selected as disciplined, polite and good-looking. In fact these troops were a company of Infantry Regiment 396 (216 Infantry Division) and were simply the nearest available unit.