HC Deb 17 August 1945 vol 413 cc182-8
Sir John Anderson

(By Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is in a position to make any statement about the conduct of the Channel Islanders and of the administration of the Islands during the German occupation.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

Yes, Sir, I am glad to have this—the earliest—opportunity of informing the House of the result of the inquiries which have been made and of explaining the difficulties with which the Islands had to contend and which they so courageously surmounted during their years of suffering under the German occupation. We who have been spared this ordeal may find it difficult to appreciate what living under a hostile domination entails and lack of practical experience may easily give rise to unjustifiably harsh criticism.

On 19th June, 1940, His Majesty's Government regretfully came to the conclusion that for strategic reasons it was necessary to withdraw the armed forces from the Channel Islands, and, as a consequence, the Lieutenant-Governors were also withdrawn. The Bailiffs of the two Islands were instructed to discharge the civil duties of the Lieutenant-Governors and to stay at their posts and to administer the governments of the Islands to the best of their abilities in the interests of the inhabitants whether or not the Bailiffs were in a position to receive instructions from His Majesty's Government. The other officers appointed by the Crown, including the Law Officers, were also instructed to remain at their posts. As regards the civil population His Majesty's Government decided that those inhabitants who wished should be given an opportunity of leaving and transport was sent to the Islands for the purpose on the afternoon of 19th June, 1940. As a result some 10,000 persons left Jersey out of a total population of 50,000, and about 18,000 left Guernsey out of a population of 40,000. Among those who left the Islands there was a large proportion of women and schoolchildren and of men of military age who came to this country to join the armed forces. It may be of interest to the House to know that out of a total population of less than 100,000 no less than 10,000 Channel Islanders have served or are serving with the armed forces.

Jersey and Guernsey were occupied by the Germans at the end of June. In order to deal with the situation during the occupation, the States of both Islands decided that it was desirable to make far-reaching changes in their peace-time organisation. They set up departments to deal with the day-to-day administration and a Central Controlling body to exercise the functions of government known in Jersey as the Superior Council and in Guernsey as the Controlling Committee. In Jersey the Bailiff was appointed the President of the Superior Council, but in Guernsey it was felt that in view of his age the onerous duty of presiding over the Controlling Committee ought not to be imposed on the Bailiff, in addition to his other duties, and first the Attorney General and subsequently Jurat Leale was appointed President. The States were well advised to set up this special emergency machinery which was made necessary by the unprecedented circumstances. The ordinary constitutional machinery which makes no provision for a central Executive could not have dealt effectively with the problems created by the German occupation. The smallness of a territory which came under Nazi occupation in no way diminished the difficulties of the problems which confronted the civil administration, and in the Islands these problems were intensified by the overwhelming numbers of the occupying troops. In Guernsey, where the German High Command was situated, the average number of the German garrison was about one-half of the civil population, and at one time it actually exceeded it, while in Jersey the proportion of the garrison to the population varied from 1 to 3 to 1 to 4.

While the Germans insisted on retaining the supreme control in the hands of the German Military Commander, they allowed the Islands' legislative and judicial machinery to continue in operation and they also allowed the central Executive machinery set up by the States to function subject, of course, to their direction and control. The result was that the Islands were left in possession of a large measure of self-government, though it was necessary for them to comply with any directions given them by the enemy who would otherwise have taken direct action to enforce their requirements without regard to the interests of the civil population. The civil administration of the Islands regarded it as their role to act as a buffer between the Germans and the civil population. They did not hesitate to protest against demands which they regarded as excessive or contrary to international law, and in many cases they succeeded in obtaining alleviation or withdrawal of demands even when demands made by the German authorities could not be regarded as unwarranted by international law. It was their duty to maintain formal and correct relations with the enemy, but the Germans were left in no doubt that they were regarded as enemies.

The main burden of dealing with the Germans fell on the Bailiffs, Mr. Coutanche in Jersey and Mr. Carey in Guernsey assisted by Mr. Leale in his capacity as President of the Controlling Committee, who were supported by the Law Officers, Mr. Aubin and Mr. Harrison in Jersey, and in Guernsey by Major Sherwill and Mr. Ridgeway until his death and later by Mr. Martel.

Let me say at once that the policy pursued by the administration was dictated by the desire to do what was best for the civil population and by that alone. It would, of course, be too much to claim that no mistakes were made. If anyone is inclined to pick out some particular instance and say "This demand of the Germans should have been more strongly resisted," let him reflect on the difficulties and on the immense importance of keeping executive functions in the hands of the civil administration and of avoiding the exercise of direct control by the Germans.

The public in this country and in the Islands are necessarily ignorant of the communications, both oral and written, which passed between the civil authorities and the German Command and of the successful stand which was taken on numerous occasions. Looking back over the history of the years of occupation those who had to take these difficult decisions would themselves admit that mistakes were not always avoided, but the very extensive information which has been obtained since the liberation of the Islands shows not only that the policy pursued by the administration was dictated by the sole motive of doing what was best for the civil population, but that the responsible administrators deserved well not only of their fellow Islanders but also of this country in a situation which was always difficult and became almost impossible during the last few months of the occupation when the Islands, which even in peace time do not produce everything they need, were cut off from the outside world.

The contitution of the Islands is many centuries old—it is in fact 10 years older than Magna Charta—and is of course, not comparable with the institutions and the governmental system with which we are familiar in this country. But any question as to the desirability of modernising the constitution of the Islands ought not to be confused with the totally different question of the conduct of the administration during the occupation. The adminstration throughout maintained their loyalty to the Crown and any suggestion that the relations which they necessarily had to maintain with the Germans amounted to any form of unpatriotic collaboration is entirely without justification.

As regards the conduct of the Islanders, the circumstances an which they suddenly found themselves deprived of any expectation of help or support from His Majesty's Government, and cut off from communication with this country except in so far as they were able illicitly and at great peril to themselves to defy the German orders and to listen to our wireless, must evoke our profoundest sympathies. The conduct of the civil population of both Islands towards the Germans was, generally speaking, of a frigid and correct character. The Islanders as a whole never wavered in their allegiance in spite of the threats and blandishments of the enemy. There were, no doubt, cases of deviation from the general high standard of conduct. These isolated instances were not typical. They were moreover offset by individual acts of heroism in helping secret service agents, sheltering allied airmen, arranging escapes, and in keeping wireless sets. There have been allegations that a very limited number of persons engaged during the occupation in conduct which might come within the scope of our law relating to giving asistance to the enemy. All such allegations are being thoroughly investigated and the Island authorities welcomed the asistance of the Director of Public Prosecutions who visited the Islands for the purpose. In the event of evidence warranting proceedings being forthcoming appropriate steps will be taken.

The Channel Islands have every reason to be proud of themselves and we have every reason to be proud of them. That, after a period of great suffering, there should have been a tendency in certain quarters, not fully informed of all the facts, to indulge in recriminations, is not surprising, but I hope, in the interests of the future of the Islands, nothing will be said in this House to encourage any such tendency. Treason or treachery if capable of proof cannot, and will not, be condoned, and any against whom evidence exists will be brought to trial in this country since these offences are not triable in the Islands.

The future of the Islands is a matter of constant concern to His Majesty's Government. My right hon. Friend, the Lord President visited them during the weeks following the liberation. Since my appointment the Bailiffs have, at my request, met me in London. I have also interviewed Brigadier Snow who has been in military command of the Islands since their liberation and has, with the help of his staff, made a thorough study of the conditions in the Islands during their occupation. Military Government of the Islands will cease on the 25th August and the Islands will revert to their former system of Government. I shall maintain contact with the Bailiffs and with the Island administrations so that the rehabilitation of the Islands may proceed with all possible speed. There is evidence that there is in the Islands a demand for certain changes in the constitution and I have every confidence that the Islanders will themselves be anxious that the question of reform should be examined with a view to bringing the constitution more into line with modern ideas.

Mr. Thurtle

May I, Mr. Speaker, with great respect, raise a point of Order in connection with the admission of this Question as a Private Notice Question? I always understood that there had to be a very definite element of public urgency before a Private Notice Question could be admitted. I wonder if you could tell us, Mr. Speaker, how this long historical survey of the Channel Islands during the war had some urgency about it which necessitated its being admitted by way of a Private Notice Question?

Mr. Speaker

I confess that I did not know that the answer would be so long. I understood it was considered rather urgent that a statement should be got out as soon as possible. That is why I allowed the Question.

Mr. Ede

May I be allowed respectfully to submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the military government of these Islands ceases on Friday next, and it is essential that something should be said before that ceases, to put the resuming civil Governments into proper relationship with their constituents in the Islands?

Mr. Speaker

That was more or less what I understood when I allowed the Question.

Captain Sir Peter Macdonald

Is there any likelihood or possibility of all the demands that were made by the Germans upon the administrations of the Channel Islands during their occupation being published in an official document, in order that these allegations may be cleared up, and that there may be no doubt about them?

Mr. Ede

I should be reluctant to promise that at this moment. It would be an exceedingly lengthy document. They have been most carefully examined by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and by police officers from this country assisting him. I am considering the reports they have made so far, and will consider the other reports as they come in. I will bear in mind the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member, and if it is possible to do anything in the way of publishing a statement I will consider it sympathetically.

Mr. Eden

I think the House will understand the circumstances of the right hon. Gentleman's statement and welcome, if I may say so, his well-deserved tribute to the Channel Islanders in their period of trial.