For the JC May 2021
A dispute has broken out about alleged “revelations” of wartime activity on the Channel Island of Alderney, where there were at least four Nazi labour camps, one of which became a concentration camp when the SS arrived in March 1943. But while there are only eight known marked Jewish graves, there is speculation that many more Jewish dead may have been buried en masse.
The dispute ties in with renewed concern about what will happen with a proposed energy pipeline, FABlink, due to link Britain and France — with the potential of running through Alderney and perhaps disturbing possible Jewish burial sites.
Most of the arguments centre on the contents of Pantcheff Report, commissioned by the 1945 British government from a young military intelligence officer, Captain Theodore Pantcheff. He conducted an investigation into Nazi actions on Alderney and recommended prosecution of seven men, but no prosecutions ever took place.
Ninety-five per cent of the Pantcheff Report was made public 26 years ago. But Marcus Roberts, founder and director of JTrails, a heritage group which specialises in Anglo-Jewish history, says he has now obtained the entire report — including Pantcheff’s executive summary — from Russian state archives.
He says he can “finally reveal the secrets of the actual ‘Pantcheff Report’, still embargoed under the 100-year rule by the British government. I was recently given access to a private copy of the report from the Moscow State Archive and I will answer the questions, what are the secrets in the report, why was the Pantcheff Report made a British state secret, and does it still have any secrets worth keeping?”
Mr Roberts believes that the previous unpublished five per cent of the Report — the executive summary —shows that the numbers of Jewish dead on the island could have been more than 3,000. Pantcheff usually cited the figure of 337 “foreigners” who died on Alderney. Many of these were from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland — but some may have been Jewish.
Mr Roberts, who has called for a Holocaust memorial to be erected on Alderney, makes his calculation for the higher figure as follows: “If the numbers quoted from individual witnesses in this report, (omitting the many other examples in the public files, but not repeated in the report) are totted up in a facile fashion, this gives over 3,000 deaths in this report alone, and specific examples indicate that some cohorts of prisoners saw a 90 per cent mortality rate, and supports my view and that of others, that the numbers of deaths on Alderney were substantial with a majority of prisoners not surviving the experience”.
He says that there were eyewitness accounts of between 30 and 80 mass graves on Alderney. Many of those in the island camps were French Jews, together with some from North Africa and some Russian-Jewish prisoners of war — the last of whom may not have identified themselves as Jews. Native Alderney residents were deported from the island during the Nazi occupation and only allowed to return after the war, so the eyewitnesses were released prisoners.
Among the eyewitness accounts, says Marcus Roberts, was that of a British citizen, George Pope, “who, with his family, stayed on the island throughout the occupation and who made claims to the national press immediately after the surrender, including ‘killings and mass burials of Russians and Jews on Alderney’. He stated in the Pantcheff Report that of 2,000 Ukrainians in an early group of prisoners, only 222 were still alive just over a year later.”
Pope also reported the deaths and mass burials of 300-400 Jews from a single dysentery outbreak between July to September, 1943, the largest single report of Jewish deaths on Alderney.
Mr Roberts concludes that “early investigators” compared the deliberate starvation of prisoners to their deaths, to what happened in Belsen concentration camp, and says: “We have implicit official recognition that the key intention of the Nazis on Alderney was the mass deaths of prisoners through the Nazi policy of ‘extermination by labour’ by using officially sanctioned and systematic starvation, ill-treatment and executions. Certain island historians I have encountered have always denied this narrative (and that there was no concentration camp on Alderney) and this can no longer be sustained”.
Pantcheff’s executive summary, says Mr Roberts, includes horrifying descriptions of mass burials on Alderney. According to one eyewitness: “In the beginning the bodies were simply loaded completely naked onto lorries and at the burial place they were dragged down from the lorries with dung forks and thrown into the mass graves”.
Many of Mr Roberts’ contentions about what happened on Alderney are contested by his former colleague, Professor Caroline Sturdy-Colls. She is professor of Conflict Archaeology and Genocide Investigation at Staffordshire University and, together with her colleague and husband, Kevin Colls, has written a book about Alderney, to be published later this year, called Adolf Island: The Nazi Occupation of Alderney.
She told the JC: “The continued perpetuation of the idea that the files relating to Alderney remain classified or unavailable in the UK is allowing some people to continue to deny and downplay the events of the occupation (particularly at local level)”.
She added: “My argument has always been that an abundance of evidence — including documents, but also photographs, maps, aerial images and physical traces – exists in the public domain, that allows us to describe in detail what happened on Alderney, providing ample proof of the crimes committed and the fact that the Holocaust and Nazi persecution happened on British soil. It is true that not all of this information is easily accessible, but to say that it is not declassified only serves to prevent adequate commemoration. Likewise, I and others have published a lot of this information already, yet our evidence has been ignored and criticised — or has been met with claims about what we still don’t know, rather than accepting what we do”.
Mr Roberts responded: “The issue here is that I assert that some of this content appears not to have been seen before, or even if seen, to have been commented on before, or even if so, its significance has not been fully understood, but which are particularly important now that we read them in the context of modern Holocaust scholarship and in the context of my own comparative studies with the camps in NW France, as well as my current work with Oxford University on a new account of the effects of the Holocaust on the UK”.
Professor Sturdy-Colls maintains that “the so-called ‘lost’ Pantcheff report in the Russian archives has long been used by researchers focused on the occupation of Alderney and the forced and slave labour programme there”. She says that the full report was declassified by GARF (the Russian state archives) in 1993 and has been discussed by many researchers and scholars, including herself for her own Ph.D thesis in 2011.
She also says that an article she published last year used evidence from the Pantcheff report, making reference to the appendices on Sylt concentration camp (which included a plan of the camp and a report containing further details about how it operated). Professor Sturdy-Colls says that this material has not remained classified by the British government, contrary to what Marcus Roberts has stated.
However, she does agree with Mr Roberts that it is likely that there were many more deaths on Alderney than the previously accepted official figure. Her forensic archaeological research suggests that there may be as many as 700 unmarked mass graves with an unknown number of bodies — though it remains unclear as to how many of these men were Jews.
She says: “I don’t dispute at all that there were mass burials on the island: but we don’t have lists of those who died in 1942, and from 1943, a French historian has demonstrated that almost all of those [prisoners] survived and were sent back to Europe. There isn’t the evidence of hundreds or thousands of Jewish deaths, based on credible research. The testimony of Gorge Pope alone is not proof enough alone of 30-80 Jewish mass graves. I’ve yet to see any evidence of that presented anywhere”. She added: “While undoubtedly there are Jewish victims who remain unidentified, I have yet to see any evidence that would suggest that 30-80 mass graves exist nor which would enable us to establish definitively that these graves belonged exclusively to Jewish victims”.
Overall, Professor Sturdy-Colls said, “the Pantcheff report is not new to those of us who have been thoroughly researching the occupation [of Alderney and the other Channel Islands] for more than a decade” Pantcheff’s report, together with four other documents written by him, had been available in the National Archives since 2009, she said.
Marcus Roberts asserted that “The investigators clearly saw a comparison between events Alderney and Belsen Concentration Camp – the latter was the epitome of death through organised starvation”. Professor Sturdy-Colls said: “There is a document in the National Archives in which Brigadier Shapcott of the Judge Advocate General’s Office suggests to the War Crimes Branch of the Treasury Solicitor’s Office that the crimes perpetrated on Alderney should be dealt with in a similar fashion to those perpetrated at Bergen-—because they occurred in an area liberated by the British and on British territory. Thus, the British comparisons to Belsen were from the perspective of how prosecutions should be carried out”.
Nevertheless, she acknowledged: “Two German witnesses did compare what happened on Alderney to Belsen. Obergefreiters Preukshat and Zietlow stated that ‘after having been shown the BELSEN KZ photos, we can only say that the 200 bodies whose burial we have witnessed were in a similar if not worse state”.
Mr Roberts has expressed concern as to why no prosecutions ever took place of those who allegedly carried out war crimes on Alderney, and has said that he believed Pantcheff “left clues in his report for people to pick up on later”. Parts of the report, he says, are still under wraps — and he charged that today’s government would be “morally bankrupt” if, in its new Holocaust museum and memorial in Westminster, it failed to provide an adequate account of what had really taken place on Alderney, including why there had been no war crimes trials.
Lord Pickles, the UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, categorically gave assurances that there would be a full explanation in the Westminster Holocaust complex. He said: “No-one comes out of this particularly well; after the Nuremberg trials neither the British, the French nor the Americans had the appetite for more war crimes trials. We will certainly address this issue in the new memorial.”
Subject to planning permission and an archaeological survey, Lord Pickles said, ground will be broken on the Holocaust memorial later this year. The aim is to open the complex in 2025, to mark the 80th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.
The renewed concern over what happened on Alderney has gained traction because of the work of FABlink. FAB – standing for France, Alderney and Britain — is a project which will build an underwater and underground electrical connector linking France and Britain. The link is due to run between electrical substations at Menuel, on the Cotentin peninsula in France, and another in Exeter, Devon. Compulsory land purchases have taken place in and around the Devon coastline for the last several years.
The project went on hold pending the outcome of Britain’s departure from the European Union, but has now apparently revived. FABlink’s website says that construction of the two pairs of giant electrical cables will begin this year, but not when. The company’s James Dickson told the JC: “The project, since 2017, has been at an advanced stage of development, but pending clarity regarding regulatory approvals which were delayed due to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The start of construction will be dependent on the timing of regulatory approvals which remain unclear at this stage”.
A spokesman for Ofgem, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, said: “As the economic regulator, Ofgem’s role is limited to assessing whether an interconnector project is economically viable and likely to be in the interest of GB consumers. Decisions around planning permission, taking into account the local circumstances, whether they be environmental or other issues, are always for the local planning authorities.”
The granting of regulatory planning approval — likely to be made by the States of Alderney, the governing body in the Channel Island, as well as the French and British governments — will allow FABlink to begin its construction. But although it will be much cheaper for the cables to run through the island, rather than around it, the company has already been warned that it could run dangerously near some of the possible hidden Jewish burial sites on Alderney.
Lord Pickles said: “The number one priority must be that the graves are preserved with respect and dignity”.