• Louise

The Forgotten Concentration Camps on British Soil

During the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Ambassadors Conference at Home, I attended a session led by Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls called “Unearthing Nazi Crimes through Forensic Technology.” I found the session incredibly educational and wanted to find out more.

At the start of World War One, Alderney had 1,400 inhabitants. After France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, the British government decided it would be too difficult to defend Alderney. So, in June 1940, the population was evacuated and by the 2nd of July 1940, the island was occupied by the Germans. It wasn’t until 16th May 1945 that it was liberated by British troops.

There were four named camps on Alderney, however, archaeological research has discovered that there was actually around twenty camps. Throughout this, I am going to be focusing just on one camp, Camp Stylt, as a case study around what the forensic archaeology has done but first, let me briefly tell you about the other three named camps.

Helgoland and Borkum Labour Camps

Helgoland and Borkum labour camps were “volunteer” work camps and the labourers in these camps were treated harshly but better than the inmates of the other two main camps on the island.

Little remains of either of the camps now. Helgoland is now housing, with all that remains of the camp being incorporated into a house gate; Borkum is a waste deposit site now.

Lager Norderney Camp

Along with Lager Sylt, another concentration camp was Lager Norderney. Sometime after January 1942, Organisation Todt built the camp and ran it up until March 1943. From them, it was run by the SS. The camp mainly held Eastern Europeans and Russian enforced labourers, but also some Spaniards.

Similarly to the labour camps, little still remains and is now a camping site for tourists. A few of the structures do partially remain, for example, a tunnel from the camp to the beach, which is claimed to be have been used as a shelter for the Nazis, or possible a killing site.

Lager Norderney now.

What was Organisation Todt?

A woman wearing an OT badge.

Organisation Todt was a civil and military engineering organisation in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. From 1943 to 1945, Organisation Todt administered all constructions of concentration camps. It became notorious for its use of forced labour and was responsible for a huge range of engineering projects both in Nazi Germany and her occupied territory.

Lager Sylt Camp

As I said before, in this post I am going to predominately be focusing on just one of these camps, Lager Sylt.

The camp was built by OT in January 1942 and mainly held prisoners from Ukraine, Poland, Russia and other Soviet territories, but there was also a large proportion of French Jews. In March 1943, the already feared labour camp became a concentration camp run by the “Death Head’s Unit” of the SS. Estimates say that about 20% of the camp’s inhabitants died and all of them faced brutal treatment.

The first-hand testimonies from camp’s survivors help us paint a picture of what happened at the camp. It was discovered that the camp doctor was often barred from viewing the body after a prisoner died and would be ordered to sign pre-printed death certificates, usually with the cause being “heart failure,” or “faulty circulation.” There are also many accounts of dog attacks, shooting and beatings. Francisco Font, a Spanish republican and forced labourer at another Alderney camp recalled seeing a “man strung up on the main gate” of Sylt while doing work nearby with a sign on his chest saying “for stealing bread.” He also recalled the “body was left hanging there for four days.”

The inhabitants on camps at Alderney also had less food than prisoners in other parts of Europe due to rough seas preventing deliveries. One survivor testimony says the SS guards would steal the prisoners’ food as well and throw bread through the gate and shoot anyone who went to get it.

Post War

A picture of Sylt soon after liberation by British forces.

Just before the camp was liberated the remaining SS guards destroyed large portions of it and the records connected with its use. The British military did start conducting an investigation into the events but it was called off soon after it started portraying a picture that Britain was a victim not a victor of the war and was transferred to the Soviet military who did little.

Camp Lager Sylt today.

Today, like all the other camps, there are little visible remains. The site in on privately owned land by the airport. Alderney has often been nicknamed the “island of silence” as little is known about the camps.

Uncovering the history of Sylt

Aerial view of the Camp and the memorial plaque.

Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls with her team from the University of Staffordshire returned to Sylt in 2010 to map the site and use non-intrusive archaeological methods to see what’s happening below the surface.

The team dug into the historical archive to find any records they could of Sylt. These included historical aerial photographs from British planes flying over during the war. Using these they were able to create a rough timeline of the construction and size of the Camp.

Using LiDar (a ground-penetrating radar) they were able to view physical depression in the landscape were the buildings would have been. They now estimate the camp contained around thirty buildings.

The LiDar Map from the Daily Mail

They were then able to use these to measure the size of buildings and found remains on the ground. The wooden barracks were measured to be around 28 by 8 meters which, according to survivor’s testimonies, would house at least 150 prisoners. They also found the prisoner barracks to only have very shallow foundations compared to the SS barracks, an indicator of the superior quality the SS had. The SS canteen was also bigger than the inmates’ pantry and kitchen yet served a much smaller population.

Image of prisoners' toilet block and kitchen cellar.

One of the most interesting new finds was a tunnel which led from the soldiers’ bathhouse, below the barbed wire and into the Camp Commandant’s villa. This was particularly an unusual find and the tunnel was fitted with lighting, suggesting it was used regularly. It is theorised the tunnel was used to bring female prisoners to the Commandant’s chamber.

The archaeologists have many times asked for permission to excavate but it has thus far been denied. The State also declines to even commemorate the four camps. Local historian Colin Partridge feels this may be due to the locals' desire to dissociate themselves from the accusations of collaboration. The researchers hope their work will encourage the people to embrace their history and protect it.

The researchers say: 'The future of Sylt remains uncertain. Although some members of the local government and community are enthusiastic about developing it into a memorial, there is also fear that this focus on slave labour will show the island in a negative light,' the archaeologists write.

What do you think the future of Sylt should hold?

Go tell me on Instagram @ahellaloadofhistory or on twitter @hellahistory.

Further Reading and References:

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