07 maj kl 09:42, 2009
This is a true story written by my nephew John Bonney. He had told this story many times to his children, and they thought it a good idea that he wrote it all down, so that their children would be able to know about his adventures.
THE FORGOTTEN TUNNELS
On July 1st 1940, the British holiday Island of Jersey became the latest victim in a long line of European countries and territories crushed underfoot by Hitler’s seemingly invincible War Machine. The surrender and occupation of “The Channel Islands” (of which Jersey is the largest), was viewed not surprisingly by the Nazis as being very different to their other European! acquisitions”. Here at last was the capture of a very real part of the British Isles; and was seen by them as having great propaganda and morale-boosting value both to the troops and the field, and more importantly to the populace back in Germany. Indeed, Hitler himself became obsessed with holding British territory, and personally issued a directive ordering the Islands to be turned into impregnable fortresses and garrisoned by an entire division of men.
The Islands even featured in Hitler’s long-term vision of the future German Empire; set to become a Gibraltar-type permanent possession of Germany’s, well positioned to guard the French coast from foes.
At that period of the war, with German victory following victory, the invasion of mainland Britain herself was imminent. But the Germans had not taken into account the courage and tenacity of the R.A.F. pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain. With their invasions plans put back for at least the foreseeable future, they greatly stepped up their fortification building programme in the Islands, fearing that Britain would attempt to retake them and thus provide a valuable morale booster to the British public.
Vast amounts of weapons and materials, together with tens of thousands of troops poured into the Islands out of all proportion to their relatively low strategic value. The paramilitary building organisation “Todt” was brought over in strength
, and with the enforced help of Islanders and imported slave-workers set to work with great speed to build “Hitler’s fortress Islands”.
By Autumn 1943, a huge complex of defence installations had been built. Massive concrete Defence Bunkers (single-gun emplacements as well as complete batteries), observation posts and whole complexes of hidden underground tunnels, dotted the Islands in their hundreds.
As history shows; The Channel islands went on to endure five long years of German occupation, and when the garrison eventually surrendered to British forces in May 1945 without a single shot being fired in battle, the Islands were left honeycombed with the many remains of these mighty fortifications. Most fully armed and equipped.
A huge clearing operation was begun by the British Army using German POWs as labourers. Tens of thousands of tons of ammunition and mines, 10,000 rifles, 1500 pistols, hundreds of machine-guns and flame-throwers were all dumped out at sea. Thousands of tons of equipment were shipped out as scrap to England. Uniforms were burnt, trucks and cars were sold. Anything that was German and moveable was rapidly disposed of. The task was indeed gigantic, (and to many modern historians, hurried and wasteful!)
As for the concrete fortifications themselves, they were far more difficult to remove. In fact because of the immense strength of their construction very few were actually broken up and removed from their positions. Most were left exactly where they stood. The underground bunkers and tunnels (those that were found) were hastily sealed up and buried, many it was rumoured still intact with their equipment. One large unfinished tunnel complex was actually used as a materials dump and filled with thousands of items of German equipment, then it’s entrances were sealed up and buried under earth and rubble, with all traces of it’s whereabouts hidden….. supposedly for ever.
It was not surprising that as the years passed and the Islands settled back into their normal pattern of life that the once hated monuments to Nazi aggression began to be looked at with a growing historical interest. To the post-war generation of Jersey youth, searching out and exploring hidden tunnels and bunkers with the hope that they might contain valuable second World war German artifacts, became an exciting (and often financially rewarding) pastime. Every piece of concrete found jutting out anywhere in the Island was eyed with suspicion and hope, but more often than not after hours spent excavating, nothing more sinister than an old septic tank or foundation would be unearthed.
Of course many finds were made, but the one discovery most foragers wanted to make over all others was to locate and enter that complex of tunnels that had been used by the British Army as a dump for hundreds of tons of German equipment, and that was till lying deep underground.
The account that follows was written by one of the two boys who quite by chance stumbled upon some information that suggested the long sought after tunnels had at last been located.
ONE SPRING DAY
We pulled up sweaty and tired. It was hard going cycling along miles of winding country lanes. Trying to locate an obscure country road located “Somewhere in St Peter’s Valley”. Two boys we had met yesterday had told us to look out for a road sign that read “Route de l’Aleval. When found, we were to cycle for about five minutes along the road before heading east into the thick undergrowth where the entrance to the tunnels supposedly lay hidden. Normally we would have been very sceptical, but one of the boys had in his hands a German Infantryman’s rifle-cleaning kit. These kits were issued to German soldiers stationed in the Island and were now extremely rare. The kit we were shown was in perfect condition and was supposedly one of hundreds they had found in the complex of tunnels we were now searching for.
We pulled up under the road sign and decided to jettison our bikes and look for the area on foot. After hiding them in the undergrowth we set off along the road in the direction the boys had told us. The road Martin and I were hurrying along was narrow and winding and very neglected looking. Its rough potholed surface was covered in a dusty layer of loose gravel instead of the smooth bitumen surface that is norm on most of the Island’s roads. Set deep in St Lawrence, one of Jersey’s country parishes, the road ran along the bottom of a small picturesque valley hemmed in tightly by heavily wooded and overgrown slopes on each side. It was summer, and the tangled growth bordering the road looked almost impenetrable. Above our heads the branches and leaves formed a luscious arched canopy that merged with the high bushes on each side, making the road disappear into the distance like a snake into a jungle. Only the sounds of the birds could be heard over the crunch of our marching feet on the gravel.
As Martin and I walked together, the breeze on our faces felt cool and fresh, the smell of the tees was invigorating, and the kaleidoscope of different greens and browns surrounding us on all sides made the whole scene truly beautiful……….It felt good to be alive that Spring morning. As we hurried along, excitement was mounting with every step. Both of us were trying to guess at just what German equipment we would find when we were in the tunnels. Uniforms? Helmets, badges, Nazi flags and even tanks came to mind. Could that be possible?
After a short brisk walk, we rounded a bend in the road and the area we were looking for swung into view. We could contain ourselves no longer, and both of us simultaneously burst into an excited run heading for the spot in the distance recognised from the boy’s description.
A few minutes later, and still running, Martin breathlessly exclaimed that we should have reached “the tree” by now. We skidded to a halt both holding the aching stitches in our sides.
“Do you think we passed it?” he added. “I hope not”. The road doesn’t go for much further”. A sinking feeling began to creep in on me as I spoke. The boys had told us to look out for a very large tree just set in from the road on our left. We found we were to head past it into the undergrowth until we came to a large granite rock face barring our way, which according to them housed the tunnel entrance.
We were standing exactly on that spot now, but could see on sign of a large tree. “Perhaps they were having a joke on us”, Martin gloomily stated, but almost as soon as he spoke, I spotted the tree! We started running again, both headed for the gnarled and bent tree standing barely a hundred metres away from us. When we reached it the rock face could be seen some distance behind, almost submerged from sight by thick tangled undergrowth. Five minutes later we broke through the grasping bushes into a sheltered clearing a small distance from the rock’s base.
Martin and I were standing at the foot of a steep rock-strewn slope filled with tightly packed rocks of all shapes and sizes. All were covered in a spongy green moss; some even had tiny flowers sprouting from them. The smell of dampness pervaded everything. The slope led directly up to the now huge and imposing cliff of scarred granite that towered over, dwarfing us. It looked as if the hillside had been abruptly cleaved by a giant axe, leaving the weather to scour away the vegetation and expose sections of a typical Jersey valley hill-side. It was certainly an ideal place to excavate a large tunnel complex……
We skirted the scree of rocks searching for the tunnel entrance, but could find no sign of it. We both had no idea what we were looking for. I had imagined the entrance to be a well defined concrete archway leading into the rock, whereas Martin said he thought it might be a round metal hatchway such as were found in the many fortifications that dotted the Island. Whatever we thought it looked like, we could find no sign of anything even remotely resembling an entrance.
Martin began clambering up the slippery slope while I sat dejectedly on the rocks at the bottom of the pile.
“John, come up here quickly! I think I’ve found it!” I scrambled up the slope, heart pounding to join him in straddling the loose rocks at the top. The sight that met my eyes filled me, not with delight as I has supposed, but a cold apprehension.
Squeezed under the massive wall of perspiring granite was a small irregular shaped hole leading into and under the rock face. Peering in cautiously, I could smell a musty damp odour and feel a distinct emptiness emanating from deep inside the hollow rock. My voice echoed back menacingly as I shouted into it. All around the edge of the hole chisel marks were etched into the rock, obviously made recently when the entrance was hewn out of the solid rock. The opening only looked large enough for a small person to wriggle through, and even then it would be difficult as the hole didn’t seem to get any larger as it worked its way inwards.
“What do you think?” Martin asked anxiously, “can we get in?” “I don’t like the look of it much”, I answered falteringly, my uneasiness showing through in my voice. Martin gave me a withering look before dropping to the ground and crawling a full body length into the hole to take a look for himself. He had his torch with him, but even so, his muffled voice shouted out that although he could see where the entrance shaft was, he wasn’t able to see any further on.
Backing out awkwardly he joined me as I squatted pensively in front of the opening. We looked at each other without saying a word.
We had agreed to toss a coin to decide who would go in first. As he flicked the coin high in the air I prayed that I would lose… I won. Martin smiled triumphantly, “after you, John”. With trembling hands fumbling at the buckles of my haversack, I took out my torch hoping that Martin wouldn’t detect my fear. “How long are we going in for?” I asked in a low voice. “Not too long” came the quick reply. Looking at Martin’s grim-set face, I realised that he was probably as frightened as I was. With a resigned shrug of my shoulders I finally crawled reluctantly into the opening.
With just head and shoulders in, I lay there motionless shining my torch ahead and letting my eyes adjust to the lack of light. Just discernible not far in front of me was a rusty iron bar jutting out into the entrance shaft almost reaching the other side. The walls of the shaft were rough and crumbly, and felt wet to the touch, peeing further on, I could see where the entrance shaft ended. A black chasm, empty and silent, opened out ominously some distance beyond the rusty bar, but my searching torch beam was too weak to penetrate it and reveal what lay beyond. A prod from Martin behind me started me crawling towards the blackness.
The shaft was so narrow and cramped, my stomach scraped the floor and my back the roof as I slowly crawled full length along it, I was unable to raise myself high enough to crawl on my knees, so I had to use my toes as leverage to gain a little momentum, then quickly pull hard on the rock either side of the shaft with my fingers enabling me to progress only a few inches at a time.
It was impossible to turn around even to look at Martin behind me.
I reached the iron bar and squeezed past, relieved to find the shaft beginning to widen out a little.
A few minutes later I lay on the spot where the entrance shaft ended and the main tunnel began.
Martin soon slithered alongside to join me in surveying the large cavern that lay below us.
We had emerged from the entrance shaft high on top of a steep slope of loose rubble that led steeply down to the floor of the dark cavern below us. The silence was almost overwhelming, and I found myself coughing nervously and clearing my throat making any noise to break the silence.
We’ll have to slide down”, martin’s voice echoed as he spoke. “I’ll go first”. He pushed past using me as leverage and disappeared headfirst down the slope. Not wanting to be left alone, I quickly followed. We landed in a bedraggled pile at the bottom. We disentangled ourselves quickly and stood up, straining all our senses to take in the sight and feel of the total darkness all around us. Our two torch beams pierced the blackness like miniature searchlights. They looked as though they were fencing with one another as we played them up and down and from side to side, trying to gain a picture of what lay around us. The smell of dampness that we had encountered in the entrance shaft was now much stronger. Quite noticeable too was a fine breath-like mist hanging in the light from our torches.
The chamber was about fifteen foot high and at least twenty foot wide. Instead of the smooth curved shape I’d imagined, the roof and sides were rough and sharp, hewn out of hard granite with huge pieces of rock left jutting out dangerously. The roof above us looked particularly worrying, abounding with deep cracks and crevasses, slivers of crumbly rock seemingly upon us. The surface of the rock glistened in the torchlight, small drops of water oozing slowly through the rock before dripping noiselessly to the floor below.
I wondered how many slave workers had been crushed to death by rock falls as they hammered away with picks and pneumatic drills excavating these caverns so long ago.
Ahead of us the tunnel kept roughly to the same size, but veered to the right slightly until it disappeared beyond the range of our torches. The walls and floors were criss-crossed with large splintered beams and uprights lying at odd angles on the floor, sodden and rotten, making quite an obstacle to further progress along the tunnel. I could imagine those props rotting through one by one as damp and years took their toll, splintering and crashing noisily to the floor….then lying quiet and still, merging once more into the hushed darkness of the tunnel.
We stood quietly in that darkness, still anchored to the spot that we’d picked ourselves up after our slide down the slope. I noticed a large length of beam lying close to me and pressed on it firmly with my foot, only for it to plunge straight through the rotten wood as if it was made of marshmallow.
It was so quiet and still. I found myself even thinking in whispers! The atmosphere seemed forbidding and reserved somehow. I felt as though we had disturbed the tunnel from a deep and sacred sleep, and it resented these two intruders who’d come crashing into its peaceful domain.
“Are we going any further, martin?” I whispered, breaking the fast of silence. “Let’s look as far as the bend ahead”, he whispered back. So with hearts thumping we moved slowly forward, picking our way carefully over the fallen beams, sometimes smashing clumsily through them.
The further we walked along, the more frequently I turned around and shone my torch nervously behind me reminding myself of where the entrance and our exit was. It could hardly be seen now that we had moved deeper into the tunnel, and was soon reduced to a shrinking star of light twinkling faintly in the distance.
We picked our way laboriously for quite some distance and were now bearing the bend in the tunnel. Looking behind, the exit was now not visible. My torch showed up a darker than normal patch of wall on our left. With both our beams focused on it the dark patch became a large branch of the tunnel striking out at right angles to us. Its full length was lost in the distance, but we could see it’s floor was littered with the same fallen props and timbers that were strewn along the main tunnel.
We continued on and reached the curve in the tunnel to find yet another shaft branching off in front of us enabling us to continue going forward if we wished rather than following the tunnel bend around. Both branches were as large as the main shaft.
We hesitated. I didn’t want to go on for my further as I was becoming increasingly alarmed at the real possibility of becoming lost. Martin too felt apprehensive. We decided to continue for just a little further along the main tunnel rather than take the branches, and see what lay ahead before making our exit.
We nervously moved forward again. As we walked past the bend in the tunnel our eyes focused on a truly remarkable sight arrayed in front of us! Caught in our darting torch beams as if frozen in time, was a solid three metre high wall of German Army steel helmets stacked one on top of each other, numbering in their thousands and reaching almost to the roof.
We stood in shock, unable to believe our eyes, before scrambling excitedly up the side of the pile sending helmets clattering noisily to the floor below. Once straddling awkwardly on the top, we could see the stack of helmets not only reached the roof, but the continued along the length of the tunnel shaft for a considerable distance before tapering off at what looked like a concrete dead-end.
We sat on top of the helmets, pulling out the ones that looked in good condition and rolling them carefully down the front of the pile so they could be collected later.
The din we were making was frightful, and echoed all around us. I had never seen so many German helmets in such good condition. There were literally thousands of them, and must have been close to the total number of helmets of all the Wehrmacht troops that were stationed in Jersey when Liberation came. The British troops would have collected them up and deposited them in this dead-end shaft as an easy solution to the problem of what to do with just a fraction of the thousands of tons of German equipment left in the Island. I wondered how much other equipment had been dumped in these tunnels waiting for us to discover.
We were getting very choosy now which specimens we rolled down the pile to keep.
Some helmets were in near perfect condition, decorated with the insignia of the 319 Infantry Regiment on one side and the Eagle and Swastika emblem on the other. The leather padding and chinstrap on most of the helmets was in very good condition.
There was also some Medical corps helmets scattered around. They were coloured white with a large red cross painted across the top.
The most surprising find we made were a large number of helmets covered in wire-mesh that still had after all these years the leafless remains of branches used for camouflage embedded in them! I rolled a couple of them to the floor to be picked up later.
Martin added to the noise by calling me over to where he was. He had wandered off and was fossicking some distance along the pile. I made my way hurriedly to him with quite some difficulty as it was easy to plunge waist deep into the helmets. When I reached him he was sitting astride the pile only a few feet away from the vertical concrete wall that marked the dead-end of this shaft of the tunnel. There were not so many helmets here, but I could see a lot of other equipment stacked around. Hundreds of ribbed cylindrical German Army gas-mask containers lay around, still containing their gas- masks. Incredibly, the bias clasps of the containers lids were still workable and in some cases still shiny! There was also dozens of near-perfect condition hinged entrenching spades, hundreds of empty ammunition boxes. Jerry-cans and sundry other items. Equipment was stacked everywhere, filling the whole shaft!
Using requisitioned entrenching shovels, we unearthed many of the rifle-cleaning kits identical to the ones the two boys had shown us. The kits were complete with brushes, gun-oil and “rosary beads” used to pull the cleaning brushes through the rifle barrel.
A puzzling item we kept unearthing were detached wooden gun-butts from machine-guns or rifles. They were preserved very well and had a very unusual shape. We found out later they were the detachable butt of the Spandau heavy machine-gun.
As hard as we searched in later visits, we could never find the machine-guns to go with them!
Machine-gun belts of all sizes lay in their thousands. Anti-aircraft gun-sights in perfect condition were unearthed regularly by both of us. Wherever we dug, we discovered something different, belt-buckles, grappling hooks, velvet-lined instrument boxes and much, much more.
We had to jettison most of the items we had selected to take out as our haversacks were bulging with our chosen items,. We had probably been in the tunnel for almost two hours, but it seemed much longer. We began to feel a little edgy, and found ourselves continually stopping our fossicking and listening with straining ears for any noises in the tunnels. Finally we decided that we had seen and done enough for one day, and began stumbling along the top of the pile to get back to the shaft floor and begin our way back to the entrance shaft and daylight.
The way back was awkward but uneventful except for the odd noisy stumble over rotten beams.
With a great sense of relief we saw in the distance the faint rays of light from the entrance hole flickering through the darkness, getting stronger with every step forward. The light was a welcome relief to the almost suffocating blackness we were leaving behind us.
As we near the hole, we couldn’t prevent ourselves from scurrying faster and faster the closer we came to it. We were almost in a panic to reach the entrance. We scrambled quickly up the slope and crawled through the shaft as quick as our bulging haversacks would allow us. I quickly reached the iron bar and squeezed past it into the welcome sunlight. It felt good to breathe fresh air again. Martin quickly followed. After getting our breath back we excitedly examined the pieces of German equipment we had brought out with us. They looked as good in the daylight as they had in the tunnel. Eventually we headed back for our bikes and home. We were feeling very tired, but we had a great feeling of satisfaction to think that at last we had found and explored the tunnel complex that had been hidden for so long.
We decided to return tomorrow to explore further……………
We did return the next day and many more days after that over the next few months.
Martin and I discovered numerous other shafts and tunnels branching of in all directions from the original one we entered, and explored them all. Most of the caverns were in the same unfinished condition as the main entrance, except for one particular length of tunnel whose roof, sides and floor was completely concreted.
At the end of one long shaft, when we pressed our ears to its concreted dead-end we could hear the muffled sound of road traffic trundling past a short distance from us. When outside, we could never locate where that road was in relation to the tunnel.
We could only wonder in awe at the huge engineering and construction feat that the hundreds of undernourished slave workers had been forced to undertake by their “Organisation Todt” masters.
What we were exploring was not just a couple of minor shafts excavated hurriedly by the Germans, this was a well planned and designed major complex hidden of underground tunnels meant to fulfill a particular purpose in Hitler’s military plan for Jersey, had they had the time to finish them. What the purpose was I could only guess.
On other visits we found a lot more equipment stacked in various other shafts.
There were thousands more machine-gun belts of varying calibre, ammunition boxes of all shapes and sizes (all empty), large cloth-lined wooden cases, some filled with artillery range-finders and other precision instruments, bazookas (the only weapons we were to find), cylindrical machine-gun magazines, sets of coloured mine-field marker flags, welding equipment, mining tools, many more steel helmets, gas masks, boots, rifle-cleaning kits… just about everything that an efficient army such as the German Wermacht would use in the field.
On one visit we found a tunnel crammed with large portable field-kitchens complete with large iron-spoke wheels and still intact a leather horse traces. In along concreted section of the tunnel we even found completely intact a railway wagon that still creaked along rusting tracks when pushed.
In time we explored the whole complex including the side-shafts. Most of the caverns contained various types of German equipment, and some tunnels we searched continued for a very long way underground. Some shafts, such as the one with the road noise close by, ended abruptly in concreted dead-ends, others were blocked by large rock-falls, either natural or man-made.
For many weeks every spare hour we had at weekends and even sometimes at night were spent fossicking around in the tunnels. Eventually, although we tried to keep the whereabouts and contents of the tunnels to as few people as possible, their location came to be widely known among many boys living on the west side of the Island. It became common a few months later to come across large groups of boys in the tunnels, fifteen to twenty strong foraging around noisily inside it’s black caverns. I remember on one occasion after martin and I crawled through the narrow entrance shaft, and slid down to the main tunnel floor, we found at least fifty lit candles standing on a fallen beam flickering in the dark waiting to be picked up by boys as they entered the dark caverns. When we returned a couple of hours later, all the candles had gone.
It became rare to be in the tunnels completely on our own and experience their eerie silence again.
There was always noise coming from other people foraging around somewhere in the complex.
It was inevitable that eventually something would go wrong.
In spite of our now almost flippant familiarity with entering and leaving the tunnels at will, they were still a highly dangerous environment to be in. The large amount of boys that were to be found foraging around in the tunnels at any given time, (many with lit candles), still had to rely on that small entrance hole for the only source of fresh air into the tunnels, as well as being the only exit out of them. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have realised that the tunnels were an accident waiting to happen, but schoolboys aren’t usually noted for their discernment of danger when adventures such as these were there for the taking. Martin and I found it hard enough trying to throw our parents off the scent as to where we were spending all our spare time. The German equipment that was accumulating at home in boxes in the garage was also becoming increasingly hard to explain.
On one sad weekend the inevitable tragedy did happen……………………………….....
It was early on a Sunday morning when Martin and I turned up to enter the tunnels yet again. We were surprised to find a strange haze emanating from the entrance hole. Nevertheless we decided to try to get in. I was the first to slowly crawl in and had only entered the shaft about half a body length when I realised I was having difficulty breathing. With help from Martin pulling at my ankles I managed to crawl out backwards in panic-mode. We couldn’t understand what the fumes or haze were, but decided to go and do something else with the morning.
We heard the terrible news later that day that two boys had lost their lives in those shafts. We had known one of the boys very well as he had been a local Scout Leader. Apparently a fire had been lit in the tunnels the day before, starving the shafts of oxygen and produced deadly carbon monoxide. The two boys had crawled in too far along the narrow entrance shaft before they realised, and were unable to get back. To add to our sadness, my father: Frank Bonney, a member of the State’s Fire Service , was one of the very brave men of jersey’s Emergency Services who were overcome by poisonous fumes in their attempt to rescue the trapped boys and search for any others that may have been inside the tunnels. Thankfully, all the rescuers recovered, but from that day on Martin and I decided that our days of searching for and exploring German tunnels were over.
A few days later, Police Officers visited my home (amongst others) and confiscated all the German equipment that I had collected.
As for the tunnels, the entrance shaft was filled and sealed over permanently with thick reinforced concrete to prevent any more attempts to gain entrance.
Eleven years later, because of repeated attempts to gain access by a new generation of boys, the Government of Jersey had the entrance shaft of the tunnels bulldozed open, and (according to them) largely cleared of their remaining relics.
The entrance was then re-sealed with concrete…. this time permanently.
However, at the time of writing, twenty-two years on, the now “unforgotten” tunnels have again been opened. This time by a local Museum Proprietor with permission from the Government to examine any items left remaining and dispose of, or retain for his museum.
Visiting Jersey from Australia where I now live, I was allowed by him to enter and view the tunnels again while they remained open. This I did in company with my eldest son who had put up with my stories about them through his childhood and would now actually enter the shafts I had explored some twenty two years earlier. I found the experience of walking in those tunnels again very poignant.
The narrow entrance shaft that Martin and I had excitedly found and squeezed through all those years ago, had been bulldozed away exposing the full size tunnel that lay behind, now fitted with a pair of large metal gates barring entrance to it’s caverns.
In the shaft where we had so joyously discovered that huge pile of German steel helmets, all that remained now was a handful of pitiful specimens lying on the wet floor so corroded and rusty that they crumbled away in my hands as I lifted them.
As the helmet disintegrated in my fingers, I couldn’t help thinking what a fitting end that was to the most powerful army that the world had ever seen………………………………......