Alderney – is the truth out there?

Dr Gilly Carr, in conversation with Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls and Dr Paul Sanders, shines a light on the ‘secret’ Pantcheff report and those who died in the Alderney camps during the Occupation

ALDERNEY has been much in the news over the last few weeks, with tales of a ‘historians’ dispute’. Journalists have undoubtedly exaggerated and distorted the story, and so I made contact with two academics who, like me, are experts on the Occupation, to discuss the case.

The kernel of the story relates to a 1945 report written by Theodore Pantcheff, a member of the British post-war intelligence service who came to Alderney to interview slave workers and guards, and to collect information for later use in possible war crimes trials – trials that did not take place.

Gilly: Paul, why didn’t these trials take place?

Paul: Britain wanted nothing to do with these crimes and handed over the case to the Soviets, by invoking that the victims were not British. This was odd, because the crimes were committed on British soil. They could have been dealt with by British military courts in Germany, which were indeed convicting other Nazi criminals and sending them to the gallows. But that doesn’t make it a ‘cover-up’. Generally, punishment by Allied courts became more lenient as time wore on. Out of the 3,000 mass murderers of the SS special squads who shot 100,000s behind the eastern front, only the 24 chiefs were tried at Nuremberg in 1947. And of these only four were executed. By 1958, another one or two had died in prison and the rest were out and about again. The reason for this leniency was the onset of the Cold War and the fact that German public opinion considered the trials to be ‘victor’s justice’.

Gilly: It will be important for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, of which I am on the academic advisory board, to discuss this. Caroline, what do you say to recent claims that the Pantcheff file has never been seen before and that British copies of the file are closed until 2045?

Caroline: This is simply untrue. The copy in the Russian Archives has been available since 1993. The full report is also open access at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew and has been since at least 2009 in file reference WO 311/13. With the permission of TNA, I have now put it online: https://blogs.staffs.ac.uk/archaeology/2021/05/30/lost-report-on-nazi-atrocities-on-alderney-published/

A digital copy has been sent to Jersey Archives and the Island Archives in Guernsey, who already have a partial copy. Alderney’s archive also has a partial copy, but for unknown reasons, this remains closed.

Gilly: It’s worth stating that the Island Archives in Guernsey has other files relating to the Occupation which remain closed, but these are not known to relate to Alderney. Paul, Mr Roberts, who claimed to have ‘uncovered’ the Pantcheff file in a ‘major piece of sleuthing’, despite it being available in London all along, has now been quoted by journalists as saying that its ‘significance has not been fully understood’ before now. What is your response?

Paul: Simply that his statement is false and it sounds like he hasn’t read my book, The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation, 1940-1945, published in 2005.

Gilly: Paul, do you have any comment to make about numbers of the dead in Alderney?

Paul: Only that an important element of understanding often missing from estimates by non-experts is that a large number of prisoners were shipped off Alderney to die or be killed in camps elsewhere in mainland Europe. This alone accounts for why numbers of the dead in Alderney may not be as high as some might imagine.

Gilly: Caroline, I know that you’ve made some rigorous calculations of the dead in Alderney for your forthcoming book. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Caroline: This is an immensely complex issue. Our calculations have involved detailed comparisons of death certificates, burial and transport lists, and witness testimonies from international archives. We have detailed lists of named people who we are sure died in Alderney and those we are less sure about because the evidence is less precise. This has enabled us to produce a minimum range of between 651 and 936 individuals. This is not the final or total number.

Gilly: Why do you cite only minimum figures? What are the problems with the higher figures cited by some?

Caroline: It’s important to stress that there is no falsification in quoting minimum numbers, but there is a risk of it in citing unsubstantiated higher figures. Falsifying numbers plays into the hands of Holocaust deniers and distorters and I want to avoid this.

Gilly: Caroline, can we discuss the controversial FABLink project? Where do you stand on it?

Caroline: The risk of disturbing human remains is just too great if it goes through Longis Common. When this route was proposed by FABLink, I submitted a report, based on detailed archaeological investigations, recommending an exclusion zone that the pipeline should avoid. But I would rather the pipeline go around the island to avoid compromising Alderney’s occupation-era and archaeological heritage.

Gilly: Some in Alderney seem to believe that you would rather excavate Longis Common. How would you respond?

Caroline: My career and my publications to date have focused on non-invasive methods and not disturbing victims of the Holocaust through excavation wherever possible. I always work in accordance with Jewish law which states that the dead must not be disturbed, even if the original ‘burial’ involved being interred in a mass grave. As Jewish and non-Jewish graves may be present on Alderney, I have used aerial photograph analysis, LIDAR and geophysical survey methods to create a detailed record of exhumed and probable unmarked burials. I am not advocating excavation and believe that the cemetery should be protected and marked to mitigate against future threats.

Gilly: If I might have the last word, it seems to me that there are long-term problems caused by rumours of file closures. It has caused decades of whispers about collaboration and has also led to speculation and conspiracy theories – some of which have been published in the tabloids – about numbers of the dead. This has led to an undermining of the truth. So thank you both for your rigorous academic research in this area. Let us continue our work of establishing the truth of the past.

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