For the first time since 1945, researchers have investigated the horrors that occurred at the site of the only Nazi concentration camp on British soil.
The Channel Islands, an archipelago off the northern coast of France, were the only British land that was successfully occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It’s little known that one of these quiet islands, Alderney, became home to several labor camps and two concentration camps, one of which was called Sylt or Lager Sylt. Although the UK government carried out an official post-war investigation into the horrors that occurred here, many suspected the contents were watered down in a report released to the public in an attempt to quash hearsay about a “concentration camp on British soil.”
To unearth the truth, archaeologists from Staffordshire University in the UK have recently used an arsenal of non-invasive methods to study the site and experiences of the people imprisoned here. Reporting in the journal Antiquity, the team used geophysical surveys and LiDAR, as well as declassified aerial reconnaissance photos and written historic accounts, to create a detailed map of Sylt over the course of the Second World War.
Official documentation by the Nazi's Schutzstaffel (SS) suggests 103 people died during the Nazi-occupation of Alderney. However, an assessment of other sources suggests at least 700 people perished here, with many more dying while traveling to or from the islands.
The new research suggests the camp underwent a rapid expansion in size and capacity over its life. The island was initially used by Nazi Germany to house a few hundred Eastern European workers and prisoners, but it fell under the power of SS in 1943, promptly transforming the site into two concentration camps, including Sylt.
The control of the SS and their expansion of the camp made the conditions all the more grueling. The research shows that barracks became cramped, with less than 1.5 square feet (16 square feet) of space for each person, while the toilet block was described as "equally undersized and basic." This prison-like overcrowding and poor hygiene are thought to have contributed to an outbreak of typhus, an infectious disease spread by lice, fleas, and mites, which may have killed up to 200 people.
The research was confirmed using historical testimony from former Sylt prisoner Wilhelm Wernegau, cited by the researchers, who wrote: “In my barrack, there were around one hundred and fifty men, or perhaps a few more. There were approximately this many in every hut… We had straw blankets and throughout the time on Alderney, we suffered terribly from lice.”
The study also highlights a disparity between the types of buildings at the camps. The prisoner facilities were cramped and poorly built, sometimes even constructed out of wood, but the stables for the SS guard's horses were well built with sturdy foundations. One particularly puzzling feature was an electric-lit tunnel traveling from inside a guard's bathhouse to outside the camp’s walls (pictured above). It's unclear what purpose the tunnel served, although it's suspected it was used to traffick women into the camp's brothel.
The history of Alderney remains a sensitive subject. While some locals hope to bury their island's ghosts, others hope to memorialize those who suffered here. As for this new project, the researchers hope their work will raise awareness of this long-forgotten site and underscore its importance in the world's collective history.
“This work has shed new light on the German occupation of Alderney and, crucially, the experiences of the thousands of forced and slave laborers who were sent there,” Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls, lead author and professor of Conflict Archaeology and Genocide Investigation at Staffordshire University in the UK, said in an email statement.
“Historical, forensic and archaeological approaches have finally offered the possibility to uncover new evidence and give a voice to those who suffered and died on Alderney so many years ago,” she added.