How Many Died in Nazi Concentration Camps on British Soil?

The U.K. is investigating the death toll on the island of Alderney, which German soldiers occupied in 1940

Population returns
In 1946, the British garrison welcomed the returning residents of Alderney, who had evacuated prior to the Nazi occupation in 1940.  Francis Reiss / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In much of Europe, the horrors of the Holocaust have become part of the landscape. Millions of people visit sites like Auschwitz each year, and monuments to the lives lost stand solemnly in cities from Paris to Moscow.

But in Britain, remembered primarily as a great force that stood against the Nazi regime, a piece of Holocaust history has been largely ignored for eight decades. This week, the British government announced that it will investigate the German occupation of Alderney, one of Britain’s Channel Islands, and the concentration camps there that were forgotten by history.

“It is time for the British government and Alderney authorities to finally face up to the horror of what happened on British soil,” Margaret Hodge, a member of Parliament whose father fled Nazi Germany, tells Martin Bright and Antony Barnett of the Observer.

The Channel Islands have a complex relationship with the United Kingdom; while they are dependencies of the British crown, they are located far closer to France. Due to their location, Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided in 1940 that Britain couldn’t defend them from Nazi invasion.

The takeover by Hitler’s armies was swift. When the Germans arrived at Alderney, they found that it was nearly empty—almost all residents had managed to evacuate—and built several camps on the uninhabited island.

“There are still many questions about what really went on in Alderney and who knew what. For too long, some have been too willing to look the other way in the hope it all goes away,” Jewish heritage researcher Marcus Roberts tells the Observer.

In 2020, archaeologists released a study in the journal Antiquity investigating Alderney’s Sylt concentration camp. It primarily held prisoners from Soviet territories, as well as French Jews. While it wasn’t the only camp the Nazis built on Alderney, it was known to be especially brutal. Some historians say that prisoners at Sylt faced conditions harsher than in some of the more famous mainland camps.

Due to the remote location, “even less food found its way to the prisoners than it did in other parts of occupied Europe,” historian Paul Sanders, author of The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation, told National Geographic’s Megan Gannon in 2020.

How many prisoners died on Alderney has long been a matter of dispute, and officials hope that the new investigation will help determine the true death toll.

“Numbers matter because the truth matters. The dead deserve the dignity of the truth,” says Lord Eric Pickles, the U.K.’s Holocaust envoy and leader of the new initiative, in a statement.

The new investigation will bring together 11 experts from Alderney, the U.K., Germany, France and Canada to conduct research into the camps. The group will publish a report in March 2024. Officials are also encouraging members of the public to submit any relevant evidence or research to the group.

“Some people don’t want to believe anything happened, and some believe thousands and thousands died,” Pickles tells Ben Brasch of the Washington Post. “I don’t think the truth can ever hurt us.”

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