New Research Exposes Horrific Conditions at Britain's Forgotten Nazi Concentration Camp

Drone shot of the remains of Sylt, with a memorial in the inset.
Drone shot of the remains of Sylt, with a memorial in the inset.
Image: Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University and FlyThru

An archaeological survey of a former Nazi concentration camp on the British island of Alderney has revealed the frightful conditions endured by forced laborers and political prisoners during the Second World War.

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Following the fall of France in June 1940, German forces occupied the British Channel Islands, but these would be the only patches of British soil claimed by the Nazis during the entire global conflagration. On the island of Alderney, the northernmost island in the archipelago, the Germans constructed a series of labor and concentration camps, the details of which have largely been ignored since the site was last inspected at the end of the Second World War.

New research published today in Antiquity is providing fresh insights into Sylt, one of two concentration camps built on Alderney, documenting the site’s evolution over time, changes to the way in which the camp was used, and the brutal conditions endured by its prisoners. The new research was led by Caroline Sturdy Colls from Staffordshire University.

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Sylt Concentration Camp after Nazi surrender.
Sylt Concentration Camp after Nazi surrender.
Image: Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum

Historians don’t talk much about Alderney, and for good reason. The Germans took great care to cover their tracks when they fled the island in 1944, while the British government watered down its account of what transpired at Alderney in a report that wasn’t made public until 1981—a move meant to downplay any lingering association the island might have with Nazi atrocities, according to the new paper.

The purpose of the new investigation, which involved the first onsite inspections of the camp since the end of WWII, was to document the Sylt site and any remaining physical remnants of the camp, while providing “new insights into the relationships between architecture and the experiences of those housed there,” according to the authors. The new paper exposes the dreadful conditions experienced by the prisoners held at Sylt, many of whom were crammed into tight quarters and deprived of the necessities of life.

In anticipation of Alderney falling to the Germans in June 1940, the British government managed to evacuate virtually all of the 1,400 residents of the island. The British resisted any attempt to take the island back, as it was deemed too costly and dangerous.

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The Nazis built a series of forced labor camps on the island in 1942. The prisoners held there, many of whom were captured on the Eastern Front, were forced to manufacture fortifications used to create the Atlantic Wall—a series of defensive measures meant to protect the French coast from an Allied invasion. Approximately 20 percent of these prisoners perished within the first four months of arriving at the camp, according to the researchers.

But things changed in 1943 when the Waffen-SS took over operations. The military wing of the Nazi party transformed two of these labor camps, Sylt and a second camp known as Norderney, into full-on concentration camps, which it used to hold political prisoners and so-called enemies of the state. This transition saw the population at Sylt grow from a few hundred prisoners in 1942 to over a thousand prisoners by 1943.

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The new paper chronicles the architectural changes seen at Sylt during this time and the hardships endured by the prisoners.

3D reconstructions of Sylt as it appeared in 1942 (A), 1943 (B), 1944 (C), and its 1944 instantiation overlaid on the current landscape (D).
3D reconstructions of Sylt as it appeared in 1942 (A), 1943 (B), 1944 (C), and its 1944 instantiation overlaid on the current landscape (D).
Image: J. Kerti
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For the new study, Sturdy Colls and her colleagues used a series of non-invasive archaeological techniques to track the evolution of the site over time. These techniques included aerial surveys, systematic fieldwalking, geophysical surveys, LIDAR (like radar, but with lasers), and an overview of existing historical evidence, including first-person accounts of prisoners. These surveys were done from 2010 to 2017 as part of the Alderney Archaeology and Heritage Project. The resulting data was used to create new maps, a 3D reconstruction of the camp, and a new accounting of the site’s evolving architecture. In addition to this survey data, the researchers referred to archival documents, aerial reconnaissance maps, and plans.

Sylt camp as it was developed over time.
Sylt camp as it was developed over time.
Image: C. Sturdy Colls et al., 2020/Antiquity
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The scientists chronicled the construction of new security measures, such as additional barbed wire fences and watchtowers. They saw how the facility had tripled in size by January 1943 as it prepared for the arrival of the SS and its swath of new prisoners. In total, 32 surface features were recorded, including a toilet block and bathhouse, stables, a kitchen, cellar, and a mysterious tunnel. The purpose of this tunnel, which ran under the eastern boundary wall into a building, isn’t entirely clear, but the researchers said it could have been used as an air raid shelter, a quick access point, or a “space through which women could be taken into a brothel within the villa,” according to the paper.

“Although the archaeological survey could not confirm what the tunnel was used for, the discovery of regularly spaced light fittings within suggests that, whatever the tunnel’s purpose, it was in frequent use,” wrote the authors.

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Many of the barracks were still incomplete by March 1943, requiring many prisoners to sleep outside for two months as construction continued. By August 1943, the camp at Sylt consisted of 25 structures, including SS buildings and special housing for the Camp Commandants.

But these barracks remained wholly inadequate, resulting in severe overcrowding of prisoners as the population swelled to around 1,000. The wooden barracks measured 28 meters long (92 feet) by 8 meters wide (26 feet), but each of these structures housed around 150 prisoners, providing them each with just 1.49 square meters of space (16 square feet), according to the new study.

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The authors describe the awful conditions endured by the prisoners:

Witness testimonies describe that the conditions in the barracks, coupled with the inadequate provision of sleeping materials [e.g. straw blankets], provided a breeding ground for lice. During the SS’s command of Sylt, an outbreak of typhus, spread by lice and poor sanitary conditions, killed between 30 and 200 prisoners. The toilet block, uncovered in 2013, was equally undersized and basic...The sickbay, located at the rear of the camp and operated by the prisoners, was a simple wooden building. It functioned with inadequate medical equipment and knowledge. By contrast, the stables for the horses of the SS are well built, with foundations and a concrete trough surviving in good condition.

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The authors go on to describe how inmates were tortured and killed for stealing food or trying to escape, and how some had their dead bodies placed on display as a warning to others.

According to Nazi documentation, a total of 103 prisoners died while at Sylt, but the researchers said it’s likely much higher, “especially as several alleged shootings do not appear in this register.” The total number of prisoners killed across the entire Alderney complex of labor and concentration camps is estimated to be at least 700.

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The new data, along with historical sources, “enhances the narrative of events by demonstrating how the architecture, aesthetics and the conduct of the guards of the camp influenced the lives of the inmates and their overseers,” wrote the authors. “We recorded consistencies and changes in the way the camp functioned” between the labour camp and SS periods, “challenging the ‘official’ narrative by demonstrating that Sylt’s inmates consistently faced terrible living and working conditions.”

Sylt was designated a conservation area in 2017, but the future of the site is unclear. The authors are hoping that their new research and 3D models will be used to enhance future heritage efforts in the area. This might not happen, however, as some Britons believe the “focus on slave labour will show the island in a negative light,” according to the authors.

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The history of Alderney is certainly painful, but a monument or a museum honoring those who suffered and died at the site would go a long way in restoring this forgotten chapter of history.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

Just to let you know that referring to Alderney as a British island is not quite correct. The history of the Channel Islands is twisty and confusing because they are geographically closer to France than Britain, and as such, are the remains of the Duchy of Normandy and came into possession of the British Crown when William the Conquerer, the first Norman king of England, took the throne in 1066.

They remain a possession of the Crown, and the Queen, who also bears the title of Duke of Normandy, is their ruler; however, the Channel Islands are not part of the United Kingdom but are both Crown Dependencies. The two Bailiwicks that make up the Channel Islands have two separate legislatures, including directing their own taxes, and the laws of the United Kingdom do not automatically apply to the Bailiwicks.

The Channel Islands are worth exploring, both historically and physically; for example, although the recent film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the book on which it is based are fictional, they give a flavour of life under Nazi occupation on British soil.