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

Drone shot of Sylt's remains, with a memorial in the stakes.

Drone shot of Sylt’s remains, with a memorial in the stakes.
Statue: Center of Archeology, Staffordshire University and FlyThru

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

After the fall of France in June 1940, German forces occupied the British Channel Islands, but these would be the only pieces of British land claimed by the Nazis throughout the global conflagration. On Alderney Island, the archipelago’s northernmost island, the Germans built a series of labor and concentration camps, the details of which have been largely ignored since the site was last inspected at the end of World War II.

New Research published today in Antiquity provides new insights into Sylt, one of two concentration camps built on Alderney, documenting the site’s evolution over time, changes in the way the camp was used and the brutal conditions of the prisoners. The new study was led by Caroline Sturdy Colls of Staffordshire University.

Sylt concentration camp after surrender by the Nazis.

Sylt concentration camp after surrender by the Nazis.
Statue: Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum

Historians don’t talk much about Alderney, and rightly so. The Germans took great care to cover their tracks when they fled the island in 1944, while the British government diluted its report of what happened in Alderney in a report released only in 1981 – an action intended to any lingering association to downplay the island could have to do with Nazi atrocities, the new newspaper said.

The aim of the new investigation, which included the first site inspections since the end of World War II, was to document the Sylt site and any remaining physical remains of the camp, while ‘providing new insights into the relationships between architecture and the experiences of those housed there, ”the authors said. The new newspaper exposes the terrible conditions experienced by the prisoners in Sylt, many of whom were crammed into tight spaces and deprived of necessities.

Awaiting the fall of Alderney in June 1940 for the Germans, the British government managed to destroy nearly all 1,400 residents of the island. The British resisted any attempt to conquer the island back, because it was considered too expensive and dangerous.

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 create fortifications used to create the Atlantic Wall – a series of defensive measures to protect the French coast after an Allied invasion. About 20 percent of these prisoners died in the camp within the first four months of arriving, the researchers said.

But it changed in 1943 when the Waffen-SS took over operations. The Nazi Party’s military wing transformed two of these labor camps, Sylt and a second camp known as Norderney, into concentration camps, where it served political prisoners and so-called enemies of the state. As a result of this transition, Sylt’s population grew from a few hundred prisoners in 1942 to more than a thousand prisoners in 1943.

The new paper describes the architectural changes observed at Sylt during this time and the hardships of the prisoners.

3D reconstructions of Sylt as published in 1942 (A), 1943 (B), 1944 (C) and the 1944 instantiation overlaid on the current landscape (D).

3D reconstructions of Sylt as published in 1942 (A), 1943 (B), 1944 (C) and the 1944 instantiation overlaid on the current landscape (D).
Statue: J. Kerti

For the new study, Sturdy Colls and her colleagues used a series of non-invasive archaeological techniques to track the site’s evolution over time. These techniques include aerial surveys, systematic cross country running, geophysical surveys, LIDAR (such as radar, but with lasers) and an overview of existing historical evidence, including prisoner’s first-person accounts. These studies were conducted from 2010 to 2017 under the Alderney Archeology and Heritage Project. The resulting data was used to create new maps, a 3D reconstruction of the camp, and new accounting for the site’s evolving architecture. In addition to these research data, the researchers referred to archival documents, aerial survey maps and plans.

Sylt camp as it has evolved over time.

Sylt camp as it has evolved over time.
Statue: C. Sturdy Colls et al., 2020 / Antiquity

The scientists documented the construction of new security measures, such as additional barbed wire fencing and watchtowers. They saw how the facility had tripled in size in January 1943 as she prepared for the arrival of the SS and the number of new prisoners. A total of 32 surface functions were registered, including a toilet block and bath house, stables, a kitchen, cellar and a mysterious tunnel. The purpose of this tunnel, which entered a building under the eastern boundary wall, is not entirely clear, but the researchers said it could have been used as an air-raid shelter, a quick access point, or a space that could take women to a brothel in the villa ”, according to the newspaper.

“While the archaeological research failed to confirm what the tunnel was used for, the discovery of regularly spaced light fixtures suggests that regardless of the purpose of the tunnel, it was widely used,” the authors wrote.

Many of the barracks had still not been completed by March 1943, forcing many prisoners to sleep outside for two months while construction continued. In August 1943, the camp in Sylt consisted of 25 buildings, including SS buildings and special homes for the camp commanders.

But this barracks remained completely inadequate, resulting in severe overcrowding of prisoners like the population swollen to about 1,000. The wooden barracks were 28 meters long (92 feet) and 8 meters wide (26 feet), but each of these buildings housed about 150 prisoners, giving them only 1.49 square meters (16 square feet) of space, according to the new study.

The authors describe the terrible conditions the prisoners endure:

Witness statements describe the conditions in the barracks, coupled with the inadequate supply of hypnotics [e.g. straw blankets], a breeding ground for lice. During the SS command of Sylt, between 30 and 200 prisoners died in a typhus outbreak, spread by lice and poor hygiene conditions. The toilet block, uncovered in 2013, was equally undersized and simple … The infirmary, located at the back of the camp and managed by the prisoners, was a simple wooden building. It functioned with insufficient medical equipment and knowledge. The SS horse stables, on the other hand, are well built, with foundations and a concrete trough in good condition.

The authors then describe how prisoners were tortured and killed for stealing food or trying to escape, and how some of them displayed their dead bodies as a warning to others.

According to Nazi documentation, a total of 103 prisoners died while in Sylt, but investigators said it is likely to be much higher, “mainly because several alleged shootings are not on this register.” The total number of prisoners killed in the entire Alderney complex of labor and concentration camps is estimated to be at least 700.

The new data, along with historical sources, “enhances the narrative of events by showing how the architecture, aesthetics, and behavior of the camp’s guards influenced the lives of the prisoners and their overseers,” the authors wrote. “We registered consistencies and changes in the way the camp functioned” between the labor camp and the SS periods, “challenging the ‘official’ story by showing that Sylt’s prisoners were still facing terrible living and working conditions had. “

Sylt was designated a protected area in 2017, but the future of the site is unclear. The authors hope that their new research and 3D models will be used to improve future heritage efforts in the area. This may not happen because some Britons believe that the “focus on slave labor will put the island in a negative light,” the authors said.

Alderney’s history is certainly painful, but a monument or museum honoring those who suffered and died the site would go a long way to restore this forgotten chapter in history.

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