Nazi camp on an island in the English Channel housed at least a thousand people during World War II. Researchers surveyed the site and collected testimonies from survivors.
A team from the Staffordshire University, UK, revealed the results of extensive research conducted by experts at Sylt, a “forgotten” Nazi concentration camp. According to the article published at the end of March on Antiquity, the German installation was on the island of Alderney, located in the English Channel, and housed at least a thousand people during the Second World War (1939-1945).
When France was dominated by the Nazis in June 1940, the government of England realized that it would be very difficult to defend its autonomous territories in the English Channel archipelago. As a result, almost all of the residents of Alderney were evacuated from the region – and when the Germans arrived there in July of the same year, they occupied the area with ease.
Beginning in 1942, the Nazis built several labor camps on the island, including Sylt, where prisoners were mainly Soviet. However, as time went by, the place became an important place for the Germans, and in March 1943, Sylt began to be considered a concentration camp and receive political prisoners and enemies of the state.
With the advance of the War in 1944, the Germans ended up leaving Alderney – but not before covering up their tracks, destroying documents and buildings. As Caroline Sturdy Colls, one of the historians, says, over the years and the terrible memories still fresh in the minds of residents, the place was eventually forgotten and these crimes were “buried physically and metaphorically,” she said in an interview with National Geographic.
In 2010, the Staffordshire University team decided to explore Sylt’s previously little-known history. The idea was, in addition to mapping the location, to find out more about the people who were imprisoned in the concentration camp and the horrors experienced by them.
For this, the specialists visited the island, removed the vegetation that took over the environment and examined the few remaining structures in the field. The team then used a modern remote surveying technique known as LiDAR to examine the ancient field without damaging the archaeological site.
The team also retrieved historical documents, such as a map of the camp created by the Nazis in 1942, to confirm their findings. Additionally, another crucial factor for the success of the research was the testimonials provided by survivors who passed through Sylt.
Among the victims is the Spanish Francisco Font, who was arrested by the Germans and forced to work in Alderney. In one of his statements, he said he saw a man tied to the main gate of the concentration camp. “On his chest, he had a sign that said: ‘for stealing bread’. His body hung for four days,” recalled Font.
After years of study, archaeologists and historians have discovered much about Sylt’s long-forgotten history. As they wrote in the article published in Antiquity, the place was built to house from 100 to 200 people, of which about 20% died from abuse during the first year of imprisonment.
When it was converted into a concentration camp, the facility gained barbed wire fences and watchtowers, as well as more facilities. In total, traces of 32 buildings were found, including a bathroom and toilet, stables, kitchen, cellar and a tunnel.
No one knows for sure what the tunnel was for, but it is speculated that it served as an air-raid shelter or a connection between a brothel field. “Although the archaeological survey cannot confirm what the tunnel was used for, the discovery of regularly spaced fixtures suggests that, whatever the purpose of the tunnel, it was in frequent use,” wrote the authors.
In addition, when it became a concentration camp, the place began to receive more prisoners – its occupation reached more than a thousand people. However, many of these people had nowhere to sleep and spent the night outside the “dorms”.
“Testimonies describe that conditions in the barracks, together with the inadequate supply of sleeping materials [for example, straw blankets], resulted in a breeding ground for lice,” the experts wrote. According to them, an outbreak of typhus, spread by lice and poor sanitary conditions, killed between 30 and 200 prisoners at the time.
In comparison, according to the research, Nazi guards lived comfortably in buildings made of reinforced concrete, which were surrounded by stone walls “to protect them from the weather and air raids,” describe the researchers.
During the day, the supervision of prisoners was the task of a Nazi paramilitary group called “Totenkopfverband” (Death’s Head Unit). In testimonies, Sylt survivors reveal that they had to work hard for 12 hours a day under the mistreatment of officers, who beat them “with everything they could get their hands on”.
The food there was also terrible: the Nazis provided very little food for the prisoners, a situation that was accentuated in times of rough seas. As historian Paul Sanders told National Geographic, bad weather prevented regular deliveries to the island, which limited the already scarce access to food.
For Sanders, corruption among Nazi officers had a direct impact on the lives of prisoners. “The fact that no civilians were seeing what was happening in Alderney led to a much more brutal environment,” he said.
According to Nazi documentation, 103 prisoners died on Sylt, but researchers speculate that that number was much higher, “especially since several shootings do not appear in the records,” the historians report. For the team, the total number of prisoners killed across the Alderney camp and concentration camp complex is at least 700 people.
Caroline Sturdy Colls believes that the new study sheds light on the German occupation in Alderney and honored the thousands of victims imprisoned in Sylt. “Historical, forensic and archaeological approaches have finally offered the possibility to discover new evidence and to give a voice to those who suffered and died in Alderney many years ago,” Colls said in a statement, according to Live Science.