Friday, 18 May 2018

The German Underground Hospital - Part 3

In 1971, shortly after decimal currency was introduced, Mr R. Ellington produced this small booklet, price 13p, which was about 2 shillings and 6 pence in old money, or half-a-crown, about the German Underground Hospital.

The research into that has increased, and the site now, under the title "Jersey War Tunnels" provides vastly more history of the Occupation as well as the history of the tunnels themselves. It has far more audio-visual means of telling its story, but back in 1971, this was what visitors to Jersey would have had. It's a very personal booklet, as Mr Ellington not only tells as much as he knows about the hospital from records, but also includes eyewitnesses who he spoke to at the time. It is in that respect, a time-capsule of social history.

The German Underground Hospital - Part 3
by R.M. Ellington


The work began at the Meadowbank entrance by drilling a series of holes (see Diagram below) with pneumatic drills. Drill bits of length varying from 1 ' to 9' were used. These drill bits frequently became blunt and had to be replaced or resharpened.

The power came from compressors situated at both entrances, which never ceased to operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and spares were permanently undergoing service in the workshops. When one compressor broke down, it would be immediately replaced by one of the ones which had just undergone overhaul. When the drilling of the holes was completed, the three in the centre would have a charge of dynamite inserted and this would be set off. Then the other eight 3m. deep holes would have their charges inserted, pushed right into the full depth of the hole and exploded. This then gave the rough outline of the tunnel.

Position of Holes for blasting.

The Germans themselves usually took charge of the actual blasting. Both the electrical and fuse systems were employed for detonation, but many failures occurred, as the components came, in the main, from factories in France where many of them were created deliberate duds as part of the French workers sabotage programme.

After the basic outline of the tunnel had been shaped in this fashion, the rest of the work was done mainly by hand. Long pointed steel bars were used to knock down the loose rubble from the roof of the tunnel and picks and shovels as well as some pneumatic hammers were used at the lower levels.

The tunnel floor would then be levelled and concreted with the rails inserted so that the trolleys could be brought right up to the blasting face to remove the rubble. Then the trolleys would be pushed by hand to the entrance where, when enough had accumulated to form a train, they would be coupled to a small diesel engine and driven down to Cap Verd. This is the way the main tunnel was constructed and the same system basically was used for all the galleries leading off this, i.e., wards, wash-rooms, operating theatres, kitchens, administration offices, Commandant's office, Doctors' quarters, etc., etc.

The work progressed twenty-four hours per day, a day shift from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m and a night shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The usual  system for the night shift was to drill the holes and explode the charges.

Because of the fumes, further work would then be impossible on the tunnel for some three or four hours with the compressors working non-stop to clear the air. Usually the blasting took place about 2 a.m. and then the night shift had little more to do until the end of their shift.

When the day shift arrived, the air in the tunnels would usually be cleared and the work of removing the rubble from the previous night's blasting would take up the whole of that shift. Thus progress per tunnel face was only approximately 9' per every twenty-four hours. Many of the slave workers were in such bad physical condition, that often two men would operate one shovel. The trick was to tie a piece of rope around the handle near the head of the shovel.

One man would then push the shovel into the rubble pile and the other would haul on the rope to help lift the rubble into the trolley. Mud-stone is a formation of variable quality, some of it being hard as granite, other parts being almost as soft as mud. This, combined with the comparative inexperience of the labour force and the continual deterioration in their physical condition inevitably led to a number of accidents and collapses. I will refer back to this in more detail at a later stage.

Before the well was sunk inside the underground hospital, water was collected in a sump drawn from the brook almost immediately in front of the entrance. This water supply was channelled into the tunnel by a pipeline running inside a shallow gully, which is still in existence today, covered over by wooden boards to facilitate servicing.

This same gully can also be seen in other tunnels. Its other function was to collect the surface water that rises almost everywhere throughout the construction, and channel it away into Cap Verd.

As the gully is very much more commodious than would be required by either of the above purposes, it seems likely that the Germans intended to put it to additional uses for unknown purposes, although a number of possibilities spring readily to mind.

In all, during the thirty odd months that the Germans worked at the Underground Hospital, well over a quarter of a million cubit feet of  rock, estimated at between 14,000 and 15,000 tons, were removed  from the hill-side and dumped at Cap Verd.

 It would appear from all reports that some 12 to 15 slave workers together with 2 to 3 Germans would be working together on each tunnel face. Concreting of the floors and laying the rails were then the main priority, but this was often carried out in such haste that the rail line was not as straight and level as might have been desired and the trolleys frequently fell off the rails and had to be re-loaded.

A rough calculation will show that at the height of the tunnelling activities, some 150 to 200 people in total must have been at work on each shift taking into account the number of tunnels being worked on simultaneously.

Feeding arrangements were fairly simple. A field kitchen drawn by two horses would haul a vast cauldron of soup up to the site: a soup consisting mainly of cereals, i.e., peas, lentils, barley, but with very little meat content, which they only got providing their work was satis- factory. This, plus a loaf per week, was virtually the staple diet of the slave workers. From all reports, it would appear that the German Todt Organisation workers were little better off, especially in the latter stages of the war when they even resorted to collecting stinging nettles for making soup for themselves.

Obviously, under these arduous conditions, the wastage rate of slave workers was rather high, but as the Germans kept the details of this very much to themselves, no numerical evaluation is possible.
But as the stream of replacement slave workers was virtually endless, this never tended to retard progress.

As has been stated earlier, the only Germans inside the tunnel were OT men and if-ally incident of misbehaviour or crime occurred among the slave workers, then the Military Police were called in to deal with it, even such trivial affairs as one slave worker stealing from another.

One of my informants was a man called Con Donoghue. After fiddling the occupation forces at every opportunity, he was seriously suspected, but nothing was ever proved against him. It was said that whilst driving a lorry on the airport construction, the said lorry was producing approximately 4 miles per gallon. By his own reckoning, he was thus able to "appropriate" anything from 4 to 6 gallons of petrol in a good working day. 1-le might well have been sent-to Germany to a ' concentration camp and, in fact, it seems that at one stage, his name was on the list for the next shipment (a member of the local police actually saw his name on the list). But partially due to the lack of concrete evidence against him and also because after the landings in Italy, the sea traffic between the Channel Islands and the French main- land was reduced to a minimum, he was reprieved.

As he spoke German and French, as well as English, he became driver and interpreter for Major Teischamann. (See advert 2 in appendix) It was from him that I obtained the details of the way the blasting was carried out.

Some clarification of the general situation would appear appropriate at this point. The Germans' general attitude was decidedly "vel- vet glove over iron fist". This applied to their relations all over the Island.

Several OT Officers set themselves up as genuine building contractors here in Jersey and advertised for local labour. They offered wages higher than the local jobs could pay, plus the inducements of extra rations which were worth even more than the extra money. The States of Jersey Labour Department, for instance, by order of the occupation Commandant, were allowed to offer a single man no more than £2.10s. 0d. to £2. 15s. 0d. per week, but the German contractors were offering 75d per hour for skilled labour, which for a 52 hour week would work out at nearly £3. 14s. 0d., not taking into consderation the extra rations. (see Advert 1 in Appendix).

This, of course, refers only to voluntary labour, but as it turned out, those of the local population who were compelled to work for the Germans compulsorily also got the benefit of the higher rates and extra rations. -

Although the German Todt Organisation members worked side by side with both slave workers and contract labour in the Underground Hospital, there was never any question about who was the boss. The Germans themselves worked very hard, but expected the same of the others. If the rate of work or the behaviour was not up to scratch, the Germans would hit out at the slave workers with shovel handle, boot or any other object which happened to be handy. As with all categories of people, the Germans differed very much in their approach from man to man. Some were harsh and brutal, some reasonable and humane.

According to Con Donoghue, not all slave workers were left in the rubble of the collapsed tunnels as is generally supposed. I now quote direct from his commentary.
"I do not deny that the Germans were our enemies at all times, but I do not feel that people should be condemned for something they did not do. I arrived on the site one morning when part of one of the tunnels had fallen in and three men had been killed. They dug into the rubble as fast as possible to get the bodies out, wrapped them in canvas and took them away by lorry to be buried. The same thing happened again in a later fall when 22 workers were killed and according to the lorry driver, they too were taken out in the same manner and buried in a corner of St. Saviour's Churchyard. Teischmann was a very humane man. He had a stream of tears down his face, even as though they were his own children".

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