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An exhibition looks at life in WWII civilian internment camps


Deportee art and artifacts on display at the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery (All photos courtesy of Gilly Carr, University Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge)

The Channel Islands were the only British territory to come under German occupation during World War II. Lasting from 1940 to 1945, the occupation had a tremendous impact on the entire population. Many were evacuated, imprisoned, or deported. Families were torn apart and the Channel Islanders suffered hunger and despair for five long years.

Gilly Carr is a University Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. Although her Ph.D. was in the archaeology of the occupation of Roman Britain, she has been working on the concept of "Occupation Archaeology" based on her fieldwork on the subject of the German-occupied Channel Islands of WWII since 2006. Most people outside the UK are unfamiliar with the occupation of the Channel Islands, especially with the deportations from the islands (which involved members of Gilly's own family) or what the deportees experienced.

There were no major deportations until 1942, the year after Britain began interning German civilians who were living in Persia (modern day Iran), fearing a German attempt to control the region's oil. Germany retaliated by deporting around 2,200 Channel Islanders to civilian internment camps mostly in Germany, as well as France and other areas in Europe. English-born citizens were seen as more of a threat to Germany than native Channel Islanders. As a result, the first wave of people from the Channel Islands to be deported included all English born men between the ages of 16 and 70 and their dependents. Many of the deportees only had 12 hours to decide what to do with their homes, family pets, and jobs. They were allowed to take warm clothes, boots, meal dishes, and a blanket. Some were first sent to the transit camp of Dorsten in Germany before being sent on to their permanent camps of Biberach and Würzach in the south of the country. Transit camps were places where deportees were sent temporarily before they were shipped to their permanent quarters which were often former POW camps or army barracks.

The following year, 1943, the second wave of deportations began. These included officers who served in WWI, Jews, Freemasons, and some people from the island of Sark (because of a British commando raid which took place on the island in October 1942). This wave of deportations also included what the German regime called "undesirables," which included those who spent time in prison for acts of resistance.

After studying the art and artifacts made by deportees during their years of internment for several years, Carr has gathered many of the objects for an exhibit titled, Occupied Behind Barbed Wire. Made in some of the civilian internment camps such as Biberach, Würzach, Laufen, Liebenau and the transit camps of Dorsten (Germany) and Compiegne (France), the objects tell us of the experience and emotions of deportation and internment. Those still alive are getting on in years and the majority who were deported, are no longer here. Carr believes it's an important story to tell now, and she has spent several years interviewing the deportees and has grown very close to her new extended family. The display of everyday art and objects opened on March 13 at the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery and runs through September 12. It will also be shown in the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012.

Occupied Behind Barbed Wire, an exhibition at the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery

After the deportees were shipped out to their permanent camps from the transit camps, which were filthy and often lice-ridden, they started to settle into their new situation. They cleaned their new living quarters as best they could and tried to make them a fit place to live. The deportees organized themselves by appointing a captain and set up roles for the rest of the internees. They had no idea how long their internment would last and wanted to make their lives as bearable as possible. The deportees used whatever they could get hold of to produce items that would give them a sense of normalcy and purpose, especially for the children. Classes were set up, plays and music were performed, and lots of toys were made.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Occupation Behind Barbed Wire was written by Gilly Carr and features hundreds of items that include trophies, tapestries, toys and games, cooking utensils, paintings, jewelry, and other items that were made by the deportees from recycled contents of Red Cross packages: crates, string, cellophane, cardboard, and so forth. Other items made from recycled materials included clothes and shoes as well as water heaters, kettles, coffee makers, and stoves.

I asked Carr what it is she hoped to learn as an archaeologist from this study. She replied, "I am used to analyzing and interpreting artifacts to get maximum information from them. I hope to be able to use my archaeological skills, coupled with what I had learned from oral testimony, internee diaries, letters and memoirs, to understand how these objects could speak of the experiences and emotions of internment. And, I found that they speak very eloquently of such things."

"In addition to the things they made to make their lives a little more comfortable, the internees also created items of 'defiance and resistance'," says Carr. The most popular means of expression of defiance was the "V" sign campaign during which people were encouraged to draw or make the letter "V" for victory, where German soldiers would see them, to make them feel that they were surrounded by a hostile resistance army. It wasn't a blatant campaign but one of subtlety that became incorporated in their art and everyday items. This campaign was very popular in the Channel Islands and continued in the camps. Among the examples in the exhibition catalogue is one of my favorites, and also one of the funniest. It is the pencil sketch of Monty Manning produced by Eric Sirett, an internee at Biberach. In the sketch it is clear that Manning has cut his beard and moustache into a V-shape. The German guards did not catch on, but the internees must have thought that it was hilarious. Another funny example of the "V" was incorporated into the sole of a woman's shoe made from plaited Red Cross string, which made a "V" footprint as she walked. Very defiant and very brave!

I asked Carr if she had a favorite artifact. "Yes I do," she replied. "In Biberach camp, Guernseyman Byll Balcombe engraved a series of camp issue mugs. He learned how to engrave metal when he fought in the trenches in WWI. He engraved shell cases there and used that skill while in captivity in WWII. His mugs give me such insight into the camp: he engraved views of the barrack rooms, of the view beyond the barbed wire, of all sorts of internment imagery. He also included a lot of symbols which were meaningful for his own life, and these have been very interesting to interpret. His best item was a shell case which the fleeing Germans left behind when the camp was liberated by the Free French. Balcombe engraved it with a map of Guernsey, draped with fresias (a Guernsey flower), a prayer in the Guernsey patois (Guernesiaise), and a view of the Weberberg district of Biberach, a pretty and historic part of the town. It's an amazingly beautiful piece and is a highlight of the exhibition."

Ceremony in Guernsey Island on April 23, 2010, for the unveiling of the
memorial plaque for those who were deported from Guernsey and Sark
to internment camps in Germany 1942 and 1945

Carr isn't the only archaeologist studying POW creativity. This past March she hosted an international conference at The University of Cambridge called, "Creativity Behind Barbed Wire." "I had scholars from Japan, South Africa, America, Canada, Israel, and Europe come to speak about their case studies," she says. " And there is some incredible work being conducted by these scholars on POW music composition, art, craftwork, camp magazine and newspaper writing, cookery, theater, etc. It was just wonderful to hear and see about what research is being conducted."

Carr dedicates the exhibit to all Channel Islanders who were deported during the German Occupation. For those deportees from the Channel Islands who are out there and whose family members are out there and haven't gotten in touch with Gilly Carr, she would love to hear from you at

Gilly Carr has just returned from Guernsey with some pictures from this year's Liberation Day celebrations which took place on May 9th, the day the Channel Islanders celebrate the liberation of the island from occupying German forces. This year was the 65th anniversary of Liberation Day:

Malin Grunberg Banyasz is ARCHAEOLOGY's editorial assistant.

  • Click here for interviews with Channel Island deportees on the BBC website.