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Review: 'Operation Basalt' an exciting, illuminating account of British raid on Sark

Published Feb. 9, 2017

In the vast global conflict of World War II, the British commando raid on the tiny Channel Island of Sark on the night of Oct. 3-4, 1942, would seem almost insignificant. But it most definitely was not. For the raid's aftermath produced far-reaching repercussions, including the mass deportation of Channel Islanders, improved intelligence for planning the Allied invasion and, tragically, Adolf Hitler's infamous "Commando Order."

Eric Lee's exciting and illuminating Operation Basalt recounts events that took place on the island of Sark, in the English Channel off the coast of Nazi-occupied France. In 1940, Sark's landmass of 5 square kilometers supported fewer than 500 people and 103 cows. With no paved roads and no airfield, it "had no strategic value of any kind," writes Lee.

Politically, Sark was a throwback. Though it had been considered British territory since the 11th century, the inhabitants British subjects, the island was not governed by London but ruled by a hereditary feudal lord, Mrs. Sybil Hathaway, Dame of Sark, and her American-born husband, Robert.

After the fall of France to Germany in June 1940, the consuming thought in Hitler's mind was to build an "Atlantic Wall," a barrier against a future — to him, it seemed inevitable — Allied invasion from England. He eyed the Channel Islands as a useful barricade against such an attack. He also thrilled to the idea of conquering British territory, "of occupying British soil, and having British subjects living under German rule," Lee informs us.

So, on July 3, 1940, three German officers "invaded" Sark on a lifeboat, carrying with them a peace offering of a side of beef. They were greeted at the dock by a steward and brought to have lunch with Mrs. Hathaway. As writer Richard Le Tissier put it, writes Lee, Hathaway, who spoke German, discussed books and Sark government with her guests. And she "maintained a firm but polite attitude towards senior German officers which was to stand her in good stead for the next few years of Occupation."

Over the next two years the inhabitants of all the Channel Islands felt abandoned by Britain. They also keenly felt the strain of the curfews, the limits on how far out their fishing boats were allowed to go and the terrifying deportation threats.

Their allies in England, however, were making plans to conduct a commando raid upon Sark, for two reasons: to capture one or more German soldiers to interrogate for information regarding defenses on the Channel Islands (with an eye toward the future Allied invasion), and to assure islanders that they had, indeed, not been forgotten.

On the night of Oct. 3, 1942, a dozen British commandos under the command of Capt. Geoffrey Appleyard landed on the east coast of Sark. They climbed the steep Hog's Back cliff and eventually came to the house of Frances Pittard, who informed them of impending German plans to deport islanders to Germany. She also told the commandos the location of the hotel annex where German soldiers were quartered.

The commandos immediately attacked. Armed with Sten guns, .45 Colt revolvers and a special hunting knife, they stabbed a sentry to death and burst into the hotel. All hell, as the apt cliche goes, broke loose. The commandos tried to keep the Germans from alerting troops close by, and they attempted to tie them up, but the Germans kept fighting fiercely, trying to escape — a few succeeding.

Some commandos wound up shooting bound prisoners. Commando Gunner Reborn admitted later that, struggling with his captive, "I couldn't manage" his prisoner, so "I had to shoot him." All told, three Germans were killed.

The commandos succeeded in capturing one German soldier. Luckily, he was a combat engineer. He later provided much useful information about harbor mines, crucial for the Allies' invasion planning.

One huge, terrible outcome of the Sark raid, however, was Hitler's issuance on Oct. 18 of the Commando Order, which stated that because some of the German prisoners' hands were bound when they were killed, their killing was a criminal act and constituted a war crime. "I therefore order that from now on all opponents … in so-called commando operations … are to be exterminated to the last man."

For the remainder of the war, German soldiers killed captive commandos. However, during the Nuremberg trials after the war, Lee informs us, Hitler's order (along with the punitive mass deportation of several thousand Channel Islanders to Germany) was deemed a war crime and used to convict former Nazi military officers.

Lee's gripping, well-researched Operation Basalt shines a bright light on a tiny, yet important, corner of World War II.

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