Guernsey’s Buried Artillery – Guns in Victoria Gardens
Standing opposite each other in Victoria Gardens opposite the Town Fire Station, like sentinels from another age, you’ll find two heavy calibre artillery pieces – trophies of a previous war. They’re not British or even French but German and date back not to the dark days of Occupation but to the First World War. How they came to be here and their survival through another world war, and subsequent re-discovery, is even more fascinating.
They are the best preserved German artillery pieces in the Channel Islands and they spent the entire Occupation and many years thereafter actually buried beneath the gardens in which they now stand. Their hasty burial in 1940 and subsequent oblivion saved them from use by the Germans during the occupation and from the attentions of the scrap merchants who removed all the other heavy ordnance in the Islands after the war.
The guns are 13.5 cm in calibre and each weigh in at just under 6 tons.
This type entered service with the German Field Artillery shortly before 1914. They were formidable weapons of war, and for their time, were a high velocity quick firing artillery piece, with a maximum range, using high explosive shell, of 15,748 yards or nearly 9 miles. A single round could penetrate a vertical concrete wall 6.5 feet thick. Had the German occupying forces been aware of their presence in the Island they might well have been incorporated in the defences of 1940-1945, but they weren’t, as we have already mentioned, and the reason is the story of their life here on the island.
THEIR JOURNEY TO GUERNSEY, BURIAL & RESURRECTION
Like all parts of the British Empire Guernsey played her part in no small way during the Great War of 1914-1918. The Royal Guernsey Light Infantry raised and manned in the island fought hard paying a heavy price in the fields if Belgium and France.
Faced with the great quantity of captured enemy war material at the conclusion of hostilities in 1918, the British Government distributed specimens to the Empire as trophies of War. Guernsey’s share arrived in 1921. Included in the consignment were four 13.5 cm field guns, two of which survive, and a comprehensive selection of lesser items. These ranged from trench mortars and machine guns to sets of body armour and a gas gong. See the side bar for a full list.
The Island authorities seem to have been embarrassed by this windfall of weaponry. A temporary home was found for it at the Town Arsenal, head quarters of the Royal Guernsey Militia. There it might have remained, had it not been for a complaint by Major Le Mesurier. The German trophies were taking up valuable space and preventing the Militia from using their own drill hall. The States considered the problem on 7th December 1921, and a committee was set up to report on what was to be done with the war trophies.
The committee proposed that the four 13.5 cm guns, the two trench mortars and the smaller field gun be emplaced in Victoria Tower Gardens adjacent to the Arsenal and already housing two Russian muzzle loading cannon, trophies from the War in the Crimea.
It immediately aroused much opposition. Memories of heavy Guernsey casualties during the Great War were still very fresh. However the States eventually decided to adopt the committee’s proposals and placed the 4 field guns in Victoria Tower Gardens.
There they stayed until 1938, when under the combined effects of salt air and clambering children, the wheels of the two guns at the western end of the gardens began to give way. Ralph O’Toole, a local scrap merchant, was called in to dismantle and remove them. This left the pair at the eastern end together with the two Russian cannon.
There they stayed until the chaotic month of June, 1940 when the British War Cabinet decided that the Islands could not be defended after the collapse of France and the German occupation of the Channel coast.
The States fearing that the field guns might be mistaken for active artillery and thus provoke attack by the German Air Force on the “open town” of St. Peter Port decided that they should be removed from sight in the quickest way possible, by burying them where they stood in the gardens. Meanwhile the two Russian cannon, which were more mobile, were wheeled into the adjacent shrubbery.
Despite this precaution, the Luftwaffe still bombed St. Peter Port Harbour on 28th June killing 33 civilians. This armed reconnaissance was carried out because German intelligence, impressed by the many coastal fortifications and the known pre war garrison, believed that the Islands were to be defended. Unfortunately the British Government had omitted to inform the Germans that the Islands had been demilitarised.
The concealment of the field guns was so successful that they lay in the gardens for 38 years until November, 1978, when a local politician, Roger Berry, heard of their existence and suggested they be dug up and restored.
Both guns were soon located using metal detectors and were exhumed and taken into the care of the Ancient Monuments Committee, who were granted the sum of £2,000 by the States to meet the cost of conserving the guns. Subsequently the guns were sandblasted and coated first with red oxide paint and then with grey ‘Croda Triple Coat’, as used on the harbour cranes. It was finally decided that the guns should remain in the gardens where they had rested, above and below ground, for nearly 60 years.