Waterloo researchers are known globally for tackling complex problems and Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, of Waterloo’s School of Architecture in Cambridge, is one of them. He is a highly regarded expert and truth-seeker on all things related to the Holocaust. 

A quarter of a decade ago, van Pelt acquired fame as an expert witness in a notorious British libel trial that pitted British Holocaust denier David Irving against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. 

The case centered on a sloppy forensic investigation on the Auschwitz extermination camp, undertaken by an American engineer, and published by David Irving. 

Van Pelt established to the satisfaction of the court that, based on archival, eyewitness and forensic evidence, more than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered in the Auschwitz extermination camp. 

More recently, he got involved with a place largely forgotten by history: the eight-square-kilometre-small island of Alderney, one of the British Channel Islands. 

Alderney was occupied by Germany from 1940 to 1945, and, as an essential part of the so-called Atlantikwall (an extensive system of coastal defences and fortifications built by Germany along the coast of continental Europe), transformed into an impregnable fortress.

Old drawing of the map of Alderney

Great Brittain, War Office: Map of Alderney (1944). Courtesy of the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. 

The civilian population of Alderney had been evacuated before the beginning of the occupation, so voluntary, forced and slave labourers were brought to the island from the European continent. They were housed in various camps, and constructed bunkers, a large anti-tank wall, and other fortifications.

A forensic investigation done in 1945 by the British Army concluded that between 340 to 389 people died on Alderney, both as the result the bad conditions in the camps and violence of the guards.

This number of victims was accepted until approximately 10 years ago, when amateur historians, inspired by conspiracy theories, began to speculate that the number of victims might have been as high as 40,000, and that since 1945, the British Government had engaged in a nefarious cover-up, refusing to put the German perpetrators on trial.

Newspapers proved willing to publish these speculations, creating extreme anxiety amongst the  2,000 inhabitants of Alderney who were now told they lived on cursed soil, now nicknamed “Little Auschwitz.”

To establish the truth, in July 2023, Lord Eric Pickles, Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, put together a panel of World War II archeologists and academic historians from Britain, Germany, France and Canada to review the evidence and provide the most accurate assessment possible on the total death toll.

Van Pelt was the only North-American asked to join the panel.

Robert Jan van Pelt, his siblings and father standing in front of an airplane on Alderney in 1961

Wim, Judy, Saskia and Robert Jan van Pelt (highlighted) in Alderney (1962). Photo by Hans-Judy Bunge. Courtesy of Robert Jan van Pelt. 

As a boy, he had spent many summers on Alderney in the 1960s and knew the island very well. He was also committed to uncovering the truth of what had happened there between 1940 and 1945, as he had been in the case of Auschwitz.

As a panelist, his task was to deal with the fact that only a few hundred corpses had been exhumed after the war, and the argument of  amateur historians that tens of thousands of corpses would have been burned on pyres.

“From a technological and logistics standpoint, the burning of 40,000 bodies on Alderney would be highly improbable if not impossible,” he says. “Beyond that, burning 100 or 200 corpses at a time leaves an incredible impression on people … it's like a hellish, apocalyptic kind of spectacle. And anyone who's ever seen such a spectacle would have talked about what they had seen. But there's no testimony—none at all.”

Considering the archival evidence, the panel concluded that between 7,600 and 8,000 voluntary, forced and slave labourers were brought to Alderney during the war—already making the claim of 40,000 victims impossible—and it raised the death toll to a range between 641 and 1,027, with a maximum number of 1,134 people.

The final report of the panel was presented a month ago in London, and the new death toll, while higher than the original, brought some measure of peace to the inhabitants of Alderney.

The president of the States of Alderney, William Tate, described the report as a “relief, because some of the numbers that have been suggested for the people who lost their lives have been shown to have no evidential basis.” At the same time, the report brought “great sadness, because we now know that in fact, more people perished on our island than we knew before—but by the same token, it also now allows us to recognise their sacrifices.”

Banner image: The Odeon Bunker, Alderney. Photo by Dave Kiely. Courtesy of visitalderney.com