In light of Remembrance Week – an exploration of life in Guernsey during the Occupation from 1940-1945.
The Occupation of The Channel Islands during the Second World War lasted from 30th June 1940 to May 8th 1945. The Channel Islands themselves have the unique experience of being the only British territory to have been occupied by German forces during WW2, and it is a war narrative often – and sadly – over looked. As a Guernsey girl, I thought I would tell you all a bit more about the Occupation of my island. It is so important we remember those who went through such a unique and transformative period in Channel Island history.
So where exactly is Guernsey? It sits in between France and England but it’s actually closer to the French coast.
It is a very small island, with roughly 65,000 people and it only takes about 40 minutes to drive from one end to the other. Although its responsibility is to the UK, as a self-governing crown dependency – it is not part of the UK or the EU. So while I’m British I’m not classed as English. This causes all sorts of confusion!
Some of you may know Guernsey from the famous 2008 novel the ‘Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society’ – I mean who could resist such a scintillating book title. We are separate from the UK so we have our own Parliament, legal system and currency. The pound note is particularly exotic to tourists. I am also told that Guernsey cows are renowned worldwide! How fantastic! The milk is pretty damn good though. Moreover, Victor Hugo’s house still stands in the main town of St.Peter Port. It was during his 15 year stay in Guernsey that he wrote some of his major works, including Les Miserables – a huge hit once again thanks to the likes of Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman. It is also a popular summer holiday destination because of all the lovely beaches – we are very lucky indeed.
But back to the Second World War…
Guernsey has a darker, less idyllic history which some of you may not know about. During the Second World War, life on all the islands continued quite normally for the first few months of war. But by June 1940, with German troops sweeping across France towards Normandy and Brittany, the British War Cabinet reaffirmed its earlier decision that the Islands had no real importance and would therefore not be defended . It had an ‘open town’ status. The German Occupation of the Islands thus became increasingly inevitable.
Late in the afternoon of 28 June 1940 six Heinkel bombers attacked the island and many islanders were killed in the raids. Afterwards, petrol was rationed, windows were taped over to prevent flying glass, gas masks were issued, blackout regulation was put into effect and the edges of the pavements were painted white.
The British Government concluded their best policy was to make available as many ships as possible so that islanders had the option to leave if they wanted to. Guernsey evacuated all children of school age, giving parents the option of keeping their children with them, or evacuating them with their school. In Jersey, the majority of islanders chose to stay. From all the islands, about 34,500 people departed, leaving a population of some 64,000. Sadly, many children were never reunited with their parents.
I went to the Guernsey Occupation Museum last summer (for the first time!) and I would encourage any of my local friends or tourists to pay a visit. There is a great array of artifacts, ranging from guns to a horse-drawn ambulance. There is also a tea room which oozes quaintness. Most items had personal stories attached to them, making them all the more thought-provoking. A recreated street scene from the era transports you back to wartime, together with all the photographs. The Museum was opened in 1966 and includes one of the most extensive collections of war memorabilia on the island.
As part of the Atlantic Wall, between 1940 and 1945, the occupying German forces constructed fortifications, roads and other facilities in Guernsey. Much of the work was carried out by imported labour, including thousands from the Soviet Union, and was under the supervision of the German forces. The Germans quickly consolidated their positions. They brought in infantry, established communications and anti-aircraft defenses, established an air service with mainland France and rounded up British servicemen on leave.Once they had arrived on the island, communications were severed between the islands and England, and swastikas were flown at the airports and from public buildings. Life for the people of Guernsey changed drastically.
The first German troops were in high spirits and were often friendly towards the civilians. Many even socialised together or became friends. Inevitably, some island women had relationships with the German men. This was frowned upon by the majority of islanders, who gave them the derogatory nickname Jerry-bags. Indeed, records released by the Public Records Office in 1996 suggest that as many as 900 babies of German fathers were born to Jersey women during the occupation.
However, things weren’t always so cordial…
Certain laws were passed at the insistence of the occupying forces. For example, a reward was offered to informants who reported anyone for painting “V-for Victory” signs on walls and buildings. Three islanders of Jewish descent were deported to Auschwitz, never to return.
As the island became more heavily protected from invasion, beaches were placed out of bounds for locals, but ormering was allowed in specific areas. Fishermen were also permitted to take their boats to sea, although a soldier had to accompany them, and there was a limit to the distance allowed from shore. The German authorities changed the Channel Island time zone from GMT to CET to bring the islands into line with continental Europe, and the rule of the road was also changed to driving on the right.
Undoubtedly the greatest shock of all however, and the change which induced the lowest morale, came with a German order published in the island newspapers of 15 September 1942. It stated ‘All those men not born on the Channel Islands, from 16 to 70 years of age who belong to the English people, and their families, will be evacuated and transferred to Germany’. A great panic ensued and much distress was caused by this sudden action. Overall 2,200 men, women and children were deported to German camps.
There wasn’t much overt resistance in the Channel Islands, as in mainland France. The physical separation of the islands, the density of troops (up to one German for every two islanders) and the small size of the islands preventing any hiding places for resistance groups, made rebellion much harder. Resistance often involved passive resistance, acts of minor sabotage, sheltering and aiding escaped slave workers and publishing underground newspapers containing news from BBC Radio. As already mentioned, the islanders joined in Churchill’s V sign campaign by imprinting the letter ‘V’ (for Victory) over German signs. Many islanders successfully hid their radios and continued listening to the BBC despite the risk of being discovered by the Germans or being informed on by neighbours.
The Red Cross played a huge role in ensuring the islanders received food parcels. Initially, the food in stock in Guernsey was sufficient to sustain the reduced population, but as the years wore on the situation became more difficult. People had to improvise in a bid to maintain some reasonable standard of living.
The local authority, with some support from the occupying forces, managed to establish trade links with France. These links were vitally important to Guernsey as meat, flour, medical supplies and other necessities were imported from the Continent. A welcome relief was the Vega, a Red Cross chartered vessel, which made six trips to the islands with such supplies. However, both the islanders and the occupying forces suffered during the final stages of the war.
My house was in fact the old Red Cross distribution depot, and the lounge a local shop. All the parcels went to that property for the parish of St Peters.
Finally, liberation came on May 8th 1945 after the German surrender. Churchill made a radio broadcast at 3pm during which he announced:
‘Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight to-night, but in the interests of saving lives the “Cease fire” began yesterday to be sounded all along the front, and our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed to-day.’
The following morning, 9 May 1945, HMS Bulldog arrived in St Peter Port, Guernsey and the German forces surrendered unconditionally aboard the vessel at dawn. British forces landed in St Peter Port shortly afterwards, greeted by crowds of joyous but malnourished islanders.
Since the end of the occupation, the anniversary of Liberation Day has been celebrated in Jersey and Guernsey on 9 May as a national holiday.
The occupation proved a difficult time for most people, but it did draw islanders closer together. There were lessons to be learned from such an experience. Of course, most would have preferred to have skipped such an education…
Most of the German bunkers still stand today. Indeed, many people feel it is important to keep them. They are symbols of strength, bravery and resilience during a time when hope seemed futile.