Words On The Street: Guernsey Underground News Service during WW2

(Featured image: my own photo of the article when it was adapted for The Guernsey Press on 27th June 2014)

Freedom of speech – or the freedom to publish and read particular news stories – is something which we often take for granted.

In our increasingly connected and tech-savvy society, we are able to access breaking or controversial news stories whenever and wherever we want, and often for free. Moreover, we are becoming generators of news through the ever-increasing presence of social media sites such as twitter and Facebook, where we have our own ‘news feeds’.

Of course, news organisations and publications select stories that will best inform, entertain and satisfy their specific audience, but (aside from a few exceptions!) you are guaranteed a certain level of objectivity. Equally, you have the ability to choose your news. You can pick up the Guernsey Press, scroll through your twitter feed, refresh your Facebook page, visit BBC News online, listen to the radio, watch Sky News or flick through The Times. The choice is endless.

But what if all this was taken away from you? Can you imagine having to read censored newspapers full of propaganda, hide your radios at great risk and filter your words on a daily basis?

For the thousands of islanders who remained in Guernsey during the occupation, this was the harsh and unavoidable reality.

News distribution and consumption underwent a complete transformation with the arrival of the German occupants on June 30 1940, severely reducing the extent to which the island’s media could accurately report local, national and international news.

The Germans had at first recommended an amalgamation of Guernsey’s two local papers, the Evening Press and the Star, andthough this did not take place, the two papers eventually agreed to print on alternate days throughout the week to conserve paper. German propaganda covered most if not all of the front pages, while local news was forced to focus on more inconsequential topics such as local swimming galas, birth rates etc.

Each item was meticulously scanned to make sure there was nothing offensive to The Third Reich. Nevertheless, Frank Falla, a local journalist working during the occupation, said that Guernsey newspapermen were advised by the local authorities at evacuation time that “it was their duty, as the main line of communication between authority and people, to stay at their posts to ensure official information reached the people.”

Herbert Winterflood, a local writer who survived to tell his tale of the occupation, said how the entire front page of the first paper under Occupation was devoted to ‘Orders of the Commandant,’ carrying a clear warning that any hint of disobedience towards the military would be dealt with severely, underlined with a threat to bomb St Peter Port if any rebellion took place.

Such propaganda had the key objective of persuading islanders that they had no better choice than to stick with the occupying force. The Evening Press once even carried an editorial headed: ‘Why you should be learning German’.

Of course many islanders knew they were being fed a one sided newsreel. But such false information alongside pro-German articles must have been confusing and disheartening for many who had no access to the underground press leaflets which started to slowly emerge.

The Germans decided in May 1942 to publish their own newspaper in Guernsey. The weekly Deutsche Guernsey Zeitung ran from July 4 1942 to May 8 1945 and gave the occupying forces, many of whom were missing home, a sense of familiarity with their homeland. Indeed, these were also full of pro-German propaganda and illusions of Hitler-esque grandeur.

The occupying forces were also keen to publicise any acts of German kindness or geniality in the newspapers. Whenever there was an encounter between the German military and local people, there was always a photographer on hand to record the smiles and handshakes.

Even with half the population gone and such blatant propaganda, circulation of the Evening Press remained at an average of 5,600 copies a day. Locals were still keen to read the news either out of habit or on the off chance that a secret message may be filtered through the censor.

Pockets of resistance helped defy the domineering German media censorship, never defeating but certainly challenging it as an all-consuming force in Guernsey during the Second World War.

Active resistance, such as sabotage or helping escaped prisoners, brought threats of swift reprisals, and even the death penalty. Escape from the islands was extremely dangerous and dependent on obtaining a boat to cross the Channel. Still, around eighty people from Jersey and seventy from Guernsey were successful over the five years.

Resistance through media was equally difficult and harshly punishable, yet many took the risk. One such form was resistance news sheets. British historian Barry Turner said in Outpost of Occupation: “This was a direct and dangerous challenge to the authorities, who ranked the dissemination of news as a far more serious crime than simply listening in.”

Information from the outside world was highly valued, and groups of locals secretly distributed leaflets printed with digests of the BBC News. This required a certain degree of organisation. Shorthand writers, typists and printers had to be found, and a distribution network had to be initialised. Paper, ink and printing machinery were needed when all were in great demand.

It was challenging and treacherous work and the Germans recognised the existence of these news leaflets for what it was – organised resistance. There were several underground news services on Jersey and Guernsey; some only lasted a couple of issues, some several years. The G.U.N.S. (Guernsey Underground News Service) was one of the most successful leafleting operations in Guernsey, publishing daily editions from May 1942 until February 1944.

G.U.N.S was run by fifty one year old Charles Machon,a linotype operator in the office of the Star, with the help of its Editor Frank Falla and three other men. The leaflet carried a seven hundred-word précis of that day’s BBC broadcasts typed up on thin tomato packing paper. It was calculated at having a circulation of three hundred on all the islands and was passed secretly from reader to reader.

While these numbers are relatively small, once the news was read by a small group, word of mouth played a huge role in spreading the facts faster and wider throughout the community. This was dangerous business however, and in February 1944 a copy of a G.U.N.S. pamphlet fell into the hands of an informer, an Irishman called Paddy Doyle.

The five men were arrested and sentenced to prison on the continent. Machon and the others were “grilled” by the Gestapo for two weeks. Machon was sentenced to two years and four months imprisonment in Germany, but he only survived this ordeal for five months because of a stomach ulcer. He died in prison along with another member of the resistance group. The other three returned alive, including Frank.

Another Guernsey man, Mr L.E. Bertrand, ran a news service from the confiscation of wireless sets in June 1942 until the liberation of the islands. He said in A Record of the Work of the: Guernsey Active Secret Press, that the BBC News was the “only link we had with the outside world. The Germans did not want us to hear the truth, but I was determined that Guernsey should get the news, no matter what the cost.” Mr Bertrand tempted providence by keeping a wireless set in a garden shed no more than fifty feet from a German anti-aircraft battery, yet unlike members of the G.U.N.S. group, he was not caught.

Until June 1942, most families had one or more radios and could tune into the BBC. Of course, this was less than a guarantee of discovering the whole truth as British propaganda would have seeped into such reports. However, there was at least a chance of weighing up one side against the other.

This came to an end when the German military ordered the confiscation of all radios (for the second time) in June 1942 until the end of the occupation in May 1945. Germans gave the reason for confiscation as a military precaution. The BBC had been encouraging listeners in France and other occupied areas to take part in a general resistance campaign. This immediately brought orders from Berlin for the sets to be withdrawn. In total, 8000 sets were collected in Guernsey.

However, many people managed to hide wireless sets beneath floorboards, behind cupboards, inside armchairs, barrels and any other unlikely place they could think of. Still, according to local writer June Money: “Being in possession of a crystal set or a radio was always dangerous”.

Houses were searched without warning and while some people were lucky enough to get away with hidden radios, others were not so fortunate. The unfortunate ones were fined, or sentenced to imprisonment. Those with short sentences stayed in the islands. Others with longer sentences were sent to Germany where many died in prison or concentration camps. After the confiscation of their radios, many people turned to making or acquiring crystal sets in order to hear the news.

German censors ensured that many military events and correspondence between civilian and military authorities will never be found. Nevertheless, as Herbert Winterflood said in his personal account of the Occupation: “A picture of life in the islands can be obtained by reading the texts of reports appearing in the newspapers,” even if only to understand the strict levels of censorship imposed.

Neverthless, while the fortitude of those who stayed in Guernsey has been celebrated, there has been in some quarters, notably the intelligence services, a conviction that islanders had wilfully allowed the Germans to take over core elements of local life such as the media. The Model Occupation, written by Guardian columnist and associate editor Madeleine Bunting has proved particularly unpopular and deservedly so.

Bunting focused on the rare cases of collaboration in media and others areas. “It is a source of embarrassment to the islanders, and to the British, that there was no resistance in the islands on the scale of the rest of Europe…There were none of the astonishing feats of bravery which characterised the legends of the France, Belgian, Cretan and Greek resistance,” she said in her book.

Her comments are not only unjustifiably harsh, they are ill-informed. At no time did leading islanders accept German authority other than by enforcement or threat. Her comments ignore the obvious fact that, in contrast to other occupied areas, the Channel Islands were denied the arms and agents deemed essential for a grassroots rebellion, surely a critical factor when it comes to judging the islanders’ wartime behaviour.

As a group of small islands cut off from resources, other people and escape routes, these considerations must be taken on board when critiquing the scale and success of resistance to media censorship. The fact that any form of underground news service was set up at all – in such a small geographical area – should be greatly commended.

The various underground news services and hidden radios prove the people of Guernsey did not give up their media freedom without a determined and persistent fight. Freedom recorded the highest single circulation in the Evening Press’s newspaper’s history with 17,585 copies sold on May 9 1945. The front page read: “At last Guernsey’s Great Moment has come – the moment for which we have been waiting for five weary years. The British are here to expel the Germans and we are free”. It had been a long time coming.

Research/Further Reading

Bertrand, L.E. (1945) A Record of the Work of the: Guernsey Active Secret Press 1940-45. Guernsey: The Guernsey Star and Gazette Company.

Bunting, Madeleine. (1995)A Model Occupation. The Model Occupation. London: Harper Collins.

— Resistance? What Resistance? The Model Occupation. London: Harper Collins.

Falla, Frank W. (1967) Acting Editor. The Silent War. London: Leslie Frewin.

Marr, James. (2001) The Second World War. The History of Guernsey: The Bailiwick’s Story. Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Company.

Money, June. (1995) Evacuation. Aspects of War: The German Occupation of The Channel Islands. Guernsey: GP Printers.

— Communications. Aspects of War: The German Occupation of The Channel Islands. Guernsey: GP Printers.

Prigent, Dave. (1997) Occupation Troubles. Guernsey Press: The First 100 Years. Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Company Limited.

Turner, Barry. (1998) Introduction. Outpost of Occupation. London: MPG Books.

— Propaganda War. Outpost of Occupation. London: MPG Books.

Winterflood, Herbert. (2002) Here are Your Orders. Occupied Guernsey 1940-1942. Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Company.

— Gearing for an Economy Drive. Occupied Guernsey. Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Company.




One thought on “Words On The Street: Guernsey Underground News Service during WW2

  1. Thanks for making your article available online Jessamy. Although I am not as optimistic as you that we really do have free speech in Guernsey today, I was impressed that you wrote the entire piece above without using the word ‘Nazi’ once. Not that it’s use would not have been justified once or twice, but the many people who work in the media in the Channel Islands who are intent on forcing their own culturally left-wing views on everyone never miss an opportunity to imply that everyone who lived in WWII Germany were evil Nazi’s, and they do this by endlessly repeating the word when simply calling them ‘German’ would do. Guernsey locals who lived through the Occupation rarely refer to the Germans as ‘Nazi’s’, though they know only too well that some of them were just that. The vast majority of the female journalists working at the Guernsey Press over the last few years have let their own left-wing political views show through in news articles that should have been totally objective. It would be good to see you back in the island at some stage to show your colleagues how to do their job more professionally.

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