One of the most significant periods in the Channel Islands history was the occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II. The Guernsey Occupation, between June 1940 and May 1945, cast a long shadow over the 20th century and shaped the islands into what they are today - along with its residents. It left a lasting legacy, both emotionally and literally. Families were reunited and had to find a way forward after, in many cases, five years of separation, and the island had to be made safe. The coastline bears testament to this time, still punctuated with fortifications and bunkers. The Occupation has not been consigned to the history books just yet. Many islanders still alive today can recall being evacuated from their island home, and how different Guernsey was on their return. Those who stayed, talk of life under German rule, and the jubilation of Liberation Day, 9 May 1945 (10 May in Sark; 16 May in Alderney) when Guernsey was freed, something still celebrated today.
The German Occupation of the Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945 played a huge part in shaping the landscape and people of Guernsey. This is particularly true for the 4000 school children who were evacuated to the UK at that time. At very short notice, they had to leave their families and familiar surroundings and travel to towns and environments far removed from their peaceful island home. There they were welcomed by strangers, who themselves were suffering as the country moved onto a war-footing, and provided with food, shelter and much needed friendship.
As the German Blitzkrieg sped through France in 1940, the people of Guernsey began to realise that the battle could arrive on their shores. It was hoped that the axis forces would ignore the island in their efforts to invade England, but this was not to be the case and their halcyon days of sea, sun and freedom were about to come to an abrupt end.
On 19 June the Channel Islands were officially demilitarised and abandoned to the enemy by the British Government. As black smoke billowed from the coast of France, the Guernsey Evening Press' front page headline gave orders for the 'Evacuation of Children'. Parents were informed that they had to register that evening and report to the harbour at 8am the following morning with their children packed and ready to leave. Mothers of infants under-five were allowed to accompany their children but all those of school age were to travel within their school groups, with only some mothers invited to act as helpers.
The evacuation of children was, in fact, voluntary but this was not initially made clear and many parents believed it to be compulsory. In the hours of scaremongering and mayhem that ensued, families had to make heart-wrenching decisions about who should be uprooted from their island home and who should be left to the mercy of the German army.
It fell upon the heads and teachers of the island's schools to let parents know what was happening and what they were allowed to pack for their children. Although they did not know it at the time, it would fall upon them to keep their young charges in their care for five long years of exile.
In the logbooks of Notre Dame du Rosaire, one of Guernsey's primary schools, headmistress Miss M Gautier recorded the following in the days and hours up to the evacuation in 1940:
War is coming closer. Guns were heard near Cherbourg yesterday and today. Children kept calm.
Possible evacuation of schools discussed. Told to make full lists of all children. If evacuation is decided it will not be before the weekend.
Evacuation to take place immediately. Notice put in the paper. Registration of children in the evening. Our school to be at White Rock by 9am. Details about clothes and food given with the notice.
9.30pm, 19 June
Just told to let children know we are to leave from Vauvert at 4am tomorrow.
In all, 17,000 islanders left Guernsey - almost half the population - and made the crossing to Weymouth. For many, this was the first time they had ever left the island and there was naturally a certain amount of excitement along with the tears.
Young children in particular believed that they were on an outing and did not understand that it could be years before they returned home.
On arrival in England and after a cursory medical, the refugees were loaded onto trains and taken north. Once again there was great excitement amongst the youngsters, who had only seen steam engines in books and who never imagined that a cow could be anything other than brown or that the sea would not come into view over the next hill.
The trains made their way slowly up through Bath, Worcester, Stockport, Burnley, all the way to Glasgow, dropping off groups along the way. After the vibrancy and rural tranquillity of Guernsey, the grey industrial north would have been a huge culture shock for these weary travellers. Amongst them was seven-year-old Joyce Grut, who had made the journey with her mother, who was one of the helpers. Their small group of refugees disembarked at Stockport and were taken to a large hall where they stayed en masse until they were billeted with local families. The next few years were to take Joyce from one extreme to another and create a fragmented childhood that mirrored many of her contemporaries.
Shortly after their arrival in Stockport, Mrs Grut was offered a job as housekeeper for a local schoolteacher, but the invitation did not extend to Joyce who was eventually billeted with a couple called Harry and Jesse Shuttleworth. For the next four years, she lived in relative comfort and was looked after with great care and love by her surrogate parents.
Mrs Grut, however, was determined that her daughter would be a Guernsey girl first and foremost and so, by the time she was 11, Joyce was shipped off to a Grammar School in Rochdale to be educated with the small Guernsey contingent there. The following months proved to be the most deprived she would ever experience, as she was billeted with a barmaid and her child in one of the worst slum areas of the town.
Sharing a bed with the little girl she had been brought in to look after, Joyce recalls water pouring down the bedroom walls onto them. Supper was bread and jam every evening and before long she had fallen into very bad health. When her mother eventually discovered her plight, she nursed her back to health over several months. Towards the end of the War, Joyce was billeted at a baker's shop on Rochdale Road where despite having to work in the kitchens and shop, she was treated kindly by the family. It was here that she would hear Churchill's momentous speech: 'And our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today.'
In the weeks and months that followed VE day, most of Guernsey's evacuees returned home. The vision of St Peter Port harbour bathed in the morning sunlight must have been a sight for sore eyes, but after establishing new lives in England, there were also very mixed feelings about coming home. Children were reunited with parents and siblings despite being virtually unrecognisable - not just because they had grown up but also because of their new mannerisms, language and northern accents. Many of the older generation spoke only D'gernésiais (Guernsey French), which must have made repatriation even more difficult.
Sadly some families did not manage to rebuild their past relationships, and life for everyone would never be the same as it had been before. Joyce's family was eventually reunited and she remembers her parents enjoying a second honeymoon period as they re-embarked on their married life. School started again, this time as a secondary student, and life slowly got back onto an even keel.
Notre Dame Primary School opened up for a new school year in September 1945 and headmistress EM Meagher recorded the following in the School Logbook:
17 September 1945
School re-opened today under very different circumstances from those existing at the last session in June 1940... From June 1940 until July 1945 the School continued to function as a unit in Tottington, near Bury, Lancashire.
In spite of difficulties resulting from the War, from shortage of materials, limited space and equipment, Miss Gautier succeeded in keeping up the work of her pupils to a high standard.
She kept her charges together; their health and general welfare were her constant care. She was able to return to Guernsey with all her charges in very good health and without the loss of a single child.
The biggest impact on the Islands during the 20th century was when they were occupied during World War II.
German forces had been sweeping through Europe towards the northern coast of France during the early part of 1940, and by mid June had reached Cherbourg.
Islanders' fears were realised when the local newspaper announced, on Wednesday 19 June 1940, the 'Evacuation of children'. This followed a meeting in London on Saturday 15 June, when military chiefs decided that the Channel Islands were of no strategic importance and would not be defended.
Parents were given four hours to decide if they wanted their children evacuated and were faced with a decision which would have a huge impact on families and the Island then, and in the future. School children, teachers and mothers with children of under school age were the first to be evacuated. After meeting at 4am on Thursday 20 June, they boarded the first boat, the Antwerp, which left St Peter Port for England that morning with 1154 Guernsey children aboard.
On Friday 28 June Guernsey experienced its first air raid which killed 33 islanders with a further 67 injured. The harbour and fruit export sheds were targeted, with the Germans believing they were military installations and that tomato trucks at the harbour were military vehicles.
The Occupation of Guernsey began at around 8.30pm on Sunday 30 June, when five Junker troop carriers landed at Guernsey airport. The following day, German troops arrived and that afternoon the German flag was raised. More troops arrived later until the numbers roughly equalled that of remaining islanders.
Attention then turned to the smaller islands of Sark and Alderney. Alderney had been evacuated with only 12 civilians remaining. A company of troops arrived to occupy the Island. German officers arrived on Sark on 2 July with a further 10 soldiers arriving on Sunday 4 July.
Nazi law was introduced to the Islands, and conditions under which they would rule were published in the local newspaper. This included the race laws, particularly those against Jews. Most Jewish people had left the islands before the Occupation, but some remained and some had come to the islands to escape persecution in mainland Europe.
In 1943 three Jews on the Island were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, never to return. Although islanders followed Nazi law most of the time, there was a resistance movement. This included underground newsletters with news from England and how the war was progressing, sabotage, painting of the 'V for Victory' sign, feeding Russian slave workers and helping Jewish islanders, as well as hidden radios.
Islanders were sometimes caught and punished for these actions. The day-to-day running of the island was down to the Controlling Committee, chaired by Ambrose Sherwill, who was later deported for his involvement in Operation Ambassador in July 1940. In this unsuccessful mission, British Commandos came to the occupied Island for reconnaissance, prisoner capture and aircraft destruction.
Sherwill later became Bailiff of Guernsey (1946 - 1959) and was knighted in 1949. The Controlling Committee introduced Occupation money to the islands, with German occupying forces using Third Reich scrip. The Germans also introduced European time to the occupied islands.
Nazi troops went about heavily fortifying Guernsey, building new reinforced bunkers as well as adapting existing fortifications and adding an array of light and heavy guns. Most of these bunkers and batteries remain today with some open to the public.
During the first years of the Occupation there was sufficient food for the reduced population. A link from France was established getting some supplies to the island including meat, flour and medical supplies. However, as time went by food supplies became limited and Islanders had to improvise. Access to beaches was limited because they were heavily defended with barbed wire and mines.
However, islanders were permitted in specific areas for ormering (collecting the local abalone) as well as the harvesting of other molluscs, including limpets and winkles. Fishermen were allowed out to sea in their boats, albeit with a limit on distance from the shore and an accompanying German soldier. Islanders grew what they could, including tobacco, and also produced salt. Bramble and nettle tea were commonly drunk and seaweed used in cooking.
In October and November 1942, 10 licences for barter shops were issued which proved popular. An exchange service was also run through the local newspaper. A Red Cross vessel, the Vega, made six trips to the islands with Red Cross parcels, including flour and medical supplies, amongst other things. Some Red Cross messages also got through to the island from loved ones in Britain. Both the islanders and the occupying forces suffered during the final stages of the war because of food shortages. Particularly after 6 June 1944 when 'Operation Overlord' or D-Day cut off links from mainland Europe to the islands.
Although Victory in Europe (VE Day) was on Tuesday 8 May the German government had not officially sanctioned the surrender of the Channel Islands. The German commander, Admiral Hoffmeier, refused to surrender the Channel Islands until the early hours of 9 May 1945. Surrender was completed by Major General Hiner and Captain Lieutenant Zimmerman aboard the HMS Bulldog.
That Wednesday morning, the St Peter Port seafront and harbour were packed with excited islanders. The German Commander had surrendered and the first British Troops landed in St Peter Port to find jubilant crowds. Food supplies were brought to the island on 12 May. The landing craft used to deliver the large amounts of supplies were then used to transport German prisoners of war to the UK.
1,000 German troops remained behind to help the clear up operation, removing landmines and dismantling the large guns, which were then dumped out to sea. So began the long road back to prosperity. The evacuees returned over the summer months, businesses were restarted or founded and the growing industry flourished. Liberation Day is celebrated annually on the 9 May. It gives islanders a chance to remember the days of Occupation and celebrate their freedom.
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