Friday, 17 November 2017

Jersey Our Island: The Years of Darkness – Part 1

Published in 1950, this is an interesting snapshot of the Island and its customs as it was in the immediate post-war period, and not without humour. Most guide books of the time give the tourist information, or give the impressions of an outsider to the Island, but this is in "inside view", which is rarer.

Jersey Our Island: The Years of Darkness – Part 1
by Sidney Bisson

A TABLET set in a circle of grass at one end of the North Marine Drive dedicates it `To the Men and Women of Jersey who suffered in the World War 1939-45.'

In Jersey the ultimate consequences of the evacuation from Dunkirk were overshadowed by its immediate results. The potato season was in full swing. The harbour should have been full of ships to take the precious crop to England. Where were they? Long strings of lorries waited on the quays for cargo steamers that did not arrive. Angry farmers demonstrated in the Royal Square against the incompetence of the authorities. They cursed at the waste of time and petrol as they drove their full loads back to their farms at night. The problem of the moment distracted their thoughts from the future.

Only with the fall of Paris came a general realisation that the island was in danger. Many English residents closed their homes and returned to England. The mail boats were crowded. Large numbers of British troops landed and began preparing defensive positions. The sound of gunfire was heard from the Continent.

On June 19th the comparative calm of the population was shattered by an announcement that the British Government had decided not to defend the Channel Islands. All troops would be withdrawn, and civilians who wished to leave the island would be evacuated the following day.

For two days panic reigned. Over 23,000 people decided to go, and joined a vast queue to hand in their names at the Town Hall. Shopkeepers closed their shops; farmers turned loose their cattle; hundreds drove to the harbour and abandoned their cars on the quay.

Thirty-one ships sailed with 8,500 passengers. A few more continued to leave on the following days, but well over half of those who had registered for evacuation changed their minds and stayed. Official announcements that the civil authorities were staying at their posts helped to restore calm. If they had been made earlier, the panic might have been avoided. Those who remained had a busy weekend looking after the effects of the evacuees. The police collected perishable food from evacuated houses. Relatives and friends removed or buried valuables, collected abandoned cars, cattle, poultry, and household pets, made arrangements to re-open businesses.

By Monday the 24th the island had returned to a semblance of normal life. But the Battle of France had ended, and the question that was upper- most in the people's minds was, `When will the Germans come?' During the next few days their planes flew high over the island. On the 28th they came low and dropped bombs near St. Helier's harbour. A few small boats caught fire, but most of the damage was to private houses and business premises in the vicinity. Six people were killed. La Rocque harbour was also bombed and various parts of the island were machine-gunned, causing further, but not heavy, casualties. After the raid the ships remaining in the harbour sailed for England and a B.B.C. broad- cast proclaimed the island an `open town.' There was no more bombing, but on July 1st messages dropped from the air called on the island to surrender.

There was no possible alternative. A silent crowd gathered to watch workmen painting a white cross on the Royal Square, where the last invader of Jersey was defeated in 1781. For the first time in her history the island surrendered without resistance.

Everyone I have spoken to agrees that the first thing that struck them about the German troops was their good behaviour. Those who expected an orgy of rape and atrocities were disappointed.

There was merely a spate of official proclamations. A curfew was imposed, weapons were confiscated, the use of private cars was prohibited, the sale of spirits was banned.

One of the most curious orders was that which permitted the continuation of Divine Worship in Churches and Chapels. One wonders if Hauptmann Gussek doubted the efficacy of prayer or just wanted to create a good impression when he decreed that `Prayers for the British Royal Family and for the welfare of the British Empire (my italics!) may be said.' At any rate he was having no proselytising. When the local Evening Post started an English-German vocabulary column for the benefit of readers who wanted to understand the invader, a correspondent suggested that a translation of the Lord's Prayer might be `a means of helpful contact and sympathy.' But the German Commandant forbade its publication.

My father and mother were amongst those who remained in the island. Like many other people with ties on the mainland as well as in Jersey, they found it difficult to make their decision. Relatives and friends in England proffered contradictory advice.

Those who visualised the enemy as a devastating arch-demon suggested immediate flight and offered accommodation. Others, like myself, who expected that the bombing of England would be intensified now that France had fallen, regarded even a German- occupied Jersey as a place of comparative safety. In fact, only a sense of duty prevented us from packing up and going to join my parents.

In the end Fate decided for them. The strain of that heart- swelling evacuation week proved too much for my mother's health, which broke down completely. They had to stay. For us, then, anxiety prevailed over duty. Or if you are a cynic, say that we were glad to have an excuse for going to what we thought was a better ‘ole! Anyway, we decided to go to Jersey. But we had left it too late. When I tried to get tickets, neither the steamship companies nor Jersey Airways would consider bookings to the Channel Islands. A last exchange of telegrams, then silence unbroken save by an occasional Red Cross message for five long years.

How we looked forward to those Red Cross messages. And how little real news their twenty-five words conveyed, much as we tried to read between the lines. For of course they had to be strictly confined to personal matters. Sometimes our anxiety made us read too much into them. When my sister-in-law wrote that she was very tired and needed a holiday we were almost convinced that the Germans had conscripted her for their Labour Corps. Only after the Liberation did we realise that every housewife was tired by the ceaseless search for food and the difficulty of cooking it when it had been procured.

At first the Red Cross messages were few and far between. Then we heard of a scheme devised by Thomas Cook's. For a small fee they provided you with an accommodation address in Portugal, posted your letters in that country, and re-directed the replies when they arrived there. At the risk of mystifying our relations in Jersey, who were bound to wonder what on earth we were doing in Portugal, we decided to try it. But no replies came, for the simple reason, as we discovered afterwards, that our own letters never got through. I only know of one other person who tried to get news this way, and one of his letters has just reached Jersey after over five years of travel. There is a chance that ours may get here yet!

Later, particularly in 1943 and the early part of 1944, messages were more frequent, and our scanty news was supplemented by the Channel Islands Monthly Review. This excellent little magazine, published by the Channel Islands Society at Stockport, printed not only any interesting Red Cross messages received by its readers, but also longer letters from internees in Germany full of Channel Islands news.

It is one of the minor mysteries of the censorship (or perhaps of the Rules of War) that although the islanders could only write twenty-five words for transmission to England, they could communicate freely with internees and prisoners of war in Germany, who in turn passed on the news to relatives and friends in England. Those in Germany could also send to the islands food and cigarettes which they received in parcels from England, yet nothing could be sent from England to Jersey.

It was mainly from this news traffic via Germany that we learnt to discount the more sensational newspaper reports of conditions in the Channel Islands. When the Daily Blank announced that the islanders were reduced to boiling cat skins for food, we took comfort in the reports of people who were `quite cheerful,' `all fit and well,' or `busy growing vegetables,' and who mentioned cycling, concerts, and amateur theatricals as the principal amusements.

If Mr. A missed his golf and Mrs. B complained of the cost of living, Mr. C said his children were healthy and Mrs. D spoke of a successful Harvest Festival. We smiled when the same newspaper reported that the latest fashion, born of necessity, was to go about dressed in an old sack. For did we not know from the Review that a well-known resident kept up his pre-war custom of wearing a carnation in his button-hole on his daily walk to business. And surely not even the most ardent dianthophile would insult the product of his horticultural art by displaying it on a background of sacking.

There were those, it is true, who contended that Red Cross messages and internees' letters alike were dictated by the enemy at the point of the bayonet for propaganda purposes only a position hard to maintain in view of the many scarcely veiled references to the enemy. The British censors must have been amused at the number of islanders who had an Uncle Jerry. According to Godfrey, one old lady who could not understand this addition to the family pedigree wrote back `Who is Uncle Jerry e' The reply 'Uncle Joe's new neighbour'- must have puzzled her still more...

The truth lay somewhere between the two pictures thus presented. Newspaper reports based on information smuggled out of the island were usually exaggerated; messages sent openly from the island were forcedly cheerful. No one who was not there or who has not talked freely to people who remained can imagine the conditions that prevailed during the occupation. I hope that someone will be tempted to write of his or her personal experiences.

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