Friday, 24 November 2017

Jersey Our Island: The Years of Darkness – Part 2

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 2
by Sidney Bisson

The two books about the occupation that have so far appeared (Ralph Mollet's Jersey under the Swastika and L. P. Sinel's German Occupation of Jersey) are tantalisingly impersonal.' They tell you what the official rations were, but nothing of the housewife who wept because she could only offer her family cold water and cold boiled potatoes for breakfast whilst their wealthy black-marketing neighbours indulged in tea at £20 a pound, butter at thirty shillings, pork at a guinea, eggs at three shillings each, and white bread made from locally ground flour that fetched £20 a hundredweight. Or of the indignation of the poorer classes that such a state of affairs was allowed to continue. For obviously in a small place like Jersey, where every- body knows his neighbour's business better than his own, the authorities could not be unaware of what was going on.

The commonest explanation offered is that the black market was really a patriotic institution. `If it hadn't been for the black market we'd have starved,' many a local resident has told me, forgetting that the poorest lived through the occupation without being able to patronise this luxurious institution. And when I ask if it wouldn't have been more patriotic for the authorities to exercise a stricter control over agricultural and dairy production and divert food from the black market to increase the general ration, the answer is that the Germans wouldn't have allowed it.

It is difficult for one who was not present during the occupation to decide whether this is a genuine reason or a mere rationalisation. I can only say that I should find the argument more convincing if some attempt had been made to requisition and re- distribute the vast quantities of food that were illegally sold at prices that only the rich could afford to pay. 

Not every farmer, of course, made a fortune out of the black market. Praise is due to those who resisted the temptation of turning the situation to their own advantage, and who sold food cheaply or gave it away to friends and neighbours whom they knew to be in need.

Another form of black marketing that I have also heard defended as an act of patriotism was the sale of food to German soldiers. The argument was that only soldiers with plenty of money could afford to buy food. It made the others discontented and lowered their morale ! One farmer told me more frankly : `If you refused to sell, they'd come back the next night and burgle. We'd have been fools not to take the money.' 

I chuckled to think that the Germans were foolish enough to offer to buy what they could so easily steal, but later learnt that there was some truth in his statement. German discipline was strict, and soldiers caught breaking out of camp or returning with stolen goods were severely dealt with. So it is quite likely that many took the risk of a nocturnal expedition only when their money had failed to get them what they wanted.

Side by side with the black market grew the more legitimate `barter market.' Until September, 1941, when the exchange, as well as the sale, of soap and foodstuffs was prohibited except under license, the `small ad' columns of the local evening paper were full of offers of this for that.

At one period eggs were most freely offered; at another, saccharine. Soap and sugar were most in demand. But the beauty of barter is its flexibility. Eggs might be converted into coke, bird seed into pepper, poultry food into soap. One reader offers a cycle tyre for cocoa; another, cockerels for salt. (One wonders how many for how much. Quantities are not always specified in this column.) 

There is something pathetic in the offer of a bottle of whisky for ajar of honey. And for what sinister purpose did someone offer `sugar for African Grey Parrot (stuffed) Perhaps the printer has got this one the wrong way round, and it's Aunt Agatha offering to part with her most treasured possession so that she can go on sweetening her ersatz (or black market?) tea. Was there ever such an optimist

I mis-spent one of this summer's many wet afternoons com- piling a table of barter values from these little ads. Here is the result.

All the examples I have quoted are authentic. Don't blame me if you can prove from the table that 12 eggs = 36 eggs. (12 eggs equal 1 pair shoes, which equals 1 cycle tyre, which equals 800 saccharines, which equal 36 eggs.) There are eggs and eggs. Brown eggs and white eggs, small eggs and large eggs, new laid eggs and pickled eggs, good eggs and bad eggs, eggs taken and eggs offered . . . In fact every egg has its price. 

Some people who had not bothered to work out a little table like mine and were doubtful of the value of their egg got into the habit of advertising `1 egg. Will exchange for WHAT?' Regular readers of the Exchange and Mart column regarded this as cheating and wrote long letters to the editor pointing out the abuses to which it might lead. Hungry though he was, the Jerseyman had not lost his sense of humour.

In 1942, however, two blows fell which cast a gloom over the island. In June all wireless sets were confiscated. In September the English residents were deported.

Except for the first two weeks of the occupation, when listening to British stations was forbidden, there had been no restriction on the use of wireless receivers. With the German-controlled press publishing only enemy war commentaries and communiqués, the habit of tuning in to B.B.C. news broadcasts had become almost universal. The curfew, transport difficulties, and the limitation of public entertainments, had made recreational listening more popular than ever before. The depressing effect of the withdrawal of all sets from the civilian population can be imagined.

The fact that wireless sets are licensed made it difficult to evade the order. The Germans could easily make a check on license holders. Some of the more resourceful bought and handed in an old set, keeping their own for secret listening. The penalty for those who were found out was imprisonment or deportation. Some were taken to concentration camps from which they did not return.

The Deportation was effected with a dramatic suddenness that made it all the harder to bear. On September 15th a warning order appeared in the evening paper, stating that all persons whose permanent residence was not in the Channel Islands and all Englishmen between the ages of sixteen and seventy would be transferred to Germany, together with their families. 

No date was given for the evacuation, but the following morning German soldiers, working from lists compiled the previous year, started serving notices on some of the people concerned, ordering them to report for embarkation by four o'clock that afternoon. They were to take hand luggage only, and give the keys of their houses to the police. Failure to obey meant trial by court-martial.

The usually efficient German organisation seems for once to have broken down, and contradictory orders added to the confusion. Hundreds of people who were at work or who had gone out could not be traced at such short notice. A further sailing was arranged for the i8th, but about half of those who reported were turned away and told to return the following week. Many were in despair, having sold or given away all their food, linen, and fuel before leaving home.

Remembering how the Germans had requisitioned the contents of houses evacuated in 1940, some had, even in the short time available, stored their more easily movable furniture with friends. It was a time for testing friendships. Some were welcomed back by their neighbours with rejoicing. Others returned to find that `friends' had already broken into their houses and removed what they could lay their hands on. A musician caught his neighbours in the act of removing his grand piano. So much had two years of occupation done to the morals of the normally honest islanders.

There were similar scenes after the third and last deportation parade on September 29th. Two ships were filled, in no particular order of priority, and those who could not be accommodated (including some who had been turned away the first time) were sent back to their homes. Apart from a few who were deported the following year, they were not troubled again. It has been suggested that the remarkably haphazard organisation of the deportation was due to the German Commandant's disapproval of the order, which came from higher authority.
The depression caused by these two blows was lightened as winter advanced by the news of Montgomery's triumphant progress across North Africa. Even the German communiqués could not disguise Rommel's retreat, and news of each British success was passed round by the owners of hidden wireless sets.

No comments: