Keeping Occupied

This week should have seen the publication of my latest book, ‘Occupation to Liberation’. It would have been launched at the Guernsey Literary Festival, now sadly cancelled, and the launch was one of the 75 events to celebrate 75 years of freedom organised by Visit Guernsey. Although the UK is celebrating VE day this week on May 8th, Guernsey celebrates Liberation Day every year on May 9th as it continues to have special meaning in the islands. The end of the Second World War meant the end of five years of German occupation.

The Channel Islands were the only parts of Britain captured by Axis forces in the war, a novel fact that continues to fascinate. The Occupation was only a tiny part of the vast global struggle, yet has spawned a huge literary output of diaries, reminiscences, histories and fiction plus TV series and movies. I’m not an ‘Occupation expert’ but wanted to write an accessible book for the general reader which showcased the collections of Guernsey Museum.

One of the lines I wrote was that the big enemy was boredom, and another feature of the Occupation was an obsession with food. Sitting in virus lockdown I have begun to empathise with both attitudes. Normal civilian life was heavily constrained by curfews, restrictions on travel and closure of beaches and areas where the Germans had laid mines or built defences. Many businesses collapsed and people found what work they could for what money they could earn. Islanders were cut off from the rest of the world for five years, with only an occasional Red Cross message permitted to friends and relations off the island. News other than Nazi propaganda came from the BBC, which from 1942 could only be heard on hidden radio sets in defiance of regulations. There were no new books, the cinema soon ran out of English language films but there a great boom in amateur dramatics, arts and crafts as a way of keeping busy.

Almost everything was in short supply, so people had to ‘make do and mend’. Children played with home-made toys and wore hand-me-down clothes, often bartered for other essential items. Food ran short, and the variety of what was available challenged the ingenuity of the women who did the cooking.

Even the German soldiers experienced these twin privations of boredom and hunger. No battles were fought, and indeed as the war dragged on and hope of victory dwindled they dubbed themselves ‘The Canada Division’ knowing they would end up in Prisoner of War camps. Once D-Day began the liberation of France they too were cut off from home, knowing their families were enduring Allied bombing and fearing the inexorable advance of the Red Army. Bored soldiers turned in some cases to drink, the most depressed even committed suicide, but others applied their creativity to art. Paintings, photographs and carvings by soldiers now feature in the island’s Occupation museums and decorate some of the surviving bunkers. Soldiers too suffered increasing hardship as food supplies were cut off once the Allies controlled the French shores.

1945 was the year of hope. During the winter, the Red Cross ship SS Vega saved the civilians from starvation by delivering food parcels, which allowed the troops to eke out what other supplies remained. For all the puffed-up Nazi nonsense about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ the German garrison did no such thing. The war ended on May 8th to the relief of the civilians and, as far as we can tell, many of the ordinary soldiers. Posturing by the Nazi commander delayed matters, but on May 9th British troops stepped ashore and Guernsey was free once more.

Although the majority of the British population is today locked down in a peculiar curfew, we are not under foreign occupation. We are free to listen to the BBC whenever we like and follow the progress of our own peculiar ‘war’. There is fear on the streets and we have the constant drip of grim news and that daily toll of lives lost, but for all the wartime analogies we are not being bombed or shot at. We do not fear the knock on the door, and if we are stopped in the street by a police officer asking our business we know they only have our best interests at heart. We are fortunate to have plenty to eat – too much in my case – even though standing in line outside the supermarket recalls photographs of the wartime ration queues.

The VE Day bank holiday and Guernsey’s 75th Liberation Day will be curious affairs, with virtual celebrations and ‘street parties’ held in discrete units from garden to garden, but nostalgia will be rife. My generation is fortunate never to have fought a world war. In our current crisis I’m not being called on to charge up a beach under fire or pilot a plane through angry skies, but simply stay at home and watch streamed movies. Rather like in 1945 though, those of us who are hunkered down are relying on professionals to win the fight in the front line and are crossing fingers that our leaders are doing the right things. Perhaps this will be our finest hour?

Occupation to Liberation: Guernsey, Sark and Alderney 1940-1945 will be published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries later this year. All images in this article are taken from the book and are courtesy Guernsey Museums & Galleries.

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