Even when there is not a coronation, I hang out the flags this time each year. During the pandemic, home-made bunting had to suffice, strung across the windows to the mystification of neighbours. Possibly they were too polite to ask whether I’d just joined the Brexit Party. Last year, a dog walker finally posed the question over the hedge and was surprised at the answer.
Liberation Day is celebrated in Guernsey and Jersey on 9 May every year to mark the end of five years of German occupation of the islands in 1945, so I’ve brought the tradition back to the UK. The Second World War ended on 8 May with the Channel Islands still under German rule. Plans to retake them by force had fortunately been shelved, sparing the islands from unnecessary destruction and death. The heavy investment that Hitler made turning the islands into heavily manned fortresses turned out to have been completely wasted.
British forces landed unopposed on the morning of 9 May after German officers were brought aboard HMS Bulldog and presented with no option other than unconditional surrender. A small advance party immediately went ashore in St Peter Port to be met by enthusiastic crowds. Later in the afternoon, another 200 troops arrived by landing craft. Sark was liberated the following day, but as the British had no troops to spare the Dame of Sark took charge of the 275-man German garrison and set them to tidying up the mess they had made of the island. There was no cheering in Alderney, which had been almost totally evacuated before the enemy arrived in June 1940. Only a sullen garrison of 2,332 German troops remained awaiting imprisonment when British forces finally landed on the 16th. The island was in a sorry state and civilians did not begin returning until 15 December, now marked as Homecoming Day.
Guernsey has been particularly enthusiastic in marking Liberation over the years, with fayres, cavalcades, concerts, and a more solemn service of remembrance. As memories of the war years fade it can seem like a trivial nostalgia-fest. Historic costumes are everywhere, vintage jeeps and trucks parade along the front and forties-style musical acts perform In the Mood. But there is a serious message, one that should not be forgotten. British territory was invaded by enemy forces and sixty thousand British people spent five years under Nazi rule.
The Occupation is often seen from a distance as a historical curio, sometimes benign or even twee. The islands did not suffer the wholescale horrors enacted by the Nazis in many parts of Europe, but look closer and you will find fear, deprivation, oppression, deportation, enslavement and brutality. Armed with hindsight we now know how the war ended, but the captive islanders could only survive in hope. The Nazis were habitually arbitrary and vindictive, so who knows what a stroke of a pen in Berlin could have unleashed on the islands? The Allies could also show callous disregard for civilian losses when ‘liberating’ territory, as seen in tragedies from Caen to Manilla. It might all have ended so very differently.
To mark the 75th anniversary of Liberation in 2020, Guernsey Museum published Occupation to Liberation. Dozens of books and magazines have been written about the Occupation and it features in a surprisingly large number of novels. However, what we wanted to produce was an introductory book aimed at the reader not familiar with the story, including many historic photographs and objects from the museum collection that had not been published before. The story of those grim war years would be opened up to generations who did not have to endure them.
Liberty is priceless, and liberation is worth celebrating.