We came in one day
From far away
To Jersey’s lovely shore
You were standing there
With a smile to spare
For the soldiers you adore
This gorgeous isle
This welcome we will ne’er forget
And now you are free
Will you dance with me
To the Liberation Waltz
(Sgt. Tom Sidebottom R.A. & L. Bdr. Bob Warne R.A.)
It’s 66 years today that two officers of the Royal Navy landed at the Albert Quay and accordingly ended five years of occupation by German forces. It’s a public holiday in the Island and there is no tailing off of the celebrations as the years pass. The big one though was in 1995, the 50th anniversary. They pushed the boat out that year. I attended the Grand Pageant at Fort Regent with my seven year-old son Eoin. It was a fabulous show depicting the capture of the Island, the Occupation and finally the joy of Liberation. It was a one-off show and very emotional for cast and audience alike. (Unfortunately it was marred by the official VIP party of bigwigs standing up to leave in the middle of the singing and dancing finale, leaving the cast flabbergasted. The excuse was that they didn’t want to miss the fireworks display. They didn’t. Everyone else saw it too and it was so good I haven’t bothered with any others since.)
The Occupation isn’t my subject but there have been countless books and publications on the topic. First of all there are those Islanders that kept diaries or who recounted their memories after the event. Then, as more material became available, professional historians have got in on the act. Not all of it makes comfortable reading, dealing as it does with collaboration and fraternisation with the enemy during those testing five years. The more extreme of these studies have been attacked and, to an extent, discredited. But, like today’s handful of anti-establishment extremists, you somehow suspect that there is more than a grain of truth amongst the noise.
There wasn’t scope in Jersey for a ‘Resistance’ movement such as existed in France, for example. Resistance to German rules and edicts consisted mainly of individual acts of defiance. The ubiquitous ‘V’ signs, for example. The strange inability of the children to learn the German that became compulsory in schools. Young lads would make pests of themselves, raiding enemy storage bunkers by night for example. Owning a radio became prohibited but many still listened to the BBC on crystal sets. Islanders defied their new masters by helping, feeding and hiding the appallingly-treated slave workers that had been shipped in to help with the fortification projects.
One such islander was Louisa Gould. She owned a general stores in rural St Ouen. She took in and sheltered a young slave worker. She was denounced to the authorities and was deported to Ravensbruck where she was gassed to death in the final months of the War. There is no doubt that other such snitching went on, though maybe with lesser consequences. People must have seen opportunities to get one over people they disliked, for example, and to ingratiate themselves with the Germans. After the War life resumed with some normality but known collaborators were cold-shouldered.
The conduct of the German soldiers was, by all accounts, acceptable given the circumstances. In general they did not mistreat the population. On the contrary there are many anecdotes of friendly behaviour. On the whole the German soldiers had no wish to be in Jersey, leaving behind their families. They did not engage in brutality or vindictiveness. In the last six months of the Occupation when the food supply lines had been cut off, the population was saved from possible starvation by Red Cross supplies. Even though the occupying forces were equally hungry by this stage there was no attempt to hijack these supplies. Although the Occupation was a terrible time the conduct of the Germans as a whole left room for future reconciliation, so much so that St Helier is twinned with the German town of Bad Wurzach.
As for fraternisation it is estimated that between 175 – 900* babies were born to local women by German fathers during those years. Even taking the lowest figure this indicates a lot of fraternisation! The children seem to have been quietly absorbed into the general population through adoption and the like. The women themselves were treated as tramps and were physically assaulted in a number of incidents.
But all those that lived through those days never hope to see the likes again and therefore we continue to celebrate the Liberation so that those 66 years might be extended far into the future.
Beautiful Jersey, gem of the sea,
Ever my heart turns in longing to thee;
Bright are the mem’ries you waken for me,
Beautiful Jersey, gem of the sea.
*Edit March 2020 – more recent research suggests than even the lower of these figures is too high.