When Germany occupied the Channel Islands during the Second World War, islanders found their lines of communication almost completely severed from relatives in the UK. For a time, they were entirely cut off from the food supplies they relied on.
Fortunately, the Red Cross ship SS Vega sailed to the rescue – bringing much-needed relief and comfort supplies – and Red Cross messages brought news from family. Listen as islanders remember those troubling times.[audio:http://www.blogs.redcross.org.uk.gridhosted.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/JerseyLiberationfinal1.mp3|titles=JerseyLiberationfinal1]
And here are some photos from our archives.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): At the end of June 1940, German troops occupied Guernsey. A few days later the occupation extended to Jersey and the remaining Channel Islands. Local historian Bob le Sueur describes the atmosphere in Jersey’s Royal Square just before the German forces arrived.
Bob le Sueur: There was great tension. And I can remember two ladies just in front of me talking, and one said to the other “When this is over we had better get home quickly and barricade the doors, there will be a lot of women raped before nightfall.” Now that was what people felt. It didn’t happen, but that was…there was this awful fear.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): Life under occupation consisted of curfews, rules and regulations, including making it illegal to own a radio. Ninty-five-year-old Eileen le Sueur from Jersey was one of the islanders who chose to disobey this order.
Eileen le Sueur: They emptied all our cupboards, threw everything down, searched and searched the place. They were getting nearer to it. They said “What have you got in here?” “Oh,” I said, “there’s only hay from the farm,” and I said, “nothing here.” And they took my word for it. We kept that thing til the end of the war. After the liberation, so many people came to see this poor radio that had been hidden in the hay loft.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): As well as those who stayed, many people evacuated to England and others were sent to internment camps in Germany. Red Cross messages, limited to 25-words, censored by the Germans and allowed only to refer to family matters, were sometimes the only news people had of their relatives.
Male voice reads letter: Dear Florry, Willie John with me home. Grandmother cooking. We are quite well, hoping you and children are same. Longing for family. God bless you. Bill.
Female voice reads reply: Dearest Bill, received message with joy. Glad you are all well. All well here. Fondest love to all – keep smiling. Florry.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): As the war progressed, everything on the islands became scarce and people were forced to improvise. Edna Gillingham from Guernsey explains.
Edna Gillingham: I was a dressmaker through the occupation … and made garments out of lots of strange things. Coats out of car rugs and blankets, dresses out of sheets and a skirt from a pair of plus fours. Also pyjamas out of a German flag. This girl had unpicked the swastika, you see, and I could see where the stitching was so I knew it was a German flag.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): After the Allied landings in 1942, when supplies from France were completely cut off, food supplies reached crisis point. Pat Baker, whose late husband, Ernie, spent the occupation years in Guernsey, explains.
Pat Baker: …and even he with his sister used to go down on the rocks and scrape off something disgusting from the rocks and his mother, like others, would boil it up and make a kind of jelly out of it.
Eileen le Sueur: People used to walk for miles to knock on the farm, beg – beg for food, and sometimes you only had two eggs. These people were starving.
Male voice: Message sent over German wireless. November 6, 1944 to the secretary general, International Red Cross, Geneva. We urge immediate visit of Red Cross representative. All rations drastically reduced. Bread finishes December 15th, sugar finishes January 6th, ration of separated milk reduced to one third of a pint per head, soap and other cleansers…[fades out]
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): During the Second World War, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John worked together to provide relief, calling themselves the Joint War Organisation. In 1944, the Home Office proposed the Joint War Organisation take definite action to help the islanders. The government would provide facilities for sending food parcels to British civilians on the islands and the Red Cross would supervise the supply and distribution of the parcels. The SS Vega was chosen for the duty. Molly Bihet, from Guernsey, describes the feeling of jubilation when the Vega arrived.
Molly Bihet: We saw the boat come in and everybody cheered. I think the town rocked with the cheering we had. Some people, I’ve been told since when I’ve done my talks, that some people felt that parcel was worth more than liberation day.
Eileen le Sueur: And when we knew that the Red Cross was coming, it wasn’t coming fast enough. Every night we thought it might be tomorrow. Until in the paper it was put that tomorrow it was going to arrive. Well, a stampede! People were really delighted. And honestly, some people were on the verge of – had nothing.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): The parcels, from England, Canada and New Zealand, contained staples such as tea, dried eggs, sugar, biscuits, tinned vegetables and a bar of soap. For many, the tins of condensed milk known as ‘klim’ were the most memorable component.
Bob le Sueur: The thing I really remember, in the Canadian parcels, was dried milk, in tins labelled ‘klim’ – milk back to front. And with my own tin, having little private klim orgies, scooping it with a spoon. It was sickly, it was sweet, it was lovely.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): And for Jerseyman Michael Ginns, who also received Red Cross parcels while in Wurzach internment camp in Germany, what could be made from the packaging was another important factor for those deprived of creature comforts.
Michael Ginns: What do you do with an empty klim tin? Make a teapot. Fred McAllister was the camp plumber and of course he had access to all the tools, and you would cut a hole and he would make a spout from a Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin, put on a handle at the back, the lid remains the same and you had your metal teapot.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): On May 9th, 1945, after five years of German occupation, the Channel Islands were finally free. John Le Tocq, from Guernsey, who spent the war as an evacuee in Stockport, describes what it was like to come home.
John Le Tocq: it was one of these beautiful evenings. It was like a mill pond; the moon was out, my mother wasn’t feeling well so I went up on deck and I met this girl. I couldn’t remember anything about Guernsey and I was asking her question after question after question and she told me about Maison Carle where you could get cream teas and the beaches and so on, and we spent the whole night talking about Guernsey.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): The Joint War Organisation agreed with the Home Office the Vega should make one more journey, clearing the cargo lying at Lisbon and already planned for her to load. Edna Gillingham, from Guernsey, describes that last shipment.
Edna Gillingham: Everybody had a loaf about that round and that high. It was pure white; I’ve never seen bread so white. To have a loaf like that just to yourself, it was wonderful.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): For residents of the Channel Islands today, the relationship with the Red Cross remains a very special one.
Bob le Sueur: I feel quite angry when there are appeals for disasters abroad, when people bleat, “Oh that’s all very well, but charity beings at home.” But I always feel, if the people of Canada and New Zealand had thought like that in 1944, I wouldn’t be sitting here today being interviewed by you.
Narrator (Rebecca McIlhone): Find out more about how the Red Cross helped the Channel Islands at redcross.org.uk/channelislands
Images © Rebecca McIlhone/British Red Cross