Guernsey, the Channel Islands, 1940, a beautiful rural island only 12 miles by 7 miles in size. Inhabited by 40,000 people, whose income was derived from tourism, fishing, agriculture and horticulture.
Northern England, 1940, consisting of factory towns, with the buildings coated in soot from domestic and industrial chimneys. Inhabited by people, whose income was mainly derived from industry and manufacturing.
Little did these two populations realise that their fates would become inextricably linked during World War Two, as Germany invaded France and the threat of Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands became inevitable.
In late June 1940, the first to leave the island were around 5,000 Guernsey children who were evacuated with their schools. Accompanied by hundreds of their teachers and ‘helpers’ – mothers with infants – these children fled their island, leaving their own parents behind. Many possessed only the clothes they were wearing, others had just one small suitcase containing a change of clothes and a sandwich. As many of the parents said goodbye to their children, they told them they would try to follow on the next available boat. However, on 28th June, Germany bombed Guernsey’s harbour, so that ‘next boat’ never arrived. (Pictured, Mrs Miriam Robilliard with her daughter Margaret, just as they were about to evacuate to England).
As a result, only around 17,000 men, women and children – just under half the population – escaped Guernsey before it was occupied by German Forces on 30th June. Many parents had to remain on Guernsey, not knowing where their children would end up in Britain, or whether they would ever see them again. They would not meet again for five long years.
The children were crammed into vessels such as mail boats, coal barges, cattle boats and boats that had just rescued wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. There were not enough life belts for all of the children. As the boats sailed throughout the night across the rough sea to England, avoiding mines and enemy aircraft, the children endured appalling overcrowding and seasickness. The boats reached Weymouth at dawn, where the evacuees disembarked. Many of the Guernsey men immediately joined the British Forces, whilst the teachers, mothers and children were briskly fed, health checked and labelled. In the confusion, many brothers and sisters were separated, whilst others lost their tiny suitcases, which contained the few possessions that they had. All the evacuees were bundled into steam trains – the first they had seen in their lives.
As the evacuees arrived in Weymouth there were fears that the South coast was about to suffer air raids. As a result, without knowing their destinations, and with the train windows blacked out to avoid bombing, thousands of these exhausted adults and children were quickly transported to industrial areas such as Stockport, Bury, Oldham, Wigan, Halifax and Manchester, which they had never heard of, and which differed in so many ways to the island of their birth. These areas had actually been on standby to receive refugees from Belgium and Holland, so were able to respond relatively quickly when they heard of the imminent arrival of the Channel Islanders. Ironically, many Manchester children had recently been evacuated away from Northern England to Canada for safety; now thousands of rural Guernsey children were being sent to areas around Manchester, which would soon become a major target of the Luftwaffe.
Arrival in the Reception Areas
After many hours spent on overcrowded trains, the Guernsey adults and children arrived at numerous northern railway stations in the early hours of the morning. Town Council officials and volunteers were there to meet them; they had been given only 48 hours notice of the children’s arrival in order to prepare to receive, board and feed them. The exhausted evacuees were taken into numerous public buildings, which had been hurriedly transformed into Evacuee Reception Centres, such as Town Halls, churches, cinemas, Masonic Halls, and dance halls. Some of the reception committees evidently did not know where the Channel Islands were, or even that they were British territory. Many assumed that the evacuees would not understand English, and translators were on hand. One mother recalled her shock as the ladies from the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) began to perform a sort of ‘sign language’ indicating that the evacuees could have something to eat! The WVS were very relieved when the Guernsey evacuees spoke to them in English. (Pictured, Guernsey evacuees arriving in the Cheshire village of Disley).
In these reception centres, the evacuees were greeted by row upon row of camp beds, which would become their ‘home’ for up to four weeks. Closely packed together in these centres, some Guernsey children became ill and spent time in hospital, as diseases such as measles, scarlet fever and chicken pox quickly spread.
The Reaction of the local communities
Upon hearing of the evacuees’ plight in the local newspapers, the Northern communities rallied round, providing blankets, clothing, food, and in particular, entertainment, books and toys for the children. Archive documents show that local businesses provided clothes and shoes, and picnics and tea parties were arranged for some of the children. In towns such as Bury and Oldham some children obtained free admission into local cinemas and football clubs.
One man in Bury, Lancashire, outdid the efforts of most local people. When Mr J W Fletcher realised that the children would not be able to receive a Christmas gift from their parents in Guernsey, he spent the next five years collecting cash donations from friends and colleagues throughout England, the USA and Canada, in order to give each child a Christmas gift every year. He even arranged a farewell party for them when they left England at the end of the war.
Since May 2008, as a researcher at the University of Manchester, I have interviewed around 160 surviving evacuees in Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney, as well as local people who knew these evacuees during the war. I have concentrated mainly on Guernsey because of the cost of travel to the islands from Manchester. I have also interviewed a number of Channel Island evacuees who still live in Northern England – many evacuees returned to Guernsey after the war, whilst others chose to remain in England as they had settled into their communities, become engaged or married to local people, started college or found good jobs. Some adults felt that there were better opportunities for their children in England after the war.
The interviews give a personal insight into the experience of these evacuees during their time in England during World War Two. They illustrate how, once the Channel Islands were occupied, hundreds of ordinary families came forward and took Guernsey children into their own homes and cared for them for five years. Many were heartbroken when these children returned home to their Guernsey families at the end of the war. Mrs Jones told me: ‘We had no children of our own and John was like a son to us. When he went home in 1945, we were bereft, but smiled as we waved goodbye to him, so as not to upset him.’
Of course not all the Guernsey children were happy in their billets. My interviews show, however, that the majority of Guernsey children interviewed were happy with their Northern ‘foster parents’.
Assistance from outside the UK
Guernsey people who had previously emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, raised thousands of dollars for the Guernsey evacuees in England, and one Guernsey school in Cheshire, England, was supported by the ‘Foster Parent Plan for Children’. Each child was financially ‘sponsored’ by an American citizen, with one little girl being sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured here with Clementine Churchill).
I have also interviewed evacuated mothers from Guernsey, who are now over the age of 90. The stories of evacuated mothers tend to received less attention than those of evacuated children. My interviews show that, after leaving the evacuee reception centres, many of the mothers moved into empty properties – often empty shop premises – with their children. In many cases, two or more Guernsey mothers shared one property; in this way they shared child care duties, and undertook shift work to bring in some much needed income. Most of the adults that I have interviewed told me that their neighbours provided the evacuees with items of furniture, blankets, crockery and, most importantly, friendship. Guernsey people settled in areas such as Cheadle Hulme, Disley, Bury, Knutsford, Oldham, Buxton, Eccles, Halifax, Bradford, Stockport and Wigan.
Education and employment in England
The Guernsey children attended local schools in order to continue their wartime education as best they could. However, some of the evacuated Guernsey Head teachers decided to re establish their own schools in England, in order to keep their pupils and teachers together throughout the war. Headmaster Percy Martel kept a diary throughout the war where he explained why he had decided to re-establish his school in England: ‘When we left Guernsey, we promised the parents that we would do all in our power morally, socially as well as educationally, for their children. Now that the Nazis are in control of our home, the promise becomes more binding’.
Percy established his Guernsey school in the Parish Hall in Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, and the children were billeted out to local families. Percy and his staff not only taught their pupils, but kept a close eye on the children’s billets and obtained clothing for them. They found them employment when they left school, and provided a shoulder for them to lean on when they were missing their parents. Percy’s son Derek recently explained why Percy did not take his own family with him to England: ‘After a long discussion between my parents, my mother felt that I was too young at four-years-old to go to an unknown destination in England. She decided to stay in Guernsey with both sets of my grandparents until my father had found suitable accommodation for us all. However, by the time my father had found a reasonable place to stay, the Island was already occupied by the Germans and it was too late to leave.’
The boys and teachers of Guernsey’s Elizabeth College originally arrived in Oldham, where the local authority planned to place the boys in the homes of local families. However, the Head of the College wanted to keep all the boys together with their teachers, preferably in the country. He eventually managed to move the boys to the Derbyshire village of Great Hucklow. There was not enough accommodation for all of the boys there, so eventually the senior boys moved into at a large house at Whitehall, near Buxton, which became their home and school for the rest of the war. The junior boys remained in Great Hucklow throughout the war; in fact the pupils outnumbered the villagers! Upon leaving school at the age of 14, many evacuees went straight into Britain’s war industries to build parts for planes and submarines or to make ammunition or radios. Others joined the Home Guard or ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), or packed Red Cross parcels and made parachutes. In addition, many of the evacuees’ fathers had joined the British forces in 1940.
Red Cross Letters
There was no postal service between the Channel Islands and England during the war, but some evacuees managed to send an occasional letter via the Red Cross. However, these could only contain 25 words, and took up to 6 months to elicit a reply. Evacuees told me that it was very difficult to put their thoughts into just 25 words. A wealth of fascinating documents donated by the evacuees – Red Cross letters, telegrams, newspapers, diaries, and photographs – give a glimpse into their lives in towns that were so very different to their island home. As well as integrating into their local communities, the evacuees also set up over ninety local ‘Channel Island Societies’. These societies held weekly meetings and arranged social events, and they also provided emotional support to the evacuees. At the weekly meetings, the adults could talk to each other about their lives in Northern England, their families and friends trapped in occupied Guernsey, and their relatives that were serving in the British forces. The children had the opportunity to play with other Channel Island children.
Channel Island Magazine
The Stockport Channel Island Society even produced its own magazine, and the surviving magazines indicate the importance of these societies to the evacuees. The Red Cross messages received from Guernsey were often reprinted in the Stockport Channel Island Society magazines, together with news of births, deaths, marriages, and information on the deportation of Guernsey civilians to Germany. Up to 5,000 copies of the magazine were produced in Stockport every month; they were the main source of information on what was happening on Guernsey during the war, and were constantly passed from person to person.
Liberation of the Channel Islands
The Channel Islands were liberated on 9 May 1945, and at last the evacuees could plan their return home and could contact each other. Thousands of Liberation postcards were printed in Guernsey and sent to England. However, the return of the evacuees had to be staggered, so this took place over a period of several months because the island had been badly damaged during the German occupation. The evacuees left the various northern towns by train, arriving in London where they changed trains for Southampton. They then boarded ships to cross the Channel; the interviews capture the excitement that the evacuees felt when they eventually spotted Guernsey on the horizon: ‘The sun was just coming up, and I could see St Peter Port! It was even more beautiful than I remembered! As we drew closer, I could see a crowd of people around the harbour, and I wondered if my husband and parents were there waiting for me!’
The interviews reveal that, upon their return to Guernsey in 1945, a number of children were reluctant to leave the families they had lived with in England and that many returned to Guernsey with a distinct northern accent.
Conditions in Post-War Guernsey
Upon arriving back in Guernsey, some discovered that their homes had been destroyed or damaged, whilst others discovered that the contents had been looted. Some could not obtain employment, and returned to England again within a few months.
In addition, the beaches were full of mines and ammunition, and the German army had built fortifications all around the island’s coast, which can still be seen today. Although some children settled in well with the parents they had left behind, many told me that they failed to bond after five years of separation. One boy stated “When I got back to Guernsey, I didn’t recognise my Dad – we couldn’t form a proper relationship, we were like strangers“.
One girl told me, ‘I left Guernsey as a teenager and returned as a mother with a new born baby, my family did not know how to relate to me’. Another evacuee discovered that two new sisters had been born on Guernsey during the war, she never connected with them, and felt she was not now really part of the family.
Many evacuees still retain friendships with the families in Northern England which cared for them during the war years. For seventy years they have written to each other and spent holidays in England and in Guernsey. They have expressed a wish to thank the people of the North for their kindness during the war.
Commemoration of the Evacuation
In May 2010, in Guernsey, a special event was held to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Guernsey evacuation, and a plaque was unveiled close to the Liberation Monument at St Peter Port harbour.
In June 1940, Stockport accommodated over one and a half thousand Channel Island evacuees. A three day reunion was held in Stockport in June 2010, and a blue plaque was unveiled at the approach to Stockport railway station. The Mayor of Stockport, Councillor Hazel Lees, said at the time, ‘This was a remarkable episode in the histories of Stockport and the Channel islands. Strong links were forged between our two communities in 1940 and those links have remained. Even today, the stories of these young evacuees have the power to move us to tears and remind us of the horrors of war’.
The evacuees were also delighted to hear that the Guernsey flag is still flown at Disley Church in Cheshire, for a week around Guernsey Liberation Day – May 9th– a lasting tribute to Disley’s remembrance of the evacuees from Guernsey
Gillian’s book, Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War, published by the History Press, is now available.