The Channel Island of Jersey in the United Kingdom is rich in both its soil and its history. A 9-by-5-mile patch of land that sits just off the coast of France but bears loyalty to the Crown, Jersey has long been a desirable place to live, visit, and own. From its hedge-lined country roads to its 40-foot tides, sand dunes, and rocky beaches, to the rich ice cream made with milk from the Jersey cows that graze peacefully in fields, it is difficult to find an inch on Jersey that is not beautiful.
The island, though peaceful and serene today, harbors a turbulent past of other countries vying for its land. The ownership of Jersey was passed back and forth among nations for centuries, so that if you put your ear to the ground, you can almost hear the hurried footsteps of the Vikings, the victory calls of King John’s men in 1204, the eerie hush brought over by Nazi Germany in 1940. Castles and bunkers dot the island as reminders of their history. This month, Jersey will celebrate its most recent return to English hands: the 75th anniversary of the Allied Liberation from Nazi Germany.
The Channel Islands, comprising Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Alderney, and Herm, are unique in that they were the only land belonging to the U.K. to be occupied by Nazi Germany during the war. During the month of June 1940 leading up to the war, Winston Churchill made the difficult decision to demilitarize the islands in the hope of protecting islanders in the case of conflict. Islanders were given just a few days to decide whether to stay and potentially face occupation, or evacuate to England. Just a week after the islands were demilitarized, the German Air Force, mistaking potato trucks for army trucks, bombed the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, killing 44 people and injuring many more.
Thus began five long years of Occupation, years I’ve learned about from both history books and my own family, whose Jersey roots go back seemingly as far as the island itself. My grandparents were children during the Occupation, and I spent my childhood on their laps, reliving those life-shaping events through them.
My great-grandad’s photography shop in the town of St. Helier was damaged in the bombings. He used to tell me about the way the light caught the shattered glass of the broken window on the floor of the shop. After the bombings, the Germans dropped flyers containing ultimatums all over the island, demanding complete surrender. The islanders were to signify their compliance by hanging a white flag outside their window. My spirited great-granny chose to hang out her dirtiest white sheet after cutting several holes through it.
The following years, islanders faced strict curfews, food shortages, and lack of news from the mainland after radios were forbidden. As the Occupation wore on, food and materials became scarce, and islanders had to become increasingly resourceful. My granny wore shoes made out of rubber for tires. My grandad remembers his pet rabbit disappearing one day, and rabbit stew being served to him the next.
Hitler was paranoid that the Allied forces would attack the Channel Islands, and worked to make it an impenetrable fortress. As part of his Atlantic Wall, he ordered thousands of forced laborers to be brought over from Russia, Poland, Spain, and France. They were used to build anti-tank walls, bunkers, and tunnel complexes. Their conditions were abysmal, and many workers lived on the brink of starvation.
Brave and heroic islanders helped in ways they could. One of my granny’s friends told me she used to put large pots of Jersey bean crock at the end of her lane so that workers could reach in and grab a handful of food as they were marched to and from construction sites. Another friend found an escaped laborer raiding his vegetable garden. Instead of turning him into the authorities, this friend took the laborer in and hid him in his barn for the remainder of the war.
Liberation Day Events
In May 1945, the Channel Islands were liberated by British troops after the Germans surrendered. Islanders covered their homes and balconies with flags and decorations in anticipation of their liberation. Five years of tax and trial were brought to a victorious close when the swastika flag was taken down from the Pomme d’Or hotel and replaced with the Union Jack.
Every year on May 9, Jersey’s Liberation Day, celebrations and reenactments take place on the island. This year, the 75th anniversary looks a little different due to the pandemic, but in characteristic resilience and fortitude, the islanders are carrying on with the celebrations.
The events will be live-streamed so that members of the public can watch the events and celebrate from their own homes (Facebook.com/Lib75Jsy/). From 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. local time, Jersey’s Parliament, the States Assembly, will be streamed online, followed by a formal address and the raising of the Union Jack. The iconic moment of British soldiers climbing up the Pomme d’Or hotel to hand the flag, thus marking the island’s liberation, will be reenacted.
From 3 to 5 p.m. that day, islanders are invited to host their own pop-up Liberation Day parties, in their gardens or on virtual platforms like Zoom. The day will culminate in a virtual skyline party from 7 to 11 p.m.
In this trying time of restrictions and social distancing, it seems poignant to honor and remember the islanders of wartime occupied Jersey: their difficulties, trials, and ultimately, their victory. Remembering the Occupation can give us the perspective and hope so needed in this current season.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com