Eighty years on from a dramatic month
PATRICK GUITON is an Attadale resident; but he hasn’t always been so lucky to have such a prestigious postcode to call home. Eighty years ago, he called the Channel Islands home, and in this Speaker’s Corner remembers the day war really hit home.
JUNE 1940 is well known in World War II history for the dramatic evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, completed on June 4.
Two weeks later another evacuation was being hastily contrived which would in the days from June 20-27 see the removal to England of 40 per cent of the population of the Channel Island of Guernsey, including 80 per cent of its children.
Aged five, I was one of these evacuees taken with my elder sister’s school by cargo boat to the port of Weymouth and thence by train to Rochdale in Lancashire where a few days later my mother would find us and take us to her brother’s family home in North London just in time for the Blitz.
On June 30 German forces invaded the Channel Islands where they would remain for five years.
The Channel Islands were component parts of the Duchy of Normandy and therefore came to Britain with William the Conqueror in 1066.
They have a proud history of independent self government over which the Westminster Parliament has no jurisdiction, with the Privy Council carrying responsibility for foreign affairs and defence.
And of course it was the decision to demilitarise the islands and the removal of British troops which prompted a frantic process to facilitate evacuation.
On June 19 the Guernsey Star newspaper carried a dramatic headline; “Island Evacuation: All children to be sent to mainland tomorrow. Registration tonight”.
In the event the removal of children was less than total with some parents preferring to stay and to keep their families intact.
For those with farms or businesses to protect it was a very hard decision to make; many decided that the relative physical safety of children was paramount but one eyewitness was reported as saying: “I saw parents change their minds and remove their children from the ship at the very last minute.”
My father stayed.
It seems that leadership was important too with the Greffier
(leader of the government ) on Jersey emphatic in calling for families to stay intact with the consequence that less than 20 per cent took evacuation as compared with 50 per cent on Guernsey.
In a chaotic week chance factors would also have been significant.
Many of the Guernsey child evacuees, and more particularly those without accompanying parents seem to have remained in Lancashire with Stockport as an ongoing focal point.
Our experience was different.
After a difficult summer in North London, during which we sometimes slept on the London Underground platform rather than spend the night under bombing at home, my mother looked for alternatives.
Landed gentry families in country estates had lost their servants to the forces or munitions factories and so we spent most of the war living ‘behind the baize door’ in a large country house where my mother cooked and cleaned and where we were relatively safe.
I recall that one of the major routes to the south coast ports ran past the gate at the foot of the drive where, for weeks on end I watched the long logistical build up for the D-Day invasion.
In 1945 we went home. But for many of us the evacuation had taken us out of the islands at a very formative age and our lives moved on from there.
Who knows how things would have gone in the past 80 years had I stayed.
On the granite wall of the harbour at St Peter Port is a plaque commemorating the evacuation which carries the Patois French term my grandmother always used when saying “farewell – for now”: A la Perchoine.
Life on Guernsey during the occupation is, of course, another story. There are several excellent books, notably The Model Occupation: the Channel islands under German Rule by Madeleine Bunting ( Harper Collins 1995 ). Suffice it to say that there’s a hell of a lot more to that story than Potato Peel Pie.