I have a photo of my grandparents at the house in Ste Mathie that I took while sitting at the kitchen table after tea one evening. On the work surface in the background is a telephone with extra large buttons, a teasmade (that they never used), a ridiculous biscuit barrel in the shape of a marmalade dog and a bottle of Safeway Savers cola. I loved how that kitchen felt. It hummed with the sounds of the microwave, fan assisted oven and Channel TV news and had spongy lino that was warm under your feet even when you had no socks on. I find it hard to believe that the Second World War (la Deuxième Dgèrre Mondiale) happened in Granny and Pop’s time. Just 60 years before I took that photo they were living in a prisoner of war camp in Bad Wurzach, Germany.
Yesterday on the 72nd anniversary of Jersey’s liberation (lé Jour d’la Libéthâtion) I decided to take my son Harry to see some of the concrete reminders of the Island’s occupation by Hitler’s forces. Thanks to the Channel Islands Occupation Society we had the opportunity to explore inside some of these incredible structures that lie half buried around the coast.
First Nièr Mont, where buried deep inside the headland is a warren of underground tunnels and bunkers. The command bunker for this artillery battery houses an operations room where German officers would have made their calculations to coordinate the aim of the four huge guns above. Climb up iron rungs through a wooden hatch to find a range finder and two periscopes. Although these pieces of equipment were dismantled and dumped over the cliffs by British troops after la Dgèrre they have since been restored and we were lucky enough to try out the one working periscope that overlooks St Hélyi and La Baie d’St Aubîn.
As we took our tour I was struck by the odd juxtaposition of the officers’ living quarters with bunk beds (that did not look too uncomfortable), as well as shower rooms and toilet cubicles, branching off an operations centre where they would coordinate action in pursuit of death. The space was also much warmer than I had imagined it would be, heated by plumbed in radiators. On some of the bunks sit photos of the German officers who slept there. I struggle to imagine what it must have been like to live and work in such a space.
We ate our picnic lunch in my cousin’s camper van. Robyn put the kettle on and we all had a hot drink with sandwiches (des buerrées), wraps, pasta, eggs (d’s oeus), salad, fruit and chocolate biscuits for dunking. I reflected upon how this was a relative banquet compared with the meals that would have been served up during the Occupation (l’Otchupâtion). I watched seven-year-old Harry and Norah lick the chocolate off their fingers and thought about how a friend of mine recently told me that as a young child she had marvelled at the sight of an orange when she saw one for the first time after la Dgèrre.
Granny and Pops were living in L’Etacq (L’Êta) when the occupying forces arrived in 1940. Pops was a stonemason and faced with the choice between working for the Germans to help extend the airport or lose his job, he chose the latter and was unemployed for some time until a job came up at a nearby quarry. The Germans had carved out another quarry across the road and in a memoir he wrote with my cousin Robyn later in life, he recounts how Russian and Polish slave workers would visit the house with potatoes (des patates) for Granny to cook for them.
In January 1941 Pops was arrested for buying German cigarettes and imprisoned in a penal prison in Caen. In his later years he often spoke of this harrowing experience. Initially he was held in Gloucester Street prison for four weeks without visitors and not knowing what was going to happen next. It was some time before Granny was told where he had been taken and she was allowed just one visit before he was deported to France on the freezing outer deck of a small cargo boat, then held with 18 others in a single cell for three months. He survived on two slices of bread and two cups of soup a day (which he described to be more like water with a chunk of carrot if he was lucky) and slept on a pampas grass mattress with just one blanket for cover. When he was returned to the Island it took him three months to recover from the resulting malnutrition gout. The damage to his spine lasted for the rest of his life.
We headed over to Strongpoint at La Corbiéthe after lunch, where the stunning sunshine had drawn in the masses including a large flock of French students, who were sitting on bikes munching ice creams (des gliaiches). We thought it best to sample the toffee and pineapple flavours before heading underground again to explore the ‘M19’ which used to house a rare type of fortress mortar, removed shortly after l’Otchupâtion. To me though, the most fascinating feature of this bunker is the tunnel that provides a link to a nearby heavy machine-gun. On the walls of this narrow underground passage pencil drawings and notes by German officers as well as slave workers are still visible. One inscription in Arabic serves as a reminder of just how far from home many of these enforced labourers were.
My grandparents and their baby of two months were deported in 1942 and imprisoned in Bad Wurzach because Pops was South African born. Granny used to tell me about how Richard had cried when they left the camp three and a half years later; they were leaving the only home he had ever known. She told me that initially they were afraid to leave and they faced a long journey home so it was several weeks after the Channel Islands (les Îsles d’la Manche) had been liberated before they arrived back in Jèrri. In his memoir, Pops describes being greeted by hundreds of people lining the pier and an enjoyable ride to the house in a friend’s Essex Super Six!
Before leaving, we took a look inside the only coastal defence bunker in the St Ouën area to house its original weapon. With the help of some very knowledgeable and friendly volunteers, Harry and Norah were given the opportunity to practice aiming, loading and mock firing the massive gun. Later, on the way out they picked up a couple of plastic rifles and began shooting at each other from behind the cover of two open doorways leading into what would have been the ammunition stores. Watching them brought to mind how my brother and I would play soldiers (des soudards) on the kitchen floor at our great aunt’s when we were very young. She had an impressive collection of metal toy troops and tanks and we would make great use of the large tiled space to set up the best possible position of attack and defence. Of course we had no idea about the real sounds, smells, tastes and sights of war.
How lucky we and our children are to be so far from the reality that our grandparents and so many others faced such a short time ago.