As a young boy in my very early teens, I began my own journey into a lifetime of collecting with a modest gathering of World War Two militaria and, courtesy of my parents generosity, was allowed to take over two rooms of their large old house in which I opened a little museum to the public… and from that moment I longed to run a fully-professional operation on a full-time basis.
Sadly, as is often the case, life a got in the way and I went off to the film & television industry instead, however just a 40 minute flight due south of my Winchester home, one man’s similar boy-hood dream actually became a stunning reality and not so long ago I was privileged to be invited over to the Channel Islands to join in the 40th anniversary celebrations of Guernsey’s German Occupation Museum as owned & run by the amazing Richard Heaume MBE.
Trying to share the importance of Richard’s unique undertaking to those who have not paid it a visit is not the easiest of tasks and even his local newspaper only managed to limited itself to a front cover photograph and several paragraphs of passing copy, whereas for me to similarly limit myself would be to seriously miss the point of what is one of the Channel Island’s finest personal collections of artefacts from Nazi-Occupied Britain that is also open to the public…
It would also foolishly ignore the fact that Richard, though a modest, quiet & very self-effacing man, is a remarkable ‘keeper of knowledge’ when it comes to this often overlooked piece of World War Two history and along with many other visitors to his Occupation Museum, I suspect, I was totally taken aback by my first visit in the 1980s to the Parish of Forest that is home to Richard’s all-encompassing collection.
I can still recall today the incredible frisson of excitement I felt when, on what was a long, hot, sunny day, I eagerly pitched up to the front door of this little white-washed, typical Channel Islands cottage, lying down a small country lane, not a stone’s throw from the island’s airport… and which somebody had once succinctly and rather accurately noted: “resembles a Tardis..!”.
Certainly accurate, for whilst being tiny on the outside, oh boy, when you step in through the low front door, a world of German Occupation history literally explodes before your eyes and being an inveterate collector of all things Third Reich way back then, I thought I had ‘died and gone to heaven’ as, unfolding before me, was one man’s collection devoted to the entire military & civilian story of the Second World War German occupation of these beautiful Crown Dependent islands..
From the day the Channel Islands were de-militarised by the British government and the first Luftwaffe Ju-52 landed its troops in 1940, to the final capitulation in May 1945, when the entire German garrison surrendered its arms to British liberating forces without a shot being fired in anger, all was laid out here before my ever-widening eyes. Through little archways and corridors into darkened rooms with enormous glass cases reaching from floor to ceiling, all packed with stunning artefacts, past small tableaux and hidden audio-visual displays playing German newsreel films, commentaries & marching songs, I was transported back to those dark, tough days of Guernsey’s Nazi occupation.
What is quite remarkable is that Richard is actually untrained in the professional and somewhat formal art of museum management & curation, but nevertheless works directly from the heart: as such he is incredibly protective of the Bailiwick and its unique war-time history and is always politely but firmly insistent that the correct story is told at all times, as many a passing journalist or film-maker will have found out!
As a result of this expertise he has, down the years, become an accomplished television & radio expert, contributing to the documentary works of those producers wishing to cover and re-tell this unique story of Britons under Nazi rule, myself included when he kindly allowed me full rein to film in his museum and then to appear on camera to explain some of his wonderful German finds in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied shot in 1989.
As always, Richard so generously gave of his time in helping to get my particular telling of the story right and I will be forever grateful for his patience with me and I feel that is the mark of the man and why his fabulous museum is so much more than just a passing reflection of Guernsey’s war-time history… it is in fact a living, breathing representation of the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands, a story he is proud to tell with great accuracy and personal dedication.
It all began when Richard the schoolboy began collecting spent bullets in the local fields after the plough had gone by, before becoming a much bolder scavenger of the island’s bunkers & gun batteries with his pals, including ‘midnight trips’ in the mid 1950s. It was on these regular jaunts that he would slip out of bed and, armed with just a torch, would clamber down through a small hole into the ‘Aladdin’s Caves’ of the St Saviour’s tunnels where, after the German surrender in 1945, the liberating British army in the shape of the Royal Artillery had stacked up piles of redundant German steel helmets, gas-mask tins and all manner of ‘captured’ Third Reich military items before sealing the entrances to the outside world…
Sensing the imminent arrival of mainland scrap merchants of the early 50s, (who were to spirit away so many occupation German treasures), Richard’s race against time to ‘liberate’ as much as he could before it disappeared off the island to be cut up or melted down was truly on…and in this task he was incredibly successful!
In the very early days his small collection started out with little trophies brought back under the cover of night and without his family’s knowledge… but eventually his parents became aware of his nocturnal raiding parties and in the end his remarkable mother, Doris, became a co-conspirator, turning up one day with an ultra-rare German horse’s gas mask from the stables of a family friend. He also recalls, with a laugh, her coming in to the house one one day proudly brandishing an MP40 machine-pistol that she had also ‘liberated’ from somewhere on the island.. ah, mothers, what can you do with them?
In 1961 Richard formed the German Occupation Society and the young scavenger and his formidable mother continued to ferret their way around the island of Guernsey seeking out further relics & artefacts left behind by the German occupiers; and so steadily his collection continued to grow and the attic of the family farm began to fill up with all manner of helmets, tunics, gas-masks & canisters and of course his mother’s ‘prized’ machine-pistol!
Then in June 1966, the day that many of us amateur museum curators could only dream of, Richard’s parents allowed him to move his burgeoning collection across the road into a small cottage that had been housing farm tenants and he immediately stepped up a gear from knocking on doors seeking out smaller items, to actively finding & towing back much larger items!
His favourite artefact is a German Army ‘goulash cannon’: a four-wheeled field-kitchen that had also been stored down in St Saviours tunnel which, with the help of his father’s tractor he dragged back to the farm, (after a suitable contribution to the church’s collection plate), the landowners having allowed Richard access to the tunnels underneath their building. He still recalls the pride he felt when he and his father finally pulled this complete and rare artefact from its underground tomb to sit proudly and ready for his brand new museum’s hoped-for visitors…
The young museum owner was not to be disappointed for back in that World Cup year of 1966, (when there was still a feeling of ‘Don’t Mention The War’), Guernsey was a relatively cheap holiday destination for families and in his first year of opening, with prices at 2/- (10p) for adults and 1/- (5p), for children, he recorded a staggering 100,000 visitors in that first year… and on one day alone 956 visitors passed through the small front door to take in Richard’s treasures set out before them..!
Young Richard’s boyhood dream of having his own museum had become flesh and such was the continued successes in terms of visitor numbers, that he was able to self-finance, bit-by-bit, purpose-built extensions to the small farming cottage, starting in 1976 with the transport corridor and tea room, then in 1987 the superb Occupation Street, (a collection of shop frontages depicting a street in St Peter Port between 1940 & 1945), and then in 2001 a further small extension housing a thought-provoking prison tableau and sombre scenes dedicated to the islands deportees and the lesser known story of the Jewess taken away to the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp..
Finally, to the modern day and Richard’s latest extension to the end of the Occupation Street which houses ‘Maritime Guernsey’: an impressive display dedicated to the war-time naval activity around the Bailiwick, including those brave souls that tried to escape German occupation by boat to the British mainland and to the memories of the British matelots who died after the sinking of HMS Charybdis in 1943 and whose bodies were washed ashore and now buried in Guernsey’s Foulon Cemetery.
However amidst his rightful pride at his undoubted successes with his preservation & museum work comes a lingering sadness at the theft, some years ago, of the Kriegsmarine Harbourmaster’s double-decal steel helmet by a sneak-thief who somehow managed to spirit away this rare item, a beautiful helmet that would have taken pride of place in this new maritime extension.
Friends & supporters of the museum continue to keep an ‘ear to the collecting ground’ and cling to the hope that this unique German artefact will one day re-surface and eventually be presented back to Richard to be restored to its rightful place in the museum.. and I will refer more to this theft in detail in another Blog in the hope that it might stir some thoughts or possible sightings even now, some while after its disappearance!
The sad loss of Richard’s mother Doris at the beginning of the 90s and that cruel theft of such a special exhibit are, mercifully, the only sad notes in all of Richard’s many years of successful museum opening and you really do have to keep reminding yourself that not only is this all the private collection of just one man, but that Richard is totally self-taught in the art of museum management skills.
The surprised reactions on the faces of so many of Richard’s visitors upon first seeing his superb collection at the German Occupation Museum in the Forest Parish, is a very fitting tribute to his ingenuity & drive in keeping this unique story of Nazi Occupied Britain alive. Certainly a life’s work resulting in the well deserved award of an MBE from the hands of Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2011…
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013