A Hurricane Downed over Guernsey..!

When wandering the tranquil lanes & backwaters of the beautiful islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey it is sometimes hard to believe, especially on a drowsy, sunny, early Autumnal day that, between 1940 & 1945 this Crown Dependent landscape was occupied by the military forces of Hitler’s Third Reich!

Indeed sometimes amidst the peace & quiet of these intrinsically agricultural islands you could be fooled into thinking the Bailiwick had been completely untouched by war and that the sound of heavily studded boots and the clinking of German mess-tins on gas-masks and lusty voices raised in soldier-song on these narrow lanes was all but a fantastic dream..!

However although the Channel Islands are dotted with some very serious German fortifications, (some of which were doomed to be destroyed post-war until it was realised the civilian-commissioned demolition teams were to be beaten by the sheer amount of concrete involved), it is only when you visit some of the well kempt graveyards or see the myriad memorials in the occupation museums or renovated German military sites & locations that you realise that it did indeed happen…and how!

As to be expected, there was a large human cost involved despite this ‘benign occupation’ as the late Guernseyman Frank Stroobant called it and the German cemetery at Fort George is both another place of ‘pilgrimage’ for me as well as being a part of the closing sequence in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied.

Here, high up on the cliffs overlooking St Peter Port, some 113 German graves lie with full public access and where one can see headstones of some 19 Kriegsmarine matelots, 88 soldiers & 4 German merchant seaman killed, some as the result of Allied assaults and some of illness or natural causes during the years of occupation. All of these graves all beautifully tended & manicured by locals and a paternal eye is also kept by the German War Graves Commission, however there would have been many more German graves across the Bailiwick but for a concerted effort by the German authorities in the 1960s to exhume and repatriate many bodies of former serving Wehrmacht and Organisation Todt personnel from the Bailiwick.

Slightly macabre evidence of this very sombre act can be seen today in Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest.. sight of which I must admit rather stops me in my tracks and causes more than a few moments of quiet thought! But why some bodies were removed and re-interred in military graves in France & Germany, whilst the 113 in St George were left quietly in this most stunning of locations, I have yet to find out… it may be that by the 1960s their families were now stranded behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany or their families were no longer around… or maybe that their surviving loved-ones thought it perhaps best to leave them quietly at rest here in this most peaceful location on Guernsey.

However it is a further contemplative moment when you wander amongst these many German headstones in St George’s cemetery and note the varying ages of those lying here: from late teens to late 40s/early 50s, plus the varying ranks & branches of service of those former servicemen laid to rest here. Indeed there is a member of the NSKK, (Nazi Germany’s political motoring arm), a Wehrmacht veterinary officer, a Kriegsmarine ships stoker, a Luftwaffe flak gunner, a senior army officer… just casting an eye across this cemetery is a history lesson in itself.

Then, set just atop all of these German headstones that step down in tiers below it, is one of a Canadian pilot, 22 year old Flight Sergeant Biddlecombe RCAF, shot down over the Bailiwick in 1944 when either conducting an air assault on Guernsey’s German fortifications or having baled out when in the vicinity of the islands… and again I am wondering if that, as his family was so far away across the Atlantic, they too perhaps thought it best to also leave his body here in peace on the island of Guernsey.

This then led me on to wondering just how many Allied air crew had actually been killed over the Bailiwick – and the number was surprisingly readily forthcoming: 111. Indeed at Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest there is now a very attractive little propeller memorial to these airmen sited in the corner of his car park as you venture from your car towards the museum entrance as testament to this fact.

When you think about it, 111 is a huge number of lost Allied air-crew even for the  5 years occupation of these islands, (on average just over 22 a year), and a number of these would have come as a result of probing low-level fighter-bomber offensive attacks conducted against the islands by the RAF and USAAF, whilst others, (which would account for the somewhat high number of losses) would be from British, Canadian or US bomber crews shot down on the return legs of their missions over the Ruhr or the Reich’s capital Berlin.

These would undoubtedly have been shot down as they strayed off course and got bounced by Luftwaffe night & day fighters flying from nearby France, or by the ME109s scrambled from Guernsey’s Luftwaffe base. A number would have also been shot down by the many heavy flak crews sited both on the islands and again over the water in France.

Happily not all Allied crew that baled out or crashed over the Bailiwick were killed… and I am indebted to my pal Major Evan Ozanne, late of the Guernsey Tourist Board and more recently editor of his former parish’s newsletter ‘Les Tortevalais’, who told me of a Hawker Hurricane pilot that baled out over the island early on in the war and the tale surrounding the pilot’s family who had recently come to Guernsey looking for information on his war-time escapades!

Lesley Sutherland and her husband Alastair had flown over to the Bailiwick from their home in Glasgow, intent on researching the story of her father, Robert Stirling, who crashed off Lihou island during the war. Staying at a local hotel they picked up Evan’s magazine and there, before her eyes, was her father’s story as penned by Evan … and a subsequent meeting up with him and thence with Simon Hamon from the Channel Island Occupation Society (Guernsey) added more vital information to their research.

It transpires that Robert Stirling was a 23 year old Sergeant-Pilot with 87 Squadron RAF flying a Hurricane Mk1 on a night-intruder patrol from its base in South West England in the vicinity of the Channel Islands on the night of April 11th/12th 1941, when his plane actually ran out of juice over the Bailiwick. Making a swift decision to try to force-land at Guernsey’s airfield unfortunately the Luftwaffe heavy flak crews defending the air-field opened fire on his Hurricane and Robert decided to bale out instead of being shot down and safely came down on the end of his parachute onto the tiny all-but inhabited island of Lihou just off the south-west corner of Guernsey.

Fortunately it was low-tide so he made his way back across the causeway to the mainland and, surviving both a German minefield and a mined road, walked to the nearest house he could find, that of Mr Tom Brouard who took him in and gave him a cuppa, (of bramble tea no doubt!).

With an island-wide night curfew and Tom having no ‘phone Robert was given bed and in the morning, he gave himself up to the German authorities… and Tom? Well sadly for all his endeavour the Germans gave him 4 weeks in prison for harbouring a British fugitive… despite not being able to inform the authorities that the downed RAF pilot was with him..! and that might have been the end of the story but for Robert’s daughter Lesley who, later in their holiday, was chatting to Marion Henry at the Bruce Russell Gold & Silversmith showroom and mentioned the purpose of their trip.

She showed Marion Major Ozanne’s magazine article and said she & her husband had learned that a Mr Tom Brouard had sheltered her father on that fateful night he was shot down…to which Marion replied:’Tom was my uncle’…a very small world if ever there was..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013       (Robert Stirling photos courtesy: The John Goodwin CIOS Archive)

‘Channel Islands Occupied’ TV Documentary…

When I originally travelled to the Channel Islands in the early 1980s on what would be just the  very first visit in what was to eventually become a wonderful life-time connection with this stunningly beautiful part of the world, it soon became apparent to me that a TV documentary about the German Occupation of those British islands between 1940 and 1945 just had to be made..!

Back then, according to the many islanders I talked to, plenty of people had arrived with ‘big plans’ for such a film, but nobody subsequently put their money where their mouth was to came up with goods and so, determined not to be just ‘another film-maker wannabe’ full of idle promises made to these lovely, warm, island folk that I had met and been welcomed by, on my return to the mainland I immediately set about contacting as many UK TV network stations as I could with my outline plans.

Quite amazingly, (or should that be ‘outrageously’?),  I was utterly surprised to get a swift rebuff from every one of the commissioning editors I spoke to, all of whom seemingly could not actually get their head around this simple concept, with one actually saying ‘this story is of no possible interest to us!!’.  Though of course given the way television executives today simply look around them to see what everybody else is doing and then commission identical shows for their own network, these days you can’t move for tripping over such documentaries about the islands’ German occupation, particularly on the satellite channels where repeats of same are seemingly aired wall-to-wall these days!

However I do feel vindicated all these years on that I was the first of the modern generation of producers to actually get off my backside and do something for the Channel Islanders’ hitherto ignored story on film. I also feel very happy that my subsequent decision not to let down those wonderful people to whom I had promised faithfully that I would try to tell their story on screen was ultimately the right one..and one that would also lead to some unforeseen but wonderful ’fringe benefits’ later on in the wake of my television documentary.

I have to admit that though it actually took the re-mortgaging of the roof over my head (literally), in order that I could keep my word and raise almost all of the necessary funds to return to the islands to shoot my documentary as planned, (despite having no network TV commission to act as a safety net for my financial outlay, it also being pre-satellite TV channel days as well), I knew it was the right decision to make, both morally & financially… and I will always remember the look of relief on our bank manager’s face when the film was later judged a success, both historically & financially..!

(I think mine must have been something of a picture too, knowing that my house was still my own rather than Barclays’!!)

At this point I would wish to pay fulsome tribute to a most honourable gentleman, Major Evan Ozanne, who back then was the much respected deputy-director of Guernsey Tourism whom I met with during one of my research trips to Guernsey. I had asked the Tourist Board if I could, out of natural courtesy, outline my plans to them for filming on their beautiful island and Major Ozanne, an ever gracious former army officer, invited me to lunch, during which I explained how I intended to tackle the telling of this incredible war-time story…

However, this was not a pitch as Tomahawk’s plans were already underway, (albeit it we were several thousand pounds short of our required budget), and even though, to a certain degree, I was ‘winging things’ and constantly doing mental gymnastics in my head as to how I would complete the documentary when inches short of the required funding, I’d given my word to my Guernsey supporters who, when I asked how could I repay them, simply answered: “don’t worry about us son, just get the story right and we’ll be happy”… so after that incredible generosity of spirit, my documnetary had to be produced.. somehow!!

After a most enjoyable lunch during which I was able to happily forget all about the thorny issue of finances for a wee while and enjoy talking about the beautiful island of Guernsey and all it had to offer, there came a short silence… at the end of which Major Ozanne quietly mentioned that he liked my plans,  though he could not get involved with financing our project as such, (something I genuinely hadn’t even considered after my terse rebuffs from the UK’s TV commissioning editors).Then came the ‘big however’:  it was the end of the his financial season and he had £2,000 left in his budget…  would having that help us in any way..?

Help us..? Holy Moly, that was almost the sum short down to the last penny!  I could not believe my ears and, truly, the Gods were shining down on me; but when I recovered my composure I gratefully accepted this incredible life-line, (or rather almost bit his hand off in truth!!), and agreed with Major Ozanne that in return we would sub-title our film ‘The Official Guernsey Liberation Documentary’ which he kindly accepted most happily… and within months I was back over with my crew filming as planned!

So were it not for this incredible show of support from Major Ozanne and the Guernsey Tourist Board, (though he modestly says he didn’t contribute much, £2,000 then was a huge amount..!), I doubt very much if my film would have got off the ground… or if it had, based on the fact I was still short of my original budget despite remortgaging my house, I would not have enjoyed the process as much as I did for worrying about how to pay for everything!

So as I now look back, I’m so pleased that I ‘bit the bullet’ and went ahead and shot the film as it also led to a lifetime of treasured friendships within the islands, not least of all with Mrs Molly Bihet, author of the popular book ‘A Childs War’ and who is both one of the stars of my documentary and our agent on Guernsey, (and lovingly referred to as ‘my Guernsey mum’), and of course with Major Ozanne who I’m also privileged to call: my good friend Evan’...

It was this burgeoning friendship that led to a wonderful period of my life as I was invited back to Guernsey some years later by Evan to work as a media consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board and its exciting German and Victorian Fortifications initiative: ‘Fortress Guernsey’ which I blissfully undertook for a number of years…and as a result I now consider the Bailiwick to be ‘my second home’..!

During my tenure I was commissioned & authorised to write, (and broadcast on radio), about Guernsey’s German occupation history, to regularly seek, out, invite and personally guide parties of selected journalists & magazine feature writers around the Bailiwick. This thoroughly enjoyable work also afforded me a superb opportunity to actually ride shot-gun’, (on behalf of the Guernsey people), on new films & documentaries that were slowly and subsequently beginning to also be shot in the islands, to ensure that the correct historical story would also be continued to be told on camera to the outside world and that no liberties would be taken with the islanders or their incredible war-time stories.  Some very professionally fulfilling years indeed, it has to be said!

Sadly changes within Guernsey Tourism meant this initiative was eventually discarded, but thankfully the work that Evan & I began was enthusiastically adopted by a fantastic group of the Bailiwick’s occupation enthusiasts who, from their own pocket, continue the detection, preservation and on-going promotion of some of Guernsey’s most amazing German military fortifications under their organisational name of Festung Guernsey’.

However most importantly for my original ‘gamble’ is the fact that, eventually written & produced back in 1989, my particular telling of this utterly fascinating occupation story in Tomahawks’ 50’ television documentary, ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ is still selling in good numbers today, (formerly on video and now on DVD), as well as it ever has and is particularly popular in a number of leading tourist outlets in the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Alderney and Jersey.

With sales now in excess of some 33,000 copies sold, (plus a couple of transmissions on regional television ‘after the event’ and also via Canadian Broadcasting), many people think they know the voice-over artiste..but just can’t place his name..! Well I’m happy to tell you it was/is a certain Alan Dedicote esq… perhaps better known as ‘Deadly’ from Sir Terry Wogan’s much-missed former BBC Radio Two Show..!

Recorded in the years before I become a trained television voice-over artiste in my own right, (otherwise I would ‘rudely’ have pushed my way to the front to do it), Alan is still a superb newsreader, (and in fact I think the senior continuity-announcer) at Radio Two in London whilst also being the National Lottery’s televised ‘Voice of the Balls’. Alan kindly agreed to narrate our commentary back then, courtesy of a request via a very talented producer friend of ours, Dirk Maggs, who formerly worked alongside Alan at Radio Two.

This was a bit of a coup as, unknown to me, Alan was the continuity ‘voice’ for BBC Radio Guernsey and also for the Plymouth-based local BBC TV news programme that broadcast to the Channel Islands… I’d love to say I knew that at the time and this was a master-stroke of production planning, but it was a pure fluke that it all tied in so nicely..as did so much around the time of my researching my story and Tomahawk’s ultimate shooting of this fascinating war-time documentary on Guernsey & Alderney…

Richard Heaume MBE, owner of the German Occupation Museum, still shows a 20′ looped highlight version of our documentary in the little cinema he has built. Often it’s fun to quietly slip into one of the back seats when I am in the Bailiwick and eavesdrop on positive comments made by visitors to this world-class museum as they sit watching our work on the screen..!

I know you shouldn’t, (as there is always the possibility of hearing something you wish you hadn’t), but happily all we’ve heard are smashing compliments… and who knows, one day one of those commissioning editors that dismissed me out-of-hand might have a gap amidst their on-going merry-go-round of repeats which they could fill with the first TV documentary to take a detailed look at this compelling episode in Britain’s war-time history..!

In so doing they would be giving a welcome airing to some very rare interviews that Tomahawk Films captured with Channel Islanders, (such as the larger-than-life Frank Stroobant who survived the rigours of the World War Two German Occupation), but which sadly are no longer around for today’s new generation of producers to similarly document on camera…. here’s hoping..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013