Liberation Day in the Channel Islands…

May 9th…and a very happy Liberation Day to all of my good friends in the beautiful Channel Islands, a day, I must admit,  that suddenly creeps up on me here on the mainland, but nevertheless a day when I think so longingly about being over there once again in the beautiful Bailiwick of Guernsey;  either having a splendid lunch with my two great pals, Evan & Ian, both former senior figures in the Guernsey Tourist Board, or with my agent and my ‘Guernsey Mum’ Molly Bihet, or meeting up with Richard at his Occupation Museum, or if  I’m lucky enough, nipping  over to neighbouring tiny Alderney for a wonderul afternoon of cliff-walking high above a foam-flecked sea with the wind in my hair and salt air on my lips..

I am only 40 minutes away by air from Southampton airport but without a seat already pre-booked and an office-full of Tomahawk Films’ work high on my list of priorities here in my little village of Twyford, it might as well be a million miles away.  Don’t get me wrong, I am very privileged to live in this pretty little farming village as I do, but my love for the beautiful Bailiwick just means that on some days the terrific pull of those beautiful Crown dependent islands upon my heart is almost too great to resist… and sometimes it is so great I almost physically ache to be back over there again on God’s Own Island..!

But back to the topic of Liberation Day and most people over here on the mainland actually don’t usually know or are even aware that May 9th is a national holiday on Guernsey & Jersey at all!

I omit the stunning and most northerly island of Alderney as that gorgeous sister island to Guernsey said goodbye to all of its it civilian population in 1940, with the incoming German garrison becoming the only inhabitants of the island between the years 1940 and 1945. So it was that those evacuated Alderney folk only returned after the war, on December 15th 1945, and so today this is now their island’s holiday… known as ’Homecoming!’

I have been fortunate enough to spend a number of exciting Liberation Days on Guernsey, not least when I originally launched my documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ on the 45th Anniversary  of the Bailiwick’s liberation and I can happily confirm that  the buzz, excitement & general happiness upon those anniversary days is quite something! So heaven knows what it actually must have been like when the Bailiwick was actually liberated from German occupation for real by a British army artillery unit on May 9th 1945 , just a day after the final surrender of all German Forces across Europe on May 8th

Looking at the superb and evocative Warworks 35mm Liberation newsreels I was able to include in my documentary, (a superb b&w ’moving snapshot’ of the that emotional day), you can see how the bubble burst for the islanders and the ensuing explosion of untold joy and a light in the eyes of the Guernsey people when, from radios that suddenly appeared from deep hiding and put out on widows, was heard Winston Churchill declare to the world: ‘our Dear Channel Islands would soon be free’..

From all corners of Guernsey people who had spent 5 long years living under Nazi occupation, (which though rightly deemed ‘benign’, was still certainly tough) descended en masse down into the streets onto the quay of St Peter Port. Here they watched a small infantry landing-craft with just a couple of dozen British artillerymen of Force 135 ferried in from the Royal Naval fleet now at anchor outside of St Peter Port Harbour (including HMS Bulldog upon which the official German surrender had taken place) come ashore.

At my documentary’s climax you can see the massed crowds lining the street to gives these ‘liberating Tommies’ a true heroes’ welcome as they marched up from the harbour into the town…the people finally free from their yoke of occupation. Meanwhile the Warworks newsreels captures the moment that the troops comprising the German garrison on Guernsey were ordered to lay down their rifles and side-arms and remain in their barracks until such time as their new status as prisoners of war could be confirmed and arrangements for them to be marched down to the sea shore. Here the larger tank landing ships would be coming ashore to load them up and transport them over to Weymouth and thence on to the POW cages near London and the Home Counties.

Whilst the islanders were ecstatic with joy at their deliverance, what would have been going through the minds of the German soldiers, (many tens of thousands of them), must have been a mixture of relief that the majority of them had survived the war, (and that ever-feared posting to the Russian Front), whilst feeling trepidation at what might be coming next and indeed what of their homeland: were their families still intact, were their loved ones still alive..whose towns and villages had been over-run by the Americans & the British…and whose were now in Russian hands? Now was a tough time for many German prisoners…especially for some that had fallen for lovely Channel Island girls and were now being parted…heart-breaking love stories in their own right, that would be later recaptured in compelling TV documentaries, like Passionate Productions’ truly wonderful ‘Jerry Love’ looking back to those tumultuous & often heart-breaking days…

Meanwhile on May 9th 1945 across the Channel Islands the joy amongst the civilian population, was unconfined and one can only imagine how it must have felt to now know that as an islander, safe with British troops in amongst you, you could do and say what you wanted? Far from living under constant German watch and tight regulation you were now free go where you wanted and, knowing that, begin to notice and benefit from now on from the slow, but steady influx of food and supplies after that terrible, deprived winter of 1944/1945… plus then there was the growing expectation of the returning evacuated family members, shipped to the British mainland ahead of German occupation in 1940… life must have seemed so heady as to be almost unbelievable!

I know from taking to Molly, who was a child of the occupation, just what a magical day it was… indeed her lovely little book ‘A Child’s War’ was and is still a major read by visitors to Guernsey and the island’s school children alike. It lays out in great detail just what it living under German military rule must have been like, whilst her subsequent books also document the joy and elation of the Liberation and the fact that they survived the Nazi occupation of the only British soil that Hitler managed to get his hands on…

So the next time May 9th comes around, if you have a spare minute or two to stop in your busy life and quietly reflect for a moment, just think how important this May Day Bank Holiday actually is to so many wonderful British people now living quietly & peacefully just 80-odd miles off the English south coast down there in the Channel Islands… for them, this really is one Bank Holiday that’s worth celebrating!!!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013

‘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