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