On Wednesday 19 June 1940 Channel Islanders were informed that following the British Government’s decision not to defend the islands, provisions were being made to evacuate those who wished to leave.
Teachers and education officials had met the day before and decided on an evacuation of the children. Children had a letter to take home to their parents, who had to decide whether to send them away or let them stay through the anticipated German Occupation. They only had hours to decide and many changed their minds backwards and forwards several times.
Within two days boats full of youngsters were leaving for Weymouth. The authorities were concerned that crowds at the quayside might become a target for German planes, so parents and children said goodbye at the school gate before the children were taken on foot to St Helier Harbour.
Town Hall queues
As soon as the news of the planned evacuation was announced, large queues formed outside the Town Hall, where over 23,000 Jersey residents registered to leave, but in the event many changed their minds, or could not be found room for on the available boats, and only 6,500 actually left Jersey during June 1940.
The majority of those who left were children, mothers and men of miltary service age.
Evacuees could only take what they could carry, and cars and pets were abandoned. The banks ran out of money as people tried to withdraw their savings. Some people left for the harbour half way through a meal. After the departures the Parish Constables visited homes to remove perishable foodstuffs, round up pets to be taken to the Animals Hospital to be put down, and secure properties as best they could. However, many homes were ransacked.
The evacuations went on for seven days, but on June 28 the Germans bombed St Peter Port Harbour in Guernsey and then St Helier, so no more boats could leave.
Evacuation by air
Jersey Airways operated a shuttle service from Jersey’s new airport to England to fly evacuees out and this service continued until the last minute, when it was deemed unsafe to keep flying.
The story of these dramatic days was told in his book ‘’Jersey Under the Swastika’’ by Philip Le Sauteur, who lived through the Occupation in Jersey.
- "Dazed by the bewildering rapidity of events, the 100,000 Islanders were given the space of a few hours to decide which was the lesser of two evils — to remain under probable German occupation, or to leave home, jobs and possessions and evacuate to England. The greater part of that night was spent in most homes discussing the pros and cons of this most bitter choice, and selecting and packing 25 lbs of clothing and food for 24 hours which each person was allowed to carry, in case the eventual decision should be to evacuate.
- "Going meant, for most people, losing all they ever had or hoped to have; it meant separation from those friends and relations who, for one reason or other, decided to stay; and it meant being taken as strangers to a strange country, where there was no immediate prospect of work, or even of sustenance except by the charity of those with whom they came into contact.
- "The prospect on the other side of the picture was even more baffling. Staying certainly meant remaining in one's own home, and being on the spot to look after one's interest if it were possible. But the possibilities of a Nazi occupation, what were they? Propaganda had painted some horrible pictures, but were they to be believed? The majority of the Islanders, with their inherent dislike of change in any form, refused to be panicked into ‘running away’, as they termed it, just because the Germans might be coming. Such were the arguments bandied in thousands of homes during that long night, causing minds to be changed and changed again.
- "From an early hour the following morning crowds gathered in a long queue outside the Town Hall with the intent of registering to go, although many of them had still not finally made their minds what to do. Surprised at the number who apparently intended to go, the Bailiff and other States Members appealed to them not to run away, assuring them of greater safety in staying.
- "This, combined with the reports reaching the crowd of the wretched conditions of travel aboard the evacuation ships, which had already begun to leave — cargo ships of all types with the women and children crowded into the holds and their menfolk only just able to stand on the decks — caused many to leave the queue. But even so, many thousands stood throughout the day in a surging mass, still changing their minds as others, who had already decided to go (or to stay) brought forth the stock arguments in favour of their own decision.
- "The wildest rumours passed along the crowd — Russia and Turkey had entered the war and were smashing back the Germans — an evacuee ship had been machine-gunned by German planes — all helping to increase the nightmare effect of this day which must surely rank as one of the blackest in Channel Islands history.
- "Throughout the day, and on the following day, ship after ship left the harbours, crowded with evacuees and the pitifully small bundles which represented the whole of their possession. The piers were thronged with groups of people waiting to board each ship as she made fast alongside, meanwhile saying goodbye to friends and relations who were not going.
- "There were many heart-rending scenes, and even an occasional case of a prospective evacuee changing his mind at the very last moment, and collecting family and baggage and returning home. Many cars, cycles and perambulators were left abandoned on the quays, having performed their last service to their owners by bringing them to the evacuation boats. About one-third of the entire population left the Island during those two days.
- "During the days following the mad panic of evacuation things settled down again. Shops, most of which had been closed, reopened, and mail-boats continued to run between the Islands and England twice weekly, though only staying in harbour long enough to discharge and reload passengers and cargo. People were able to find out which of their friends and relations still remained in the Island, for in most cases there had been no time for goodbyes.
- "There was some panic buying of clothing, non-perishable foodstuffs and other essentials, and the town had a busy air which belied the fact that a big proportion of the population was missing. Some news came through from those who had gone, telling of their safe arrival after many long hours of travel under the worst possible conditions, and of the arrangements which had been made for their reception.”
A new life
Most of those who evacuated left for a very uncertain future. Some had family in England who they could stay with; but crowding two families into a small home was a recipe for stress and discontent. Others were taken in as refugees by complete strangers. In some cases families were separated and it could take weeks or months before parents were reunited with their children.
Some of the children who were evacuated had a small suitcase with a change of clothing and a sandwich; others had just the clothes they were wearing. Some had been told that they were going on a day-trip with their school; others believed that their parents would follow them. Perhaps they intended to, but many found it impossible to travel and were to be separated from their children for the duration of the Occupation.
- David William Pavey, personal reminiscences of the Evacuation and life afterwards in Weymouth
- The aftermath of evactuation from the 1941 report to the British Government by escapee Dennis Vibert
They did not travel in comfort. All available vessels had been pressed into service, including coal barges, cattle boats and the filthy boats which had been used days before to rescue British troops from St Malo.
After a nightmare crossing Weymouth was reached at dawn and unaccompanied children were labelled. Brothers and sisters were separated in the confusion and many lost what little possessions they had managed to bring with them. Now they were bundled into trains, not knowing their destination, and taken north, away from enemy bombing targets, many ending up in different towns in north-west England.
Thousands of tired and bewildered men, women and children found themselves in Manchester, Oldham, Bury, Wigan and other towns which, ironically, were soon to be targeted by the Luftwaffe. Others went to Scotland.
A warm welcome
Council officials and volunteers were on hand to greet them, and take them to reception centres at town halls, churches and other public buildings, where beds had been provided which some would occupy for up to a month. The Channel Islands were as foreign to the reception committees as were these northern towns to the evacuees. Translators were provided in the belief that the arrivals did not understand English.
These northern communities did an enormous amount of work to make their guests feel welcome. As well as providing bedding, clothing and food, they made sure that the children were kept entertained and had books and toys. All sorts of activities and outings were arranged.
Some Channel Island schools, including Victoria College, were able to re-establish classes for their pupils, but other children continued their education in local schools and then went into the forces or took jobs as soon as they were old enough.
Reluctant to return
Very little news had got out of the islands during the war. Some Red Cross messages were received and republished by the Channel Island Societies – nearly 100 of them – which were formed to keep evacuated islanders in touch with each other.
Many evacuees integrated so well into their new communities that they were reluctant to leave at the end of the war. Children knew their foster families much better than those they had left behind in Jersey, and quite often they returned to find new brothers and sisters born during the Occupation, and to face the difficulty of integrating into a family of virtual strangers. Those who returned would frequently find themselves shunned by islanders who stayed through the Occupation and accused the evacuees of ‘running away’, although most had had no choice.
Many did not return at all and remained in England to finish their education, further their careers or to marry and make their own families. And many of those who did return maintained a close relationship with the families who had housed them during the war and will forever be grateful for the generous welcome they received from total strangers.
- Ralph Mollet’s Occupation diary – evacuation
- A Jersey family’s evacuation story
- The boy who overslept and missed the evacuation
- Missing the boat: A child left behind
- How we welcomed evacuees in our school
- Holidaymakers who became evacuees Added 2016
- Going home – an evacuated family’s return after the Liberation
- Guernsey evacuee’s story
- Another Guernsey evacuee’s story
- The family which evacuated before the Occupation and then changed their minds and returned
- A website about evacuation from Guernsey