The prelude

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An Evening Post van in November 1939 with a newsbill summarising the times

When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and Britain declared war two days later, few in Jersey could have imagined how their lives were to change during the conflict. Most believed that life would continue as it did during the First World War, when all the fighting took place hundreds of miles away .

French reservists leave on 10 September 1939

Holiday destination

As late as the spring of the following year Jersey was still being advertised as the ideal holiday destination for people wanting to get away from the war. Little did anyone know that within weeks the island’s hotels would be in used by the occupying German forces, with not a holidaymaker in sight for another five years.

To begin with there was the inevitable exodus of French nationals, reservists in their country’s armed services, and then of Jerseymen and British residents who answered their country’s call to arms, as had happened in the Great War.

The war spread rapidly west and the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk at the end of May 1940, followed by the crossing of the Seine on 14 June, left the German Army on Jersey’s doorstep on the Normandy coast.

St Malo evacuation

But there were still large numbers of British and Allied troops in the west of France and on 16 June the authorities in Jersey received a telegram from the Admiralty asking them to send all available craft to St Malo to help evacuate British troops.

Poles are erected on Victoria Avenue in 1940 to prevent enemy gliders landing

The potato season was in full swing and there were several large craft in St Helier Harbour which were sent to St Malo along with a flotilla of smaller vessels organised by St Helier Yacht Club Commodore William Le Masurier.

As the first convoy was arriving in St Malo on Monday 17th, a task force of vessels reched St Helier, including a NAAFI canteen ready to cope with the needs of thousands of evacuated soldiers. In the event they were not needed, because a change in German tactics allowed time for all allied troops to evacuate direct to England.

But it was clear that the Germans would shortly turn their attention to the Channel Islands and the British Government took the fateful decision not to attempt to defend the islands and to withdraw all the troops which had just landed. The Lieut-Governors were to be withdrawn from Jersey and Guernsey and the Bailiffs left in charge to await the islands’ fate.

At Lord Coutanche’s request, the part of the Lieut-Governor’s oath which required him to defend the island and its castles ‘against all incursions of the enemy’ was omitted, because he already had orders not to put up any defence.

An air raid precaution team in 1939

Letter from Home Office

Sir Alexander Maxwell, the Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Home Office wrote to the outgoing Lieut-Governor, General James Harrison:

”I am directed by the Secretary of State to say that in the event of your recall it is desired by His Majesty’s Government that the Bailiff should discharge the duties of Lieutenant-Governor, which whould be confined to civil duties and that he should stay at his post and administer the government of the Island to the best of his abilities, in the interests of the inhabitants, whether or not he is in a position to receive instructions from His Majesty’s Government. The Crown Officers also should remain at their posts”

Lord Coutanche would draw attention to the specific instructions in this letter in later years when his conduct, and that of other island officials, came in for uninformed criticism.

While the States were sitting to be updated on the situation, General Harrison withdrew to take a telephone call from the Home Office which informed him that the Cabinet had confirmed their decision that the Channel Islands would not be defended.

General Harrison reluctantly obeyed orders and left Jersey on 21 June, having said:

”This is a terrible situation. A soldier cannot leave his post in the face of the enemy.”

All British troops were now withdrawn from Jersey and the Royal Jersey Militia also departed, along with servicemen who were on leave in the island.

Islanders had already been required to take a hasty decision on whether to remain in their homes, or evacuate to England. Initially some 23,000 put their names down for evacuation, but in the event only 6,500 were to leave, a much smaller number than those who left Guernsey.

The King's letter

King's letter

On 24 June a letter was received by the Bailiff from King George VI:

”For strategic reasons it has been found necessary to withdraw the Armed Forces from the Channel Islands.
”I deeply regret this necessity and I wish to assure My people in the Islands that, in taking this decision, My Government has not been unmindful of their position. It is in their interest that this step should be taken in present circumstances.
”The long association of the Islands with the Crown and the loyal service the people of the Islands have rendered to My Ancestors and Myself are guarantees that the link between us will remain unbroken and I know that My people in the Islands will look forward with the same confidence as I do to the day when the resolute fortitude with which we face our present difficulties will reap the reward of Victory.”

On 28 June there were German air attacks on both Jersey and Guernsey, leading islanders to fear the worst. Odd German planes had been flying very low, apparently reconnoitring for hidden defences, for several days.

It came as a considerable shock when, on the evening of June 28th, raids were carried out simultaneously on Jersey and Guernsey. Considerable damage was caused at La Rocque and around the harbours, the total casualties for both harbours being about 50 killed and 100 wounded.

On 30 June the Germans arrived in Guernsey, and, after leaflets had been dropped demanding surrender, with white crosses painted in strategic locations, the following day a single aircraft landed at Jersey Airport. The Occupation had commenced.

Commons questions

On 18 July 1940 questions were asked of the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, about the situation in the Channel Islands and the events surrounding the evacuation of islanders.


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