Happy Liberation Day!
If you live in or hail from the Channel Islands you'll know why I'm greeting you like this today.
Here in the islands, May 9th is a day for celebration and commemoration every year and has been since 1945, the day that Jersey and the other Channel Islands gained their freedom after nearly five long years of Occupation by German Nazi forces during what we now call 'the Second World War'.
Usually, when we aren't living under Covid19 pandemic restrictions, it's a day packed full of events including luncheons for people who lived through the war years, parades and fun, as well as commemorations and thanksgiving including special church services.
Last year was the 75th anniversary of the Liberation - Liberation75 - and all the commemorations had to be online or virtual.
This year it's a little more relaxed, although there are none of the usual large gatherings planned. For instance, there will be no re-enactment of the Liberation of Jersey on May 9th 1945, that moment when British troops came ashore at the harbour in St Helier, marched the short distance to what is now called 'Liberation Square' and were welcomed by thousands of islanders who saw the British Union Jack raised on the Pomme d'Or Hotel. After five years of the Nazi Swastika flag on local flagpoles, that must have been an incredible moment.
For the residents of Jersey who had lived through nearly five years of Occupation, since German Nazi forces invaded the island on July 1st 1940, this was a moment to be not just celebrated but cherished and remembered. Annual events keep the Occupation in the mind of Jersey residents, children learn about the period not just through their families but also at school. As those who lived through the era gradually leave us, their legacy is ensured by the annual commemorations and the guardians of our history.
In 2019 and 2020 I worked with the experts at Jersey Heritage to create a radio series which would tell the story of the Occupation and Liberation of Jersey through 50 Objects which are held in the collections at the Jersey Archive and the Jersey Museum. The series was broadcast on BBC Radio Jersey on the Friday morning Breakfast Show on May 9th 2019 and then every week from the end of June that year up to and beyond Liberation75 on May 9th in 2020. This was part of our contribution to Liberation75, and I was privileged to learn that it became part of the official online commemorations.
During the making of the series we looked at documents, official and personal, diaries, posters, registration cards, items which told how the islanders lived under increasingly difficult conditions, made do with what they could lay their hands on to put food on the table and survived the deprivations of Occupation. We heard how children grew up in that period, how they played and how adults kept themselves busy, including having fun in local amateur dramatic productions. We explored transport and medicine and all the shortages which gradually began to show themselves as the war progressed, as Germany began to lose ground and headed towards ultimate defeat.
Our 50 stories included Jews who lived in fear and secret and we heard about those individuals who resisted the enemy forces and those, including families of English origin, who were sent to work and internment camps in Europe, some never to return. We also heard about those who collaborated with the enemy, and we heard the harrowing stories of slave workers who built massive fortifications as the Nazis under Hitler desperately hung on to the islands. We even heard the tales of some of the Germans who were based here and how they lived.
SO many stories, all wrapped up in objects and documents held in trust by Jersey Heritage. It was fascinating and I learned so much about that period of history in my home island. I developed a new appreciation for the resilience of the Jersey people, including members of my own family who lived through the Occupation years.
As I said, our 50 Objects series didn't end on May 9th 2020 because, actually, Liberation wasn't done and dusted on that day. It was just the start of a period of readjustment for those who had lived through the days when they were imprisoned and controlled by the enemy within the confines of this small island.
And for some 'liberation' would come later. Guernsey was also liberated on May 9th 1945, Sark on May 10th but in Alderney, the most northern of the Channel Islands from where pretty much the whole population had been evacuated in June/July 1940, their 'Homecoming' would not be until December 1945. Alderney residents had to wait until the end of the year before they could return, mostly because their whole island had become one big German defence base and after May 9th 35,000 mines had to be removed, with some casualties, before the population could safely return. Homecoming in Alderney is now annually celebrated every December 15th!
For many thousands of Channel Islanders who had left their homes before the Germans invaded in 1940, there was a gradual return after May 1945.
The evacuation of civilians from the Channel Islands in 1940 had, as I just said, seen the evacuation of virtually the entire population of Alderney ( 1,500 people). In Guernsey around one third of the population left the island in the run up to July 1st 1940 when the Occupation began. That was around 5,000 school children and 12,000 adults out of the resident population at the time of 42,000. In Jersey, although 23,000 civilians registered to leave, the majority of islanders followed the advice of their island government and remained. Only 6,600 Jersey residents out of 50,000 left on the evacuation ships in summer 1940, just before Occupation.
For some islanders, of course, the move away would be permanent. Although they were 'evacuees' many settled well in various locations in England and other parts of the UK. Some got jobs, got married, had children. And they would not return.
But once the war was over - VE (Victory in Europe) Day was May 8th and Liberation was the following day - islanders scattered across Great Britain started to think about and plan their homecoming.
This week in my blog I decided to dip into my 50 Objects series ... I hope you've enjoyed listening to some of the stories. Just seven, and there are 43 more if you feel you'd like to go to the Jersey Heritage pages on Vimeo.
And so today I turn to the final feature in the series - Object 50 - which isn't actually an 'object' at all.
It's a voice, a voice from the past, the voice of one of those returning evacuees.
Nelley Lebredonchel (née Hotton) was a child when she was evacuated and when she returned with her family. By all accounts she was quite a character, as Senior Archivist at the Jersey Archive Stuart Nicolle discovered when he interviewed her for the 60th anniversary of Liberation. She and her parents and siblings spent the war years in the north of England, as many islanders did, and they returned to Jersey and the family here in September 1945 just a few months after the original 'Liberation Day'.
Her story and her voice is now part of the Archives ... and it was to Nelley that Stuart turned for our final feature...
If you want to listen to this audio feature on the BBC Jersey website click on the link below
*image copyright Jersey Heritage