“I’ve just discovered a diary that an uncle kept during the occupation,” says the lady next to me on the plane when I tell her I’m interested in the history of Guernsey, the Channel Island we are heading for from Gatwick in a little ATR aircraft. “His wife and child were evacuated before the German invasion, so what comes across more than anything is his utter loneliness.”
Speak to anyone from Guernsey about the Second World War and they will have an anecdote to tell you; a story told to them by a grandparent, cousin, friend. A story of bravery, of overcoming hardship, of solidarity. Or a story of betrayal, of subterfuge or of plain tomfoolery.
The facts of German occupation were part of my childhood, having grown up on the neighbouring island of Jersey, which experienced a similar fate and was held under German command for five years between June 1940 and May 1945. My grandfather would tell me stories of how the Germans took over the farmhouse his family lived in and sent them to live in the outhouse, how he spent the night in a hedge with his bicycle after encountering a German soldier beating a local man for being out after curfew and how he made himself a crystal radio set to listen to news of the war but couldn’t share that news with anyone for fear of being “snitched on” (all radios were confiscated at the start of the occupation).
In my teens I was involved in a National Youth Music Theatre production of the musical Once Upon a War, which told of the heartache of sending children off to live abroad and the dreadful term “Gerry Bags” applied to women who slept with the enemy.
I’m going to meet my mother in Guernsey as we want to find out more about our neighbouring island. We both read the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the war and has just been released as a film – and we both found much that was familiar in the tale.
From the window of the little Aurigny plane I can clearly see the concrete fortifications on the cliffs of the south coast as we near landing. These were part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall against a possible allied invasion. I later learn that the Channel Islands were more heavily fortified than the Normandy coast and contain some of the best preserved Atlantic Wall sites in Europe.
From the airport I head down to the harbour in St Peter Port to meet my mother off the boat. It was here on June 28 1940 that the German bombardment happened. Apparently they mistook the tomato trucks that lined the quay for armoured vehicles and did not realise that the island was demilitarised. As you walk up from the harbour you can clearly see that great hunks of granite are missing from the walls where the shelling hit. There are some commemorative plaques as you walk towards town that hint at the history. One tells of the evacuation of children and adults ahead of the invasion: “Four fifths of the children and altogether almost half of the population of Guernsey were transported to England so that scarcely a family remained undivided.”
We muse that this is why the Potato Peel Pie society in the novel is such a success. All of the characters are lonely and are brought together by this unconventional book club to experience the warmth of human kinship. Another plaque is more sinister, as it is in memory of three Jewish women who were resident on the island when the Germans landed and were deported to Auschwitz in 1942.
St Peter Port is an extremely pretty town, rising up from the harbour in steep slopes, with a high street full of high-end stores and little independent boutiques. We pass the Ship and Crown pub, standing proud on the North Esplanade with steps going up alongside it. “Do you think that’s the Crown Hotel in the book?” my mother asks. She’s probably right. The building seems to date from long before the war.
We are staying at Old Government House Hotel, which has its own wartime history with the building being appropriated as the German “Soldatenheim” – the place soldiers and officers went to kick back and relax. I ask about the Ship and Crown and the manager tells me that it was indeed the Crown Hotel during the war, and that it was used as the harbour office by the Nazi authorities during the war. Realising I’m interested in finding out more about the occupation, he takes me into what he calls the “archive room” in the hotel, where along the walls are framed photographs and documents.
“You can see in this picture the swastika hanging and the German soldiers,” he says pointing to one photograph taken inside the hotel. “You see that hat stand there? Well we still have it in the hotel.” That simple fact of the hat stand makes the history seem close enough to touch. He takes me to two photographs of fresh-faced Germans in military uniform. “I was told about these soldiers by Richard Heaume, the Guernsey man that runs our Occupation Museum. This one is Fritz Kunz, he worked here at OGH when it was the Soldatenheim, Richard’s in touch with him, he’s in his 90s now and not able to travel. However, this one, Wernel Kruger, will be coming to join us in our Liberation celebrations in May.”
I’m sure Kruger will be surprised by the luxury of the OGH in its current guise as a Red Carnation five-star hotel. Although there are parts of the hotel that have hardly changed since the Forties and he is bound to recognise the lofty ceilings and expansive dimensions of the Regency Room, while the view across to Herm and Jethou won’t have changed.
The next day we head to the Occupation Museum to find out more. It’s a warren of displays about the war situated very near the airport in the parish of Forest. Richard is sat at the front desk and I tell him I’ve seen the pictures of the German soldiers at OGH. I realise that I’ve only ever thought of the occupation from the perspective of islanders and I’m suddenly very keen to get the story from the other side.
I ask if there is a book written by a soldier who was stationed on the island during the war and he spins the display on his desk and pulls out the title Island Destiny. “This is about a German medical orderly who fell in love with, and eventually married, a Sark girl,” Richard says handing me the book. I purchase it immediately and he puts it in a brown paper bag.
I can’t remember the last time I bought a book in this way and the exchange is satisfying – these days my books largely arrive in brown Amazon parcels.
We head into the museum and get lost in the multitude of artefacts and stories contained there.
When we break out into the sunshine it feels as though we have emerged from another world. Down the same country lanes that soldiers once patrolled on bicycles we drive with the radio on, slowing to peruse the “veg in the hedge” – the little honesty shops farmers set up at the end of their drives – or to look at horses, pigs or cows nuzzling on the edge of the fields. And sometimes we slow just because the lane is so incredibly narrow there is no other way to drive. The slowness helps us digest the past and brings us gently back to the present.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is in cinemas now
Aurigny (aurigny.com) flies from London Gatwick to Guernsey from £100 return. It also flies from Stansted, Bristol, Norwich, East Midlands, Manchester and Leeds/Bradford.
Condor Ferries (condorferries.com) sails from Poole/Portsmouth to Guernsey from £64pp.
St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands
8Telegraph expert rating
The grande dame of Guernsey hotels. OGH, as it's affectionately known, presides over the town of St Peter Port from its spot at the top of the hill. It's full of old-world charm and traditional five-star service, with thoroughly modern amenities. Read expert review From £177per night Check availability Rates provided by Booking.com
Double rooms at the Old Government House Hotel (telegraph.co.uk/tt-the-old-government-house-hotel) cost from £203 per night, including breakfast.