Jersey is officially a “Peculiar of the Crown.” People in the States call our Jersey peculiar too. It means Jersey has the same status as Guernsey being “Separate of, but not independent from” the United Kingdom. It is a historical remnant. William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England but still remained a French Duke. When the French finally drove the English from Normandy, Jersey and Guernsey remained part of the English king’s possessions. They were invaded by the French at times, and Parliament is opened in French (although debate is bilingual). But, by treaty, the islands are separated from France but have not joined the United Kingdom.
But it’s another invasion, more recent than the French, that seem to shape Jersey and helps define its identity. In 1940 the Germans occupied the Channel Islands. Against Churchill’s wishes the War Office decided the islands would not be defended. This message was not conveyed to the Germans until AFTER they started bombing, but when they got the message, they flew in, and met the Bailiff, who opted to remain to keep some form of local civil government going.
The occupation is a Jersey preoccupation. The main bus station is Liberation Buss Station, the main square is Liberation Square. There is a statue dedicated to the liberation in the square.
Two of the main attractions are the Occupation Tapestry, and the Jersey War Tunnels.
The tapestry was a large community art project. A designer laid out the overall plan and each of the island’s 12 parishes completed one panel. While the overall design was set each parish had a lot of latitude in doing the work. Over the years it took to make the tapestry over a thousand people added stitches. Over 1400 hanks of wool yarn went into the making. It was unveiled by Prince (now King) Charles on the 50th anniversary of the liberation in 1995. The file with the pictures I took of the tapestry was corrupted so I don’t have my own photos, but here is a link that will tell you about the tapestry.
The second attraction are the Jersey War Tunnels, a labyrinth of tunnels bored by the Nazis as part of the extensive network of fortifications and bunkers that were part of the “Atlantic Wall” to ward off invasion.
The tunnel museum poses questions about life under occupation. Ten years ago, when we were in Jersey the presentation was “Germans bed, Islanders good.” Today the presentation takes a more nuanced view. It asks questions like “A German Soldier offers you an ice cream, do you take it?” with the added information that he is a father and misses his kids. Another question, A German officer speaks impeccable English, shares your love of Classical Music, do you invite him into your home to listen to records?” There were stories of women who had relations with Germans. Ten years ago, in presentations they referred to them as “Jerry Bags.” That term was still mentioned but there was also talk of the marriages and families started. There was a sympathetic portrayal of a 17-year-old German Soldier who committed suicide by putting a grenade in his mouth and pulling the pin. There was a thoughtful presentation on the dilemma of civil authorities walking the line between keeping the government functioning and collaboration. There were tally boards asking visitors which decision they would make, and the votes were pretty evenly split. The displays prompted contemplation of the partial breakdown of civil society during the occupation.
The plight of slave laborers from Russia and other countries (including political prisoners sent by Franco from Spain) was graphically portrayed.
Looking at the displays you can feel the islander’s frustration when they saw the Normandy Invasion happening all around them, planes overhead and boats passing, and yet they still remained under German control. After the beachheads were secured and French ports taken there was no supply route for the Islands. Churchill asked for the Germans on the island to surrender, the commander did not (although there was talk of mutiny among some of the troops.) When asked for supplies from the Allies he responded “Let them starve. No Fighting. They can rot at their leisure.” While it made sense not to fight for the islands, which were no longer of strategic importance and not worth the lives of servicemen, it meant the islanders and Germans went hungry together.
After prolonged negotiations, a Red Cross supply ship arrived with food to be distributed only to islanders and not to German occupiers. This led to more tension. Only after VE day were “our dear Channel Islands” in Churchill’s words, freed, among the last Western Europeans liberated.
While the islanders went hungry, there was no starvation. That led to a conversation with Liam and Fiona on what starvation means. Fiona realized that her saying “I’m Starving” was misuse of a term, trivializing real starvation. While the islander’s hardships were real, we discussed the greater hardships of people in, for instance, concentration camps, or is areas that were leveled by armies. Liam said the tunnel museum was the first time that he understood the real horror of war. I added that what he saw in the exhibits wasn’t nearly the half of it. Travel is teaching and today the kids to begin to understand issues they are seeing on TV and their devices today.