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Guernsey’s evacuees


It is a well-known fact that, during the Second World War, thousands of children were evacuated from industrial areas of Britain to the safety of the countryside. What is less well known is that in June 1940, just days before the Nazis occupied their island, 17,000 Guernsey residents were evacuated to the South Coast of England.

This British evacuation included 5,000 school children who were evacuated with their teachers at very short notice. Many of the smaller children were told that they were going on a school trip, so as not to frighten them. Hundreds of young mothers travelled with the evacuated schools as ‘helpers’ and many carried their own infants in their arms. In addition, thousands of Guernsey men enlisted in the British Forces.

The evacuees were hurriedly crammed into anything that could float such as mail boats, coal barges and cattle boats. One boat carried 300 evacuees, but was only licensed to carry 12. When the evacuees reached Weymouth, they were sent by train to industrial areas in northern England where enough accommodation could be provided for them. A few days later, on 30 June, the Nazis occupied Guernsey, and the evacuees realised that they might have to remain in England for some time. Local families came forward to take Guernsey children into their homes, but could not have foreseen that this relationship would last for five years.

The evacuees were shocked by the sights and sounds of industrial towns with their smoking chimneys, terraced houses and factories. Bob Gill recalled, ‘The people were friendly, but the clogs and shawls and mills were unfamiliar and different.’ Ron Gould thought he was seeing things when, ‘a large cargo ship went steaming by, 40 miles from any sea. I soon found out that the Manchester Ship Canal was the reason for this!’ The Guernsey mothers made new lives for themselves in areas where the local accent was confusing, but for most, the welcome was outstanding. Eva Le Page recalled, ‘I moved into an empty flat with my baby but I had nothing! Housewives gave me clothing for my baby, and blankets, crockery and furniture.’ Thousands of evacuees undertook war work in aircraft and ammunition factories, and children joined the Forces when they left school. Some Guernsey teachers obtained permission to re-establish their schools in England, wanting to keep the school together as a unit until the war ended. They experienced extreme financial hardship but were often helped by members of the local community. A Guernsey school in Cheshire was financially supported by kind Americans, including Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President.

There was no postal service between Guernsey and England during the war, and the only contact was through twenty-five word Red Cross messages. It took up to six months to obtain a reply to a letter, and one evacuee recalled ‘The receipt of a Red Cross message was the best present ever, as it meant that my Dad in Guernsey was still alive’. Guernsey was liberated from the Nazis on 9th May 1945, and the evacuees were able to make plans for their return home. However not all the evacuees returned to Guernsey, as they felt that they would have a better future in England. In addition, many had married English people and found promising employment. Some who returned to Guernsey discovered that their homes had been damaged or destroyed, others could not settle or find work, and they soon returned to England. Many of the children were sad to leave the English ‘foster parents’ that they had come to love, and found it very difficult to bond with their real parents after five years apart. Many evacuees are still in contact with the English families that cared for them during the war.

By Gillian Mawson

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