Upon hearing mention of the isle of Guernsey, most readers' minds will immediately jump to the pleasurable time they spent reading Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, published in 2008.
As it happens, Shaffer's book takes place at the same time as Gillian Mawson's current book, Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War, which provides the heart-wrenching facts about how the German occupation came about, and the Guernsey residents' efforts to their families and themselves.
The Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey, Sark, Alderney, and Herm) are actually just off the coast of France, but as a territory of the United Kingdom they were viewed by Germany as a sensible stepping stone toward launching more attacks on Great Britain. What's more, the islands were rural in nature and without fortification so they were essentially there for the taking.
Reading this book today will give any reader pause:
What if you woke up one morning and learned that there was a good chance your town would be taken over by a very powerful, known enemy? And in many cases, the immediate solution involved sending the children out of the country with their classmates to get them to safety as quickly as possible.
Of course, families intended to follow when they could, but the stories of whether and when families were reunited are as numerous as the families affected.
These stories had all but been forgotten until Gillian Mawson, a British citizen and former university administrator, was digging through some material from 1940 and began to come upon bits and pieces of the story about Guernsey evacuees arriving in England. No one had undertaken locating the surviving evacuees in order to document their stories, and the more Mawson read, the more convinced she became that she needed to leave her job and devote full time to documenting the stories.
Locating the People
Starting in 2008 she began tracking down interviewees, both those who had returned to Guernsey as well as those who had stayed in England. When her leads began to run dry, she attended a reunion of Guernsey evacuees on the island, and then decided to organize an evacuee reunion in England. In the process, she continued to hear of new people to interview. She also formed the Guernsey Evacuee Community Group in England and it is ongoing.
In June of 1940 approximately 17,000 people (almost half the population of Guernsey) left the island, just days after hearing that the Germans were planning to invade the island. Of the evacuees, there were 5,000 schoolchildren who left with their teachers, leaving their parents behind. Some mothers with little ones decided to leave at the same time.
At the news, thousands of men left to join the British forces. Some farmers decided they needed to stay to protect their property but others felt they should leave; pets and farm animals were generally shot rather than leaving them to roam the island with nothing to eat.
England was somewhat prepared for the people coming in from the Channel Islands as they had already established a plan, begun in 1939, to relocate many of their citizens--particularly children. The intent was to place them in communities thought to be at less risk than major cities or towns along the coasts.
Because of the process created for moving people around, the government had some infrastructure to process the children and all adults who came with them and assign them to different places to live.
Arrival in England
With the arrival of 17,000 refugees, no single British town could accommodate everyone, so while the British were welcoming to the islanders, they arranged to send them by groups to other parts of England, as far north as Scotland.
Some children lived with foster families, but some of the Guernsey schools who arrived with their entire student bodies, requested that they be permitted to re-create the Guernsey school in Britain.
To help support the young newcomers, a Foster Parent Program had been in operation for the Spanish Civil War, and the organization re-tooled its mission to help those escaping the Nazis. One of the famous foster parents whom author Mawson found was none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. To read what Mawson learned of the relationship, click here.
Some children fared well in their new circumstances; some faced hard work and hardship.
Five Long Years Later
The evacuees expected to be in England for a few weeks, but the German occupation of Guernsey Island on 30th June 1940, this turned into five years of family separation.
No one could have predicted that the evacuation of Guernsey would last five years, meaning that many families were separated for that length of time. Older children who were sent to England grew old enough to get jobs, fall in love, and decide to stay wherever they had been transported. Some young children were eager to return to Guernsey, but found it difficult to re-acquaint themselves with their real families. Still other children returned but felt torn because they had been so happy with the foster parents with whom they were placed.
Author Gillian Mawson has dedicated herself fully to the telling of the stories of the people of Guernsey. "Since 2008 I have been interviewing evacuees who left Guernsey between 20 and 28 June 1940. Their personal stories are filled with emotion and courage. Most had never left their island before and they arrived in the unfamiliar landscape of England, practically penniless and with very few possessions."
Though the book has been completed, Gillian Mawson is committed to documenting stories for as long as new survivors appear.
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