Re-living the Occupation
During the hard years of the Occupation, while food is scarce, two German soldiers come to your house and ask you to do their washing, in exchange for extra rations. What would you do? You’re offered a job and promised good pay and good rations. But it’s working for the occupying forces. Do you accept it? A German soldier approaches you and offers your children sweets. He says in fluent English, that they remind him of his children at home. He seems kind and friendly.
Norman Le Brocq
“You couldn’t take to the mountains in Jersey with arms in hand. First we’ve got no mountains and second we had no arms.”
In 2010, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Jersey’s liberation, Jersey War Tunnels added two brand new interactive sections entitled ‘Resistance’ and ‘Liberation’. These new galleries are specially designed to allow visitors to experience events for themselves, with installations and audiovisual effects that evoke the emotion and conflict of the Occupation years.
The first of the new galleries, ‘Resistance’ explores the difficulties of living with the enemy, and focuses on the role of the Jersey government, which acted as a buffer between locals and the Germans. In a play on a Catholic confessional box, booths containing war-era telephones allow visitors to dial up and eavesdrop on conversations between local officials as they were forced to make difficult decisions.
Jersey War Tunnels curator Chris Addy explains, “The Jersey government officials had no experience of this role, it was thrust upon them without any guidance. They had to try and do what was right by the local people whilst, at the same time, maintaining their cordial relationship with the Germans, and that was a very fine line to tread.” The German garrison in Jersey stood at 11,500, the ratio of soldiers to civilians in France was one to a hundred, in Jersey it was one to four – higher than anywhere else in occupied Europe. A second booth records conversations at the British War Cabinet and reveals how Churchill’s perception of the situation in Jersey was at odds with reality, and led to devastating conclusions that were to drastically affect the lives of many islanders.
… there seems to be no resistance there at all and no hostility towards the Germans. What a weak-livered lot – quislings of the first water. (Sir Winston Churchill to his head of combined operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten)
The Resistance section continues with a series of secret doors that open to reveal records of the island’s hidden resistance. ‘V for Victory’ signs were painted on houses to raise morale, and even local stamps were designed to feature an inverted V. It was risky business, people served prison sentences for painting V-signs, and anyone found in possession of a forbidden radio or sheltering an escaped slave worker faced harsh penalties – in some instances deportation and death in foreign prisons. Some locals settled old scores by sending anonymous letters to German officials about their neighbours. Jersey Post Office workers did their best to intercept these letters, but a few got through, leading to terrible consequences.
Extract from an anonymous letter
"Please search Brompton Villa, Great Union Road for at least 2 wirelesses. Hidden under floor boards, loft and cellars. It is a lodging house."
The ‘Liberation’ section of the exhibition brings home the emotional cost of the Occupation by channeling visitors through a long, dark and disorientating tunnel charting the final months until the island’s liberation. “It gets across the claustrophobia and the uncertainty of the time,” explains Chris Addy, “particularly during the last few months of the Occupation, when islanders were cut off and lived through the hardest winter for fifty years. They were desperate times”.
As the Occupation draws to an end, the black tunnel opens out to a bright, white space with archive footage of crowds gathering to celebrate their liberation projected onto walls. Cheers from the crowd blend with recordings of patriotic songs, and there’s a real sense of overwhelming relief and jubilation. It’s designed to put you at the heart of the action, amongst the celebrating crowd, jostled and carried along with the wave of emotion.
‘Captive Island’ is a fascinating and poignant insight into what might have happened on the UK mainland if the Germans had made the leap across the Channel. It’s summed up in the end quote of the exhibition: ‘It is like a mirror through which we see ourselves as we might have been’. The new audiovisual parts of the exhibition are thought-provoking and moving, and give greater insight into the issues and hardships facing islanders caught up in the conflict. In the words of one visitor to the new exhibition, “I visited the tunnels over 40 years ago with my parents and grandparents. At the time, I couldn’t understand the effect it had. But this visit has made me realize the impact that war had on the people of Jersey”.
Visit the exhibition at the Jersey War Tunnels.