Mary Walker's Occupation story
There were heroes in WW2 Europe who worked their wiles, who put their lives on the line – and often lost. But resistance, in wartime, comes in all sizes and ages. I was just a kid who had little idea of the part I played.
I grew up on the Island of Jersey which was the only part of the British Empire ever to be occupied by opposing forces in time of war. From July 2, 1940 we accepted that freedom was gone and that there was a three to one ratio of Occupiers to civilians (old and young). We could accept oppression, or we could become quietly resourceful – and resist by being disobedient and obstructionist; but not extending to the degree which would create the threat (to another civilian) of deportation to one of the German Wurzach Work or Prison camps – or worse.
Of course, there were some folks who were deported – and often not heard of again.
Citizen islanders had always been a stoic lot, accepting hardship and taking everything in stride. So, in June 1940, when islanders were advised that the Allies would not defend any of the islands if and when German forces decided to take over and occupy them, many residents managed to evacuate the islands to live somewhere they considered ‘safer’.
In some cases business owners simply walked away, leaving doors unlocked and inventory still on the shelves – or gave their business to anyone who decided to stay on the island. Businesses which tried to remain open found that their treasure trove of groceries, clothing, gardening supplies were bought out, and families hid their ’emergency supplies’ from sight, in anticipation of hard times to come.
And on 28 June hard times did come. It seems that the German Army and Air Force had not been informed that the islands were undefended and, on that day, our waterfronts were strafed as a warning that compliance (by flying a white flag) was expected.
Forty-four civilians were killed that day – on all islands combined. The new order and the occupation began on 2 July. All homes without white flags were taken by the new occupying forces as billets.
I was just six years old at the time – and my sister was eight. To children of that age, change isn’t always obvious, and we simply understood that ‘this is the way things are and we have to deal with it’. But the islands were suddenly isolated from all outside contact – except as allowed by the occupiers.
Unassuming but stubborn; determined to live their lives with as much normality as possible, and despite the fact that the islands had become isolated from Britain and France for day-to-day necessities – like coal for heat and electricity, clothing of all kinds and things we took for granted, like canned foodstuffs, meats, fruits, candies, salt and sugar, coffee and tea, all became things of the past (except for what we had hoarded). So we became creative – and eventually created substitutes.
Shortly it became illegal for civilians to own cameras, radios and cars (even though cars were useless without petrol to run them) and telephone services outside the island were cut – and then all but official lines were cut. So we walked, we used horse drawn carts and we used bicycles – until the tires wore out. Often pieces of old rubber hoses were tied around bicycle wheels to replace tires as they wore out, but eventually the hose wore out too, and we learned to ride on bare rims – until they too, became unusable.
It became commonplace for us to focus on German voices raised in song as troops marched through town or along country roads. We could have concentrated on the rhythm of the jackbooted goose step approaching us or going in the opposite direction, but the voices of these men were probably the one bright spot of those years. The voices and songs were wonderful.
Adults were required to register with the new order and receive ID cards which they had to carry at all times. We had to observe curfews – but hours changed with the seasons because it was expected that crops would be planted and harvested, cows would be put to grazing and barned at night.
The islands had dozens of wonderful beaches, but we were warned not to use them or the small fishing boats in the harbour. The occupiers kept vigil to make sure that no one escaped the islands. Even fishing was impossible, because the beaches were mined, and we learned to understand signs – all over the islands – which read “Actung Minen” – and we stayed away.
The islands are mostly granite rock (from very ancient volcanic activity) and the occupiers brought in slave labour – by the thousands – to build coastal fortifications and tunnels to store weapons, and to generally change the coastlines. Over time it wasn’t unusual to find a young scavenger trying to escape a work gang, hanging around compost heaps and, over the years, my family harboured two for a few weeks each. But when these young slaves were captured it did not go well.
The island is noted for its Jersey cattle, and farmers were quickly notified that the occupying troops were to be supplied with milk before the islanders – so non-farmers began breeding goats for family milk and meat.
Foodstuffs were rationed, when available, but supplies were often non-existent, or in very short supply, and we children were assigned the task of harvesting off hedgerows on our walk home from school. My sister and I held the location of a wonderful crop of mushrooms very close – always avoiding that part of the field when other children or soldiers were present – although parents always shared what they could. All families with even a tiny plot of land put it to use growing food, and those who could grow more, shared more.
I was a tomboy and often found myself in trouble with most adults, occupiers, school teachers and various civilians – which ended up being advantageous.
It was imperative that civilians communicate with each other just to survive, but vigilance was always necessary, and it became evident that the comings and goings of adults were observed, while children had more latitude.
It so happened that there was a retired doctor who owned a fine apple tree in his garden, which bordered the road as I walked home from school, and one day I couldn’t resist and was still chewing on the apple when I got home. The coincidence was quite convenient because it happened while my parents were harbouring an escapee and my mother had noticed that he had a carbuncle on his leg, which she could clean, but which needed more than her simple skills.
Mother glowered and showed a quiet determination when I admitted that I had pilfered the apple. She took me by the hand and immediately marched me back to the doctor’s house, where she made me knock on the door and apologise for stealing the apple. The anger between my mother and the doctor must have seemed obvious to any observer and I felt guilty for causing such animosity between them and I began to sniffle. Mother looked at me and said “Stop it!” We weren’t invited in – but gruffly told to ‘please enter’.
As a child of nine I grew up fast that day. Inside the house things quickly changed and voices were suddenly gentle. I was pampered with a half a glass of milk while the adults talked – and shortly I was brought into the conversation. I was confused and don’t remember what I said, but he showed me a funny little knife which, he said, was very sharp. He asked me if I thought I could carry it in my homework book the next day and soon I was part of a conspiracy. The doctor loaned my mother the scalpel and gave her a tiny bottle of iodine to put on the sore after she had lanced it; but he had nothing to deaden the pain. She carried her treasures home in her corset, and she would have to do what was necessary while the patient tolerated the pain.
To the outside world I was to suffer punishment for stealing the apple, but in reality I was to become the go-between – first for reports on the care of the hurt escapee and to return of the scalpel. I remained a constant worker at the doctor’s house and, it was agreed that, in exchange for fresh apples from his tree, I would care for the doctor’s rabbits (pick food from the hedgerows and deliver it to the two families of rabbits in his back yard – which obviously meant regular contact with the Doctor.)
After a while it was expected that I was stopping to ‘do my chores’, but what the occupiers (or anyone else) didn’t know was that the doctor was part of the local resistance and we had an understanding. Eventually I was passing messages (the meanings of which I never questioned) from one local resident to another – and one time even carried a locally made cats-whisker receiver (a very simple radio that requires no battery or power source) in my bundles of rabbits’ food.
Occasionally I would, of necessity, take a different route home from school, to bring our goat home from grazing. This gave me the opportunity to leave the road and scramble up hillsides (with the goat) to ‘find’ (pick up) small articles – like a piece of chain used to tether a cow, left there sometime during the day (by whom I never knew). I remember being told where and when to ‘lose’ my beret on the way home from school. And what I had found – and where – was transmitted to the doctor when next I fed his rabbits. I never knew what these messages meant, but somebody ‘found’ my beret and I it was returned to me.
The Red Cross came into our lives in January of 1945 when the ship Vega came into port. It delivered Red Cross food parcels for every civilian on the island and willing arms, strong shoulders and the old broken-winded mare from the farm made sure that everyone had a parcel delivered. Our family got four, and when mother opened the first one she celebrated by providing us with a ‘feast’. We hadn’t seen meat on our table in almost six months – but that night we had Spam and potatoes. Then she put the items from the other parcels aside to be used sparingly.
Unconditional surrender of Europe occurred on my 11th birthday and, in the evening my dad suggested that we ‘go for a walk’. My sister warned that we would be late for the curfew. My Dad simply answered – “It’s such a nice evening, I don’t think we’re going to worry about that tonight”. cat’s whisker receivers worked!
Three days later, on 9 May 1945, British soldiers were greeted enthusiastically by the everyone – and they threw oranges and candy to the children. But the children didn’t remember ever having seen oranges before and began to play ball – until an adult took it, peeled it and put a piece into the child’s mouth. That was a learning experience and I had my first hard candy in more than five years.