An exploration of Guernsey
As we commemorate Guernsey’s liberation on 9 May 1945, my mind casts back to my Guernsey Short Break last summer. I was impressed by how much beauty and character this small island holds.
On 30 June 1940, German troops first marched through Guernsey’s capital, two days after the enemy bombed St Peter Port harbour, killing 33 civilians. The Channel Islands were the only British territory to be occupied during the Second World War.
As I toured Guernsey, it was easy to find testaments to the dark days. Fortified towers, already scattered around the rugged coastline in previous centuries, were reinforced by the Germans. Further bunkers were added – steely concrete constructions were built by war prisoners and filled with guns, turning the whole island into a fortress. The blunt façades are a stark contrast to their beautiful surroundings of wild shrubs and shapely coastline.
Over a quarter of islanders (including 5,000 children) were evacuated to Britain, and thousands of men enlisted in the British Forces. Those who remained were under the scrutiny of the German soldiers, living under curfews and extreme rationing. The number of occupiers almost equalled the number of remaining citizens.
While clambering up the hillside streets of St Peter Port, you still see red German road signs painted on street corners. Castle Cornet, one of Guernsey’s three castles, had a concrete bunker built within its thick stone walls. Nearby Clarence Battery became a home to The Luftwaffe, who created great storage tunnels within the cliffs beneath it. Now largely empty, the cool, damp burrows hold a museum to the German Military Underground Hospital that accommodated up to 800 patients here, in its dark wards.
A must-see is the German Occupation Museum, easily accessible by bus from the city (only £1 each way!). The rooms hold personal items of occupiers and civilians, and its walls are covered in newspaper articles, ration cards, posters of enforced regulations, personal letters and thought provoking stories, including tragic accounts of the Jews sent away to Nazi concentration camps.
But it’s not all gloom. There are stories of hope, determination and camaraderie amongst the Guerns, and, of course, liberation. At midday on 8th May 1845 a German representative signed the unconditional surrender of the German command. On 9 May 1945, the Germans left Guernsey and the port filled with excited flag-bearing crowds, who mobbed returning evacuees and soldiers. Families were united after five long years apart.
Each year, a national holiday celebrates their freedom from German Occupation. St Peter Port fills with food stalls and live music from 10am til midnight.
Through the rest of the year the story is brought to life by tour guides recounting events at St Julian’s Pier, where the evacuees departed and returned. A unique memorial at the pier entrance encapsulates the story. A simple obelisk stands before a curved bench. On Liberation Day, the obelisk works as a sundial, pointing at events inscribed on the bench, such as Winston Churchill’s memorable statement: “Our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today.”
Walking trails and island day trips
Although I’m fascinated by Guernsey’s recent history, it wasn’t my only reason to visit. Guernsey is covered in wonderful walking trails. While some are relatively flat, others follow the capital’s penchant for sizeable slopes. Although challenging for some, it’s worth the effort to climb from gorgeous clifftop views to beautiful pale sand beaches, via peaceful woodland and concealed distractions.
The small, neighbouring islands are also well worth visiting. The ferry is an adventure in itself – with views of islands and islets en route, soaring sea birds and hopefully a pod of bottlenose dolphins playing in the ferry’s wake. Sark has its own, small museum dedicated to several centuries of cultural and heritage memorabilia; but I came here to enjoy lovely walks through rich farmland to the island of Little Sark, joined to the main island by La Coupee, a beautiful natural isthmus.
Herm is smaller still and, like Sark, has no cars. It has no crowds or industrial noise, just peace. This paradise island is the perfect place to relax. It’s so small you can walk its perimeter in mere hours, but there’s no need to rush. Enjoy the gorgeous white beaches easily comparable to the Caribbean, little beach cafés for lunch and ice cream, and great views from the rockier southern coastline, where numerous butterflies escort you along hedged pathways and puffins can be spotted in spring. I didn’t want to leave!
My week in Guernsey was unforgettable – a balance of fascinating excursions that encapsulated the history and beauty of the island, with adequate time to relax and dig a little further into the museums and countryside. While clearly British, local charm shines through with every courteous conversation, every blue-painted post box and every home-grown hedge veg stall. I can’t wait to return with my family one day soon!
À la perchoine (til we meet again)
Discover Guernsey for yourself on a Guernsey Short Break