The evacuation of British troops from the beaches of France in the dark days of 1940 became known as the “miracle of Dunkirk” as the “root and core and brain of the British Army” were at first stranded on the beach and then, with a huge effort, brought home to England.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France “a colossal military disaster” before acclaiming the spirit and effort of the ships and men who brought home the Allies.
It was a moment when Britain realised this would not be a quick war, nor one without sacrifice.
For the people of Guernsey, that sad recognition signalled a change in their life and lifestyle that no other patch of the Britain Isles endured or encountered.
Less than a fortnight after Operation Dynamo was completed, the Government declared that the Channel Islands were of no strategic importance and would not be defended. Thus “without a shot being fired” and to the chagrin of Churchill, British soil was surrendered to the Germans.
It was a decision that would leave a lasting physical and cultural impression on the island of Guernsey, and one visible today in the many and varied concrete emplacements that are as much a part of the landscape as the ecologically fascinating salt lands and rugged coves.
Islanders talk of “the occupation” and the “liberation” freely in their conversation – the European lexicon and dilemma sounding strange with an English accent.
The native tongue was itself a victim of the occupation. Children who might have spoken the French dialect were evacuated and then returned speaking English – although there are still traces in road signs, dishes and colloquial greetings and phrases.
Language campaigner Jan Marquis said: “Guernsey Norman French resembles the language of William the Conqueror and it has been spoken here for the best part of a thousand years.” Most of the people that speak Dgernésiais are now elderly, few left now with memories of the Occupation.
The domination of the islands started tentatively. On June 30 reconnaissance pilot, Hauptmann Liebe-Pieteritz landed on Guernsey’s airfield. He met no resistance. A platoon followed.
Inspector Sculpher of the Guernsey police went to the airport carrying a letter signed by the Bailiff stating that “this island has been declared an Open Island by His Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom. There are no armed forces of any description. The bearer has been instructed to hand this communication to you. He does not understand the German language.”
The capitulation was not total. Despite working with the German authorities, there was still resistance with 4,000 arrests for disobedience of various kinds.
My guide on my trip to the Island said that there was little real conflict. The Germans recognised that Guernsey was a soft posting with decent local food and accommodation. They did not want to risk being shipped to the Russian front because of needless confrontations.
Besides, there was work to be done. This was to be a Reich that would last 1,000 years so the Germans made their fortifications to last. They imported more than 16,000 slave workers to create roads, fortifications and a network of tunnels. To this day, heritage enthusiasts Festung Guernsey are unearthing fortifications and artefacts using maps drawn up by the Occupying Forces in 1944.
“We are still finding bunkers, we always hope there is going to be something in them,” said Paul Bourgaize, co-founder of Festung Guernsey.
Oftentimes, the Germans would build on fortifications from previous eras. Castle Cornet, holding an impressive position at the mouth of the busy harbour, has seen eight centuries of use and now houses five, mainly military, museums.
The island inevitably looks to the sea. It has a long history of shipbuilding, with 20 boat yards between 1815 and 1880. In Roman times the island was a major trading point to Iron Age Britain and its location made it haven for smuggling.
Today, its tiny alleys, sharp coves, steep hillsides and caves form an evocative impression of the work of the privateers. St Peter Port, the colourful capital, owed allegiance to the British crown but was outside the reach of the customs authorities. But the seas around the Bailiwick are cruel with treacherous currents, dotted with wrecks.
The best way to experience this extreme side of Guernsey is by the plethora of activities on offer – coasteering, diving, climbing, kayaking – or more sedate cycling (along the Reuette Tranquils), boating and walking.
Such activities require energy and the local produce is the mainstay of the restaurant scene. With good sunshine soil and seas, surf and turf are covered. With France nearby, finesse is de rigueur.
Turbot, bass and brill along with fine shellfish come from fishing boats that bob in the St Peter Port harbour. Meanwhile fresh produce from smallholdings and allotments – tomatoes, potatoes, flowers – is not only available in restaurants but in small honesty boxes that dot the winding roads. For those who like home comforts, familiar High Street names like Costa and M&S are on hand.
This year is the year to visit Guernsey. Liberation Day on May 9 is marked each year but 2015 has a special resonance.
On 8 May 1945 at 10am the islanders were informed by the German authorities that the war was over. Churchill made a radio broadcast at 3pm during which he announced that “our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today”.
This year will see the 70th anniversary of the departure of the troops with a five-week heritage festival (April 3-May 11). Doors will be open on bunkers, lighthouses and towers, recreations will give a glimpse of life under occupation and flags will bedeck the cobbled streets and pretty houses.
The celebrations will be mirrored across Guernsey, Jersey, Sark, Alderney, Herm and Sark as a proud people mark the reclamation of their independence – a character trait that is in the lifeblood of every islander whichever patch of sea-soaked land they occupy.
One to visit: Victor Hugo's house
One of the more unexpected niche delights of a trip to Guernsey is Hauteville House, home and wildly imaginative creation of 19th century literary giant Victor Hugo.
He lived in exile herewith his family for 15 years from 1855 (housing his mistress Juliette Drouet just down the road) where he finished Les Miserables (1862).
The house is a baroque fusion of religiosity and and silliness. The decorations are ornate, colourful and often over-elaborate but, on closer inspection, reveal the author’s subversive wit. Materials have been recycled from the most mundane of materials and his initials are everywhere. It’s like a Blue Peter competition to build Notre Dame.
The journey is a spiritual one from dark to light – the sombre lower rooms giving way to the light and bright bedrooms and studies at the top. The view of the harbour unparalleled and his conservatory-cum-study a treat of neat, practical touches, including a cubby-hole bed for when he worked into the night.
Hugo described the Channel Islands as “fragments of France which fell into the sea and were gathered up by England” and he returned frequently when finally he was embraced by his mother country. The house was donated to the city of Paris in 1927.
Go to victorhugo.gg
Giles stayed at the Duke Of Richmond Hotel, part of the small family owned luxury hotels that form the Red Carnation Hotels Collection. (Other locations including Kensington, Belgravia, Dorset, Ireland and Geneva).
The Duke Of Richmond has been extensively refurbished and many of its quirky 71 rooms, with neat individual touches, have sea views from high on its Cambridge Park location.
Dine in the South African themed Leopard Bar and Restaurant or take advantage of al fresco dining on the terrace. Ranges from £145-£435 a night.
Its sister hotel Old Government House is the most famous hotel on the island and was frequented by hellraiser Oliver Reed who reputedly jumped from the upper floor windows into the pool. As its name suggests, the building is steeped in civic history and retains its original grandeur.
Go to redcarnationhotels.com
Giles flew on the inaugural flight from London City Airport to Guernsey from Aurigny, the Channel Islands carrier. They fly twice a day both ways (no flights at weekends) with their routes currently operated by VLM. Their lowest fare is around £129 return including duties and charges.
Go to aurigny.com