GUERNSEY EVACUEES: THE FORGOTTEN EVACUEES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
by Gillian Mawson
In May 2008 when I discovered that over 17,000 Guernsey evacuees had arrived in England in June 1940, just before the Nazis invaded their island, I was astounded! I knew that the Channel Islands had been occupied but had no idea that almost half the population had come to mainland Britain. I was equally amazed that the majority had been sent to towns in northern England from which local children had been evacuated 9 months earlier.
As I began to interview evacuees, most said they had never been asked to share their story before. I now realised that their experiences in England during WW2 had not been fully captured. I discovered that the evacuees had integrated into their local communities, but also set up around 100 Channel Island societies. In addition, they had contributed to the British war effort by joining the forces, working in ammunition factories and building aircraft. Others had joined the Home Guard, the ATS and the Fire Service. 5,000 Guernsey school children had arrived in England with their teachers and some of the schools had been re established in England for the duration of the war. Hundreds of young Guernsey mothers had arrived with their infants, whilst their husbands joined the forces or remained in Guernsey to protect their property. These women arrived with practically nothing, and although some adults, as well as children, had unhappy experiences, the majority described the kindness of their English neighbours. Eva Le Page told me ‘I left Guernsey with my baby, and a bag containing feeding bottles and nappies. I will never forget the kindness of my neighbours when I moved into an empty house in Bolton. When they helped you, they did it with good hearts.’
One Lancashire resident, John Fletcher, collected money throughout the war so that the Guernsey children in that area could receive a Christmas gift. There was no postal service between Guernsey and England during the war except for the occasional 25 word Red Cross letter. The evacuees were also helped by organisations outside England. One Guernsey school in Cheshire was financially supported by the ‘Foster Parent Plan for War Children‘ where Americans sponsored a child. One of the children, Paulette Le Mescam, was actually sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt and I helped the BBC to make a documentary about the wartime correspondence between Paulette and Mrs Roosevelt. I also asked the evacuees about their return to Guernsey in 1945, although not all returned home, as they felt that England could provide them with a better future. Many of those that did return had difficulty picking up the pieces of their pre war lives, or faced problems as a result of five years of separation from their families. Many children missed the English families who had cared for them for five years, and are still in touch with those families. Some of these evacuees actually returned to England because they could not settle down.
It became clear to me that this research was not just a contribution to Guernsey’s history, but also a missing part of the story of Britain’s Home Front. When I began my research, many of the evacuees had already passed away, but I was given access to their wartime diaries and correspondence, as well as hundreds of previously unpublished photographs. Local archives in the northern towns in which the evacuees had spent the war also provided me with a wealth of information.
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