Seventy years of Liberation

It’s Liberation Day in Guernsey, 70 years since those aboard HMS Bulldog accepted the surrender of the Nazi occupiers, and the island’s liberators we welcomed into St Peter Port by a crowd which included my half-starved grandfather. The legacy of bunkers and fortifications built into the island is still plain to see.

When I went to school I thought nothing of the fact that there was a German bunker in the playground till I moved to London. Or that the breathtaking walks along the island’s south coast, were punctuated by enormous gun emplacements, part of Hitler’s ‘ring of steel’.

A couple of years ago I was surprised to hear the Bishop of Southampton reading one of my poems Root and Branch in his Liberation Day sermon.  Here is another poem of mine, written almost thirty years ago, about the island. I was in my twenties when I wrote it, but it is one I can still read without cringing — although the idea that the bunkers have blended in so much that they have lost their history is wrongheaded. But it is infused with a longing for home that still grips me. Luckily I return in a couple of weeks for a short visit.

The remembering cliffs

The cliffs are full of faces, great granite heads
petrified just as they lifted from sleep.
Stone heads of Martello towers, blank looks
from the concrete helmets of German gun emplacements
now so assimilated with the granite and the gorse
that they have lost their particular history.

These cliffs are full of faces, a cliff path
inevitably winds back into past summers
bringing to mind voices in the wind, my family
talking as they walked the remembering cliffs.
It is a haunted coastline and every time a corner’s turned
I meet my recollection of those who trod here.

I meet myself as a child who thought God had been born
floating face down in these waters,
His face big as a cliff’s face, His body a small island.
It was an untaught myth; my secret belief
and life must have teemed about Him like the wrasse
and the gulls and the mackerel crowding close to these cliffs.

The cliffs are full of faces that stare out to find Him
and I stare too — through the slits and cracks
of my fortified disbelief, of my adulthood,
into His comforting presence — into the sea.
Now the sea seems part of a once-swollen certainty
that has yearly drawn away like a lowering tide.

Below: there is a particular cliff head on the south coast just east of Icart Point that always makes me think of a head rising up from sleep. Hence the image in the poem.

cliff head 27 March


Liberation Day

Guernsey was liberated on 9th May 1945, and this year one of my poems Root and Branch was beautifully read as part of a Liberation Day sermon by Dr Jonathan Frost, Bishop of Southampton. The service was featured on BBC Guernsey and you can listen here. The service starts at around 1:31 and my poem Root and Branch read at 1.52. Obviously actually being part of the sermon made me feel incredibly proud, not to mention slightly amazed as I knew nothing about it beforehand.

The liberation fleet arrives

The poem is my attempt to put myself in the position of a mother whose children have been evacuated to England. This agonising decision was faced by many in the islands.

My Grandfather David Marquis was on the island throughout the occupation, but his mother decided to evacuate many of his brothers and sisters. This necessity sundered island families and created all kinds of mixed feelings. After the war, for example, many evacuee children returned to the island as strangers to Guernsey and to their natural families.

For me, being in a place that was occupied made living on Guernsey rather different to being in England. Having started school in St Martins there seemed nothing strange about having a German bunker in the playground for example, or that my Grandfather should have a smattering of German, and a dagger looted from the Nazis.

Even today the coast still bristles with various Nazi fortifications. Hitler’s idea was to turn the northern coast of Europe into  a ‘ring of steel’, and as Guernsey is located in a place of such strategic significance its defences were formidable. This explains why liberating the islands happened after the collapse of the Nazi war effort. Taking back the islands by force would have resulted in all kinds of bloodshed.

The Star, May 2 1944

By 1944 the food situation was alarming on the island. I have a copy of The Star dated Tuesday May 2 1944, ostensibly a Guernsey newspaper but filled with vile Nazi propaganda.

It does contain an illuminating local news item about the auctioning of a large egg for charity, which concludes ‘all sympathisers with the objects of the fund are asked to do their best to earn what will be a really sumptuous meal for the lucky recipient’.

They are calling a large egg a sumptuous meal.

After the D-day invasions of June 1944 the allied forces pushed slowly into France, which meant the German supply lines to the islands were strained and eventually cut off completely.

The islanders of course had already been hungry a good deal of the time, but now that even the Germans supplies were sundered, it was to be a long hard year of near starvation for many before liberation eventually arrived.

Here is the text of my poem. Other of my poems about the island are available in A Guernsey Double, written with my friend Richard Fleming, and featured in the side bar of this blog.

Root and branch

There’s marching in the Guernsey lane,
my table’s bare, the pattern’s clear:
they will starve us after curfew
they will break us at the table.

I scrape aside the hedgerow scraps
to float along the willow road
to distant bomb-pocked England
near a city I’ve never seen

where my children stay with strangers
and, forgetting all their patois,
they turn in skies of fractured glaze
and trill their songs with English tongues.

Each night the doves return as crows
and I’m harrowed root and branch
as they bayonet their places
and their mother stands accused

for I tore them from their garden
and I knotted them with labels
like a cherry shedding blossom
I dropped them from my stupid limbs.