STANDING around the map of occupied Europe painted on the floor of a room in one of the three surviving barracks of the Second World War internment camp of Compiegne-Royallieu, our eyes were drawn to the blank space in the Bay of St Malo where the Channel Islands should have been.
The omission was keenly felt by the 12 members of our group. We had travelled from Guernsey, Sark and England at the invitation of the Compiegne authorities to witness the inauguration of a memorial and museum dedicated to the 53,000 mostly French and Jewish deportees who had passed through its gates and from there to the concentration camps of Continental Europe, where most died.
Although the 130 islanders deported to the camp represented a tiny percentage of the overall number,
it was abundantly clear to some to whom I talked that compared with internees who ended up in notorious camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, Channel Islanders had been fortunate in being sent to German civilian internment camps such as Biberach and Laufen.
Around 2,200 Channel Islanders were deported in two waves during the Occupation. Their story is relatively well known, but that of the transit camps, which housed them en route, is not.
In September 1942, at a time when islanders had already begun to hear rumours about concentration camps and had seen how the Germans treated slave workers, people were deported from the islands by the Germans in retaliation for the Allied internment of Germans in Iran.
All British-born men between the ages of 16 and 70 were sent for five weeks, with their dependants, to the camp of Dorsten, described as a place of 'grave privation', before being taken to others such as Biberach (predominantly for Guernsey families) and Wurzach (predominantly Jersey).
Official figures for the February deportations vary, although Tom Remfrey, chairman of the Guernsey Deportees' Association, believes the number was as high as 266. It included former officers from the armed forces, including some who had fought, been wounded, gassed or taken prisoner during the First World War, freemasons (although most in that category were deported for other reasons), Jews and 'unreliable elements', including families of convicted prisoners, no matter how unjustly imprisoned by the German regime. It also included some who had managed to avoid deportation the first time round and many from Sark, who were taken in retaliation for the British commando raid, Operation Basalt, which had taken place in the island in October 1942.
Two groups were deported two weeks apart in February 1943. They travelled by boat to St Malo and were herded on to a train. Women, children and men older than 64 were sent to the rear and the younger men to the front.
During the journey, with no warning, the train split and the younger men, many of whom had a wife in the back carriages, travelled to Laufen and Kreuzburg. The rest went to Compiegne.
This separation of families and the trauma it caused is widely perceived as the most callous act of the deportations. Records show that Robin Bartlett, for example, who travelled to Compiegne with his mother, Lily, and whose son, Jonathan, was present at the inauguration of the memorial, had to wait around six months before he was reunited with his father, who had been sent to Laufen. Robin's memoirs record that, at an intermediate stop en route for Compiegne, islanders were taken off the train and herded into open cattle carts before being taken into the camp. At around 3am they arrived and barbed wire gates were opened by uniformed guards, who pointed their rifles at the deportees and led them to a large building, where they were allocated sparsely furnished rooms within barrack huts.
Nellie Le Feuvre of Sark, who attended the inauguration weekend, takes up the story in her memoirs. She, like Robin Bartlett, records that the Channel Islanders' two barracks were next to a compound of Americans, separated from it by 10ft-high barbed wire and watchtowers.
She also records the adjoining French compound and witnessing the cruel treatment and starvation of people who were, no doubt, bound for concentration camps and certain death. Nellie wrote of the harshness of camp life – the lice, the trough of cold water used for washing, the filthy holes in the ground which served as toilets and the kindness of the neighbouring Americans. Those 197 men had been in the camp since January 1942 and shared their Red Cross parcels with islanders, who were not yet registered with the organisation and had to survive on basic camp rations.
The presence of a Monopoly board in the Jersey Archives, signed by those in the American compound, shows how they helped islanders pass their three months in captivity and a tale survives of Americans pulling a piano up to the barbed wire and playing for them.
Others who attended included Jonathan Bartlett, who carried his father's Compiegne identity disc with him, Janet de Santos, who was 18 months old when she arrived in the camp, Maurice Hillman, who accompanied her, Angela Eker, who was four-and-a-half at the time of her deportation, Nellie's cousin Dudley Bradley, who was born in Biberach, and Tom Remfrey, who was deported there in the first wave, aged 10.
Peter Boon also attended.
His grandparents were deported to Biberach via Compiegne and his grandfather, 68 at the time and a former soldier, died five months after leaving the transit camp.
The Bailiff, Geoffrey Rowland, and his wife, Diana, were a welcome addition to the group. Pilot Mike Perry, who had taken the Channel Islanders there, and I, completed it.
The absence of information about the experience of Channel Islanders saddened and disappointed us despite how impressive we found the exhibition, which had made mention of other interned nationalities. We noted, however, that some wall space was blank, possibly allowing for more material to be exhibited in the future.
On the second day, Mr Rowland decided to do what he could to rectify the situation. He located the director of the memorial, Monsieur Le Goff, and introduced himself.
He was aware that Mr Remfrey had recently sent a box of material on the Channel Islanders' experiences to the archive in Compiegne.
The director welcomed receipt of the material and confirmed it would be digested by the museum archivist and account would be taken of it.
He confessed he had been astonished to learn how many Channel Islanders had been in the camp.
Mr Rowland lost no time in inviting him to Guernsey and Sark with his team to interview former internees and collect their memories for the camp archive. He also discussed the possibility of sending island flags for display with the French ones in the chapel, which stands alongside the former camp barracks.
Monsieur Le Goff welcomed the initiative. Mr Rowland, who had met the Mayor of Compiegne at the inauguration ceremony the day before, introduced members of the party and Nellie Le Feuvre presented the director, the Bailiff and the mayor with a copy of her deportation memoirs.
Monsieur Le Goff noticed the identity disc Jonathan Bartlett was carrying and remarked that it was the only one from the camp he had seen, which seemed remarkable until you considered that most of the internees had died in concentration camps.
Meanwhile, the priest who was to lead the ecumenical service that morning was introduced to the Bailiff, who told him of our overlooked group of islanders. In welcoming everyone to the service, he announced our presence to the packed marquee of townsfolk and former internees from other parts of France. He briefly told our story, holding up Robin's identity disc, and opened the service with prayers for the former deportees of Guernsey.
The inauguration had begun with the laying of wreaths at the foot of a large memorial stone commemorating the 53,000 men, women and children interned at the camp by the Nazis between June 1941 and August 1944. That was followed by an official tour for VIPs around the museum barracks, including the principal guest, the president of the French Senate, Christian Poncelet, who was introduced to the Bailiff by the Mayor of Compiegne. Everyone else was able to pour in behind them.
The cutting edge, high-tech exhibition conveyed its message trilingually through audio guides, with photos and film of the camp enlarged to fill walls, personal testimonies and interviews provided on flat-screen TV screens, harrowing archive film of the liberation of concentration camps and sketches of the camp and life there. The otherwise deliberately empty barrack rooms, with cold concrete floors and walls of peeling paint, conveyed a moving picture.
The most impressive exhibit was an interactive table, which displayed piles of virtual documents such as letters and memoirs.
By holding a hand above each pile, the papers fanned out automatically and further movement digitally enlarged individual documents and triggered a voice, which read the selected one in English, French or German.
Wandering around the exhibition later, the Bailiff was astonished to discover a Mr G. Rowland listed among the interned Americans involved in putting on a concert at the camp. More eerily, the signatures of both men were almost identical.
That man was not, however, among the 41,183 internees listed on the wall of names on glass panels outside the museum. Nor were any Channel Islanders. I asked Mr Rowland for his thoughts.
He sat in silence for a while, moved by how islanders had endured this ante-chamber to the extermination camps, and then said that even though they represented only a quarter-of-a-percent of all people who had passed through, it was important there was some recognition of their presence and experiences.
He is determined to rectify that.
What we saw was just the start and is intended by the curators as a catalyst to gather more information.
Of the group members, Jonathan said his visit to the camp had helped him understand what his family had been through and how incredibly lucky they were to have avoided the concentration camps. Angela said that while in Compiegne, her mother had learned of her father's murder in a penal prison and told how the effect of internment had caused her mother emotional suffering throughout her childhood.
Nellie, 15 at the time of deportation, said the trip had brought back memories of her time in the camp.
She had found it a moving experience but was pleased she had made the journey.
Tom summarised everyone's thoughts, declaring that the exhibition was 'very moving and very necessary'.
Some of Gilly Carrs family were deported to Biberach via Compiegne and she is studying the experience of deportees for forthcoming museum exhibitions in Guernsey and Jersey in 2009 and 2010.