Love across war lines
The Second World War had pitted them as enemies but that didn't stop Sark girl Phyllis Baker and German Werner Rang from marrying – with the help of an eccentric English aristocrat. Nicci Martel caught up with them as they celebrated their diamond wedding.
HE WAS a soldier in the German occupying forces and she was an independent young Sark girl who caught his eye. It's one of those classic stories of love against all the odds, that sounds as if it could have been lifted from the pages of a Hollywood screenplay.
But the tale of Werner and Phyllis Rang is more extraordinary than fiction.
By 1948, he was a prisoner of war who had captured her heart, but with Werner facing repatriation back to Stalin's sector of Germany, the couple had to race to the altar. Only with the help of an eccentric female aristocrat did they finally tie the knot.
Now, 60 years later, there's not a single regret between them. The couple, who have owned Rang the Jewellers in Sark since 1968, have three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren and still relish spending every day together.
'We were very lucky. We're soul mates, I realise that, and we've never had a row in our lives. Not many people believe that but it's true. The odd spat maybe, but they only last a few minutes. He's absolutely wonderful,' said Phyllis, 83.
'A friend once said to me, "how do you do it, spending so much time with each other every day?" But that's how we want it to be – 24 hours together.'
And Werner, 88, is no less complimentary of his spouse. Their 60 years as man and wife hasn't been a day too long, he said.
But to begin with, their romance was not an obvious one. The Second World War had pitted them as enemies, even if the reality wasn't quite as clear-cut. There was also the small obstacle of Phyllis, who admits that as far as she was concerned, it was not love at first sight.
The German Army conscripted Werner in 1939, at the age of 19.
His educational background meant he was spared the front line and instead was sent to train as a medical orderly. He was posted to western France in 1940 and arrived in Guernsey as part of the occupying force in October 1941.
After a brief visit to Sark in the summer of 1942, he returned a year later for a six-month tour of duty serving alongside Sark's new German doctor. And during this visit a friendship developed between him and 19-year-old Phyllis.
'The first time I saw her she was walking across the way...' began Werner, before Phyllis piped in, 'but we didn't meet then'.
'No, but that's when I first remember seeing you,' Werner said, before continuing.
'She was a patient, she had tonsillitis. I came to see her at La Ville Farm and took her temperature. Her mother opened the door, but I spoke very little English. I went upstairs, I saw her and I knew she appealed to me.'
The first time Phyllis saw Werner he was sitting on the end of her bed which, she joked, was rather forward for those days. As he said, he couldn't speak much English, but that wasn't a problem for Phyllis, who had jumped at the chance to learn German when lessons were offered at the local school in 1941.
She was so good, in fact, that the community had started calling on her to act as a translator. No one would visit the doctor without her, and nor would the doctor visit islanders without her help. Through her work at the surgery, she spent more time with Werner and a friendship blossomed.
It might seem strange how two people from opposing sides could quite openly become friends without setting tongues wagging. But there were no objections from Sark's small community. As Phyllis and Werner explained, relations between Sarkees and the Germans were not as hostile as in the larger islands. The two sides operated from a basis of mutual respect and co-operation, so friendships between them were quite common.
'It was quite comfortable between us actually,' said Werner.
'My father used to say, before I was sent from Germany, that if I had to go and occupy somewhere, to make sure I treated everyone humanely, with respect, and they would treat us in the same manner. It was true.'
It was this philosophy that helped Werner be accepted by the community after the war. People had known and liked him, so had little problem in giving their blessing to his union with Phyllis.
But he had a long way to go before he was to get the girl. The pair parted ways just as friends in 1943, when Werner returned to Guernsey.
By 1945 the war was over, and so was the Occupation. On 11 May, Werner left the Channel Islands and was taken to Southampton as a prisoner of war, with Phyllis never far from his mind.
After a stint at a POW camp in Yorkshire, he was transferred to another in Hampshire. Prisoners were kept in tents, given curfews and, like the rest of the UK, were subject to rationing.
But despite the hostility one might expect, Werner said the British soldiers were absolutely wonderful. POWs weren't abused or mistreated. In fact, they were even placed with British families for Christmas-day.
This is when Werner first came into contact with the 'amazing' Lady Vera Ketura Leverson-Gower, whom he lovingly refers to as Lady V. He spent Christmas with her in 1946, made quite an impression and was offered work in her garden and around the house.
Lady V, who was 26 years his senior, took quite a shine to Werner. Her background story is epic enough to warrant a novel of its own. She took the young POW under her wing because he reminded her of a German prince she had fallen in love with years before. The outbreak of the First World War had separated the young lovers, who never saw each other again.
This goes some way to explain why, after Werner had told her about his feelings for a young Sark woman, she dedicated so much time and effort to trying to bring them together.
Werner started up a correspondence with Phyllis and over the course of two years sent her 160 letters. He received 100 in return, all of which they've kept to this day.
'It was a surprise when I received that first one, even though we had been friends. I was glad to know he was ok, so of course I sent one back, though I was much too busy to be writing as many as he was,' said Phyllis.
In 1947 Lady V invited Phyllis to stay at her home. Slightly taken aback, but excited at the prospect of seeing Werner, she accepted. Lady V took the couple to London, where they had afternoon tea at Harrods –
a memory that reduces both of them to giggles.
'My cousin said to me, "I don't believe it, are you telling me that a prisoner of war was having tea in Harrods?" I'd never thought of it in that way before, but it does make me laugh thinking about it now. He wasn't supposed to be doing anything like that but no one was any the wiser.'
It was during her two-and-a-half-week holiday that the two shared their first kiss and Phyllis finally decided he was the one for her.
During 1947, Werner was cleared of any association with the Nazis, but by May 1948, with little more than a week's warning, he received orders that he was to be sent back to Germany.
His family lived in the Russian zone of the country and word had started to trickle back about the appalling conditions there. Werner was adamant he didn't want to return, fearing he would not be allowed back into western Europe if he did.
Lady V again invited Phyllis over. At this point she had no idea she would be married within eight days – although, her beloved nan had an inkling that Phylis would return a married woman – a suggestion at which her level-headed granddaughter scoffed.
But sure enough, during her stay, Werner proposed. She accepted and they wed on 13 May, the day before Werner was due to be repatriated. Lady V and her stepbrother were the only witnesses. After the marriage, Werner received his certificate of civilianisation and was granted permission to stay in the British Isles.
Most of Phyllis's friends and family back home were delighted for the couple, although a few were surprised, but not horrified, by her decision to marry a German.
Unfortunately her father took some time to get used to the idea and said to her: 'If all you have to tell me is you're marrying a German, then you need not bother coming home.'
'Fine,' replied the determined Phyllis.
'My father didn't have anything against Werner as a person, but I think he was bothered about what people were going to say. Marrying a German was not really the thing to do, but he soon got over it and by the time we moved back home, he was fine.
But I didn't care what other people thought. How could I? I would have lost a lifetime of happiness and I would have done anything to make sure I didn't.'
Marrying the enemy, so to speak, seems to run in her family, she told me.
One of her cousins has since married a Japanese woman.
'We're the black sheep,' she joked.
Friends and family turned out en masse to celebrate the well-loved couple's diamond wedding. The Queen, Lt-Governor and Bailiff all sent a letter of congratulation, for which the pair are extremely grateful.
They know theirs seems a remarkable story to everyone else, but they're just happy with the knowledge they've made it this far, without caring too much about how they got here.
Phyllis was so adamant all those years ago that she was not going to miss out on a lifetime of happiness – and that's exactly what she got. She admits she's done very nicely for herself and that Werner's initial gut feelings for her proved to be true.
'It occurred to me the other day,' said Phyllis, 'that it's a good job it all worked out.
'Or I'd have never lived it down.'