Guernsey Press

LOOKback: ‘30 Months’ - After the celebrations stopped

In his new LOOKback series entitled ‘30 Months’, Rob Batiste charts how post-Occupation Guernsey threw off the coat of gloom and rebuilt itself over the first two-and-a-half years of its rediscovered freedom. Read part one here, and look out for more in the Press over the coming weeks...

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Look out for Rob Batiste’s ‘30 months’ series in the Guernsey Press over the coming weeks.

Problems, problems, problems.

The stresses of a Guernsey politician in the summer of 1945 through to Christmas 1947 must have been huge – steering an island’s response to the huge debt incurred by a war, structural ruins, deflated industries, insufficient housing and the pressure of political reform.

Nothing could be solved overnight.

It would take time, but there was no time to waste.

The ‘to do’ list was long, yet to its eternal credit Guernsey got its skates on politically, a population enthused by new freedoms and chances duly responded and our island was back on its feet by the time the 1940s gave way to the 1950s.

This is the story of the first 30 months in Guernsey’s recovery, told in terms of the structural, physical and emotional scars of five years of Occupation, the economy, new opportunities, events and the social and recreational scene.

Parts one and two deal with the state of play as the excitement of 9 May 1945 wears off and an island nation seeks to rediscover normality.

Popping in: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Candie Gardens on 7 June 1945. (33046811)


The Germans may have been defeated and liberation secured, but Guernsey was in a frightful mess of unprecedented proportions.

And while the return of every Guernsey child to their rightful home was celebrated in earnest, as presumably was every evacuated wife returning to their lonely husbands, behind the scenes the island’s elite were working overtime to solve a myriad of problems that would affect the island for years to come.

Guernsey’s current ‘House’ think they have it tough having to balance the books and solve a housing crisis, but how do you think they would have coped with the long list of issues which faced their mid-1940s counterparts?

Their to-do list was long and frightening:

- Where to find the £7m. we owed (£120m. at the very least in today’s money).

- Getting a roof over the heads of hundreds of evacuees returning homeless.

- Clearing up after the Germans, on land and in our waters.

- Restoring our parks, beauty spots and L’Ancresse Common.

- Finish a half-built reservoir and, not least, coping with petrol shortages, a lack of milk, bread, potatoes and foodstuffs such as bananas, which very many of Guernsey schoolchildren had never clapped their eyes on, let alone tasted.

- There was also the question of regenerating the tomato and tourism industries and the settling of war-time civil service salaries for those deported to German prison camps.

There were, of course, no pluses to come from five years of occupation and while the in-out visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth within a month of liberation was a massive morale boost for islanders, it was soon back to finding feet, re-establishing long-lost relationships and getting through the week with ration books determining what people could eat.

Great man: Sir John Leale arguably did more than any individual to steer Guernsey through the occupation years and its immediate recovery. (33046666)

Thank the Lord Guernsey had some classy politicians, not least our unofficial chancellor, Jurat Sir John Leale.

After the Germans had packed up and gone, he was quick to reassure islanders.

On the financial front, Sir John said at the end of the first year and a half of freedom, ‘1946 has been satisfactory; 1947 will be alright and by 1948 we should be able to deal with our financial problems.’

That was his on-the-record viewpoint.

But was he trying to protect islanders from the total truth and gloss over the issues of having to repay millions?

The Guernsey Press was clear and open about it: ‘Guernsey is facing what must be one of the most serious periods in her history. Today we find ourselves with a debit of over £7m. with a housing problem that is acute and with the great task of rescuing our export trade,’ were the introductory words of an early post-liberation editorial.

Priority, claimed the same column, was housing ‘or else a period of chaos would result’.

What to do with those who had let their island down while the Germans were in town could wait awhile.

As for the island’s official request to Germany that they pay us £8,351,000 as a way of compensation, that was never likely to succeed.

While Sarnians waited for their financial justice, islanders clamoured to get back to the island.

This itself was a far from easy task and not something that could be solved quickly, only adding to islanders’ frustrations.

Piling on the agony: A late 1945 headline tells the story of the horrific journey faced by repatriates aboard the Isle of Jersey. (33046662)

Guernsey evacuees were soon heading back from their temporary homes across the UK, but not in the droves that the island desired and expected.

Many thought that the whole fleet of old-time mailboats should be continually sailing up and down the Channel repatriating Guernsey’s 18,000 evacuees, but the authorities were long aware that patience would be necessary.

The communal ‘Why?’ could not be answered truthfully by our two newspapers, who were kept aware of the situation but could not paint the full picture.

Safety at sea was paramount.

Ships could not simply chug away in an A to B route, as in the past.

Carefully charted courses had to be followed to keep clear of the many mines, so when the mailboats did sail they were regularly far from full.

A study in repatriation: Harbour excitement as family await the return of loved ones and friends. (33046672)

It would take four months for the Big Russel to be used again and it was not until mid-September when the Hantonia became the first ship to steam down the Russel into St Peter Port.

Previously that summer, ships heading here had to sail west of the Casquets, around the west of the island and approach St Peter Port from a southerly direction owing to the Big Russel being viewed as a dangerous area.

But back they came nevertheless and by the end of October 1945, two-thirds of our estimated 18,000 exiles had returned and all but 4,000 of the remaining were predicted to be home in a fortnight.

In reporting the returnee situation on 31 October 1945, the Press stated the following: ‘It would misrepresent the whole position to jump to the conclusion the figures conveyed that the 4,000 are not coming back. When the final reckoning is made – and that cannot be for some months yet – it is doubtful whether those who “have gone for good” will add up to as many as a thousand.’

‘A difficult and complicated job had been done well,’ was the verdict of the Press.

It was right and islanders kept coming back in steady numbers: 200 a month was the estimated number over the first two years.

But as encouraging as that may be, where to house them all was a problem not going away and billeting officer Vernon Le Maitre was as busy as anyone in authority.

In October 1945 the Press was recording that 750 islanders were due to arrive within the following three weeks and none of them had a house to come back to.


Compulsory billeting was brought in as a last resort and in announcing the situation to readers, the Press printed a long list of people who were due to return ‘any day’ and required temporary accommodation.

In that list, the name of the family head was followed by their normal address yet to be available and the ages of their offspring.

By 1947 the States was utilising its own hostel at the Hotel de France in the Plaiderie (near Moores), but even that had become inadequate with room for only 34. Eight families were enough to fill that number.

Within 30 months of Liberation the States had aided nearly a thousand homeless through billeting and hostel sheltering, but while finding accommodation was one thing the acquisition of furniture for the homeless was another.

  • Look out for State of play – part two in the Guernsey Press later this week.