Thursday, 14 May 2009 12:00 AM
Jersey has a fascinating military history and a unique celebration of peace in May. Travelbite's Daniel Barnes discovers that Jersey holidays are about more than beaches and pub lunches as he gets a guided tour of Jersey's famous war tunnels.
Marking the end of World War II is not something Brits tend to do but flag waving and singing the national anthem each year is de rigueur en France - perhaps because the end of the war marked freedom from the occupying Nazi forces.
The Channel Islands, however, are one slice of Britain that was freed from German occupation. As a result "Liberation" on Jersey is now a unique celebration of the island, its people and of peace.
This year is the 64th anniversary of Jersey's liberation and as the numbers of those who lived through the occupation dwindles, the fervour of the celebration remains.
The mark left by the Nazi occupation firmly remains on the island. Hitler saw Jersey as Germany's Gibraltar and covered the coast with cement as sea defences and forts were established, along with bunkers and most famously the war hospital constructed in underground tunnels.
The war also still rings on as part of the Jersey identity - with the island left defenceless by the Allies and the last to be freed, people remain staunchly loyal to the Queen and many feel let down, ignored or put upon by Westminster.
But I'm here to experience Jersey's war tunnels, an essential stop on any Channel Islands holiday whether you're a military history enthusiast or not.
The Jersey War Tunnels exhibition - featured this week on the BBC 1 One Show - shows us how Jerseymen, women and children struggled during occupation to live under the Germans.
Five years ago massive investment in the tunnels transformed them from a hotchpotch of memorabilia - mostly still packed away and in total confusion - into a modern exhibition charting the history of the war in Jersey.
As the conflict started the island was still advertising holidays - naively hoping that as in World War I the island would be unaffected. But as Churchill decided not to defend the Channel Islands and the population was torn between evacuating and staying, the Germans moved in after an initial bombing campaign.
In the Royal Square a white cross was drawn to mark the island's surrender and an uneasy period began with the islanders trying to live alongside the Germans.
A local stone mason managed to sneak a V for victory into the paving of the Royal Square. Today it is joined by the letters EGA - marking the SS Vega which brought Red Cross parcels to the island during the tough final winter of occupation.
In the exhibition uniformed German soldier mannequins with video heads ask if children want ice cream, or if they can help with the washing. Meanwhile survivors explain how the arrival of white flour on the SS Vega brought a round of constipation and questions of "Have you been yet?"
But the war was not so jolly. The exhibition shows the day-to-day suffering and impact of the wider war, all set in the haunting tunnels of the field hospital.
Those caught with a wireless radio faced imprisonment and deportation to Germany, and young men risking escape by water were shot. Any English were sent to internment camps in Germany.
The fortification of Jersey was also not without victims. Thousands of slave workers and PoWs were shipped in to work in desperate conditions.
This cruelty turned many islanders firmly against the Nazis and a few brave souls risked hiding escapees, along with the few Jewish residents of the island. There are many stories of bravery and quotes from the island's war heroes are now carved into paving slabs throughout St Helier.
War was also a time of black marketers and collaborators - some of whom demanded to be imprisoned after the war for their own protection and sought exile to the mainland after Liberation.
In the museum, survivors of the occupation tell their stories of life under the Germans through a series of video interviews covering attempts to escape, living with the Germans and the decision to leave the island or stay.
Looking back to the 1940s it is hard to imagine what it was like when the soldiers arrived for rural Jersey folk who had never left their parish, never mind the island. Some young woman fell in love with these handsome young men - and suffered for this after the war.
While for France liberation came in 1944, it was not until May 1945 after a hard winter that Jersey was finally freed.
The events of the liberation are recreated each year on May 9th. A festival of celebration takes place at Liberation Square, at the climax of which a Union Flag is unfurled from the window of the Harbour Office as it was in 1945. Another is raised from the balcony of the Pomme D'Or hotel - which had been the Nazi headquarters.
Survivors and veterans are cheered heartily by young and old - as are the young soldiers dressed in 1940s uniforms who arrive to 'liberate' Jersey; once more handing out sweets and oranges as the applause and celebration continues.
Hymns, war time songs and anthems are sung and a few pints of Liberation Ale are supped at the Ha'Penny Bridge Inn. This year also saw a market established under the big screens selling Jersey food, drink and craft.
Liberation is a bank holiday in Jersey and celebrations continue over the weekend with a music festival. This year the Jersey music festival featured a new and amazing concept: the Yacht Concert. A centrally-moored yacht featured international guitar legend Carlos Bonell, surrounded by the audience listening from a flotilla of boats. Meanwhile Mont Orgueil Castle saw over 200 musicians spread across the battlements to provide stunning real life surround sound.
Discovering Jersey's war history is not limited to May. Occupation Day sees a number of German fortifications opened by local groups, with camouflage draped over them and even cigarette buts dropped to recreate the atmosphere. But they are there throughout the year.
Dig a little deeper and Jersey's war history becomes even more fascinating. A series of Napoleonic forts dot the coastline - designed to ward off French invasion.
The French did manage an invasion in 1781 - technically the final invasion of British soil.
On twelfth night - as local militia and soldiers were busy making merry on the final day of Christmas - French troops sneaked onto the island, found the governor and convinced him to surrender by telling him the island was swarming with French.
However, a certain Major Peirson raised the troops and locals and launched a counter attack, climaxing in the Royal Square. Unfortunately the heroic major was shot during the defeat of the French, but his troops fought on.
The events are now marked on the island's ten pound note and the pub on the corner of the square is named the Peirson.
The statue of King George II on the Royal Square was found during recent renovations to have marks from the musket shots fired on that day.
Even further back in time, the remains of Iron Age forts have been discovered and evidence of mammoth traps from the last Ice Age, when Jersey and the Channel Islands were a plateau over what is now the English Channel. Archaeologists think the great beasts were lured to the edge of the cliff and pushed off.
Jersey's history - at war and in peace - is fascinating for both the seasoned aficionado and for those wanting to take in a little more than a break on the beach. These modern exhibitions really bring the story of Jersey alive, while for those wanting to meander through the battlements of castles and find adventurers there is plenty to experience.
The Liberation festival shows how important the past is to the island today - but it is a celebration that lasts throughout the year. Driving across the island and stopping off wherever I felt like it, I found Jersey thick with riches to discover - both modern and historic.
Exploring Jersey's military history:
Jersey War Tunnels:
A modern exhibition exploring life in Jersey during the war set in the eerie war tunnels that were originally designed as a field hospital.
Channel Islands Military Museum:
This former bunker holds a large collection of military items, including letters sent during the war, newspapers and uniforms. A must for a military enthusiasts.
Occupation Tapestry Gallery:
A series of 12 tapestries - one produced by each Jersey parish - outlining the history of Jersey and the occupation.
A museum outlining Jersey's strong links with the sea - both in wartime and in peacetime.
The full history of Jersey from mammoth hunters to the present day and a recreation of a 19th century trader's house.
Established by Sir Walter Raleigh and named after Queen Elizabeth I, the castle protects St Helier - but high tides cut off the island from the Jersey mainland. It can be visited at low tide by foot or on a special ferry at other times.
Mont Orgueil Castle
This 13th century Norman Castle overlooks the wide Royal Bay of Grouville and was recently reopened after renovation and preservation work.
For more information on Jersey's Liberation festival, and to download a walking map with all the historical sites go to www.jersey.com/liberation
How to Get to Jersey
Flybe fly to Jersey from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter, London Gatwick, Manchester, Norwich and Southampton.
Fares start at Â£24.99 one-way including taxes and charges.
For information and bookings, visit www.flybe.com.