BBC Home > BBC News > Europe

WWII internment items on display in Guernsey

13 March 10 09:32 GMT
By Ben Chapple
BBC News, Guernsey

A major exhibition of items made by Channel Islanders in WWII internment camps has gone on display in Guernsey.

The islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during the war and in 1942-43 more than 2,000 residents were deported to Germany.

The exhibition shows some of the art, craft and everyday objects made by the deportees whilst held in camps such as Biberach, Wurzach and Laufen.

It opened to the public on Saturday and runs until 12 September.

The exhibition, entitled Occupied Behind Barbed Wire, at the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery has brought together about 200 objects from surviving deportees, their families and collectors in the Channel Islands and the UK.

It includes artwork, trophies, tapestries, toys, games, crockery, trinket boxes and other items made by the prisoners using the recycled contents of Red Cross parcels and anything else that came to hand during their internment. Many are on public display for the first time.

Dr Gillian Carr, a Cambridge University archaeologist, has worked with museum staff on researching and curating the museum, after studying the material culture of the deportees over the last few years.

She that in addition to offering an insight into the mixture of hope, despair and defiance experienced by the detainees, she hoped the display would reawaken public interest in the story of the deportations which have remained an often-overlooked episode from Britain's WWII history.

Prelude to invasion

"The objects these people made often used to be seen as worthless kitsch and ephemera, but in fact they tell us the story of the experiences of a generation of deportees who are mostly now gone," said Dr Carr.

"Most of the people who witnessed the occupation of the Channel Islands and are still with us today were children at the time. Even for them, the dominant narrative tends to be about the Occupation itself, while the story of the people whom the Germans deported is often overlooked.

"This exhibition is a way of making sure that people don't forget."

The Germans arrived on the Islands in July 1940 in what was presumed to be a prelude to the invasion of the UK.

For the first two years there were no large-scale deportations, but the situation changed in September 1942 after the British began to intern Germans living in Persia (modern-day Iran) fearing German monopolisation of Persian oil.

An outraged Adolf Hitler responded by personally ordering the deportation of Channel Islanders as retribution.

Homesickness and depression

Those targeted in the first wave were principally English-born men and their dependents. Later, men who had served as officers in WWI and those who had been imprisoned for acts of resistance were also taken, along with their families.

Most were given just 12 hours notice and had no idea where they were going or what would happen to them. Most were eventually taken to camps in south-west Germany, where they remained until they were liberated in 1945.

In the camps the simple act of making something played a critical role in alleviating feelings of homesickness, anxiety and the boredom of confinement, which could easily turn into depression.

In displays of craftsmanship and ingenuity, the prisoners turned packing crates into cribbage boards and chess sets, boxes into musical instruments and children's toys, and tins into beautifully-engraved mugs and sports trophies.

Other exhibits attest to the resourcefulness of the deportees as boxes and steel tins were recycled into rudimentary water heaters, kettles, coffee percolators and even stoves.

Clothes were also manufactured using anything that could be found, including shoes made using a combination of cardboard from Red Cross parcels, old clothing, plaited parcel-string and canvas.

As well as compensating for the absent comforts of home, some artefacts were produced as deliberate, morale-boosting expressions of defiance.

V for Victory signs were engraved on to cups, stitched into clothes or concealed within embroidery or paintings that otherwise seemed innocent enough to the camp guards.

Related BBC sites

*