Invasion of the Channel Islands
The Jersey and Guernsey Woolworth stores during the German Occupation
Neither store expected quite so many German visitors the following year!
It is widely believed that the British government decided that the Channel Islands were indefensible and left them to fend for themselves.
In May and June 1940 the German Army swept across France en-route for Paris. Once they broke through they were unstoppable.
With France under German control it could only be a matter of time before the Channel Islands, which had shown allegiance to the British crown since Norman times, fell to the Germans. Hitler viewed Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm as the jewels of his European empire. With their British red pillar and 'phone boxes, their oh-so English policemen and quaint way of life, they would be a prize indeed. Besides the huge propaganda value of pictures of the "English" and the Germans working together, he was convinced that Churchill would decide to fight to get the islands back, and would fail.
So it was that in June 1940 the Germans launched a marine attack on the Channel Islands, which were virtually undefended.
Seeing what was coming, the islanders had made plans. Many children had been sent to comparative safety on the British mainland along with around 24,000 adults. But many others decided to stay in their homeland and face the consequences.
The sight of a British policeman and a German soldier walking side by side became a regular feature, and one that has inspired a lot of speculation since the war about what it would have been like if the Germans had invaded mainland Britain.
In the early days of the occupation, the German troops were under strict orders to behave with decorum. As a result initially they treated the islanders with respect and tried to demonstrate that the islanders and their new masters could get along.
One of the first places where this policy showed was in the Woolworth store in King Street, St. Helier, Jersey.
Some of the soldiers thought of Woolworth as a German company, having shopped in one of the stores in the Third Reich. Hearing that the King Street branch had sweets and chocolates on sale (which they had not been able to get during their march through France), they went in to shop.
Store staff and customers were surprised that the German soldiers said "Good morning", joined on the back of the queue, waited their turn and paid for their purchases with shillings and pennies.
The invasion brought Jersey shoppers out in force, stocking up with everything. Without fresh supplies from the mainland (and with very limited indigenous sources for most items), stocks were soon depleted.
On 11 August the Store Manager placed an advertisement in the Jersey Evening Post announcing that the store would be closing all day on Thursdays. This was a first for the store which had not traditionally had even an early-closing day.
The advert stimulated yet more queues and helped the Manager to clear the stockroom of all manner of surplus items!
In Guernsey, according to our records, it was much the same story. The occupying forces began by being scrupulously courteous. Some soldiers told local people that they had no wish to be away from home, and no interest in war. They told staff at Woolworth that they just wanted a quiet life. They queued patiently and, as a result, for the most part were afforded a measure of courtesy by local people.
The three-floor store was heaving with customers in the early months of the war and as fast as items were brought down from the stockroom they sold.
The long-suffering Guernsey police were assigned German chaparones. It is said that Officers took one local practical joke in good spirits, despite it happening many times. The Germans instructed islanders to "Hand in ALL guns and small arms to the police station, by order." Many people took a pride in going to Woolworth's and buying a tiny threepenny toy gun, before going to the police station and insisting that all of the paperwork was completed as they handed it over.
One enterprising islander towards the back of the queue produced a little playing card with a picture of "Mr Copper the Policeman - the ARM of the law" (sixpence from Woolies) and shouted "Snap!" when the person in front produced their cap-gun. Fortunately the Germans took the impertinence in good heart - well after all, there was no 'arm in it!
From the beginning of the occupation until liberation five years later, the Channel Island stores could not communicate with the mainland, and received no shipment of goods from the UK. Company records show the stores as "closed - under enemy occupation" from 1st July 1940 until July 1945 in Guernsey and August 1945 in Jersey. Snippets of information in our archive suggest that the stores may have traded independently during some of this time.
For example the envelope above, which originally contained a supplier's invoice to the store, was posted in April 1941. It bears the stamps used during the occupation, without any reference to the British monarchy. Throughout the war few letters were sent overseas, and local people were only allowed rare, short, censored Red Cross messages.
The islands suffered terribly during the occupation, particularly towards the end of the war. The Germans were civil for the cameras and propaganda, but they were an unwelcome force of occupation. They did not enslave the islanders in the same way as the forced labourers they brought to build Jersey's Underground Hospital, the only concentration camp on British soil (in Alderney), or the elaborate fortifications made of thousand of tonnes of cement. But local people were forced to work for the Germans, their freedom was removed, and people (particularly Jews) disappeared - transported to a terrible fate in Germany or Austria.
As the tide turned in the war and the Allies swept across France, captors and captives alike in the Channel Islands had very little food and came close to starvation. Local people showed immense courage and restraint in very difficult circumstances.
When liberation finally came in 1945, the Woolworth's set about reinstating and modernising the Channel Island stores. Work on the Jersey branch (pictured above) was complete in time for Christmas. Among the features that are evident are products priced at up to thirty shillings (£1.50) - a far cry from the sixpenny (2½p) maximum of 1939. The shortage of building materials is evident - there are no wall counters, instead the lower walls have been painted in a mahogany colour to simulate where the counters should be! Some of the new stock was sourced from the mainland, other items were purchased locally. Ever so slowly life started to return to normal. But the islands will never forget their brush with the Third Reich.
Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum
1940s War, Austerity and Recovery Gallery
UK and USA a world apart Blitz hits major cities Spitfires for the RAF Channel Islands Occupation
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