On 4 June 1940, the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a defiant speech to the British people: 'We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender'. Stirring stuff, but to many listeners his belligerence rang hollow. The British Expeditionary Force and much of the French army had been scooped up from the beach at Dunkirk in the face of the aggressive German advance. The defenceless countries of western Europe were at Hitler's mercy. It seemed inevitable that the Führer's next target would be Britain itself.
Just a few miles off the coast of north-western France lay the Channel Islands, an anachronistic remnant of Britain's medieval French holdings. Despite Churchill's 'fight to the end' rhetoric, the War Cabinet decided on 19 June that they were indefensible and of no strategic value. All military personnel were pulled out, abandoning the islands to the enemy. They were strategically unimportant to the Germans as well, but Hitler knew there was propaganda value for the Third Reich in occupying even this insignificant British outpost.
My grandmother May Clayton Greene had lived on Jersey since her husband died in 1926, when she was only 33. May was feisty, funny, elegant and independent. She had had many suitors, but none met her exacting (and sometimes capricious) standards; one was rejected on the grounds that he had 'sweaty hands', and another because he wore yellow shoes. 'Can't be doing with that', she told her daughter, Doris (my mother-to-be).
In 1940 Doris was a nurse at St Mary's Hospital in London, and her younger brother George was an engineering officer in HMS Renown. There was little planning by the authorities for an orderly evacuation of the civilian population, and much confusion as about a third of the islands' total population of 90,000 fled. Thousands more stayed put, determined to tough it out.
George had a few days leave and went to Jersey to help his mother. Local farmers who were staying on agreed to occupy May's house, Arden Lodge, to prevent the Germans from doing so, and to look after her dog Hector. Before they departed George dug a hole in the vegetable garden behind the house and buried a large leather trunk containing the family silver. George then rejoined his ship while May went to London.
One of the more distressing preliminaries to the evacuation was the slaughter of several thousand dogs and cats, whose owners were unable to take them when they left but reluctant to turn them loose to fend for themselves. When May heard about this in London, she was determined that she would not let Hector suffer the same fate. She returned by herself to Jersey to put her house in order and to rescue her dog.
But she had left it too late.
The last boat back to England sailed without her and on 1 July German troops occupied the island. May was trapped.
In September 1939 May had written to George: 'Just give those Huns one for me. Give them a few bombs! I'm afraid I'm in it whole-heartedly - no parley with me. “Shoot to kill” is my motto! We've seen enough of the Germans - at least I have - one cannot trust them! Not an inch! …they are evil! I wish I were a man and younger, so I could help to subdue them… forgive me for going on this way, but I hate them. I was through the last war you know, and they showed no mercy - neither would I, if I had anything to do with them'.
There was no way that May was going to stay in Jersey under German occupation. She was determined to escape, and the only way to do that was by boat.
Although the Germans had announced that anyone trying to escape would be shot on sight, May reasoned that it would take them a while to arrange sentries at all the places where boats were moored. She drove to the main port of St Helier, parked in a quiet corner of the quay and went down to the yacht harbour. There she met the skipper of a Dutch merchant ship whose crew had sailed off while he took his sick cook to hospital. He had found a boat, abandoned by its owner, in which to make an escape. He agreed to take May and Hector with him on the next suitable tide.
At 3 o'clock in the morning of 3 July, a small boat bearing six people and a dog slipped out of St Helier Harbour in the darkness under the very noses of the German guards. Accompanying May, the skipper and the cook, were Henry Kite and two young men from the Le Riche grocery store, Pip Cotillard and Arthur Marret, who had brought with them a large box of groceries.
The Channel Islands have particularly strong tides, and leaving on the ebb they were able to paddle and drift out of the harbour without being seen or heard. Hector was as quiet as a mouse. They were well out to sea when they started the motor and headed towards England.
They were making good progress when the engine stalled from lack of oil. Undeterred, the boys produced three pounds of best Jersey butter from the grocery box, which they melted against the exhaust pipe and then poured over the sump. That did the trick. That night they were within twelve miles of the south coast of England when the engine seized up for good.
They hove-to until dawn when they could see the shoreline. May knew at once where they were. She recognized the lighthouse on the promontory called Start Point and informed her shipmates that, more by luck than judgement, they had ended up close to the mouth of the River Dart where her son had attended the Royal Naval College.
Lookouts ashore had spotted the little vessel and the coastguard sent a lifeboat to tow them into Dartmouth. May later recalled that the Dutch captain had kept hold of the boat's tiller the whole time, and that Hector had behaved very well. Their escape was not only one of the first, it was one of the few to make the much longer, difficult and dangerous journey to England rather than to France, and certainly the only one that featured a middle-aged English woman and a Chow.
Shortly after the armistice in May 1945, George went back to Jersey to check on Arden Lodge. After five years of occupation, the house and furniture were remarkably undamaged. Only the linens had been taken, to be torn up and used as bandages.
He remembered: 'I attempted to find the trunk of family silver in the vegetable garden, which was quite overgrown. I got a spade, took off my coat and started small holes here and there. Then there was a call from a fence where two boys from the adjacent farm were watching my activities. I went over to them and they said, “We know what you look for, boy. We saw you bury trunk before the occupation. We have it in our cellar”. I suppose when they saw me burying it they thought that I had been burying a body, so they had dug it up. Anyway it was returned to me in good shape.'
The valuable silver, which these Jersey farmers had guarded so honestly at considerable risk, remains in May's family to this day.
Read the rest of Jill Rose's fascinating memoir Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse - available on the Saga Bookshop!