In this modern age, as I sit here writing this blog post on my iPad with my iPhone next to me, it occurred that we take instant communication for granted. During the occupation of the Channel Islands it was a lengthy process to send and receive messages from the islands. Typically it would take four or five months for a message to be received and then a similar time frame for the reply to be received. An urgent message may take 5-6 weeks.
In the instance of my mother my grand parents found out four months later of her birth.
The first actions to set up communications began as early as the end of July 1940. It is included in a speech given by the Duke of Devonshire in the House of Lords in August 1940.
As announced in the other House yesterday, the question of whether communication with the islands could be established through the Red Cross has been taken up with that body, and I can assure my noble friend that whatever can be done in this connection, and generally, for the relief of the islanders is being done.Duke of Devonshire in the House of Lords in August 1940. – Hansard
It was announced on the wireless last night that the Post Office is prepared to accept letters for the Channel Islands by arrangement with Messrs. Cook and Son, who, I believe, dispatch the letters to the Channel Islands, but I can, of course, give no guarantee that the letters will arrive.
My noble friend can rest assured that the Government are conscious of the very hard position of the islanders, and that they are most anxious to do anything they can to alleviate it.
Unlike prisoners of war held on mainland Europe, who were able to write letters on a regular basis, islanders and their friends and family overseas found it very difficult to communicate. An International Red Cross office was set up at Elizabeth College in Guernsey as well as an office in Jersey.
In the early days islanders could only write to those outside of the Channel Islands if they had first received a Red Cross message to reply to. This changed in April 1941 when they were able to originate Red Cross messages.
As you can see below it also became possible to communicate with German and German occupied countries and these letters were not limited to 25 Words.
The only other information that found its way from the Channel Islands to England was either provided by the few that managed to escape, those that were repatriated from camps having been deported or information gathered during Commando raids.
Messages were limited to ten words initially then twenty words and this was later increased to twenty five words. The messages were checked by the German and English censors. Often if you see a Red Cross message it will have a blue stripe across it or a blue cross. This is residue left by the German censor using a chemical to check for invisible ink.
The reason that it took so long for a message to reach the intended recipient was that the messages went via Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland and then on to Germany before being sent on to Guernsey.
After D-Day on 6 June 1944 it became impossible to send messages so there was no further news from the islands or from the UK.
The quote below from the International Red Cross gives a good feel for how it worked.
All messages were routed via the International Red Cross headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The islands exchanged about 1 million messages.
The organization provided message forms on which islanders could communicate with family and friends who were outside the island. To ensure that the service was maintained for humanitarian reasons, both sides agreed that all messages would be read by both German and English censors. This was to ensure that no secret military or coded information was being sent via the forms. They were intended for non-military, civilian messages only. In May 1941, the first 7,000 arrived in England
Messages took anywhere from a few weeks to several months to get from the island to England and back again. At one point, islanders were not permitted to write to relatives but could write to friends. The number of messages that one could send was limited, and replies had to be on the back of the original message. To islanders, this link was invaluable. Messages ceased shortly after June 6, 1944, when the islands were cut off and isolated.WWII and Guernsey: Red Cross Helped When German Forces Occupied English Channel Island
One thing that is of interest in the quote above is that it refers to the first 7,000 messages being received in England in May 1941. This seems to be at odds with reports in the Guernsey Evening Press of 2 April 1941 which indicates that messages were being received in England in January 1941.
Likewise in the Evening Press of 16 January 1941 news of Red Cross Messages are recorded.
There is also a report in the Aberdeen Evening Express of 10 October 1940 that there was a scheme being arranged. This is followed by an article of 4 November that such a scheme had been arranged.
In an effort to share news of loved ones that had been evacuated from the Island or were away serving in the forces recipients of a message could consent to the message being published in the Evening Press in Guernsey. An example of this is below.
The end of these articles usually finished with a replies wanted to remind people that they needed to send a response.
The reason for the “replies wanted” was that the messages were received in numbered batches and a batch of replies could not be sent until it was complete.
The articles below from the Channel Islands Monthly Review October 1941 explain how the system worked and some of the frustrations.
The short video below tells the story of one family and their messages.
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© Nick Le Huray