More than 200 people gathered yesterday in the Channel Island of Alderney to celebrate the day 50 years ago when they began rebuilding their community from the ashes of a brutal Nazi slave camp.
The 1,300 islanders had fled to England in June 1940, but less than 500 returned after the end of the Second World War. They found an island devastated by the Germans and grim reminders of the thousands of slave labourers who died fortifying the island.
Europe had been free for seven months when, 10 days before Christmas 1945, the Southern Railways ferry eased into Alderney harbour. Buster Hammond, 72, was among those on board who watched as ships flew "welcome home" signals. An on-shore guard of honour fired a 21-gun salute and the all-clear was sounded.
"It was the best day of my life. A friend was playing 'Home Sweet Home' on his trumpet as we sailed in. It was quite dark, a winter's morning, but it was just sheer excitement," said Mr Hammond, who helped organise yesterday's celebrations. The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans and Alderney was unique in that all but a dozen of the population left as the Nazis swept through Europe.
The evacuees were only permitted one small suitcase, and families worked into the night burying the family silver and hiding valuables under floor boards. Pets were destroyed and farm animals let loose.
A church bell called islanders to the harbour on 23 June 1940. Avril Sebire was nearly left behind. "Grandad didn't want to leave. My parents piled him into our car and when they arrived at the harbour mum said, 'I'll take the baby now.' I had been left sleeping in my cot in front of the farm blissfully unaware of my mother's distress," said Ms Sebire, who flew from Australia with her two sisters, Jean and Lynne, to attend the celebrations.
Raiding parties from Guernsey and France took advantage of the exodus and ransacked homes, farms and pubs. Then the Germans arrived.
The excitement of reclaiming their island home in 1945 was tempered as they realised the enormity of the task ahead of them. Jean Sebire, then 14, said: "I had a fantastic time, but I remember my mother paddling through inches of water in a backroom kitchen crying her eyes out trying to cook."
A plague of fleas and rats were just two more inconveniences. Jackie Main was billeted in the Grand Hotel with many other islanders when they first returned. "You could hear the rats gnawing at the floorboards. It was so bad that when we went to collect our hot water bottles we always went in a gang so we could scare the rats away," he said.
Yet, as with most of the young people, life was an enormous adventure for 10-year-old Jackie - it took the authorities six months to set up a school. "Life was smashing, I had a beautiful childhood," he said.Reuse content