TV drama reopens war wounds in Jersey

Channel Islanders shun a new series depicting collaborators, love affairs with Germans and dealing on the black market
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The Independent Online

A story of secret romance and betrayal, Island at War, has been billed as ITV's big gun in the battle of the summer schedules.

A story of secret romance and betrayal, Island at War, has been billed as ITV's big gun in the battle of the summer schedules.

But Channel Islanders fear that tonight, when they tune in to the start of the drama based on their experiences of the Second World War, it will be their reputation in the firing line.

They already stand accused of collaborating with the five-year German occupation of the islands and of sending Jews to the gas chambers.

Now comes a six-part series which concentrates on the "Jerrybags", the island women who struck up relationships with German soldiers and informed on their neighbours.

Granada acknowledges that the production, starring James Wilby, Clare Holman and Saskia Reeves, has already stirred up controversy, with some older residents resentful of any attempt to re-examine the past.

Sita Williams, the executive producer, described local residents' reactions as "very, very mixed". She said: "They're touchy about anything that smacks of collaboration and there are collaborators in our programme.

"There was a lot of nasty black marketeering going on, and we show that, too.

"The other big issue is the relationship between Channel Island women and the German soldiers. When they arrived, the islanders were Gallic and dark-looking, and these wonderful tall blond men arrived. They have told me that they're going to be watching, and that there's a lot of concern."

Iris Le Feuvre will not be among the viewers, however. Mrs Le Feuvre, who was 11 when the Germans invaded Jersey in 1940, said she would ignore the television series in protest, after raising concerns with Granada about its lack of accuracy.

"Exaggerated tales serve no purpose," she said. "When you see a programme dealing with a subject you know a lot about and they have it wrong, it makes you query other programmes which you once took at face value. Television itself is called into question."

Peter Tabb, 60, from Jersey, was born on D-Day and is now writing a history of the occupation. "Even today the worst epithet you can apply to a woman of a certain age is to call her a Jerrybag, but I'm not sure that such liaisons were that common," he said. "My figures show that 90 illegitimate children were born in the island during the occupation. Given there were some 12,000 fit, active and lonely young men sent here and 10,000 locals had left, this is remarkably low."

Michael Ginns, president of the Jersey Occupation Society, was deported as a boy to Germany in September 1942, aged 12.

He has seen a preview of the first two episodes. "Frankly it's all a bit irritating," he said. "But maybe that's the view of a perfectionist who likes to see the truth being portrayed. It's undramatic 'dramatic licence', containing events that never happened."

The islanders will be even more dismayed to learn that the cast have all read copies of Madeleine Bunting's A Model Occupation, a book that led to howls of protest for suggesting that the islands had actively co-operated with the occupying forces.

Twenty-two Jersey residents including Jews died in concentration camps, and three Jews from Guernsey, but for years there was little acknowledgment of them or of the foreign slave labourers who lived in appalling conditions.

Islanders continue to deny that they collaborated, pointing out that Britain ordered them not to resist when the Germans invaded in 1940, that they were swamped with troops, and that the islands themselves are so confined there could have been no equivalent of the French resistance.

The currency was changed to German marks, and the clocks were set to central European time.

Sir John Keegan, the military historian, has defended the islanders' record, suggesting that there was little active collaboration of the sort seen in France, Belgium and Scandinavia, where some men volunteered to fight in German uniform.

Stephen Mallatratt, who spent a year researching and writing the series, said: "I was aware there were a lot of feelings of resentment about the way the islands had been portrayed, particularly in the past 10 years, as quite collaborative. What I found, though, was a lot of quiet heroism."

Another point of controversy is the fact that the film was shot in the Isle of Man, partly because the Channel Islands are now too wealthy to suggest the faded ambience of the 1940s.

Iris Le Feuvre was too young to be interested in boys during the war, but said she could understand the pressures that 19- or 20-year-old women faced. "But those I can't forgive are the Jerrybags who used their bodies to benefit themselves at the expense of others and who gave information to the Germans.

"As for the others, well, life is life; they were lonely and attracted by some good-looking and equally lonely young men."