Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Traveling Tuesday: Sark During WWII

Traveling Tuesday: Sark During WWII

The Channel Island of Sark was led by the indomitable Dame Sibyl Hathaway who after visiting St. Peter Port after the demilitarization by Britain and seeing chaos and confusion, returned home to make a speech to her people. She indicated that she would be staying during the German occupation, and indicated that those who wished could be evacuated but “those with a stake in the land should stick by it.” She went on to say, “I’m not promising you it will be easy. We may be hungry. But at least there will always be fish and rabbits.” (Afterward, she would ruefully look back on those words because fishing off the mined coast had been restricted, and the guns needed to hunt rabbits were confiscated by the Germans.)

However, many on the island thought she was a match for the Germans, and they weren’t far off.

The fifty-six-year-old woman was a descendent of one of the forty original families who arrived in
1565 with Helier de Carteret after he earned Queen Elizabeth I’s permission to establish a fief there. Dame Sibyl had worked in Germany and was fluent in German, and the feudal etiquette she’d been using all her life became a formidable weapon against the occupiers, most of whom were uniformed German aristocrats. They treated the islanders with respect, and the dame with reverence, reportedly kissing her hand when they approached her. The troops established themselves in the Hotel Bel Air until they managed to burn it to the ground in 1942.

As on the other islands, the German rules and regulations applied to Sark, including blackouts, curfews, opening hours of public house, fishing, etc. However, as the islanders had no motor cars, those laws were moot. Initially, there was much fraternization, and Dame Sibyl was able to get some of the mandates softened to include the ability to fish within three miles of the coast and for two boats to travel to Guernsey to sell their catches and return with fuel for the botas. Christmas Eve was celebrated together.

Soldiers regularly rotated and additional soldiers arrived bringing the total to two hundred. At one point, the new group was reportedly “full of high-handed bureaucrats” who created more restrictive rules that often made no sense, such as when they limited fishing without paying attention to tide tables, resulting in a fall in the fish catch. Eventually, the new “regime” learned to learn to advice from Dame Sibyl before issuing orders.

By 1942, visitors were no longer allowed on the island, and the only excuse for a local visit to Guernsey was toothache. With a dentist on Sark, fake toothaches became common so residents could spend a few days off the island. Radios were confiscated, and in September an order was issued to send all men of English parents to camps in Germany. Dame Sibyl took that to mean non-Sark-born people, reducing the list to only nine individuals.

Photo: Phillip Capper
A British commando raid occurred in October of that year with the objective of capturing a prisoner. They finally ended up at the Dixcart Hotel where they killed a sentry and found five sleeping German military engineers. During the attempt to take the soldiers prisoner, a struggle broke out with shouting. One of the Germans broke free and headed toward the Stock’s Hotel where other soldiers were asleep. When all was said and done the British managed to escape with one German, three of the German soldiers died, and the Sark woman who’d directed the commandos to the hotel was imprisoned for three months before being deported to Germany. The Sark commander, Oberleutnant Stefan Herdt lost his command for fraternization and failure in the raid.

February 1943 brought a section batch of deportees, a list of sixty people originally but again Dame Sibyl managed to get the group whittled down. Only twenty-five were sent away, including her American husband Robert Hathaway. Food and fuel became even more scarce. Another commando riad was made just after Christmas, but was unsuccessful.

The Guernsey Underground New Sheet (GUNS) illegally published British news. The group was caught and imprisoned where two would die before the end of the war. When Cherbourg and St. Malo fell to the Americans, the islands were cut off and both civilian and German rations were reduced. In retaliation, Dame Sibyl and a few of the islanders raided the German supply of grain and managed to cart off nearly a ton that was distributed to the Sarkees.

Early in 1945, Red Cross parcels arrived and were distributed among the civilians. According to one report, the Germans had less food than the islanders and were known to faint in the street. When news of the German surrender came, Dame Sibyl had the American and British flags hoisted while the Germans locked themselves in their barracks. On May 10, a group of British soldiers arrived to formally accept the German surrender, they indicated they didn’t have enough troops available to guard the prisoners, so Dame Sibyl was put in charge. One of the British officers later commented that she acted “more forceful than any army officer and more than equal to any German Kommandant.” Over the next few months, she demanded that the Germans reestablish the telephone lines, return the confiscated radios, and remove all 13,500 land mines. The prisoners also completed a variety of construction projects. They were required to repeat her commands and then reply “At your command, madam.”

As mentioned earlier in the post, the Germans had indeed met their match in Dame Sibyl Hathaway. Her husband eventually returned to the island with the other deportees, and she would hold her position until her death on July 14, 1974.

Francine’s Foibles

She's given up hope. He never had any. Will they find it together?

World War II is finally over, and America is extra grateful as the country approaches this year’s Thanksgiving. But for Francine life hasn’t changed. Despite working at Fort Meade processing the paperwork for the thousands of men who have returned home, she’s still lonely and very single. Is she destined for spinsterhood?

Grateful that his parents anglicized the family surname after emigrating to the United States after the Great War, first-generation German-American Ray Fisher has done all he can to hide his heritage. He managed to make it through this second “war to end all wars,” but what American woman would want to marry into a German family. Must he leave the country to find wedded bliss?

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