On 19 November 2017, Mrs Ruth Berry will be 108 years old and to mark the occasion, I am sharing her wartime story.
When around 17,000 civilians were evacuated from the Channel Island of Guernsey to Weymouth in late June 1940, Ruth was a young mother with three children aged just 4 years, 2 years and 3 weeks. The Guernsey population had initially felt that they would be safe from German invasion, but by 16 June 1940, as German forces made their way through France, explosions could be heard in Cherbourg, just 30 miles from Guernsey. Now fears arose that a German invasion might indeed take place, as the closeness of Guernsey to Cherbourg meant that the island was wide open to attack by German forces both by sea and by air.
On 19th June, the decision was made to evacuate Guernsey children, teachers and mothers to the British mainland, together with men who wished to join the British forces. As they sailed to England, the evacuees endured rough Channel crossings as conditions were not ideal on most of the boats. One particular cargo boat carried 300 people but was only licensed to carry 12. Evacuees were crammed into airless cargo holds or had to sit on the fully exposed decks. Ruth told me of her experiences on that fateful day,
“I was not a good sailor so I sat up on the wooden boards on the deck of the ship. Our ship was zig zagging through the Channel to avoid any air attacks, so I decided that if we were sunk, I would try to save my two elder children as my baby would not know anything about it. It would have been impossible for me to hold onto three children in the waters of the Channel.”
Luckily, the ship reached Weymouth safely after a rather rough 70 mile journey. Ruth recalls that the evacuees were given food on board whilst they waited to disembark,
“We were brought bread and cheese and we were very well looked after. Then the Weymouth people helped us when getting off the boat, then we went into a school hall. After a short rest, we were put on trains, but were not told of our destination. The journey seemed everlasting but eventually we arrived in a place called St Helens in Lancashire and were taken into a school.”
As with thousands of other evacuees, they were ‘chosen’ by local families,
“People came to the school to pick who they wanted. Having three children, no one really wanted me, but the girl bringing bread for us from a local bakery went to her employer, Mrs Elsie Liptrot, and told her about me and my children. Mrs Liptrot immediately offered us rooms above the bakery and from then on I helped her with the baking. My husband, Kenneth, was in the Air Sea Rescue Service in Cornwall, and managed to send some money to me in St Helens.”
On 30 June, Ruth received a short letter from her mother in Guernsey and she wrote a letter back on 1 July. However, Ruth’s letter was never delivered because the island was bombed by Germany on 28 June and occupied on 30 June. Now all communications with England were cut and Ruth’s letter was returned to her, unopened and marked, ‘No Service, Return to Sender.’ This caused Ruth a great deal of distress.
Ruth’s letter was very lengthy, so I have reproduced some of it below:
I do hope this will reach you all right, I was so pleased to hear from you and to know you were all safe after the bombing, those Germans, isn’t it awful?! You will see I am billeted out, I had a job to get a place with my three children … but Mrs Liptrot took me like a shot. I’ve never been treated like this in my life, it’s a high-class confectioners and they cook dinners for masters and mistresses, lovely cooking and as much as you can eat. For example today for tea, salad, tomatoes etc, fruit salad, large dish of cream, large plate of bread and butter, jam and Dundee cake, then she came and asked me if I’d like ham and tongue with my salad. She is about 40 years old and her husband and brother does the baking in the bakehouse and her old mother lives here too. She is about 70, but my dear every time the baby cries they rush and say ‘he wants to be nursed.’ The old mother is called Mrs Hughes. Mr Liptrot has a wooden leg, he would very much like a baby but Mrs L works in the shop and works hard and says she does not see how she could, so you can imagine them both with the baby!
Kenny and Paul have been devils, they are very spoilt up at the school where we were first brought and Paul has not been well, won’t leave me a minute but getting better. The baby is lovely, getting plump and wonderfully good, I still feed him three times a day myself, so pleased. Imagine our horror when we were told a little while before we got on the train [at Weymouth] that we were going to Lancashire and we saw chimneys and factories everywhere but the part we are in is the North and high and the air is lovely. We live opposite a lovely park, huge paddling lake for children and large lake for bathing and rowing and another park with every amusement and kindness everywhere. I’ve had some clothes given to me for Roger, plenty tears shed over him by mothers, he could have been adopted over and over again, one lady even had a crib ready for him.
Would you send over my green woollen dress in my wardrobe, my slippers, my suede shoes, I believe in the bottom of the spare room wardrobe, my linen coat on the hall stand and two pinafores and Kenny’s viyella blouses? It’s inclined to be cold here and send an extra pair of trousers for Kenny. If you give the fowls a handful of corn each feed and one over, that’s all right. If you come away from Guernsey you ought to come here, you’d love it. I’ve never felt better in my life, it suits me. Well Mum, I’ll be pleased to see you again, and very happy, would be happier if you and Dad were here, best of parents. Such a lot to tell you, Thank you for the stamp, very welcome, love Ruth.
In common with many towns and cities in England, St Helens was subject to numerous air raids which Ruth recalls vividly,
“There were plenty of them because we were very near the Pilkington Glass works and it was set on fire. Every time there was a raid, we had to run to the shelter. I could only carry two of my children each time, so I had to rotate which two I took with me! For the last two years of the war, the children and I were able to join Kenneth in Newlyn, Cornwall, so we were all reunited which was wonderful.”
On 8 May 1945, the war in Europe was finally over. The evacuees celebrated Victory in Europe Day with their local communities, but they had as yet to receive news of the liberation of the Channel Islands. Ruth described her family’s reaction when she heard Churchill’s speech on 8th May,
“We listened to the radio all the time for news of home, and I will never forget hearing Winston Churchill saying ‘and tomorrow our dear Channel Islands will be free.’”
On 9 May 1945, a day later than Winston Churchill had hoped, British forces finally liberated the Channel Islands. Now Ruth could once again write to her mother. The evacuees assumed that they would be able to return home immediately, but they were advised that the immediate return to the islands of a thousands of people would create very serious problems of accommodation and unemployment. In addition, conditions on the island were dire. The German occupation had caused a huge amount of damage to the houses, the beaches were covered with barbed wire and live ammunition was scattered throughout the island. As a result, provision could only be made for the return of a few hundred evacuees per week. Evacuees were told that they should apply individually to the London passport office, and if a permit was granted, they could obtain free passage to Guernsey by making an application to their local billeting officer.
When Ruth, Kenneth and their children finally returned to Guernsey, the rest of their family were at the harbour to greet them. It was then that Ruth discovered that someone else had moved into their house during the occupation, “We had to wait until they moved out. Luckily we settled very quickly back into island life.”
Ruth will never forget the kindness shown to her by the Liptrot family in St Helens. She stayed in touch with them by letter and the Liptrots visited Guernsey for a holiday in 1948. Ruth’s family visited St Helens in 1953 and Ruth stayed in touch with Mr and Mrs Liptrot until they both passed away.
My latest book ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ contains personal testimony from hundreds of evacuees in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. Find out more via the image below (click Free Preview)