Discover the fate of telecoms engineers stranded in the Channel Islands during World War II

Documents unearthed from a BT exchange in Bournemouth tell the fascinating story of two GPO engineers trapped on Jersey and Guernsey during the German occupation.

The new film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society deals with the occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II.

The islands were undefended, but of strategic importance for communications, and following the declaration of war there was added urgency to complete the cable between Dartmouth to Guernsey/Jersey and St Lo in France; eight GPO staff were deployed to the two main islands, the photo below shows the cable landing in Fliquet, Jersey in 1940.

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Credit BT Archives

In June 1940, and with the German invasion imminent, all but two of the GPO staff were evacuated. Telecoms engineers L. Le Huray (in Guernsey) and P.G. Warder (in Jersey) remained stranded. Recently discovered papers donated to BT Archives by a retired engineer chronicle their fate.

Unsuccessful rescue attempt

Huray and Warder had twice been instructed to leave the islands, but the decision was reversed after representations were made by the island authorities.

The last communication with Le Huray was at 10.45am on June 28, 1940, when according to letters and reports written by GPO staff on the mainland he stated: "That the position in Guernsey had become much more serious. German planes were now repeatedly flying low over the island and the population were in a state [of] alarm. Le Huray expressed a wish to be evacuated if possible."

On July 1 Germany occupied the islands and communication between the islanders and the mainland stopped until the end of the war.

The next day the RAF sent a flying escort to the Channel Islands in an unsuccessful bid to rescue the men, which resulted in the loss of two pilots.

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War-time contact

It took more than 10 months, until May 29, 1941, for the Post Office to receive news of the men's safety (below). "The news has come through via the Red Cross that Messrs Warder & Le Huray our men at present on the Channel Islands are fit and well. In addition, Le Huray says 'working as usual'. That is as much as we know at present," GPO records recall.

Credit BT Archives

Contact was very limited over the next few years until a message came in July 1944 from Le Huray, possibly hinting at a positive end to the war. "All ok little distorted level good. Pleased all’s well. Weather cold, Autumn tints brilliant. Sent good wishes Le Huray. New Year Greetings to all and good luck," he wrote.

Liberation

At 10am on May 8, 1945, German authorities informed the Channel Islanders that the war was over. At 3pm Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a radio broadcast, announcing that "Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight tonight, but in the interests of saving lives the 'Cease fire' began yesterday to be sounded all along the front, and our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today."

That day, Warder went to Jersey’s repeater station and told the guard he was taking it over on behalf of the British Post Office. The officer clicked his heels, saluted and said, “Very good Mr Warder”.

In May 29, a report by the Chief Inspector described the men as having had a rough and unpleasant time: "Both have lost a considerable amount of weight but with the increased rations they are gradually improving," it read.

The Gestapo interrogated Le Huray several times to find out about the location of Guernsey’s transmitters, but he convinced them they had been impounded by the British authorities.

Credit BT Archives

In a letter sent from Jersey, Warder requested his wife come over for some annual leave, as he hadn’t taken any for the past five years, he explained.

Telegraph communications using a military link was restored on May 10, 1945, with trunk telephone restored in June 1945. The photo above shows queues to send telegrams in Guernsey after liberation.

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Visit BT Archives to find out more about the history of communication in the UK

Anne Archer contributed to this piece.