A liberating experience for evacuee Len

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A Hemel Hempstead man has returned to the island of his birth for the anniversary of its liberation from German Occupation.

During the Second World War, the Channel Islands were invaded and occupied by German Forces.

As Britain commemmorated VE Day this year, Channel Island residents held an extra special celebration to mark 70 years since their release from occupation.

Hemel artist Len Roberts has good cause to remember the traumas of Nazi occupation of Guernsey.

As a 10­-year-­old, he was among 2,000 schoolchildren sitting on the quayside in the early hours of June 20, 1940, awaiting boats – which failed to arrive until early afternoon – to take them to the UK mainland.

Len’s school, complete with teachers, sailed on the deck of a coal boat.

Earlier, parents had made a tearful farewell at the children’s various schools.

As France fell, they had to make a hasty and heart­rending decision, whether to send their children to England, and whether they themselves should follow.

By June 21, 5,000 school-­age youngsters had left Guernsey.

Nine days later, German troops took control.

On arrival off the coast at Weymouth, Len’s boat anchored offshore overnight.

In the morning, on landing, the refugees were given cursory medical checks and labelled up.

They spent the night sleeping in their clothes on the floor of a school hall, using their parcels containing one change of clothes as pillows. The next move was by train – the first time they had seen a real one – to Bolton, Lancashire.

En route, they were unimpressed by the grimy industrial landscape they saw, compared with the beautiful island they had left behind.

They did, however, have the luxury of camp beds at the school where they stayed.

After a while, Len’s group were taken by bus to a junior school in Tottington, near Bury.

The children sat in the school hall, while local people arrived to take one or two at a time into their homes.

Len and two of his pals had made a pact not to be separated and, as nobody wanted three children, the hall emptied around them as they sat like waifs and strays.

Then in walked an elegant-looking lady, followed by a chauffeur in uniform.

“Would you boys like to come with me?” she said.

Arriving in the Rolls Royce at Stormer Hill House, the oldest parts of which date from 1772, in the hallway the boys were introduced to a line-­up of live-­in servants.

The privileged life they enjoyed while guests of the Mayor and Mayoress of Bury did help to offset the trauma of not knowing if or when they would ever see their families again.

Fortunately, Len’s seven-­year­-old brother came away with his school, then his mother followed with the youngest brother, aged three and a half.

His father got away on the last boat to leave, after the harbour had been bombed and several islanders killed.

Eventually, the whole family was reunited from scattered locations across Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire.

Having lost their house with everything in it, the parents set about establishing a new home in Brighouse, Yorkshire.

Although Len’s ambition was to go to Bradford College of Art, circumstances dictated that he find a job to contribute to the family coffers.

Fortunately, thanks to his artistic ability, he gained a place in the art department of a large local photographic company.

In 1970, with his wife, Jean, and four sons, he settled in Hemel Hempstead.

On May 9 every year, Channel Islanders celebrate their freedom from Nazi domination with a public holiday.

Although Len did not have to endure the privations and starvation of the occupation, he did have relatives who experienced it.

Having always wanted to share in the Liberation events, Len and Jean finally booked to return to Guernsey for the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day – which coincided with their wedding anniversary.

While there he met a cousin, Rosemary Harvey, who was born three months into the occupation, while her father was serving as a volunteer with the British Army in North Africa.

She had never tasted a sweet until one of the soldiers arriving to free the island gave her one.

It was such a treat that she saved the wrapper for years.

The couple also met author friend, Gillian Mawson, whose books contain the stories of Channel Island evacuee children in the north of England, and who writes about Len in her latest volume, put together for the 70th anniversary.

Gill organised front row seats for Len and Jean at the united service in the football ground where the Countess of Wessex was guest of honour.

Len said: “We had a fabulous time. I’ve been waiting all these years to go. Because I had relatives on the island who were there during the occupation, I’ve always felt I’d like to go.”

And the 85-year-old, who still plays the flugelhorn in the Salvation Army band, added: “The trouble is, it’s going to be outside living memory before very long.

“There’s not many of us left.”