27th September 1944
“Let em starve,” said Churchill
By late summer of 1944, the war had turned against Germany. As a result, things were getting very uncomfortable in Guernsey, Jersey and Sark. Normandy had been liberated, which effectively cut off the islands from the German supply lines. Food was running short.
With both the locals and the occupiers facing starvation, the German Foreign Ministry sent a message to London via the Red Cross. It offered to evacuate the Channel Islands’ women, children and elderly, so that the only civilians remaining under occupation would be men of fighting age.
Notably, Germany didn’t offer to give up the islands themselves. They perhaps recognised that once the majority were out of the way there should be enough food left to feed those who remained.
Churchill was having none of it. He wrote a memo that included the now infamous line, “Let ’em starve. No fighting. They can rot at their leisure”.
The meaning of the snub
There has been much debate in the years since then whether Churchill was referring solely to the occupying forces, or to the Channel Islanders, too. Either way, the government declined the German offer. Perhaps this was because by leaving them in place the civilians were a further drain on German resources. Maybe it was that the logistics of ensuring safe passage between the islands and the mainland was too much to contemplate.
Or perhaps Churchill was merely being spiteful towards Germany after so many years of war, and had little consideration for the collateral harm it would do to the Channel Islanders.
Either way, things only got worse for the next three months. Finally, in late December, the SS Vega sailed in from Lisbon carrying Red Cross supplies for distribution to the civilians. It was also carrying medical supplies and children’s clothing.
This was just the first of six visits from the Red Cross supply ship between then and liberation on 9 May.