Voyage to Freedom: Escape from Occupied Jersey

An extract from Jersey: Secrets of the Sea by Paul Darroch, which imagines Jersey’s maritime history through the eyes of the people who created it.

Ragamuffin, The English Channel, September 1941

A boat is gliding north in the autumn night. It is a tiny open craft, a speck of driftwood in the cold, grey Channel, and tonight it bears a lean and thirsty young man. The Ragamuffin is one man’s deliverance from a living nightmare, the German Occupation.

Denis Vibert has tried to escape once before. He is twenty-two, in the prime of his strength, and has trained as a merchant navy cadet. For some men, hope was smothered, or broken. Denis believed there was still a way out. He burned with rage as German soldiers strutted down King Street, as his food rations dwindled. Like so many Jerseymen, he longed to fight back against his captors. Yet on a tiny, incarcerated Island, overt resistance would end with a bullet.

So, he decided, in 1940, to break out of his Island prison and join the British forces. The attempt almost cost him his life. His boat was wrecked on the rocks, and he had to swim a freezing quarter mile to shore. Most would have lost heart, learned their lesson, and grudgingly knuckled under the oppressor’s yoke. Not this man.

He was determined to try again. He hid a tiny eight-foot boat at his house – illegally, of course. It was called Ragamuffin, a name fit for a little rebel, a defiant rascal. He concealed two little outboard motors nearby. He siphoned petrol from a German lorry, a crime which the German Field Police would have punished with the utmost severity. With the help of friends, his boat was smuggled to the beach.

It was September of 1941, harvest time. This year, the potato crop had been replaced by barley and oats, the food of survival, and the tractors had no fuel. The setting sun dipped over Jersey, lighting up the blood-red swastikas on the town hall, and the gunmetal grey Luftwaffe aircraft at the airport.

Night fell like a shroud over a seething, subjugated continent, from Paris to Kiev. On the eastern edge of the Reich, German artillery moved within shelling range of Leningrad. The final collapse of the Soviet Union appeared imminent. That September night, Europe slept to the endless dance of the searchlights and the orange flare of high explosives, of cities slowly burning.  

Denis headed down to the silent beach at Bel Royal, where his little Ragamuffin was waiting for him. The time had come to make his bid for freedom. The night was starless, and the German sentries did not see him. He burst out quickly into St Aubin’s Bay, and was soon making good headway. Everything he knew and loved was falling away behind him; but he had made his choice. He would fight.

Four miles out, disaster struck. A pair of German E-boats on secret manoeuvres slipped by him in the dead of night. Their violent wake almost turned him over, leaving his outboard engine broken. Gingerly he unwrapped his lifeline; his spare engine. Yet as he leant to attach it, another surge struck; his fingers fumbled, and the engine sank beneath the waves. There was nothing for it. His oars alone would have to carry him to England.

So, he began to row like a madman, straining through a hundred tortuous miles of open sea. The last of his water supply had gone. Three days and nights passed in the grey Channel, with nothing to sustain him but hope. His arms were torn, his hands bruised from the oars. Yet he would go on, and Jersey would go on, because in the end there was no other way.

Through the darkest hours, through the terrors of the night. He was rowing for those left behind, those still trapped in the darkness and yearning for freedom.  The gulls pirouetted above him, as if they were free men, as if they already knew.

Denis rowed on into the first light. And then at last, dawn broke. Portland Bill was rising up to meet him, and the grey hull of the King’s ship, HMS Brocklesby, was drawing up beside him, like an angel of liberty, bringing him safely in.

Liberation would come to Jersey at the appointed time; that much he knew. As he collapsed into blissful sleep, he thought he could still hear the voices of all those he had left behind, pacing down the watches of the night, praying in the darkness, waiting for morning.

(c) Paul Darroch 2019, 2020

This story is taken from Jersey: Secrets of the Sea by Paul Darroch, which is available on Amazon Kindle for £2.99.