When Germany occupied the Channel Islands during the Second World War, islanders found their lines of communication almost completely severed from relatives in the UK. For a time, they were entirely cut off from the food supplies they relied on.
Fortunately, the Red Cross ship SS Vega sailed to the rescue, bringing much-needed relief and comfort supplies.
Sending supplies between 1942-1944
Supplies cut off
The Vega shipments
A combined effort from the Commonwealth
Appreciation from the islanders
Shipments continue in 1945
Liberation of the Channel Islands
The final journey
At the end of June 1940, German troops occupied Guernsey. A few days later the occupation extended to Jersey and the remaining Channel Islands.
Communications between the UK and islanders was badly affected but did not stop entirely, thanks to the Red Cross postal message system, which operated throughout the war. Those wishing to communicate with friends or relatives on the islands could send ten-word – and, later, 25-word – messages at a cost of six pence a message. They were censored and could only refer to family matters. They went by air mail to Geneva, where they were handled by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Messages could take several months to reach their destination. Despite the length of time, the news they brought was comforting and relieved some anxiety, even brief information such as ‘Family all well’ or ‘Don’t worry’. This service was widely used, with 5,000 messages a month sent from the islands passing through the British Red Cross’ foreign relations department. In Jersey, a total of 235,744 messages were received and answered.
In February 1942, the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross and Order of St John (JWO) sent supplies of medicines, drugs, and medical stores to the Channel Islands. A large consignment was dispatched via the ICRC and reached the islands in June and September 1942.
A further consignment of medical supplies arrived in October and November 1943, based on lists from medical officers in Jersey and Guernsey. In December 1943, 100,000 units of insulin were sent to Guernsey. In July 1944, a supply of vitamin D for all the children of the islands was sent via Geneva.
The foreign relations department even managed to arrange for special individual requirements, such as a surgical boot for an elderly woman, a new truss for a man, special powders for a man who had been badly gassed in the First World War and new equipment for a radiologist. This was how the Red Cross eased the conditions islanders were living in during German occupation.
The Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944 profoundly affected the food and economic situation of the islands. Supplies which had previously been imported from German-occupied France were cut off.
In a memorandum handed by the bailiff to the commander of the German forces on 31 August 1944, Dr R N McKinstry, the medical officer of health, stated of the islanders: “Many are in a very poor condition, so the extra reduction in food values will have a serious consequence for them.”
The British government reminded the German commander that it was the duty of the occupying authority to feed the civilian population. On 12 November, the German authorities allowed the bailiff of Jersey, Alexander M Coutanche, to send a message to the British government giving details of the state of the islands’ supplies.
The Home Office issued a letter on 9 November 1944, proposing that the JWO take definite action to help the islanders. The government would provide facilities for sending food parcels to British civilians on the islands, subject to the same conditions under which parcels were sent to prisoners of war. The ICRC would supervise the supply and distribution of the parcels.
The German government agreed to accept a supply of food to the islands.
The JWO estimated it would need to supply 300,000 food parcels and 10,000 diet supplement parcels (for the ill) to the islands for the first five or six weeks.
The JWO had several ships operating a shuttle service between Lisbon and Marseilles. The government asked the organisation to provide one of their ships to transport the supplies, and the Vega was chosen for the duty. The bailiff of Jersey announced in The Evening Post on Friday 8 December 1944 that: “I am officially informed by the German military authorities that a Red Cross ship was, weather permitting, due to leave Lisbon on Thursday, December 7th, for the Channel Islands. The ship will call at Guernsey first, en route for Jersey.” They were also informed that letters for the Channel Islands’ civilian internees in Germany would be collected by the Red Cross ships.
The Red Cross’ SS Vega left Lisbon on 20 December, carrying food parcels and diet supplies for the ill. She arrived in Guernsey with her life-saving cargo on 27 December and in Jersey on 31 December.
The Vega carried:
- 119,792 standard food parcels
- 4,200 diet supplement parcels for the ill
- 5.2 tons of salt
- four tons of soap
- 96,000 cigarettes
- 37 cwt. medical and surgical supplies (equivalent to 1,850 kg or 3,700 pounds)
- a small quantity of clothing for children and babies.
The food parcels were provided from the British Commonwealth supply stores in Lisbon and included 108,592 Canadian-packed parcels and 11,200 New Zealand-packed parcels. The diet supplement parcels were from British Red Cross stocks in the UK and were dispatched to Lisbon. The salt was a gift from a Portuguese donor. The medical and surgical articles were supplied by the Home Office, with the cost being met by the JWO. The cigarettes were New Zealand brands from stocks in Lisbon and the clothing was supplied through Lady Campbell of the British Embassy in Lisbon.
Two ICRC delegates sailed with the Vega. They unloaded supplies for the people of Jersey at St Helier. Farmers from neighbouring districts volunteered to transport supplies from the pier. Every person received one food parcel every month to each person who had a ration book for 1944.
The JWO, Canadian and New Zealand Red Cross Societies received a message from the bailiff of Jersey expressing heartfelt thanks of the inhabitants: “for the wonderful gifts which arrived on the last day of 1944. Our doctors and medical services rejoice in the relief afforded by the timely arrival of medical supplies and the entire civil population is overjoyed at the thought of the relief represented by the food parcels and other commodities which compose this truly magnificent New Year gift.”
The bailiff of Guernsey wrote to the JWO to convey the grateful thanks of the inhabitants when the first shipment arrived. He said that the parcels had arrived at the most opportune moment.
People also showed their gratitude after the Vega’s first voyage, when a Red Cross fund was opened in Jersey. By October 1945, it had reached the considerable sum of £125,000. The people of Guernsey raised £46,000 for the fund. The letter from the inhabitants that accompanied the cheque explained that they were “trying to show their undying gratitude to the British and Empire Red Cross Societies for the great and timely aid which they had received from them.”
In the February 1945 edition of the Prisoner of War journal, the editor reported that “a letter, written by a Channel Islander interned at Berberach in Germany to her nephew in this country, tells that she was allowed to write to the Channel Islands. The Red Cross ship Vega, which took the first batch of relief supplies to the Channel Islands, carried supplies of POW parcels on several occasions. Among other Red Cross supplies for the Channel Islands which have been earmarked for the future, are 600,000 food parcels, 20,000 invalid diet supplements and further supplies of drugs. These plans will not in any way affect the flow of supplies to POWs in Germany.”
The Vega sailed five more times. In relief voyages between February and April 1945, she brought mixed cargoes of Red Cross parcels and commodities supplied by the British government. The JWO sent a letter to the Home Office on 9 February 1945 stating the items the ship was carrying:
- standard food parcels
- invalid diet supplement parcels
- standard medical unit parcels
- medical and surgical supplies
- educational material
- books and indoor recreations
- out-door games
- soap and toiletries.
On 9 May 1945, the Channel Islands were freed from German occupation. The JWO agreed with the Home Office that the Vega should make one more journey, clearing the cargo lying at Lisbon and already planned for her to load. They had planned a wide-scale distribution of supplies to the semi-starved inhabitants of recently liberated European countries, but the JWO was also able to provide 200,000 standard food parcels and medical parcels to the islands.
On the sixth and final journey on 31 May 1945, the Vega carried:
- 21,232 standard food parcels
- 118 bales of medical supplies (a bale is a bundle used for packaging material; one bale weighed 500 pounds)
- 23 cases of x-ray equipment
- 721.5 tons of flour
- 1.75 tons of yeast
- 38 tons of sugar
- 26 tons of soap
- 1,888 cases of biscuits
- 502 bales of clothing
- 163 bales of boots and shoes
- 155 drums of paraffin
- 71 barrels of diesel oil
- ten cases of honey
- 150 sacks of salt
- two cases of clothing.
In total, the Vega brought the islands 456,264 standard food parcels. The ship also carried 22,200 invalid diet supplement parcels. The food parcels were a combined gift from the JWO and the Dominions Red Cross Societies.
The British government expressed its appreciation of the War Organisation’s services in a letter from the Home Secretary to Lord Chetwode, chairman of the JWO, in May 1945: “Now that the Channel Islands are restored to freedom, I should like to say how grateful I am to the British Red Cross for the splendid work which they have done in sending relief supplies to the Islands.
“I have just returned from a short visit and I obtained first-hand information from the islanders about the improvement in their lot which these supplies brought about, and they expressed their indebtedness to the Red Cross for their generous aid.
“I should be glad if you would convey my thanks to all your officers who have worked so hard to overcome the many difficulties which stood in the way of sending relief to the Islands. I wish that they and all the generous people who have contributed to the gifts could have seen for themselves how deeply grateful the islanders are to the Red Cross for all that you have done for them.”
Read islanders' memories of occupation
See our Second World War photo gallery
Find out what we do in Jersey and Guernsey today
Learn more about the history of emergency transport