AN Islander who is soon to turn 100 has shared the never-before-told story of his attempt to steal a boat and join the D-Day landings during the Occupation.
Born on 12 May 1923 in Brighton Road, Richard Ahier is due to celebrate his centenary three days after the 78th anniversary of Jersey’s liberation from German Occupation.
‘We thought it was a good idea at the time,’ Mr Ahier said, of their failed attempt to get to France to help with the war effort.
Whether it’s the lens of time, nostalgia, or history, what we might call ‘courageous’, Mr Ahier refers to as ‘rather a cringing situation when you look back on it’.
And more than that, it cost him seven months as a political prisoner.
When the Germans first arrived in June 1940, Mr Ahier was 16. ‘It was rather exciting, in a way,’ he said. ‘We were out and about, and we had a look at them, and they spoke to us. I probably should have ignored them, but I was a boy, what more is there to say. I was a townie, I was young and fit, and I liked to get out and mix crowds where I could.’
At the time, his older brothers – one in the navy and one in the army – were off fighting for their country. Mr Ahier, meanwhile, was an ‘errand boy’, as his registration card identified him.
The chance to serve presented itself in the summer of 1944, when the Allied Forces launched their D-Day landings in Normandy, what came to be known as the largest seaborne invasion in history.
With some friends, he hatched a plan – a ‘stupid’ plan, Mr Ahier said.
‘We thought “we’re brave young men, we’re going to beat the Germans aren’t we?” And because you’re young and you’re stupid, you do all sorts of funny things.
‘We were hoping to get to France. We had heard of one or two people who did get to France that way, and they had just started the D-Day landings in the summer. We wanted to join them.
‘The coast of Normandy was only 15 or 16 miles away. If you knew the tides, which we all did at the time, and if you could get a boat to the sea, you could practically drift over there.’
He added: ‘There were four of us who had the idea. One of us worked for the Germans driving a German lorry. It was clever, eh? We used the German lorry, went to St Aubin’s, opened the boat shed at St Aubin’s Harbour, took the boat, drove it back to town and put it in a garage in Langley Avenue.’
Their minds, however, were far ahead of the practicalities.
‘How are we going to get a boat, the oars, the engine, the petrol, from Langley Avenue to the beach, through the nightguards?’ he asks.
The answer: ‘Not a clue.’
‘We had barely got to the beach and were towing the boat down, when there come the Germans behind us, guns out, all ready to shoot.
‘We had heard about someone who was unfortunately shot for trying to escape, weeks before this. He got the boat out, but the engine packed up, and they came back to shore. The shore patrol saw these people on the boat and opened fire and shot the young fellow. It was part of life, that’s what happened during the Occupation.’
Mr Ahier and his friends avoided a fatal ending – but they were court-martialled before the Kommandant.
‘It wasn’t as though I had committed murder, so I wasn’t as terrified as I should have been. I think they realised how stupid it was as well.’
In November, he was sentenced to nine months in Newgate Street prison for ‘a serious charge of robbery and a prohibited attempt to leave the Island of Jersey,’ according to a letter from the Attorney General to the Viscount.
Three others received nine months, while the fifth received six months for ‘unauthorised use of a motor vehicle’ – the German lorry.
Mr Ahier does not remember much from his time in prison, other than it could have been longer. His sentence was due to finish on 15 July 1945, but the end of the war saw him released early.
‘Liberation saved me a couple of months,’ he said.
‘It was very exciting to come out of that prison and see all the troops arriving and the way all of their boats were parked in St Aubin’s Bay. The doors opened, and all the vehicles came out onto the beach, the men, all of these DUKWs coming in to land with people on board. It was magic.’
On Liberation Day, there was money to be made – as well as memories.
‘We had a good scrounge around to see if we could find anything interesting. A few Americans landed, and they were always after souvenirs, and they wanted German souvenirs. If we could find something German and flog it to them, we could get some money. But I couldn’t find anything that they were interested in.’
After the Liberation
After the Liberation, he volunteered to serve with the army – the more typical way this time – and drove tanks with the Enniskillen Dragoon Guards in the Korean War from 1947-1953. But the boyhood excitement had worn off by now and he describes that experience as ‘terrible’.
‘The Korean War was a rough war, and when I got there most of the fighting was over. The land was shattered and bomb-shelled. It was a proper war-torn country.’
When Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, he was at a demobbing centre in the UK.
He married his wife, Brenda, in 1956 and eventually pursued a career in hospitality from the 1960s until retirement, where he worked for the Watney’s Red Barrel and Randalls, installing and providing maintenance on kegs at hotels and pubs.
While his Occupation-time escapade failed and cost him time as a political prisoner, he said: ‘If we had got to France, I would have joined the forces.’
Pauline Hamon, Mr Ahier’s daughter, said: ‘I’m certainly proud of him for trying.’