Sunday, September 13, 2015


WW2 People's War
An archive of World War Two memories - written by the public,
gathered by the BBC. 

(Contributed to the ICT Suite by Henriette Dodd on 3 September 2004. Civilian Article ID: A2970128.)

This talk is not about the military operations of the second word war, but the memories of the 12 year old girl I was when the war was declared. It consists of four parts:
  • The beginning of the war
  • The evacuation
  • The German occupation
  • The liberation
  • The beginning of the war
During the troubled years of the 30s, my family decided to leave Paris and go and settle in the country. When the war was declared, I lived in the north of France, with my widowed mother who was running a small hotel she had just acquired during the recession.

Chauny is a small provincial town equidistant of Paris and Brussels. The hotel was located behind the railway station and most of our customers were employed by the SNCF, also some seasona1 workers from Belgium. As soon as the war was declared, a regiment of French soldiers was stationed near us, we could witness their high spirits when they came for a drink or a meal. They had complete trust in the virtues of the Maginot Line and were eager to go the front to teach the Germans a lesson.

A small contingent of British soldiers was also stationed in the town, but they did not mingle with the population or talk to us. They obviously were neither hungry or thirsty, none ever came to the cafe. They would buy the odd newspaper or cigarettes at the newsagent's and did not collect their change, they were considered too proud and dignified.

This "guerre des nerfs" or "phoney war," when nothing seemed to happen lasted for some time, the soldiers got restless, they accused the army food to be tempered with bromide to calm them down. They threatened us when we could not offer them a room for the night without production of the permission document.

Food became scarce and some coupons started to be issued. At the Town Hall, raids on stocks of coupons were more frequent, forged coupons appeared on the black market, then we saw and heard German bombers, attacks started. Chauny was targeted for its sail way connection We soon learnt that the Germans had ignored the neutrality of Belgium and through Belgium, laughed at the Maginot Line and invaded the North of France with little resistance from the French Army not prepared for the enemy to come from this direction.

The French Authorities soon organised some sort of evacuation of the civilian population towards the centre of France. The evacuation I together with my mother and grandmother left for an unknown destination towards "safety" leaving all our possessions and our cat behind.
We left by train, others by roads with or without cars, lorry, carts, all being chased and bombed by German planes, the roads became a carnage of civilians running away from the advancing front.

After a long journey, the train stopped at Brive La Gaillarde a small town in the Massif Central. From there, a coach took us to a more rural part of this region.

We had to queue at the Mairie to be told where we could be billeted. The three of us were housed at a large manor where we were allocated two large rooms to share with another six persons, two men, one couple with baby and a very old and sick lady with her 12 year old grand son. One of the rooms would be a dormitory with mattresses on the floor, the other a cooking and eating room.

Two mattresses were immediately pushed together with my mother sleeping on one side, my grandmother on the other and myself safely in the middle. That was going to be the arrangement for the duration. Although the village was in the centre of France, all things seemed to be strange, No bakery shops, no "baguette" but an enormous miche of dark and hard bread which we would have to keep for a week or so and cut in very thin slices. No butcher's shop either but a van visiting the village, selling meat but practically giving away delicacies such as brains, liver, kidneys all so very fresh but "only good for animals or Parisians". The milk had to be collected from the little farm still warm from the cow.

I was dutifully sent to school. I was admitted to the only one class of the school where boys, girls of mixed aged were taught by a lady who had a funny accent and left us from time to time to attend to her other job as a secretary at the Town hall, I made a friend called Solange who taught me how to look after her cows in the fields, we exchanged great secrets about boys, jumping up when a cow called Blanchette escaped in the vineyard and went for the grapes.

The local population was mainly involved with rural activity, having a very low income as cash but living on a healthy diet. Their only cash income was the Parisian who had to buy their own food and the cultivation of tobacco. They had fields of tobacco plants duly supervised by a State inspector who came to count the plants, some of the plants were hidden for private consumption in the most unexpected places. On the radio, after a time, we heard that Paris had been declared "ville ouverte" to the Germans, to "save the beauty of our Capital City" the press said that our new leader, Marechal Petain had signed an armistice. France was to be divided into occupied and unoccupied parts. We had to go back to our home town, we undertook with great apprehension the long return home.

The German occupation
At the demarcation line, we saw for the first time, German uniforms. The soldiers mounted the train and looked at us suspiciously.

My mother and I continued our journey home having left my grandmother a few kilometres from Chauny where she used to live. Once arrived in Chauny, we found our hotel completely occupied by the German army, and we were told that two rooms at the end of the corridor had been reserved for us. We had to live under the same roof during the whole time of the German occupation.

We saw the daily exercises of the German soldiers, using the goose steps and the Hail Hitler sign, as they were marching singing military songs. The cohabitation was bearable due to the good discipline of the occupying forces and the penalty system, should we take our complaints to the Komandantur, as it occurred once or twice, when our "lodgers" broke the rule, stealing some of the goods we had buried -under the floorboards before evacuation.

The German soldiers said to us "We are going to be punished, us, all to Siberia" they were apparently frightened at the idea to face the Russians.

The daily routine of keeping alive between two types of attack took all our energies. The British planes naturally tried to hit Germans and strategic points like railway stations, and our hotel was located just behind the station but also the Germans were often attacked by an unknown quantity, the Maquis. The Resistance was active in occupied France. They occasionally shot a German or two but their main mission was to rescue British pilots, shot down, to hide them, nurse their wounds, and send them back to U K though Free France and Spain.
The French men, too old to be in the army, were sent to Germany to work in factories, my uncle was one of them.

The British planes were active at that time, during the night they would throw flares to illuminate the targets to hit. They used to fly very low and were accurate in their attacks and did not hit the civilians if they could help it.

The food situation was pathetic, we only were allowed 1200 calories a day, very little bread, our usual baker took our bread tickets for the whole month and gave us one baguette a day, a little more than our allocation, then, she was caught for being too generous and her shop closed for two weeks. We were without bread for that time.

We tried to remedy the shortage of meat by breeding rabbits (I used to be sent to pick some grass to feed them every day) and when going to my grandmother for the summer holidays, we had to transport them in a wicker suit case by train. Some people remarked on the fact they could see, the legs of the rabbits protruding though the loose lid of the case.

No coffee but a mixture of chicory which was more a laxative than anything else and at one period, no potatoes were available so I ate carrots at every meal and developed an orange coloured skin which my teachers suspected to be a sign of jaundice. Milk was severely rationed but not skimmed milk. Strangely enough, we were allocated wine and tobacco regularly, yes even women and adolescents. I believe that a third of the French produce had to be directed to Germany or used to feed the occupying forces.

The authorities, conscious of the lack of essentials in the diet of children and teenagers issued vitamin tablets in schools. They had a funny taste, we used to throw them away, so they soon were replaced by vitamin biscuits, those were not thrown away, I had two lots because as well as being a full time pupil at school, I also followed evening courses in office skills. There, the students were mainly office teenagers eager to gain qualifications at those evening classes.

We would eat anything we thought edible, rhubarb leaves were flourishing in this cold climate, the rhubarb sticks could only be used if we had enough sugar to cooked them with, but the leaves were a good replacement for spinach until the press stopped us, saying they contained oxalic acid and should not be eaten.

For three weeks we stayed without salt at all, the food was horrible without it. I still suffer from that period, I always add too much salt while cooking or at the table.
The shortage of textile was also a problem, specially where growing children were concerned. We had a small allocation of coupons but the most ingenious of us would use curtains or blankets to make clothes after they have been dyed a suitable dark colour. Shoes had soles made of wood, the first platform shoes appeared.

After a time, the Germans seemed to become more resentful and aggressive, some French men were arrested without apparent reason, sent to unknown destination or shot without explanation, accused or suspected of being Jews, communists or saboteurs.

We tried to get the BBC messages on the radio but that was forbidden, the messages were in code anyway and fuzzed by the authorities.

The schools became co-ed to save on the number of teachers employed, I did not complain about that but we had no heating and we studied with overcoats and gloves on. Marechal Petain's photograph was exhibited in each class room and we had to sing a school song starting with "Marechal, nous voila".

Suddenly, the Germans vacated our hotel and we could observe masses of German soldiers marching away from the town on national roads. One day a British plane shot at them, as I came back from school, and a German soldier push me in the doorway, I realised he was fainting, he had been hit by the machine gun.

The Liberation
One morning, after an unusually quiet night, not a single German was in sight, but instead, tanks mounted by American soldiers in battle dress paraded the streets.

We were mad with excitement we could not believe we were liberated at last. Two American regiments settled in the town, the population adored them. We soon realised they were not as disciplined as the Germans had been, They were drinking heavily, had the occasional fight with one another and M P Headquarters did not respond very vigorously when on occasions complaints were made against them.

I was 17 by then, and my school friend having taken an active part in the Resistance movement was asked to all parties and celebrations in the town.
PS I accompanied her to dances, parties relishing strange drinks like Coca cola, delicious cakes and we learnt English expressions not included in our school book such as "Hello Baby, honey, take it easy, it is swell" and others. Most girls of my age were very eager to be asked to those parties often held at very elegant country houses. For obvious reasons, we had to be chaperoned by a mature adult, and there was competition for which adult would accompany us, many childless ladies were fighting for our favours.

French men, husbands, sons, brothers gradually came back from hiding or working in Germany. They found things had changed, their wives had run whatever business they had left behind. Napoleon said "England is a nation of shopkeepers" but it was also true of this provincial town.

We witness with some sadness and incomprehension a situation we could not have anticipated in this exciting time. Two American regiments were stationed in the town, the bakery and catering unit was black and the other white. We soon realised they hated one another, so much so that if a girl was known to have attended a "black party", she may not be asked to a white party. Discrimination came to our vocabulary at that time.

Food came back gradually, textile was still short, we painted our legs with dye to imitate the stockings we did not have. The Americans introduced us to corned beef, Nescafe, Coca Cola and nylon stockings. Some women were punished for having collaborated with the Germans, they had to have their heads shaven in public, after which the turban came into fashion.

At school, the picture of Marechal Petain was swiftly replaced by that of General de Gaulle and the patriotic song of "Marechal, nous voila" was changed into "General, nous voila".

The American contingent left, many tears were shed at their departure, some girls joined them later in the hope of getting married, some came back disillusioned and real French life took over in the end.

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