July 1944, the long exodus on the roads of the Orne
During June 1940, he expected the Germans to come from Caen, they arrived from Brittany; during June 1944 he expected the British to come from the North, they arrived from the West. But Pierre Queruel and his family were not there any more, driven out of Villers Bocage by the terrible Allied bombings, then ordered to evacuate by the Germans…Tous les droits de l’auteur des textes et des photographies sont réservés. Toute reproduction ou utilisation des œuvres, autre que privée ou à fin de consultation individuelle sont interdites, sauf autorisation. Traduction de John Barry Stonham, publié avec son aimable autorisation.
Defeat then occupation. We knew they were coming when we saw the refineries burning in Le Havre, we could see the columns of smoke from Villers Bocage. We expected them to come from the Caen road, but they arrived via the lower town road from Brittany, they had encircled all Normandy. Before, we had seen Belgians, British, and also French come through, everybody was fleeing. I have an uncle who arrived from the Ardennes, his captain said to him: “you don’t live far from here, you can go home now!” he lived near Vire, he stayed at home, and was not taken prisoner. The Germans were very smart, impeccable, very disciplined, and they marched in ranks, singing “Heili, heilo !”, they had a lot of equipment, as compared to the French army. They occupied the school, the public baths and buildings. . . The troops lodged in the public buildings, the officers in the people’s homes. Some German officers came to visit the houses with the mayor. Our house had two floors, on the first floor were our bedrooms, the second served as a storage loft, but it was not good enough for them, so they didn’t stay in our house. Next door was the home of an insurance agent, they lodged an officer, and the servant polished his boots. The mayor and the teachers had to look for another place to house the school, like the retirement home, the wedding hall, the town hall or the dispensary . . . we were dispersed. I was at the end of my studies, the mayor proposed to install us in the parish hall; when we arrived, our teacher wanted to take down the crucifix on the wall, the priest refused, so we went elsewhere. The Germans had an iron discipline. On the town square, in the Rat Hall, there was an artillery regiment; they brought out the guns every day to clean them. We were always hanging about. My parents were not germanophile. We listened to the radio, but this was forbidden and the radio sets were confiscated in 1943. Everybody made their own crystal sets, and connected them to the telephones. My dad was a grocer, my mum looked after the shop; my dad worked next door, he made charcoal for the gasogen vehicles as all the trucks ran on gas. During the war the grocery shop was not very lucrative . . . so he worked for a charcoal trader; working with him were two young lads who were called up to work in Germany, and they were in hiding. On the town square, there was a big statue of Richard Lenoir, the Todt enterprise came and brought down the statue, they recuperated the bronze to make guns, one of the workers had his hand crushed by the statue. The resistants blew up a train transporting Germans on leave between Caen and Lisieux, twice, from then on they had to mount the guard on the railway lines. All the local men were requisitioned in turn to mount the guard on the main Paris to Cherbourg railway. Every evening, around seven or eight o’clock a truck picked up the men from the local towns and villages, in turn, with no arms, all under the orders of the Germans. They took some calvados with them and came back all half drunk! There were several resistants six or seven. At the railway station, there was a French station master and also a German station master, at the town hall a French secretary and a German secretary and also a French gendarmerie and a German gendarmerie, everything was doubled; One day, a German officer who worked with the French town hall secretary said : “Madame Marguerite, I am leaving Villers Bocage, I warn you that my replacement may not be so nice as I was !”, this was to warn her to beware as he probably knew that she gave tickets to the resistants. She finished up by being arrested and deported to a concentration camp.
Resistance, deportation, arrests. In our area, we found out afterwards, that the insurance agent, a grain merchant, the town hall secretary, the local squire and the electrician were all part of a resistance network. We even thought that the electrician was a collaborator as he was always hanging about with the Germans, they shot him afterwards. We were wary of everybody. One day, I did something; I stole the pay of a german soldier. The Germans had free time at five o’clock in the evening, they came to the grocer shop, I saw them several times. One day I was wandering around the town with a pal, we saw three or four Germans come out of a shop, we followed them and then one of the soldiers fumbled his pockets and something dropped out; he had lost his German occupier pay packet; We picked it up, and we bought ourselves sweets, some fire crackers and a ferret for game hunting. We went into the countryside and caught some rabbits. We even went hunting in the local chateau’s woods, the guard saw us with his binoculars, and we just had the time to pick up our ferret and run away. My parents never knew all this, me and my pal, who was from a little farm, kept the ferret in a hutch near the rabbit hutches. There were restrictions, in the countryside we had butter, cheese, bread fairly easily, the farmers slaughtered the livestock, we gave our rabbits to the old granny’s who did not have much. On the town square there were some big carts for transporting grain – big wreath carts with huge wheels. We had transformed one into an assault tank; we had clothed it with branches and steel wires and installed a stove pipe as the gun canon. I bought some crow crackers and we put them into the stove pipe and lit up the wicks, it was our “little war”, and this made the Germans laugh. The Villers Chateau lodged the pilots who bombarded England from the Carpiquet aerodrome. They had their drivers, and when they came back from a mission they flew over Villers and their drivers left immediately to collect them at Caen. Once a German plane was shot down by an English fighter and it crashed behind the chateau, we went to see, and we saw the bodies of the German pilots hanging from the trees. In 1943, we watched passing overhead the flying fortresses going to bomb Germany. Once, a fortress, in trouble, returning from it’s mission landed on it’s belly between Villers and Amayé(sur Seulles), the Germans went immediately, but the resistance had the time to pick up the thirteen airmen and hide them in a farm. They wanted to go to Spain. The lads who picked them up were all shot. The Germans dismantled the fortress in small parts and sent them to Villers railway station to be packed into wagons, we were there and they tried to make us believe that it was a German aircraft. The local squire, who had hidden the airmen, was arrested by the Gestapo, his gardener saw them arrive in a black Citroen traction, he tried to warn him but the squire did not listen and was taken away and was never seen again. Our electrician at Villers who was a resistant, sent messages to Bayeux via his young apprentice, only a boy, the messages were hidden in his bikes handlebars, once he even transported a radio emitter from one farm to another without even knowing. One morning in 1943, the Gestapo and some Frenchmen arrested six resistants, they were all shot at Caen prison on D-Day, and their bodies have never been found. The Villers railway station was an important one, and there was also an important livestock market; the town had about 1500 inhabitants, every Wednesday, one or two trains, with livestock, left for the slaughter houses at La Villette in Paris, the Germans served themselves with some of the livestock on the platforms, packed their equipment and left for the Russian front. We watched all this. They did not like the Russians – russki -, their French girlfriends came to see them go at the station entrance. I did not see it, but I think one or two of them had their hair shaved off after the liberation. But, many of them left when the D-Day started and never came back.
Tuesday 6th of June 1944, it’s D-Day, we await the arrival of the British. It was like any other day, except for a distant rumbling sound which woke us all up around six o’clock in the morning, like a continuous thunder. The previous days, we had seen a lot of British planes flying over. But there were no Germans in Villers Bocage. One Sunday, they came and machine gunned our water tower, they transformed it into a skimmer, the water ran all over the place, for nothing, the Germans were elsewhere. At the Clermont-Tonnere Chateau, there were some German engineers in pension; they studied the terrain to install V1 and V2 bases. On D-Day, they were still at Villers Bocage, but they left that very morning; The Chateau squire said to me that when they left he bared them farewell, but they said : “No sir, we will be back soon, we will come with our guns and we will win the war !” We got up as usual to have our breakfast and we went to school for nine o’clock. I had passed my exams eight days beforehand. The school was in the town square within the town hall since 1940; the school buildings themselves between the road to Vire and the road to Aunay sur Odon were occupied by the German army. On the way all was quiet, except for the sound of distant guns, at the town hall our class occupied the wedding hall. There was a lot of excitement at the school everybody talked about the landings on the coast; our master, Mr Lerebourg, gathered us at the foot of the stairs before entering our class, which was on the first floor; He attempted to explain the events in connexion with the sound of guns coming from the coast; some pupils asked if they could recuperate their schoolbags that stayed in the classroom, the master refused, telling us that all would be back to normal within a few days; Alas, later I regretted this, because all our schoolbags were destroyed when the town hall was burnt down ; mine was offered to me by my dad after my exams. So, we were sent back home. In the main road, still quiet, without any military activity, happy to have no school but a bit worried all the same. During the morning, with my friend Paul Boutrois we went to find out any news at Mister Pottier’s house, he was an ex vendor of croissants. Mister Pottier lived on the angle of the Epinay road opposite the Hotel du Vieux Puits which nowadays is the Café de la Liberté, it was also the place Richard Lenoir where we lived then. The D-Day landing was confirmed, so we waited for the arrival of the British troops, looking towards the top of the town’s main road. During the morning some fighter bombers appeared at low altitude, one of them passed just over our heads. We were on the Richard Lenoir place, the plane went towards Villy Bocage, us, being kids thought that it was going to land somewhere in that direction. So instantly with my friend Paul we went towards Villy. No plane to be seen, we went as far as Fains but nothing, without seeing neither English nor Germans, we went back home to Villers to find our worried parents. The afternoon was calm, Dad came back from his work at Saint Louet sur Seulles; He worked on the demolition of an old farmhouse to recover the stones (this farmhouse is still in the same state today as it was on the 6th June 1944); Dad Queruel day worked for people who needed him, doing small jobs: chopping wood, gardening, batelage and making charcoal . . . Mum looked after the shop during the day. And always that rumbling noise coming from the coast. Our parents, being quite worried, gave us recommendations; we were three children, one girl and two boys.
Wednesday 7th of June, bombs on Villers. On Wednesday morning, no school; we all had our breakfast together. Dad went back to work at Mister Lerebourg’s place, my teacher who was expulsed from the school now lived down the Rue Jeanne Bacon in a bungalow. During the morning I went back to see the Pottier’s for more news, from the angle of their house I had a good view up the main street towards Caen as well as downwards towards Vire; we still waited for the British troops to come from up the road; There were a lot of rumours circulating but still no British; During this time, my younger brother André stayed at home sitting near the stove, trembling with fear; there were very few clients at the shop, le Wednesday market not being held. Early afternoon, German soldiers marched up towards the top of the town in single file, all covered in branches; During the afternoon, I was in our back yard at home, when for the first time I saw two planes dropping bombes, instinctively I crouched down covering my head with my arms and ran into the house screaming; a few seconds later, several explosions, it was a terrifying noise; The bombes dropped over our house landed and exploded on the railway station, only 800 meters from our home, what a fright ! A little later Dad came back home from his gardening work; the Lerebourg’s were all very worried. In the evening, around five o’clock, the first German armoured vehicles appeared, coming up the main road towards the grain market hall. They crossed the Richard Lenoir place, and passed just in front of our grocer shop, then went towards the road to Saint Louet sur Seulles. From Wednesday the 7th of June to Saturday the 10th of June we watched these convoys going towards the front. That evening, we had dinner together, Dad talked about making reserves of drinking water and to do some packing, as Mister Lerebourg suggested; there must have been talks about this during the gardening.
Thursday 8th of June, the German casualties. Still the same sound of guns from the coast. Dad stayed at home; the younger brother still frightened to death. During the morning with friend Paul, we went as usual to see mister Pottier, charming people; Afterwards some news, true or false – “the British are at Tilly !” – We went to the railway station to see the damage. The station itself was not destroyed, we advanced towards the platforms direction Aunay sur Odon; Just after the crane, the railway was destroyed, the rails like corkscrews and bomb craters in the ballasts; We saw some German troops walking or on bikes, going towards the front lines, towards Bayeux, with leaves and branches as camouflages. We also saw tracked vehicles, starting off around five o’clock in the evening, they drove during the night, it was quieter. At the beginning of that afternoon, I was at the Richard Lenoir place when a machine gun carrier came down the road and stopped in front of us, they asked us where the hospital was, the officer was very nervous, and we were a bit embarrassed to answer, because Villers didn’t have a hospital, and I didn’t know that the Germans had installed a hospital at the Chateau Clermont Tonnerre since the 6th of June; there were monk surgeons and nurses, who had engaged but did not want to fight; the hospital stayed there nearly for a month. We sent them to the hospice infirmary; the officer asked us to mount and show them the way, it was just nearby. We assisted to the transfer of the two injured, one had a big hole in his thigh. It was the first time I saw a casualty, and I did not want to see any others, I went back home straight away; Dad had brought in the old three wheeled transport bike from the garage in case we had to leave. In the evening another German convoy drove towards Saint Louet.
Friday 9th of June, carnage for the Germans. That day the German activity was more intense, troops marching, or on bikes, and still the rumble of guns. But it was a quiet day. Late afternoon a convoy of four wheeled carts, drawn by horses, past by the shop coming from Saint Louet; they crossed the Saint Lenoir place and went down the main road towards Aunay sur Odon. There was a big German bakery for the sector in the Chateau of Villy Bocage, they must have received the order to retreat behind the lines. In passing, the soldiers gave us signs with their hands saying “war finished!” The convoy was quite important. Perhaps half an hour after that passage, some German soldiers installed on the large pavement in front of the Café Vignot, fired their machine guns towards a plane, without hitting it, as it headed towards the coast. Just afterwards, we heard the noise of machine gun fire southwards, the planes had seen the horse and cart convoy on the road to Aunay, it was a real carnage, some of the horses, frightened and injured came back up the main road as fast as they could gallop, dragging behind them what was left of their carts; the far West in disarray, the horses went back towards Villy; An unforgettable evening. The French were requisitioned to bury what was left on the spot. We wondered what would come of it all, some thought that the British would be there in two days, it was only twenty kilometres to the coast; the Grand Hotel in Villers Bocage had even brought out the Union Jack flag on Wednesday morning, but they then pulled it back in very hurriedly.
Saturday 10th of June, another bombing on Villers, we decided to leave. We felt that the front was approaching, life in the town had come to a complete halt, and everybody stayed at home, to occupy themselves with household tasks. At home, the preparations for the loading up of the transport tricycle were nearly finished (spare linen, coffee, sugar, sheets). I continued to go to the Pottier’s to get some news. The Saturday, around 6 o’clock in the evening, the table was set for supper, like every evening I prepared to fetch the milk at Mister Baucher’s, a grocer shop on the road to Caen at the crossroads of Market Street. Mum had asked me also to get some cider from Mister Vignot, a café owner on the road to Saint Louet. At the moment I arrived at our shop door to go outside into the street, with my four litres in a metal basket, a violent explosion occurred, I turned heels straight away and returned into the kitchen, more explosions came and I saw the windows disintegrate; I saw the dishes on the table, brushed away like straw. I took refuge under the staircase, Mum with my little brother sheltered themselves behind a wall, and my Dad with my sister went behind another wall. Finally the explosions stopped. It was desolation, lots of dust, we inspected the house, the ground floor, then the first floor, no windows left and rocks and stones everywhere; In the street le people started to come outside; I heard a man on the place, who cried out asking for help with spades and pickaxes. With Dad we went towards where the cries came from, it was just behind our house on the road to Saint Louet, now actually at the same level as Mister Meuriot, le road was cut off by an enormous bomb crater. The house belonging to Mister Even, just nearby, was destroyed; the Even children, hidden under the barrels in the cellar were unscathed; They asked for spades and pickaxes to get them out. There was a German Volkswagen, with officers, which had sheltered under a chestnut tree, the tree was hashed up by the shrapnel, they got out covered with dust but unscathed. The Germans came to fill in the crater, as it was the road used to go towards the front at Juvigny sur Seulles and Tilly sur Seulles. After a short time we came back to the house to find Mum, my brother and sister. Dad decided to go and leave Villers to find refuge in the countryside that very evening. We decided to go to and rally the village of Gournay, near Villy Bocage where we had friends. The Saint Louet road was cut off and impracticable, so Dad decided to go to Anctoville, and the village of Biéville where other friends lived. Around eight o’clock with the tricycle transporter, we had left, we took Madame Hardy with us who’s husband was a prisoner in Germany. Another neighbour – Madame Huet a widow – was crying, she knew she could not travel because of her age and was so sorry; we however loved so much this granny; she was taken to the Chateau at Villers, and looked after by the Red Cross. We evacuated via the Rue Saint Martin, a street parallel to the main road which descended the town, direction towards Anctoville via the Villers mill house. We encountered our doctor, very surprised to see us quit Villers. We passed by the Haut de Saint Louet, and a little further along to the right of the plateau, leaflets came down from the sky dropped by an aircraft. The leaflets advised the local inhabitants to leave their homes and take refuge in the countryside, a sign of more bombings to come. During the evening, we had arrived at our friend’s house who welcomed us in their home in Biéville. After dinner, the mattresses were installed in the kitchen which was big enough, it was our first evacuation night, and what a night, in the morning bursts of cannon fire were heard, quite near to the house where we were, a German battery had been installed.
Sunday 11th of June, first stage. The first Sunday gone from our house during evacuation, what a change, we had to reorganise all the meals. During the morning Dad went back to Villers, the day before during the precipitation we forgot to empty the till in the grocery shop, as well as take the jewels, he came back on his bike. The people who had taken us in were lovely, Madame Eugénie and Mister Albert Letouzet, for us they were Eugénie and Albert. Albert was afraid of nothing, he was in the Corps Francs in 1940, he escaped on foot from Belgium to Normandy. He was Dad’s work colleague and friend; Biéville village had about ten homes, including Mister Lejardinier a farmer who was also the mayor of Anctoville.
Monday 12th of June, the British ! Always the sound of guns in the distance, the men dug a trench about four or five meters long to serve as a shelter; it was deep enough and covered with fagots with mud on top. The shelter was at one end of the house in a small apple orchard. In the village, it was quiet except for the shells ripping the air above our heads. The Germans sent a few bursts of shells, the British replied by doubling or multiplying their firing. The famous Albert told us a few things about warfare. The British were at Caumont l’Eventé, Livry, that means at about seven or eight kilometres from us. When we heard their gunfire starting, we immediately went to the shelter.
Tuesday 13th of June, violent combats between the British and Germans. The Tuesday morning, we woke up to good news, somebody announced that the British were on the road to Amayé sur Seulles, at only one kilometre from where we were. Albert and Dad went immediately to Amayé via Fossard. They took some cider, champagne, calvados and some eggs and flowers for the British soldiers. Indeed the British were there at Mister Bisson’s farm on the Caumont – Villers road. Us, the kids had orders to stay with the women at the house. All day there was the sound of canons and machine guns firing, they were fighting near Villers. In the village no British, nor any Germans, we thought we were to be liberated very soon. At Villers, there were still the firemen, the post office, the gendarmes and some inhabitants. The combats had gone on all day; at that moment, if we had gone with the British, we would have been liberated. By the evening on the 13th we slept in the trench, everybody together, it was a real ordeal for everyone, with the uninterrupted noise of the guns.
Wednesday 14th of June, the tanks facing us. Fighting carried on within our sector, after the night inside the trench everybody came back to the house. During the morning Dad and Albert decided to go to Villers despite the shooting; after half an hour, they came back and found themselves face to face with a German tank. A German officer with his gun in his hand, told them to go back, it was impossible to go to Villers, the SS were pushing back the British soldiers. During the evening, four German tanks came to settle right in front of the house. We had watched all their manoeuvring, the soldiers dug a trench in the ground under an apple tree, then they drove their tank over the hole and slept underneath it. No contact with the civilians; That evening the parents decided to sleep in the house; We were asleep when there came a knocking on the door; The Germans wanted to eat and sleep in the house, Albert showed the German everybody sleeping in the house on the kitchen floor, he did not insist and went to look elsewhere.
Thursday 15th of June, in the middle of the battle. So no liberation, the Germans had come back, their tanks went back towards Amayé sur Seulles during that morning; There was fighting around Amayé, the British retreated towards Livry passing via Briquessard, it crackled and banged everywhere. After the midday meal, Mum swept up in front of the house when suddenly a lost bullet came to lodge itself just above her head on the wooden door. We missed out on the liberation, seeing the British fold back we should have gone with them; We stayed with our friend Albert, we didn’t occupy the trench any more, but sometimes the Germans used it. Life went on, the men went off to get provisions; they went to get the bread from the farm at the Chateau of Amayé via the fields to Mister Piquenard’s home where he made bread in an old oven. The women stayed at the house, as did the children. Luckily, there were the chickens, the rabbits and the garden vegetables to feed everybody. The last week of June, still with the noise of the guns, we paid attention where it came from, but most of the time it passed over our heads. From time to time there were duels in the sky, “very interesting” entertainments, real aces those pilots. The Germans installed telephone lines through the fields and the hollow lanes, nothing good for us.
Friday 30th of June, the apocalypse at Villers. Clouds of smoke hung above Villers. In the village, on the other side of the road, Madame Costard was alone in her house, a small farmhouse. At the end of the courtyard, a little cottage was empty; very kindly, Madame Costard offered us the cottage. We immediately accepted and we moved in, this liberated somewhat Albert’s home. Madame Hardy came with us. The move wasn’t complicated, with the tricycle transporter and some cooking utensils. Everything was done in the fireplace, Madame Costard was a good Norman granny with her long skirt, her apron and her woollen cap. Every morning she made us pancakes for breakfast, we called it the 10 o’clock; how good they were her pancakes. A cloud of smoke stayed permanently above Villers and our house, was the grocer shop destroyed ? Dad had decided to go and see with Albert, I went with them, everything was quiet, at Haut Saint Louet, up the hill, a destroyed German tank, at the Villers Mill house around the bends, a soldier half buried covered in earth but his head and feet were above the ground. In the field behind, an aircraft was broken in half, the engine in the ditch and the wings and fuselage further down in the field, it was an American plane, and its pilot had been buried. As we arrived in Villers we encountered lots of debris of all sorts, British and Germans under a pile of stones. Our house was completely destroyed, all there was left was half a wall, and within the ruins our cat was still there, and alive. But it was impossible to approach her as she had become wild, I came sadly back to Anctoville without our cat.
Tuesday 4th of July, our first British soldiers are prisoners. We were nicely installed in our little cottage, without much comfort, but carefree, during the morning, all hell was let loose, the courtyard was invaded by the Germans who arrived from the main village of Anctoville, their machine-gun carrier had advanced up to Madame Costard’s front door. Four British soldiers got down from the armoured car, they were prisoners. From the back of the courtyard, we watched without approaching. The Germans searched the British soldiers, and did an inventory of their rucksacks, for about half an hour the British soldiers stayed in the courtyard being guarded by the German sentries. The British soldiers looked towards us now and again. These were the first British soldiers that I had ever seen, and they were prisoners. The Germans then locked up their prisoners inside Madame Costard’s cellar, with two guards beside the door. During the afternoon a truck came and took away our unfortunate English soldiers. We were very close to the front line, one morning in the courtyard we found a British beret, perhaps left there during a night patrol. And we were still hearing the same noise of the guns. We stayed eight days in the little cottage.
Thursday 6th of July, the Germans block the road. We started to get used to this war. That morning, Dad and Albert decided to go back to Villers, I was not invited this time. When Dad returned, he told us all about what happened. When they arrived at Villers, they found themselves under shellfire near the hospice, they sheltered themselves in a field behind the hospice (nowadays the sports stadium), they then went down towards the woods of Ecanet, where there were many German soldiers who repelled them away across the fields towards the Villers mill house, then they came back to Anctoville in the afternoon, saying that they wouldn’t go back again.
Friday 7th of July, a new evacuation order. I had noted that it was always on a Saturday that we had to leave. During the day on the 7th July, the Germans gave the order to evacuate all the civilians. Departure on the Saturday 8th July, we repacked the tricycle transporter, madame Hardy pushed a wheelbarrow, I was on the bike with all sorts of packages: shoes and various clothes. I wore as always the same brown corduroy shorts since the 6th June. The farmers prepared their big cart, Dad gave a box of sheets to Mister Lejardinier who proposed to take them on in exchange for a little sugar (we only had about twenty grams of powdered sugar); all these preparations were done the Friday afternoon. Saturday 8th July, off to the roads, on Saturday morning, everyone was assembled in the village of Biéville. The farmers with their carts loaded with all sorts of materials, the mules attached with the chickens. All the cattle stayed behind, except for the horses and donkeys which were used to pull the carts. Our friend Albert used a donkey to pull a little cart. The departure was to take place early in the morning, the route was drawn out by the German army and had to be respected. We were going up the hill towards Amayé sur Seulles after leaving Biéville. Barely a kilometre after the departure, at the intersection of Mister Barral’s farm, sudden artillery fire made everybody jump into the ditches at the side of the road on their bellies, the shells were falling upon Amayé sur Seulles and we were to go through that village to join the Caumont – Villers road ; we had to take a short cut to avoid Amayé. We traversed the Caumont road towards Tracy Bocage, then towards Maisoncelles Pelvey, we traversed the main Vire road to the village called La Poste. While in the village of La Poste, right in the middle of the crossroads an incident occurred, one of the carts had broken a spar, we had to clear away the cart, everybody was stopped for a quarter of an hour. Then to Maisoncelles Pelvey, up the hill to Bellisent and left to Longvillers then to the mill at La Capelle, we followed the Odon river valley, there were Germans everywhere in the woods. On the Aunay sur Odon – Caen road we went up towards Le Mesnil au Grain then to Courvaudon, and the plateau of Bonnemaison. Another incident, we were passed by some big German tanks who were going towards the front lines; one of Mister Piquenard’s horses was hooked by one of the tanks, the horse got a broken leg, they had to shoot him; he was replaced by a reserve horse. Above us, the double fuselaged planes (Mosquito fighters) reeled about in the sky. The planes were terribly effective, but seemed not to dare attack a refugee column near the tanks. Mister Lejardinier told Dad that he could not transport our laundry case any more, so he plonked it in a field on the spot. A good thing that there were still some good people with us, Mister Piquenard proposed to take it on his cart. Mum and Dad pushed the tricycle with Jacqueline and André, I pushed the bike. We traversed the Aunay – Thury Harcourt road. We passed through Valcongrain, Cauville, Saint Pierre la Vieille, and we descended towards Pontecoulant. We passed by some burnt out German trucks, the black bodies of the soldiers, were shrunken, carbonised, and their bones were yellow. It was frightful to look at, the trucks were still fuming. At Pontecoulant we continued towards Saint Germain du Crioult where a halt to have a meal was arranged. Around five o’clock we arrived at Saint Germain, everything was organised, the meals and the sleeping bags, we were in a big farm, we slept in a barn on the straw, everybody side by side, we did not sleep much.
Sunday 9th of July, at last we sleep in real bed. The weather was fine, everybody was outside, coffee, wash at the water pump; then, the whole column was off again towards Saint Pierre d’Entremont, it was a refugee transit centre, there were several of them. At Saint Pierre d’Entremont we left the column, Mister Piquenard gave us our laundry case. A few kilometres from there, was a small village: Clairefougère; we were born here, the parents were married, and my Mums brother lived in a farm. Our friend Albert and Madame Hardy came with us, we would find them accommodation somehow. Uncle Pierre and Irène were surprised to see us arrive, they also were worried about us, they asked a lot of questions about the D-Day landings. It is a big house, an oasis of peace and quiet, no canons and no machine guns firing, not even a plane in the sky. In the evening, we slept in a bed for the first time since the tenth of June, afterwards a good bowl of soup and a good dinner at the big farm table, Madame Hardy stayed with us, our friend Albert and Eugénie were in a small cottage next to the farmhouse.
Monday 10th of July, a quiet week. We savoured being back to a normal life at the farm, everybody was occupied with the daily farming tasks: the chickens and the rabbits to look after, was the job for the children. The adults did all the hard work. The farm was surrounded by an apple yard, the farm was situated in a small valley where flowed a river, and the main house was about 300 meters from the river, the washing was done on the riverside. In a wheat field above, a German fighter plane had made a forced landing, it had crashed on it’s belly, we went to see it. There was no military activity around us, the first week at our uncle and aunt’s house went very quietly. The men went fishing trout in the river; Dad had made some nets for fishing. A net with two sticks to search in and around the holes in the river, one day they brought back thirty five trout. No restrictions for the meals, I loved the smoked ham, which we unhooked from within the chimney.
Saturday 22nd of July, new departure. First week at Clairefougère, we did not have much news from the front in Normandy. The second week was more agitated, and other refugees arrived at the farm, my Mums sister with her husband and their two daughters; they came in a cart with a cow attached behind, she gave milk for the children. Our farm staff was growing, those people came from a small community called Pierres, situated between Vire and Vassy, that meant that the front line was approaching. We started to hear the rumble of guns again in the distance. The order for the evacuation from Clairefougères came, departure for the 22nd July. Decidedly Saturday was appropriate for evacuations. We again started to prepare our baggage. At the farm, we attached the horse to the cart loaded with mattresses. The tricycle was reloaded, it was a fine day, and we started off towards the south. We went towards Flers via the lanes. We were all in family, nearly all our family lived in the Orne department. We passed through Flers at midday, we had seen very few Germans. After Flers we took the road towards La Ferté Macé. On this route was the town of Messei, where another aunt lived and who held a bakery, a sister of my mother from the Turmel family. In the middle of the afternoon we arrived in Messei, we had left the column of refugees to be welcomed by the Turmel family. Unfortunately, the aunt could not take in all of us, which was composed of two wheat carts, plus auntie Louise’s cow which she would not abandon. After a good snack and projects discussed to be able to establish the program to follow, Edmond Turmel indicated a farm near Messei where we could stop.
Sunday 23rd of July, an American flying fortress crashes before us. There were some refugees who left for the countryside and found themselves next to German convoys. We had spent the night at the farm, in the outhouse. Now the gunfire approached closer, the aviation flew overhead non-stop, and the anti-aircraft guns fired incessantly. Around midday, a wave of bombers passed above the farm, the AA defences fired intensively and one of the bombers was hit. We saw it quit its formation, smoke came out of its rear end, and straight away we saw five or six parachutes open. The aircraft descended slowly, it passed over our heads, with a terrifying noise, the German soldiers, somewhat distraught, ran about not seeing a barbed wire fence, they fell down with their all equipment. The bomber flew around in circles, the pilots were looking for a place to crash land. They passed over head again even lower, a big grey mass falling towards us. Everybody was terrified, the animals, the horses, who were held by our uncles, I had never been so afraid. Anyway the bomber crash landed further away in a field, we have always thought that the pilots were trying to avoid the habitations. The shock was terrible, the aircraft was full of bombes. Immediately, on the road the German motorbikes looked for the American parachutes. After all that excitement everybody tried to get together again, that day we stayed on the spot. At the end of the afternoon, we walked back to the aunt’s place at Messei, the conversation spoke only about the famous bomber, some went to see, and there was a huge crater.
Monday 24th of July, provisions from the farms. Another departure towards the south, towards Briouze, the more we went south the more the gunfire was intense, the family stayed together, we were mixed up with unknown refugees. The fighter plane activity was intense. Two meals a day, one in the morning, the other in the evening; we looked for our food in the farms, potatoes and eggs, it was usually given free. We slept in the carts, during the night it was a permanent firework show with the flares, no way to sleep.
Tuesday 25th of July, The German rifle. That night, we had stopped out in the countryside in an apple yard, the carts were parked along a hedge. The aunt’s cow was still with us to give us some milk. That morning, some British fighter aircraft flew around our camp, another fright to come, especially as the Germans were everywhere. Rapidly, Albert and Dad asked for some white sheets, and some towels, anything, and we went into the middle of the meadow to wave them like white flags, to show that we were civilians. The planes went over an over us again then finally went away dipping their wings left and right ; that initiative might have avoided us a strafing.; we had found out afterwards, that the fighters had to finish off their ammunition before returning to their base. After this incident we prepared our departure. That day, had a little anecdote : in one of the apple trees there was a German rifle stuck on a branch, perhaps forgotten by a soldier during a raid; as he passed by, Dad took the rifle and hid it in the tricycle case inside the linen; that famous rifle went all the way back to Villers Bocage. That was something that could have got us all shot ! I never found out what happened to it afterwards. As always via the lanes we approached Mesnil de Briouze, as we had left around midday, we had travelled very few kilometres that afternoon. In the evening, we installed ourselves at a farm, we slept in a barn under a tin roof.
Thursday 27th of July, we are liberated by the Americans. That morning, there was violent artillery firing in our sector, it lasted all morning. The shrapnel fell onto the tin roof of the barn. One of my uncles protected himself under his mattress. Our aunt stayed outside with her cow, her two daughters sheltering nearby inside an empty barrel, as the lid had been taken off. Auntie Louise was capable of getting herself killed for her cow. The artillery firing went quiet around midday, someone told us that the Americans were nearby, we had left the British in the Calvados to find the Americans in the Orne. In fact, by the end of the afternoon, we came down a path through a meadow, and not far away from us there were some American soldiers along a road ditch, every soldier was in a slit trench, and so we were liberated. The first ever chewing gums for the kids and cigarettes for the adults. The next day, we came back to the meadow where the Americans were, while the parents prepared our return home. We had been liberated at Mesnil de Briouze by the American infantry, the Germans were trying to escape the Falaise pocket.
Saturday 29th of July, the piano under the apple trees. During our return, we stopped at our uncle and aunt’s at Messei, who by the way had never evacuated. After the little halt at Messei, we returned to Clairefougère, still with the carts and the cow. Before arriving at Flers, just by the railway crossing, on the Granville to Paris line, we encountered some people from Villers, the Pottier family, our neighbours from the Richard Lenoir place where I always went to get some news with my pal Paul Boutrois. During the evening we had arrived back to the Clairfougère farm, our friend Albert and his family returned to their nearby cottage. The cottage was almost transformed into a bunker, the shutters closed with fagots between the blinds and the windows, the kitchen in disorder, looked like a precipitated departure, the occupation army had come by there. In the orchard there was abandoned equipment, a piano almost new was there sitting under an apple tree. The uncle and aunt with the cow, stayed at Clairfougère for that night, to go back the next day to their home in Pierres.
Sunday 30th of July, the war debris. Sunday, big clean up, all the farmers of the community came back one after the other and started to look for their livestock. Life came back into the farms, for the environment there was a lot to do. In the field just above our farm a German artillery battery was stationed, we found the accessories belonging to the guns, cases of ammunition, shell casings, shells, and empty shell boxes. This explained a precipitated departure, the farm served as a shelter for the officers. No mine on the farm or in the area. Nearby was the Paris – Granville railway line, the American army was already repairing it. Life resumes at Villers Bocage. And the days went by, one morning we heard the sound of music coming from the road, we went straight away to that direction. Surprise, a group of British soldiers, bagpipes in the lead, marched slowly going towards a small nearby valley. They were there to do some rifle shooting exercises. And they went back playing their music, we were entitled to this divertissement for several days. At the end of the week, our friend Albert decided to go back to Anctoville as a forward scout. Madame Hardy went with them. We all stayed at the farm. We also had another aunt who lived in a farm at Montsecret a few kilometres from Clairefougère. Now and again we went to see her taking a short cut over the fields, and over the railway. On the railway line, there were American soldiers, we went to see them to obtain some chewing gum and cigarettes for Dad. The Americans were very generous, much more than the British. We also brought back bread and white rice. The first train convoys later on were full of German prisoners in open air wagons. At Montsecret station, the train slowed down, a good occasion for us to throw stones at the prisoners. At our aunt’s place in Montsecret there was a British regiment of artillery stationed at the farm, the big guns under the apple trees with their tractors. I knew this farm well because I spent my holidays here between 1940 and 1944. My aunt was alone at the farm because her husband had been taken prisoner. The work at the farm, for us the kids, was apple picking, every morning. The piano (in the apple yard) was our scapegoat, poor old thing, completely dislocated it was. The days went by, it was summer in the country. Then Dad decided to go back to Villers with the tricycle, I was to join him, Mum, stayed at the farm with my sister and brother. We left one morning, going via Moncy, Vassy, Danvou la Ferrière, Aunay sur Odon and Villers ; except for a few British soldiers, we did not see anyone on the road. By evening we had reached Anctoville, our friend Albert took us in. Most of the farmers had returned. The next day, we left the tricycle at Anctoville in our cottage at Mister Costard’s, and we started out early for Villers, our town was in ruines, only a few houses were still habitable, near the station and in the Rue Jeanne Bacon. We went to see our house, a mound of stones, afterwards we went to see our garden which was near the station, we past by Mister Robine’s house (the actual emplacement of Champion, (super market replaced recently by Carrefour). In the pathway towards the garden we found mattresses, kitchen utensils and other materiel, a sort of outdoor military camp. We recuperated some copper saucepans that we hid in the garden; but when we came back later, the saucepans had disappeared, the war was a good opportunity for robbers. After the visit to our garden – we went back into town, to see Mister Dublet, a house which still exists today opposite the old aged persons home. Mister Doublet who was mayor, had installed a sort of office in his cellar to receive the war disaster victims, and we registered ourselves as such. Around nine o’clock, we had to return to Clairefougère, on foot. Dad thought that we should do about 5 kilometres per hour, a prognosis planned between Villers and Aunay. We passed through Aunay, the town was completely destroyed, the only thing left standing was the church spire in the middle of the ruins. After, we went through Danvou la Ferrière, the village wasn’t destroyed, nobody on the road except a few military vehicles. Some places were marked by white ribbons which indicated that there were mines. We walked only on the road, and avoided even the verges. Around two o’clock, we stopped for a lunch, we were at the Chanatée crossroads near Estry, installed in a ditch where some British soldiers had stayed, as they had left some materiel, I recovered two canvas ammunition bandoliers and a briefcase. I still have one of the bandoliers in my cellar. After our lunch, direction to Vassy, a long way; I started to have sore feet, I took off my shoes and covered my feet with rags to protect the sores. The kilometre average diminished, on the plateau before Vassy, we found some British tanks all burnt out, after a quick inspection, we found that the bodies of the drivers were still in their seats. Five or six kilometres before Vassy, a cow cart pulled by a horse passed us then stopped, the farmer offered us a lift to Vassy, he didn’t have to repeat it twice. Vassy, a town not destroyed, the farmer dropped us off, he was taking another direction than ours. By foot we progressed towards Moncy, it was the end of the afternoon at Moncy, we carried on across field and via sunken lanes to arrive at Clairefougère completely exhausted. We stayed for a few more days at Clairefougères, enough time to organise our return. The aunt at Montsecret proposed us a horse and cart to go back home in. The family gave us some household utensils, as well as some bedding. So one morning, the cart was hitched up with its load and all our family left Clairefougère to return to Villers. My brother took the horses reins, it was a bit of an adventure. The journey went very well, we had a very courageous and docile horse. We took the same route: Moncy – Vassy – Danvou la Ferrière, mid afternoon we arrived at Aunay sur Odon in the middle of a British convoy. One of the soldiers of the military police stopped us, we had to wait until the convoy finished coming through the town. In addition, the military gave us a fine, because we had cut the convoy, we have always thought that he had defrauded us for money that he’d put in his own pocket. The journey stopped at Anctoville, at Biéville village, we took possession of our little cottage in Madame Costard’s courtyard. The next day, the horse had a well deserved meal. Then Dad went back to Clairefougère with the empty horse and cart to take it back to Aunty Denise. For us kids, the holidays continued, for the parents everything had to be reorganised. We often went to Villers, the first job was to clear up the rubble of the house, we recovered some plates, otherwise nothing. But we were all alive, and that was the main thing. We still also had the garage, route de Saint Louet, inside, was our car, a Citroen B2 which hadn’t been driven for four years. In front of the garage there was a pile of rubble stopping us to open it. We had to clear up the entrance with spades and pickaxes. Then with a horse we towed out the car passing over the rubble. The horse hitched in front of the car took it back to Anctoville, into Madame Costard’s courtyard. We had the intention to get it going again. After a good revision on the spark plugs and magneto, and much trying to push start by hand, we finally succeeded. First trip was to Caumont l’Eventé to do some shopping; Caumont did not suffer any bombings and there were a few shops open. The market at Villers seemed to start up again. All the inhabitants of Villers lived in the surrounding countryside. There were a few habitable houses near the railway station and in the Rue Jeanne Bacon. The grocery Laumonier installed itself within the Riviere factory; the bakers were in the countryside, they made the bread within the farm ovens. The problem to supply everybody was the most difficult task to resolve. One day at Anctoville, the parents received the visit of a representative from Caiffa who announced the arrival of a merchant truck within a few days. The truck was to come from Paris with food, kitchen equipment, hosiery and premiums. On market day, the parents installed their goods on the pavement opposite Mister Triboullard’s house; Later, with some recovered wood taken within the rubble, Dad made up a small makeshift shop inside Madame Tribouillard’s garden on the edge of the road. In the beginning we came to the market with the tricycle, only on the Wednesday morning, afterwards it was with the Citroen B2 on Wednesday and Saturday morning; everything was selling, we the kids, made shoelaces with British telephone wire, and also some little lamps. The administrations were back in place, the poste office at the Queue du Renard manor (Tracy Bocage), the gendarmerie was at Epinay sur Odon, the town hall in Villers Bocage at Mister Doublet’s, the doctors at the chateau with the hospice. There were some cases of typhoid caused by the water being polluted, and scabies spread amongst the children. I was infected the first, after my sister then my young brother, every day we had to drink a strong herbal tea made with dock root, not very effective. Afterwards we endured baths in a sulphur potion, completely nude in a tub, which was a treatment more effective, the war wasn’t finished, now and again there were columns of Americain convoys going through the road to Amayé, GMC’s with trailors, driven by black soldiers; the bridge on the Seulline had a job to resist with all that traffic. In January 1945, the school reopened with two classes in Villers and one in Epinay. Anctoville – Villers by foot every morning, with the billy can to be heated up at midday on the stove, and back home in the evening still by foot. When there was snow we left a little earlier in the afternoon. The classes, two barrack huts installed in a field belonging to Mister Bernouin, nowadays, the Richard Lenoir hall. Life came gradually back to normal. The Courriers Normands (local bus service) were installed on the Richard Lenoir place in a barrack hut. Mister Fessard lived there just opposite our old grocer shop; he had, by the way, adopted our little cat, a survivor of the bombing; She had lived in the rubble of our house during all these events; The first Christmas after the liberation was quite a sad one, the end of the war was approaching. We still had ration tickets, we got our bread from Haut de Saint Louet, at Mister Raoul Hebert’s farm where the baker Mister Fleury was established. Every evening, I went to fetch the milk at Madame Costard’s farm, her husband was still a prisoner in Germany.
The 8th of May 1945, the end of the war. The 8th May 1945, was the capitulation of Germany, a great joy for everyone, the evening in the village of Biéville, there was a party. Fires of joy, dancing to accordion music until the early morning, joy that we could not describe. The party continued the next day in Anctoville. Afterwards, there was the wait for the return of the prisoners and deportees; At Villers, only one deportee came back out of the six arrested, this was Madame Marguerite, the Villers town hall secretary, she survived for only one year. At Villers Bocage, there was a prison camp for Germans, it was them who de- mined the area. There were several accidents. Other than looking after his shop, Dad worked on the clearing up of rubble for individual people in the town (especially clearing up to recover peoples safes). Then we left our dwelling in Biéville to move to another house in Haut Saint Louet, a house which was owned by Mister Philips (tricoterie). That brought us one kilometre nearer to Villers. We had to resettle in, the house was bigger, kitchen, bedroom and cellar, plus a large loft. We met our new neighbours, Mister Tanquerel was the nearest. A little further away, the farm of André Pierre and Madame Leonard where we took the milk. We had tried to improve the habitat, it was a house that had been unoccupied for a long time. We papered the walls of the bedroom with British military maps, it was the fashion of the moment, finding no better, the glue was made with flour. Then one day Mum got sunstroke, the doctor Dary arrived from the chateau, medication and isolation in a dark room; I went to Caumont l’Eventé by bike to fetch the medication from the nearest chemist shop. At Villers a semblance of life came back. Some commercial huts were installed in the fields around the destroyed town (actually Rue Auguste Briard and on the boulevard going towards the station) One had to be registered at the town hall for the retribution of ten barrack huts (the old German showers) behind Mister Riviere’s factory. These were the first barrack huts built in Villers. The school year ended, I left school. Mister Lerebourg, the teacher, and Me. Levesque the solicitor came to see Dad, I was there. Their visit was to ask if I agreed going to work for Me. Levesque. My father refused, sustaining that I had to learn a manual job. The summer of 1945 was spent at Haut Saint Louet. Villers organised itself, with the cattle market at the place de la Gare. The Ozenne bakery built an Isba hut (all of wood) in Russian style, just next door to Mister Lecomte, actually (a beer dealer, on the site of the old patronage). Next door to Mister Ozenne was a provisional church made of a Roodney (a half barrel building of the British Army). All this was on the boulevard Joffre. Other commercial barrack huts were built in a field between the railway station and the old market place, actually Rue Auguste Briard. A large complex of wooden barrack huts were built in a field on the road to Caen, opposite the calvaire, actually the Jerusalem housing allotment, the complex was built for the workers of the Oncor (National Organisation of Cantonments for the Reconstruction Workers). The barrack huts were built by the government, like the canteens, the party hall etc., . . Later, these barrack huts were used as summer camps for the “little Parisians”. During the holidays, now and again, I worked at Mister Leonard’s farm, for small jobs. And during the holidays, Mister Lerebourg looked after my case, at the beginning of the school year I was to go to a school in Douvres la Deliverande, an apprentice centre for manual work. The day before my departure, I was invited to eat at Mister Pierre’s farm, Antoinette was thrilled. Then it was time to leave for Douvres with Dad, on the bikes frame, the same famous bike that did the evacuation. Forty kilometres on the frames top tube, with my wooden suitcase on the luggage rack. Dad dropped me off at the school, and went straight back to Villers, an unforgettable souvenir, the first time I left home. I didn’t go back home before the All Saints Day holidays.