TThe soldiers and gendarmes arrived early – so early that some of the people they took away were still wearing pajamas. In the first days of July 1940, barely a week after the armistice, few people expected the first Nazi roundup of enemy aliens on French soil.
Helped by lists carefully drawn up by French mayors, the occupying Germans seized 1,648 men departments from the North and Pas de Calais during these first raids, and the total would continue to reach 3,000 civilians, including women and children.
A typed list of names begins with Abbott, Ambrose and ends with Young, John. In between are Alfred Boot, William Corbett, George Edwards, James Goodman, Harold Hartley, Percy Johnson, Horace Neville, Ralph Powell and many Smiths.
“This is just a forgotten episode in the cycle of war,” said Frédéric Turner, whose grandfather, father and uncle – Frédéric, 43, Frédéric, 19 and Albert, 18 – were all on the list. “But the first Nazi roundup organized in occupied France was by British citizens. “
Turner, now 73, has spent much of the past 17 years investigating the fate of the hundreds of British and Franco-British families who were captured 80 years ago this month and interned for the duration of the war. He has compiled a book of their stories.
“My father and grandfather never talked about it much, if at all,” he said from his living room in Arras, in the north of France. “The first one I really knew was when my father asked me to take him to visit the fortress of Huy, in Belgium, and started to cry. “
Huy, an imposing 19th century fort built on an outcrop overlooking the Meuse, was a relay for most British internees during a trip which took them from the prisons of Arras, Boulogne, Béthune, Dunkirk, Saint-Omer or Valenciennes at a sinister barracks in Lille, then in a detention center in Belgium and Germany.
“Over 800 Britons, all civilians, were detained there,” said Turner, “and they suffered for five weeks. They recovered the remains of the trash cans because there was so little to eat and slept on bare bricks. Outside, on a regular basis, execution platoons executed resistance fighters. “
Turner said his father, still a teenager, was traumatized by the experience. “He has had nightmares about it all his life. In the horror of this war, of course, there has been much worse. But that does not diminish what they have experienced. More than 10% died. ”
As almost all older Britons took hold of this month of July, Turner’s grandfather, Frederick, was a First World War veteran who had chosen to stay behind after the armistice in 1918 or returned soon after. , and then married a French woman.
“He was from Lambeth, not 17 when he volunteered,” said Turner. “Rejected for the first time, then lied about his age; wounded on the Somme but fought in Arras and met my grandmother, Marie Lescieux, just after the war. She lost her first husband in 1915. ”
The couple’s paths crossed as they both worked – he was demobilized, as a civilian cook – at the British army depot in Zeneghem, where mountains of abandoned military equipment were decommissioned or destroyed.
Frederick and Marie settled in his native village, Holque, and took up employment at a nearby tile factory. By the time the war broke out again, he was a manager and the couple had three children. They housed a series of British soldiers and airmen and dozens of refugees fleeing south before Frederick’s arrest on July 12, 1940.
The British gathered in the north of France occupied various jobs: worker, engineer, doctor, chemist, agricultural worker, office clerk, inventory controller, business owner, even priest. After the war, some made their career in British companies based in France. Turner’s father and grandfather worked for BP in Dunkirk.
The writer PG Wodehouse, detained in his villa in the seaside resort of Le Touquet on July 21, was among those arrested. He was transferred to Huy and then to Tost (now Toszek in Poland), where he stayed until June 1941, before being transferred to the Adlon Hotel in Berlin to make five controversial radio broadcasts Nazi.
They were poorly judged accounts, light-hearted and cheerful about his experience, and cast a shadow over his reputation. Being interned was, he said, “in many ways quite enjoyable”; he and his captive companions were in a good mood; he had never met such a happy group and their captors were terribly hospitable.
“It caused a lot of bitterness,” said Turner. “Many of the men he had spent the past 12 months with had heard the shows, and what Wodehouse was describing was really not their experience at all. He forgot to mention the cold, ill-fitting clothes, hunger, depression. Suicide attempts. ”
Wodehouse is pictured in a faded camp photograph wearing round glasses, a scarf and a knitted hat. One of the men by his side is Donald Campbell, born in 1898 in Kirkhill, near Inverness. He worked for the War Graves Commission to look after the Vis-en-Artois cemetery, Haucourt, during his detention on July 14, 1940.
Eighty years later, Campbell’s grandson, Marc, 63, is the mayor of Dury, a small town just south of Amiens. “My grandfather fought in Flanders, returned in 1920 or 21 and met my grandmother Françoise shortly after,” said Campbell, emphasizing him in photographs on Turner’s dining table. “But to be honest, he rarely said much about his two wars. “
Campbell’s father, also Donald, was six years old in 1940 and was allowed to go to his uncle’s house. Donald Sr spent the rest of the war being shunted – with other Britons, including, for a time, Wodehouse – between the sinister Tost internment camps, Kreuzberg (Kluczbork), Giromagny in eastern France and Westertimke, between Bremen and Hamburg.
“He kept some sort of journal,” said Campbell, pulling out a scuffed red notebook. “My mother gave it to me for my 50th birthday. He drew a map of where he was taken from and how – by bus, train, livestock truck. Here: “My travels on the continent, from July 14, 1940 to April 16, 1945 – all at Adolph’s [sic] fresh.’ “
The chirping humor masks what must have been a miserable and deeply troubling period. The internees did their best to keep morale high, organize shows and organize sports tournaments, but despite regular medical visits by the Red Cross, many fell ill and several attempted suicide.
The Germans considered the French wives of internees to be British by marriage; at least one was arrested and detained immediately after her marriage to a Briton specially released for the occasion. Many were detained with their children in another series of camps, ending in Besançon or Vittel in the Vosges.
“The families were allowed to send photos and letters,” said Turner. “A commercial photographer came; everyone dressed in their best jacket and tie, trying to look reassuring. But the first punishment for any crime was the lack of correspondence, inside and out. “
A third descendant, Régis Hammerton, 66, tells how his grandfather Percy, born in 1888, fought in Flanders with his five brothers. Known worldwide, for unclear reasons, like Georges, he met his future wife, Elodie, then on face leave in the small Pas de Calais village of Merck St Liévin, where his parents ran the bakery.
One of the sons of Georges and Élodie, André, the father of Régis, locksmith, enlisted in France and especially escaped capture; another, Fortuné, a butcher’s boy, made his way to England and joined the British army, where his poor English meant he was still known as Frenchie. Only Georges, another employee of War Graves, was interned in July 1940.
“He was not well after,” said Hammerton. “Grandpa wanted to integrate. He liked his Christmas pudding and afternoon tea, but his children had to speak French. He helped a British naval officer flee the front in June, but he was not a hero. None of them were. Just ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, doing what they could. “
When, after five long years, they returned home, freed by American troops in April 1945, the British interned in the north of France “wanted to forget everything [and] pick up their lives, “said Turner. “They very rarely socialized together afterwards. On the contrary, it is us, their descendants – all with our British surnames – who feel the strongest bond. “