Since April 20th, 1944 and the weeks following,
our region, and our village of Merville, was bombed by the Allies. The dead
and destroyed houses multiplied, and my mother, Mrs. Lechevalier, having fear
for her acquaintances and family, two small boys, 5 year old Christopher and
3 year old Foucald, their mother, and her own son Noel and I, Arlette, decided
to leave Merville and move all of us into an underground shelter at Breville.
This shelter was part of a beautiful and old house that was the family property
of our grand parents Gautier-Leveque.
After one week of being there, events became
more and more serious. On the coast, bombing continued repeatedly at the city
of Le Havre. German troops came in reinforcement, and, after the brief visit
of a German Officer, our house became a primary military encampment. We had
nothing to say about this - they occupied all the principal rooms and the
left wing of the house. We had only the right wing to remain in and to see
each day the destruction of our property. I sadly remember my grandma's old,
beautiful, and large Normand wardrobe that was converted into a doghouse.
And our small, beautiful old kids' beds that were broken up and used to fuel
the Germans' enormous watchfire.
This unbearable and destructive cohabitation
had to durate through the last two weeks of May, prior to the night of June
5th and 6th of 1944, and it showed us each day that something big was about
to happen. The troops' activities increased - they were digging trenches in
the kitchen garden, making shelters in the woods behind the house in which
artillery pieces were then placed, while filling small ditches with crates
The last week prior to the invasion, we
had received the order to always remain inside the house, and to close the
shutters - we were to remain unseen. It was the massive and noisy arrival
of an elite German corps and SS officers, and also the honor guards of Field
Marshall Erwin Rommel.
It is, thus, behind these shutters that we saw, in the main entry to our garden,
this field marshall. This small fellow with a tremendously large reputation,
was observing Hitler's combat troops marching in review for him.
Some days after this event, bad weather
set in on our homeland, Normandy. The coast was hammered on by rain and wind,
and the sea was rough. And yet it was from 11 o clock on the evening of June
5th to the day of June 6th that we realized the coming of a great event: The
Allied Invasion with phosphorus bombs (which caused burning) dropped by English
and Scottish aircraft. We saw this in plain day, and, in the sky, hundreds
of combat ready paratroopers with blackened faces. What a panic amongst the
population! The Germans, surprised by the unexpected, were incapable of regrouping
to receive orders. Then it was a fight of one army group against another,
and, the machineguns, at point blank range, started in on the paratroopers
that had unfortunately landed in trees, helplessly suspended there by their
risers. Casualties - soldiers and civilians began falling rapidly. Thus, at
dawn, the trees and smashed roofs had empty parachutes tethered to them that
were blowing like cocoons in the wind. Likewise, the fields were like airfields
covered with gliders from which came, all night long, soldiers, trained in
England to fight immediately, which they did without hesitation.
While restricted in a room on the first story of the house what could
we do with my sister's two children. Foucald, who was very fragile with a
bronchial disorder - is it better to leave during the chaos, or wait for a
hopeful and fast deliverance of the village, which was promised by the Allies?
However, during this moment of reflection, providence helped us, without doubt,
as my mother came in haste with our grandmother's old groundskeeper, who persuaded
us to quickly leave the house, as the men there were fighting. The walls collapsed
under the repeated shock of the shells being fired by the naval ships out
in the sea, obviously near Ouistreham. Aircraft strafed the village, and destroyed
all the homes with their tracer bullets, and phosphorus/incendiary bombs causing
fire. It was, thus, with two children in our arms, that we left the room to
hide ourselves a few meters away in a trench that had been dug along the edge
of a hedgerow. During these rainy hours, in the middle of a hellish battlefield
with noise of aircraft overhead, artillery, and machineguns, we remained there,
tightly huddled together, without saying anything while trying to protect,
the best that we could, Christopher and Foucald.
Between two waves of bombings, a lost young
soldier, without doubt, approached us, and emptied the cartridges from his
weapon into the grass. He informed us that he was Polish, and did not want
to fight for the Germans, but was forced to. He generously gave us his blanket
from his backpack for the children, and then left us, only to be severely
wounded shortly afterwards by the gate on the edge of the property. The horror
of war was quite present, and in our view.
It was only until the passing of the morning
of June 6th that a quiet calmness existed around us - more soldiers in view
- the dead under smoking rubble - some shots being fired from Alentours. We
had to relocate our refuge, which was still intact, dry ourselves out from
the rain, eat, and, if possible, sleep. My brother saw the German garrison
not yet destroyed, and decided to risk going there to find something to eat
- he brought us back a mess kit with food to share with everyone in the room
on the first level of the house: the kitchen, situated underneath us, was
already half destroyed by the shells fired by the naval ships.
This break in intense and nearby combat
of some hours did not permit the paratroopers to deliver us from the German
occupants. In the evening, German reinforcements, well-armed with large amounts
of war materials, retook the position facing the Allies, placing their renovated
force on the plain next to Ranville, a town that is near the river and canal
that connect Caen to the sea. So, the hail of bullets and firing of artillery
behind the house once again started with intensity - we were pinned down between
the two armies. This time it was less possible to move - machinegun and mortar
rounds lodged themselves into the walls of the bedroom. Plaster particles
got into our eyes as the plaster fell. Seeing the danger continue, my brother
placed the base of the bed against the wall and used the mattress to cork
the window and absorb the bullets and shrapnel from artillery blasts. In this
way, stretched out under the bed, we lived through a hell-like nonstop firefight
that lasted 56 hours. I must tell you that my mother recited a prayer with
her rosary in an intense voice to hasten a response: heaven kept watch over
us, and, without doubt, we were spared.
After this assault, Christophe, was the
first to get out from under the bed; he wanted to get out and, being a healthy
eater with a growling stomach, he asked "dear mother, dear mother, I
want some slices of bread and butter"! After a moment of reflection,
my mother said that there must be some leftover bread and perhaps some butter
in the dining room, but that meant going there to get it. She believed that
this moment of calmness was a favorable time to satisfy Christopher, and with
him she went to the dining room, however, their silouhette, without doubt
visible outside of the house, provoked the firing of a bullet that passed
between Christopher and Mom. The bullet, happily, lodged itself in the old
clock that stood against the wall, after having passed through my sister's
school knapsack, which was hung by the window. Mom and Christopher wanted
to quickly return to us under the bed base. A piece of German bread was the
only food found!
For the duration of about a week, life
resumed under the German's rule, with artillery fire, and the large incoming
shells from the allied naval ships. The stormy sea would not allow the downloading
of the much needed allied invasion materials to continue, in order for the
invasion to continue.
My sister and mother, from time to time, risked going to the neighboring farm
to get a fresh provision of supplies. They stored that which could be utilized
again in the kitchen, which was battle-damaged, and was open to all winds,
as well as the German gun crews that resided in the shelters and trenches
to hunt the English and Scottish paratroopers that were scattered over the
One afternoon, my brother saw two abandoned
German bicycles sitting outside during a storm of gunfire. They quickly returned
to the kitchen thinking that these bikes might sometime come in handy. Once
again, this joyous opportunity had to fade away. That same evening of the
day when the bicycles had been seen, which was considered a godsend, my brother
found himself face to face with two Germans in the kitchen. A discussion began
between them: "Sir - these are stolen German bicycles - paratroopers
are hidden here". Hearing from the bedroom that the German soldier's
words had become threatening, my sister went into the kitchen and told the
Germans that she was the one whom had put the bikes there. The discussion
stopped, however, my brother, with a Lugar poked into his back, had to go
with one of the German soldiers through each room of the house where a paratrooper
would have been hiding. Fortunately no paratroopers were found, and my brother
was released. During this time, the other German soldier took the bikes and
put them outside behind the wall; almost immediately a round of artillery
fire landed on the corner of the wall, which smashed the bikes to pieces.
This matter was settled!
Our hope of seeing this nightmare come
to an end was not yet to become true. During the following night, the two
kids started to cry, and called for us. One had an upset stomach and headache,
and both had a fever. When the day permitted us to see them, it was clear
that they both had the measles. We did not know what to do?
The Germans, once again in charge of the
area, circulated throughout the entire damaged house, and suddenly a noise
made by boots on the stairway was not reassuring to us - indeed after some
minutes we saw three Germans enter the room, whom were then astounded to find
us there, and thus, said to us Raoust. He did the same thing in the next room
to the wounded young Polish soldier that we had taken in thinking that the
English might be able to rescue him. What became of him? As for us, very quickly
with gun barrels at our backs, and kids in our hands, they took us outside
and said to us "If you go to the sea, all is Kapput"! So, with the
sick kids as comfortably placed as possible in an old baby carriage with four
wheels still in decent condition, we permanently left our old beloved residence
at Breville, the cradle for many generations of our family that had lived
out days of happiness and youth, adulthood, to ripe old ages.
Thus we left there wandering down the road
to Gonneville, looking for safe paths of passage in between the enourmous
artillery holes, and a safe haven of rest to take shelter for the night.
The bad weather continually raged, and we advanced with difficulty. After
a forced stop caused by a machinegun, we were half-sitting in a large bomb
crater when suddenly we saw coming to us two exhausted English soldiers, devoid
of all, including guns, not knowing where to go. They were separated from
their battalion, and so saw some small houses of produce farmers placed in
pastures at Gonneville. We made them understand that we were hopefully going
to find a shed there for us and for them to hide in order to avoid the German
It was during this evening that we found a small barn in which to take refuge.
There was only straw and hay on the floor on which to sleep. Christopher and
Foucauld, quite laden with fever, were placed securely under an animal feeding
trough, where they were more protected from gunfire and artillery blasts.
As for the two paratroopers, they found a nearby attic lined with hay where
they could more easily hide themselves, and we gave them some food without
being seen by the Germans.
Night came, and we started to prepare our beds of straw when we heard someone
outside speaking French - what a surprise! A brave peasant, Father Bouillaut
with his grandson, had escaped the burning hell at Breville. Along with them
came the only living cow that they had left. The cow had not been milked for
two days, and once again provided the best warm and creamy milk of a Normandy
cow that appeased the hunger of our empty stomachs.
As for the two sick kids, my mother had given them as a remedy some thick
cider that was in an old barrel - was this better than nothing? Nobody knows!
The next day, and for a good many days thereafter, we lived surrounded by
German soldiers - this time SS - forcefully searching the country and villages.
They arrived just after us, and asked us if we had seen any paratroopers.
Of course, our response was negative, and, to reassure themselves, they entered
into our miserable living quarters and poked their bayonettes methodically
into and across the pile of straw that stood in front of our little farm building.
Their visit continued. This time they entered the battle-damaged house where
the paratroopers were hidden in the hay up in the attic. This time we thought
that our last hour had come. We watched in silence while the Germans took
the stairway to the first story, and then entered into the first dilapidated
rooms open to the wind, and there, by some miracle, they stopped before the
attic stairway and came back down. What a relief! God was praised, for one
more time we were all alive! However, it was clear that our stay here couldn't
last a long time: the incessant bombings on us intensified, and we could not
light a fire to cook the raw vegetables that had been uprooted by the artillery
explosions in the produce fields, for the Allied Aircraft would bomb even
the slightest column of smoke seen from the sky. We could only then eat lettuce,
raw carrots, artichokes, and sometimes ripe strawberries and July pears.
As for our clothes, they were worn and dirty. One morning, when the fighting
had suddenly slackenedd, and there was sunshine in the sky, mom and I washed,
without soap, two short sleeved shirts. We hoped to hang these shirts out
on the hedge so that they would be dry by evening. Hunger and distress reigned
over beast and man, and a stray cow passing before men became their feast
without us being able to intervene!! As for our shoes: they had wooden soles
that absorbed water and mud like sponges: my sister and I could not envision
taking to the road in bare feet. It was then, after searching a small cellar
underneath the rubble, that we saw some farmer's shoes. Unfortunately these
were not in pairs, so, one had to be contented with mixing and matching, and
then putting hay inside to make them fit.
Thus, each day, our lives became more unpleasant.
The kids' cases of measles did not improve. We needed to find a medical center
that still had doctors working in it. The direction towards the town of Troarn
was an area still free of bombardment, and we made our decision based on that
aspect. We felt it necessary to explain to the paratroopers our reasons for
departing. They understood us, and we regretfully parted ways with them, hoping
that luck would bring us together later at Merville or Breville. This is how
our destinies went.
That morning, on the backside of Gonneville, a town in which everyone had
left, we were calm and filled with new courage to face danger during our departure
with the two kids back in the old baby carriage. It was there, after we had
covered much distance, although uncomfortable in our farmer's shoes, across
fields churned up by artillery blasts, that we made it to the Troarn Road.
On this road, by divine intervention, we met a priest of Troarn, also an old
priest of Notre Dame, who remembered Mom, and yelled to us "Mrs Lechevalier
I know you - come to the presbytery to rest and eat - we still have bread".
How marvelous - we had forgotten the taste of bread since some weeks ago!
This man of God received us with great warmth and kindness. He comforted us
and cheered us up - we lost all sense of the unpleasantness of this particular
time in our lives, and also delayed our voyage there by two days. The priest
gave us food to take with us. Seeing the Germans arrive by trucks and take
control of this community, he advised us to depart to the village of Janville,
like many others, as this village was situated behind the front out in the
country. He advised us well, as the battle was not going to wait on us - the
first bombings started at Troarn during the night, when we arrived at Janville,
where we lodged on the first story of a school that had been transformed into
a house for the numerous refugies.
Ms. Quintaine, the lead school teacher, lived with her mother. Both of them
assisted us with great kindness. They were quite wary of a group of German
soldiers assigned to Troarn, that were staying in one of the classrooms in
which only a wooden partition separated the Germans' room from Ms. Quintaine's
small office. Being quite active out in the country, we found a small radio,
most likely abandoned by a paratrooper who landed in the night in this community.
This precious object gave us great service to secretly listen to the news
of the Allied advance, and, to not attract the attention of the nearby Germans,
we played loud music from records that were available for students of the
school. Thus, the Germans did not know that we knew of the battles at Caen,
Ouistreham, and the progress of the English in spite of the loss of human
The end of June became yet another time
for us to be very worried, as Christopher developed a new complication, without
doubt from having the measles. He became weaker each day, and one morning,
seeing that he no longer responded to his own name, my sister, in distress,
departed through the field to find help at Troarn, in spite of the ongoing
battle and the bombed road. After hours of worrying and waiting, the door
to the room opened abruptly. My sister appeared with a German jacket on her
shoulders and hat on her head. The German doctor traveling with her had given
her these garments so that she could travel unnoticed in a German Army car
that had an open top. Saying nothing to us, the German doctor approached the
sick child, made a careful examination, and then, from his medical kit, pulled
out a small white pill that he cut in two, and, with great difficulty to speak
French, he said to us: "give ½ this evening, and the other half
tomorrow morning after having wrapped the child in a cloth saturated with
cold water". He added the phrase "This is a well-known pneumonia,
and put his things away and quickly left".
What were we to do after he left?
Was he a genuine doctor that wanted to save a life, or, like the others of
his kind, was it the occasion for him to shorten the days of a child? The
medicine and way of healing that he had prescribed seemed quite strange to
This risky solution was imposed upon us, but understanding Christopher's condition,
the decision was made. Mom wrapped him in a sheet saturated in cold water,
and my sister made him swallow the first half of the white tablet, and saying
nothing, he fell asleep. The night seemed long, but in the morning Christopher
opened his eyes. His fever had lessened, and we looked upon him with relief.
This gave us confidence in the German doctor's instructions, and, without
hesitation, our little man had swallowed the second half of the miraculous
And for us, the surprise of this healing was about to be confirmed, when several
hours later the footsteps of a man were heard in the stairway, and then a
knock on the door. Mom opened the door, and the German doctor from the day
before entered the room and looked with satisfaction upon his little sick
patient that was alive and well. He made us understand that this common pneumonia
was stopped, then said goodbye, and descended down the stairs to depart in
There was, thus, at Troarn, a real German doctor of which Christopher, a little
Frenchman, owed his life.
Another important liberating event of our
fears and sadnesses of bloody days was to bring, to my mother first, then
I and my sister, a great joy: the unexpected return of my brother at Janville
during the early hours of morning. It must be said that we were without news
of him since the sad bygone days spent at Gonneville, where he had been stopped
and forced to board a German truck with two other French youth for an unknown
destination. What became of them? The Germans didn't waste much time with
citizens under the Occupation that resisted obligatory work in Germany. How
many had they shot beside the country roads, and in the woods? Without speaking
about it amongst ourselves, we thought within the depths of ourselves that
they were living in some other place and would return. This hope became true
at dawn for it was necessary not to wake the nearby sleeping Germans in the
school. Also it was without noise that the door to the room opened, and that
we immediately saw the forms of two men appear that we knew: my brother Noel,
and Jean Bouilleaut (bwee-yo) de Breville (bray-veel); this was an emotional
moment with intimate and profound joy shared between us. We were renewed,
reunited, and alive! But their exhaustion was such from their nocturnal voyage
through the swamps of Varaville, areas that had been flooded by the Germans,
that they laid down on our mattresses that were on the floor to sleep; the
injured feet of Jean were bare and bloody. For the entire day, they never
opened their eyes - their sleep was long and deep!
With further time, they remained at our
lodging, as it was impossible to exit into the middle of the Germans who would
immediately send them back into obligatory war production work. Their fate
once again became critical. We searched for a solution. The solution was found
through the grace of a good friend of my brother's - an active member of the
French Resistance in our Normandy region. The two survivors, in silence and
unseen by the Germans, were taken to a place that was not revealed to us.
The following days at Janville became more
and more dangerous. The artillery shells fired from Troarn landed near us.
We were still in Janville in July, a month after the famous night of June
6th, 1944. We asked how to avoid ending up being in a burning hell, and of
dying with our two little men. Christopher was still feeling badly after having
just recuperated from his serious illness, and still needed care. The outcome
had to arrive providentially by an outing my mother made for food. She unexpectedly
met Mr. Brillard, our roofer at Merville, who had prevented the destruction
of our small community truck and gasoline. He wanted to flee, at all cost,
the battles and bombings that began again to result in the death of many French
civilians. Thus, he asked my mother to leave with him, moving in the direction
of the Orne region. For us, the prospect of a definite reunion seemed marvelous.
Our grandmother lived at La Ferte-Mace, where her son, the notary public,
lived with his wife and three daughters. And perhaps, we would have the joy
of finding my sister Anne, who had been in Caen since June to give the third
exam that must be passed for her students in the fourth year of secondary
school (ages 14-15). We knew nothing of how she was doing. Had she, without
doubt, helped and supported the civilians during the terrible bombings on
Caen, where so many civilians found the dead each day by the hundreds under
the piles of building rubble or trapped in the wine cellars underneath the
old hotels particularly, and the old middle-class homes of this old city?
The departure that we agreed upon was actively
prepared, but without having awoke the German troops patrolling this sector,
and their machineguns and rifles always in a position ready to kill. Mr. Brillard,
quite aware of the dangers of our travel on the Falaise road, informed us
that we would leave on a morning when it was cloudy and overcast, in order
to avoid being strafed by low flying aircraft.
The meteorlogic conditions hoped for came to be the second week of July, and,
on the day chosen to depart, my brother returned from hiding and was with
us for the departure, thus, our small family was all present, in the back
of an uncovered truck along with many other refugies. The sky was very somber,
with large clouds that seemed to tell us that the moment was favorable for
us to set out upon the road of liberation. A part of a white sheet was attached
to the top of a large wooden handle, and was constantly waved during the journey
so that the fighter planes had to identify us as ordinary civilians fleeing
the fighting. Equipped in this way, we took turns holding up and waving the
flag as high as possible so that we would successfully reach the Falaise road.
There, a new spectacle of war awaited us. On both sides of the road, two armies
were having a raging battle with armored vehicles. In the rich plain between
Caen and Falaise, in the middle of wheat that was on fire, we saw in this
inferno bunches of small fires - some twisted and buckled tanks were at their
ending stages of burning. It was necessary to go quickly to escape from being
massacred. Happily, the truck moved as quickly as possible without stopping
for even an instant, braving the unforeseen conflicts of the war. Our flag
made of a piece of a sheet, which flew high above our heads - it was necessary
for us to easily differentiate our truck from military trucks that passed
us - fortunately there were only a few!
It is in this way, after some hours on the road that seemed very long, that
we reached Falaise, which had already been mostly destroyed by aerial bombardments.
We traveled, without problem, halfway across on the main road. My mother immediately
indicated to Mr. Brillard the road on the right as the one that reaches the
Orne region, where the town of La Ferte-Mace was located, in a region still
spared the horrors of war.
During a midday lunch, our chauffeur, unexpectedly
and quite surprisingly, stopped at Thiers Avenue, in front of my grandmother's
house. With the noise of the truck, all the guests inside the house got up
from the table. My Uncle Pierre, the first next to my grandmother, immediately
rushed out and yelled: "At last everyone is alive and here"! What
a reunion of undescribable joy, unforgettable after much suffering and constant
insecurity, while having seen death daily.
This time the family was all together. My sister Ann was also there, thanks
to an old bicycle that she successfully rode, in increments, after the bombings
on on the city of Caen, to reach La Ferte-Mace .
It is there, grace to our grandmother,
and to the gentleness of recovered family life, that our tragic experiences
of the Allied Invasion found closure.
Quickly, the small town, deserted by the fleeing Germans, was delivered by
the Americans. We had the biggest joy to see them arrive in great numbers,
happily, on their tanks, and us, we placed French flags of blue, white, and
red out of our windows, the emblem of liberated France.