French Witnesses Recount Wartime Experiences
Each year, in preparation for their International Experience the student participants pose several questions which they hoped to have answered during the trip. In 2010, two of our very faithful French friends, Pierre and Colette Labbé, replied in writing.
Each year, Pierre and Colette with Denis Lesage, President of the Wall of Remembrance Society, lead the preparations for the annual Normandy Allies visit to the Wall. The friendship and support provided by the Labbés has been an inspiration and an encouragement for the Normandy Allies team.
Pierre, 15 years old at the time of D-day, and living in Moon-sur-Elle, not far from Omaha Beach, recalled his experiences, while his wife, Colette, wrote them down. Colette was 13 years old in 1944, and lived near the town of Saint Nazaire, on the west coast of Brittany. She says that Saint Nazaire was the last town in France to be liberated, on May 10 1945. The surrender of Germany was signed on May 7 1945. Colette is vice-president of the Association of the Wall of Remembrance at St. Jean de Savigny. In 1997 Pierre helped build the Wall, on which there are many memorial plaques honoring veterans of the 29th Division and other American soldiers who fought in the Battle of Normandy.
What was the gut reaction of the French people to the invasion? Was it fear or relief?
On June 6, 1944, at the time of the landings, we saw from our home in Moon-sur-Elle the fire far away, the explosions, the red sky, and heard the roar of the canons, 20 kilometers away as the bird flies. We felt relief and joy; we were not even afraid. It was night time and we got out of bed. Finally the German soldiers were going to have to leave.
What did the prospect of freedom mean to you?
Freedom was coming, and as the shots of the cannons came closer every day, we were anxious to see the Americans arrive. The railroad station at nearby Lison had been bombarded every day for several days; civilians were leaving, going down the road. The houses around all around the railroad station were destroyed. Eighteen people from the surrounding area came to our house. We were in good spirits, and kept up our morale.
Would you have aided the Allies if they had not gone to your front door?
Yes, we would have helped the allies if they had needed us. They arrived the 9th of June at 5 in the afternoon—two Americans on each side of the house. They said to us: “We are Americans.” We gave them flowers. During the night the 175th Regiment of the 29th Division arrived. All the fields, many of which were apple orchards, were occupied by American soldiers. We saw some enormous vehicles and machines. The gateways to the fields were widened to let in the jeeps, trucks, cannons. Each American dug his own foxhole. They camped out there for several days, camouflaged under the apple trees, before leaving in the direction of Saint Lo. Pierre, 15 years old at the time, often ate with the soldiers at their canteen. Before leaving, an American gave him his bracelet: Owen J. Murray 31072716. We have tried to find him. “We will never forget.” We were given our freedom, but many American soldiers were killed or wounded in order to give us our freedom.
How long were the effects of the attacks felt on the area?
Pierre Labbé was 15 years old. On June 6, 1944 we heard the cannonade and saw the fire in the sky. The Lison railroad station and the nearby houses had been bombarded. Since 1943 airplanes had come twice a week to strafe and once or twice a month to bomb. We had heard the shells and the cannons for forty days before the capture of Saint Lo which was 13 kilometers from Moon-sur-Elle.
On June 9 the Americans arrived around the house; two Americans on each side. They told us: “We are Americans.” We were happy. “Quick get some flowers to thank them.” The next morning we were surrounded by soldiers, trucks, jeeps and cannons. Near the house a command post was set up with telephone in the laundry shed. The soldiers stayed around the house for 15 days. The Elle River separated the Americans from the Germans who waited on the other side. We stayed at the house. We were lucky to have no destruction and no injuries.
What was going through your mind when Normandy was liberated?
Finally we had been liberated from the yoke of the Germans with all their rules and regulations. They had camouflaged their windows so that airplanes would not see their lights at night. They had a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am, and prohibited travel at night. There was lack of food, meat, bread, groceries, shoes and clothes.
Were you at any point worried about what would happen if the Allies failed in their invasion, and if so, what did you feel would be the ramifications of a German victory?
We were not worried. We were sure that the Americans with all their new equipment would succeed and win the war, driving away and destroying the Germans. We never thought that the Americans would fail. It was unfortunate that the price was so many lives. These young soldiers died for our freedom. “We will never forget.” We feel tremendous gratitude toward the Americans. If the Americans had lost…, but that was impossible. If the Germans had been victorious, there would have been reprisals. For them, it would have been easy to take a group of people and shoot them. They would have sent us to the camps in Germany. But we were convinced that they would lose.
How did the German occupation change your life?
The German occupation did change our life. We had no rights. They occupied the schools and the large houses where they set up their command posts in each town. There were ration cards for bread, meat, and groceries. There was no soap. Mother made a kind of soap with a mixture of beef fat, ivy leaves, and caustic soda which she cooked and poured into a wooden mold. When the mixture hardened, we stamped out pieces of soap. At night there was a curfew, and we were not allowed to go out between 8 PM and 6 AM. We had to hide any lights at night. When there was no more electricity towards the end of the war, we melted the beef fat and put strips of curtains in as wicks to make candles for illumination.
Did you serve during the war or contribute to the Resistance?
We hosted a resistant who ate at our house. He called himself Déprés Duverssant. One night he slept at our house. We never saw him again. My sister and her friend made false identity cards for those young French who were requisitioned to go to Germany for forced labor. The fake identity cards enabled them to stay hidden in France under a new name.
What were your emotions during the Liberation of 1944? Were you optimistic or pessimistic about the Allied invasion?
Emotions ran very high during the liberation. The landings of 6 June 1944 gave us great joy. On 9 June the Americans arrived in the apple orchards around our neighborhood. Two soldiers appeared on each side of our house and called out, “We are Americans.” We were very happy, and were optimistic about the liberation. We were confident that the Americans would win. We danced for a week. We regained our liberty, thanks to the Americans. But so many were killed or wounded on Normandy soil. We will never forget, as long as we live. We are very happy to welcome you to the Wall of Remembrance at Saint-Jean de Savigny.
What were the interactions between the French citizens and the occupying German forces like? Was all human connection between the occupied and the occupiers absent?
There were no reciprocal or mutual interactions between the French citizens and the occupying German soldiers. We detested them. We feared them. We had no human bonds with the occupiers. For us they were not humans. We called them “the Boches,” but it was necessary that they not hear us. The Germans killed many French. When the resistants took their actions, such as derailing trains carrying large weapons, the Germans took revenge. They would take hostage a group of workers or travelers from a train and shoot them on the spot.
What role did the French Resistance play during the German occupation?
The Resistance blew up trains carrying Germans, blew up rail beds, cut telephone lines, passed information to England about the disposition of Germans troops.
What were the Liberation and the time period immediately following it like? I would like to hear, first-hand, how it felt to see the triumphant Allied forces and have your faith in your nation restored.
What was it like under the occupation? For four years we were under the yoke of the Germans. For us, the liberation meant at last freedom and joy, no more deprivations. We could go outside without fear of being stopped by the Germans. There were still hardships; we recovered little by little. But we were free! When we saw the Allies, there was an explosion of joy. Our nation was restored, thanks to the Allies. But with so many dead remaining on French soil. So many American families plunged into mourning. We will never forget the sacrifice of these soldiers who gave us liberty.