The Odyssey of Henri Cabannes, 1943-1945
The following is a translation of Henri Cabannes's French article Odyssée de Henri Cabannes, 1943-1945 which gives a vivid description of his exploits during World War II.
I. Escape from France to Spain.
1. Preparation for departure.
In October 1942, I entered the École Normale Supérieure after resigning a second time from the École Polytechnique. I had in fact entered the École Polytechnique for the first time in 1941 while I was a pupil in the special preparatory Mathematics class at the lycée Saint-Louis in Paris. On 16 February 1943, the national radio announces the establishment of the Obligatory Labour Service, the S.T.O. Young people born in 1920, 1921 and 1922 are called up, in order to go to Germany to join the Relief Troops. Concurrently, a general census of young people from twenty-one to thirty-one is undertaken. The same evening, with the now usual promptness, the response comes from London: "No to the census!" The flight to escape from the census is extraordinary. The campaign of the French of London against the S.T.O. exceeds, in all respects, previous radio campaigns. "If you want to shorten the war, do not work for Hitler!" As of 1 August 1943, the list of draft evaders has 85,000 names. Being born in 1923, I was not concerned, but I decided to interrupt my studies at the École Normale Supérieure and try to reach England or North Africa.
In August 1943, having finished, the previous month, to pass the certificates of General Physics, Differential Calculus and Higher Analysis, I left to do rural service in the department of Hautes-Pyrenees, in Bernadets-Debat at the home of cousins who worked a farm. I was astonished to learn that in this village the three young people summoned for the S.T.O. had gone to Germany, while the Spanish border is 70 kilometres away. At Tarbes, I visited Denis Prunet, a friend of my parents; having informed him of my wish to return to North Africa, he proposed to put me in contact with an escape channel to cross, clandestinely, the Franco-Spanish border; it would be enough for me to arrive at his place, where he would give me lodgings while I was waiting to depart from Tarbes. I returned to Paris, via Marseille, to visit my paternal grandmother, who violently criticized my project, the consequence of which would be the arrest of my father, who was a professor of physics in the Faculty of Science of the University of Paris. I also stayed a few days in the Var, at Lecques, where my parents owned a villa; the village of Lecques is located on the coast between Marseille and Toulon. Without precise intention I observed the various installations on the beach and in the seaside villas, facilities intended to hinder a possible disembarkation.
Back in Paris, I learned that two students of the École Polytechnique, Fontanet and Baylé, friends of my older brother, wanted to find a way to go to Spain; finding a way was obviously very difficult and I was lucky to know one. Upon leaving the École Polytechnique, Fontanet had gone to Lourdes to contact a network that had been indicated to him, but this one having been "blown up", did not work anymore and he returned to Paris to temporarily join the Caudron-Renault design office, which worked for the Messerschmitt factories in Augsburg. The École Polytechnique had assigned some students to the responsibility of the S.T.O. He met up with his fellow graduate Baylé; some scientific students were also working in this consulting firm under the S.T.O. When Fontanet and Baylé learned from my older brother that I knew an escape channel and that, not wishing to go alone, I was looking for companions to escape, we decided that all three of us would leave together. In the last days of September, I went with my father to visit Georges Bruhat, assistant director of the École Normale Supérieure, to inform him of my departure so that the École Normale Supérieure would not look for me; it was agreed that I should rest in the south of France, and M Bruhat wished me good luck; I never saw him again since he was deported to Buchenwald and died in Sachsenhausen. On 4 October (1943), Fontanet and Baylé disappeared from their design office, and the three of us left together from Austerlitz station, by the night train to Toulouse.
At Vierzon, in the middle of the night, the German soldier who controlled the passengers on the train told me, in German, that I had to get down because my identity card did not have the right stamp! So I went down and spent the rest of the night in an empty car that was in a siding. The next day I went to the Headquarters in Vierzon where a good seal was affixed on my identity card! I went back to the station to wait for the next train to Toulouse, where I arrived on 5th October around 8pm. Faced with the difficulty and the risk represented by asking for a room in a hotel, I went to the home of my friend Jean Combes's parents: 80, rue du Taur. I had learned by heart (because it was necessary not to have on oneself any written document which could be compromising) a certain number of addresses in Toulouse, Tarbes, Madrid, Casablanca, Algiers and Brazzaville. Jean Combes and his parents saw me arriving like a being fallen from the sky and accommodated me for the night. The next day I took the train to Tarbes; I arrived there in the afternoon and went to M Prunet's house. It was agreed that he would lodge me at night and give me breakfast, but that I had to spend the whole day outside and take my meals outside. The day before he had been visited by Fontanet and Baylé; they were lodged, until the departure for Spain, under similar conditions, by a brave young couple, a friend of a sister of Baylé. The next day Fontanet, Baylé and I were able to meet and decided that every day two of us would spend the day outside together, the third being alone; it seemed imprudent that three 20-year-old boys wandered together for several days in the streets of Tarbes. Each in our turn, we wander alone, not in the centre of Tarbes but in the outskirts. Only once did we go to Lourdes together. We never met the organizers of the escape network, who let us know that we were to be at Tarbes railway station on Friday, 15 October (1943), with the only baggage of a backpack containing a few days of food. The same day, I sent my suitcase to my parents, in Paris, since it had become useless for my exploits.
2. The crossing of the Pyrenees.
We arrived separately at Tarbes station at the appointed time where two people, probably responsible for the network, asked us to pay them the agreed money: 3000 Francs each (a junior CNRS researcher then received 2000 Francs per month). The train, a slow train for Bagneres-de-Bigorre, was in the station; it was a train in which the third-class carriages consisted of separate compartments, each with two doors, one on each side. They opened one of the doors and told Fontanet, Baylé and I to get into the compartment they had just opened. The ceiling bulbs were broken and we could barely see one or two other people sitting in that compartment as well. At the Pouzac stop, the last before Bagnères-de-Bigorre, one of the passengers in the compartment opened the door onto the track and told us to get down, which we did. The train left, and we found nine candidates for escape via the Pyrenees, plus two (or three) guides.
At Bagneres-de-Bigorre the forbidden zone began, where no one was allowed to go without authorization from the Germans. We immediately set out across the fields and meadows. We passed by Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and walked all night to the Aspin Pass. Our guides then left us in a forest telling us that other guides would come to pick us up to continue walking during the next night. So we tried to sleep outside at 1500 meters altitude in October. During the first night of walking and the day of "rest" in the forest near the Aspin Pass we got to know our escaping companions. The youngest, aged 17, was an Alsatian forced into the Wehrmacht; he bravely "deserted" and was trying to reach Morocco to join the French Army. Another had just been accepted in the entrance competition for the École de Saint-Cyr; he had wandered for a week in the Pyrenees, thinking he could go to Spain alone with a map and a compass; as soon as he learned that Fontanet, Baylé and I had come from the École Polytechnique or the École Normale Supérieure, he felt reassured, but he was already exhausted; in addition he was very heavily equipped: cape, spare shoes, etc. while the three of us, on the advice of the organizers of the network, had only a small backpack with a few days of food. I kept only a vague memory of the other four escaping companions.
On the evening of Saturday 16th October, new guides came to pick us up and led us, after only a few hours of walking, to a barn where we spent the rest of the night and the day of Sunday, 17th October, naturally in complete silence and without going outside. On Sunday evening, new guides came to pick us up; the most dangerous part of the route was, in the village of Vielle-Aure, crossing a bridge to pass to the other side of the valley. German soldiers were sitting at a cafe in the village. So we crossed the bridge one by one, each time on a signal from one of the guides, who perhaps was a resident of the village. We then reached a slate quarry in which we "rested" until five o'clock in the morning. New guides then came to pick us up and we walked, this time on a trail on the mountainside, on the eastern slope of the valley, to an area above the Rioumajou hospice, where the snow was starting to cover all the path.
It was Monday, 18th October; it was 11 o'clock and our guides showed us the cross-border Pass of Plan (at 2457 meters above sea level) behind which was Spain; they told us we would be there in half an hour and wished us a good end to our "trip". We started climbing the mountain in the snow, first to our calves, then to our knees. At 14.00, the pass was still in sight but was approaching slowly; at three o'clock, exhausted, I left my bag and the provisions it contained in the snow; Fontanet and Baylé, more resistant than me, collected the food! Six of us continued, the other three, exhausted, decided to go down into the valley. At 4 pm we arrived at the cross-border post at the border. Naturally neither the Germans nor their French auxiliaries could keep all the passes, especially the passes as difficult to reach as the cross-border Pass of Plan we had just reached.
3. The crossing of Spain.
We were in Spain! We were a part, although we did not know it yet, of the 23,000 French who managed the escape from France to Spain. Night was coming in and we went down into the valley until we found a barn, in which we settled for the night. Our clothes being soaked by the long walk in the snow, we slept naked in the hay and spent the first restful night since leaving Tarbes. The next day, Tuesday, 19th October, we resumed the descent of the Cinqueta Valley; on the path was a bridge which it was impossible not to cross; just after the bridge, on the other side of the valley, Spanish civil guards waited for the young French, who, at that time, arrived several times a week by the various very high passes. We stayed with these guards until the end of their duty, around 4 pm, and we went down with them to the village of Plan, where they were stationed.
Peasants from the village welcomed us warmly, giving us some food, bread and sausage, because we had nothing left! The civil guards then locked us up for the night in their very modest building and told us that in a few days they would take us to the nearest town for us to meet the consul! We had nothing left, we did not know anything, and were unable to leave, for where? with nothing. During the day they left us to go free, and the peasants of the village of Plan gave us food; they seemed to be very poor themselves. After a few days, I do not remember the exact date, we left with the civil guards, first on foot, to take the bus that would take us to the nearest town, to meet the consul! This city, which we did not know, was the city of Barbastro, located 106 kilometres away. After 12 km of walking, we arrived at Salinas de Sin, where we had to wait for the bus that connected Bielsa to Barbastro. Our guards asked us for money to pay for the bus. We said we did not have any; in fact we wanted to keep the little money we had left.
They told us that, under these conditions, we would have go to Barbastro on foot, which did not scare us, since we had already walked for several nights from Pouzac to arrive at the village of Plan. So we left on foot to the next village, where we went with our civil guards on the bus from Bielsa. In the small town of Ainsa, the bus stopped quite a long time and our guards took us to a café whose boss gave us food without asking us anything, because we had so little. It seems that for these Spaniards, who fed us for several days, we were heroes. Perhaps they told themselves that by going to fight against Germany, we would also hasten the end of Franco, which was probably one of their wishes. Finally we arrived at Barbastro around 8 pm and our guards took us to a building, a former monastery, which we entered with them. Once the door was closed, we realized that we were not at the consul, but in prison! Our naivety had been boundless, but we could have done nothing else.
We were in prison! We were registered, we were asked for our identities and had to hand over all our possessions, that is to say nothing apart from some French money that they confiscated by giving us a receipt, which was no use for anything. Then we were taken to a large room, where there were already about seventy French, for how long? Squeezing up a little our fellow prisoners vacated four mattresses for us six. Fontanet, Baylé and I took two of the straw mattresses and stayed that way for the duration of our stay in Barbastro prison, which lasted a month.
We had only the clothes with which we crossed the border, clothes that we kept until 26 December, the day when, being on our way to go to embark to Malaga, the Red Cross (which?) from Madrid gave us new clothes. Our fellow prisoners asked us for news of France and the war; according to the questions we were asked, we thought they had been there for at least six months! which has terribly discouraging for us. After a few exchanges, and seeing how discouraged we were, they began to laugh, because at that time the length of stay in Barbastro prison was about a month; they played the same joke on each new arrival. The next day we went to the prison hairdresser, who shaved us from head to foot; at about 10 o'clock all the occupants of our room descended into the prison yard for an hour; we found Frenchmen who occupied another large room of the prison. Among these other French, Fontanet and Baylé found one of their fellow students from the École Polytechnique and I found Jean Beydon, who had been a high school friend of my older brother. Jean Beydon had prepared for the École Navale at the Lycée Saint-Louis; the Naval Academy no longer existed, but the recruitment competition existed and the students who were accepted followed the courses at the École Centrale de Paris.
The Barbastro Prison also contained many Spanish Republicans, already interned for several years and would be for many more years, while General Franco remained in power until his death in 1975. The Spanish prisoners did not go out into the courtyard at the same time as the French; the courtyard was not large enough to accommodate all the occupants of the prison. Every Sunday, Mass was celebrated in the prison; it was obligatory for the Spaniards, optional for the French, who went there because it was another opportunity to leave our big common room. Other Frenchmen who had just crossed the border regularly arrived in the prison. One day we saw one of our three companions arrive who had turned back on 18th October on the slopes of the Pass de Plan. He explained to us that with one of the two others he had gone down to the Hospice of Rioumajou, while the third, exhausted, had gone to sleep in the snow and had died; he was the one who had been admitted following the entrance examination for the École Saint-Cyr, which no longer existed, but for which there existed preparatory classes and a recruitment competition (probably with an eye for the future); he was 21 years old!, his name was Sapone.
Regularly, the director of the prison came to read the list of those who were to leave Barbastro; after a month, Fontanet, Baylé and I were on the list of leavers. We were so happy! and we left, tied in pairs with handcuffs, by train to Zaragoza. Arriving at Zaragoza station, we walked on foot, still tied two by two, along the streets that led us to the prison. It was a very modern prison, where we were locked in groups of about fifteen in a room of ten square metres; there was a water tap in a corner and a hole acting as a toilet! After an hour or two, we were brought mattresses, but it was impossible to be all lying down at the same time! This hell lasted three days, at the end of which we left again as we had come, by train, for the concentration camp of Miranda.
The camp of Miranda, after the purgatory of Barbastro and the hell of Zaragoza, seemed to us paradise. The camp had been built by Franco at the time of the Civil War, on the advice of Hitler; it could contain and did contain several thousand prisoners. It consisted of many wooden barracks, well aligned; 120 to 130 people lived in each house. The camp was guarded and organized by the military. It is a classic camp with walls, barbed wire and watchtowers. It is commanded by a colonel who seemed to have no feeling for French-speaking. However, the brutal reality of the concentration camp soon appeared, especially with the distribution of the material: a disgusting bowl of dirt, a spoon, a mattress and a tattered blanket full of vermin. Each house is divided by a central corridor on either side of which are aligned on two floors of small "rooms" whose space is designated by "walls" made of old blankets. A single light bulb provided a faint glow in the hallway. Several people lived in each "room". I sit in one of the barracks, while Fontanet and Baylé, since they left the École Polytechnique, settle in the "Officers' Pavilion", where I visited them.
During one of these visits I noticed that Jean Rousseau, whom I had known at the Lycée Saint-Louis and who had just been admitted, in 1943, in the entrance examination to the École Polytechnique, also lived in at the "Officers' Pavilion". The flag was under the responsibility of Captain Louis, probably the oldest officer. I then explained to Captain Louis, a prisoner like all of us, that I, too, had been admitted to the École Polytechnique, even twice, in 1941 and 1942, but that I had resigned to enter the École Normale Supérieure, and that I thought I had as many qualifications, if not more, than Jean Rousseau to lodge at the "Officers' Pavilion". Captain Louis, who was in Barbastro and Zaragoza with Fontanet, Baylé and me, told me to go get my things, that is to say almost nothing, and to come, which I did immediately. Naturally life in Miranda was harsh and hygiene was deplorable; Miranda is located on the Ebro, 80 kilometres south of Bilbao, at 460 meters above sea level, and we were there in December.
However, inside the camp we were free and we could walk all day. Every two weeks, lists of several hundred people, perhaps a thousand, who were leaving the next day for freedom, were posted. December 24, 1943, Fontanet, Baylé and I were on the list of departures for the next day. On the 25th of December, we crossed the gate of Miranda camp and became free men in Spain.
4. The departure for Morocco.
When we left the Miranda camp, we were greeted by representatives of the French Committee of National Liberation who sat in Algiers. We finally went for a real meal in a restaurant in Miranda and in the evening we left by train for Madrid, where we arrived in the morning of 26 December. We were taken to a Red Cross centre, where we left the clothes we were wearing, without ever having been able to change since 4 October, when we left Paris. Dressed in new clothes, shaved, showered, still well fed, we were given some Spanish money, begging us to return at night for departure to Malaga. I went to see Guy Lefort, an École Normale graduate of the class of 1939, who was a teacher at the Lycée français de Madrid. M Carcopino, director of the École Normale Supérieure, and M Bruhat, deputy director, had had several pupils appointed at the Lycée français de Madrid, in order to avoid the requisition for the S.T.O. Naturally these pupils had arrived in Madrid, in a sleeping car, with a visa. Lefort's address was one I had learned by heart. In welcoming me, Lefort told me, apparently with some pride, that he and his colleagues from the Lycée Français had also rallied to de Gaulle: as I asked him what it was, he replied that henceforth it was no longer Petain who paid them, but de Gaulle! I congratulated him for this wonderful act and told him that for my part, after spending more than two months in the prisons of Spain, I was leaving for Morocco, to engage in the Air Force.
We left Madrid by coach and drove all night; the buses we found comfortable, but everything seemed comfortable. At dawn, we stopped for half an hour in Granada, then arrived in Malaga in the morning; it was Monday, 27 December 1943. The many French, about 1500, mainly from the Miranda camp, but also from some prisons and some "spas", hotels and boarding houses in which were detained French who were under the age of 18 until there were up to 2000. In Malaga, while waiting for the departure, we were "housed" in the arena, where straw had been deposited to serve us as mattresses. During the day we were free.
II. Engagement in the Air Force.
5. Casablanca and Algiers.
On Friday, 31 December 1943, all the French arriving in Casablanca from the two boats which had left from Malaga are taken to a transit camp to perform many formalities. The first is the establishment of a temporary identity card issued on the declarations of the person concerned. Then officers question us at length, our curriculum vitae, our studies, our crossing of the Pyrenees and our stay in Spain. I learn that I will be appointed second lieutenant from 18 October, the date of my journey from the Franco-Spanish border. All the escapees from France, pupils of the four military schools: the École Polytechnique, the École of Saint-Cyr, the École Navale, the École l'Air, or students of the five following civil schools: École Normale Supérieure, École des Mines de Paris, École des Ponts et Chaussées, École Centrale de Paris, École Coloniale, are appointed second lieutenant under the same conditions.
Other officers question us on what could be of interest for the next fighting in France; I then indicated the little that I knew about the installations on the beach of Lecques, as well as on the seaside villas. Then I signed an engagement, for the duration of the war, in the Air Force. From that moment, the paths of Fontanet and Baylé separated from mine. Fontanet had engaged in the artillery and Baylé in the tanks. The escapees from France could choose the weapon with which they wished to engage. In each arrival from Spain there were false Alsatians, in fact German spies sent by the Wehrmacht; they were shot. On Monday, 4 January 1944, I left the transit camp for the depot 209 in Casablanca. In this deposit we received a very complete military package and I waited to be sent to Algiers for verification (in the Official Journal) of my entry to the École Normale Supérieure and for my appointment to the rank of second lieutenant.
During this stay in Casablanca, I went to see André Moitessier, first cousin of my mother; his address was still one of those I had learned by heart. He told me that Marcel Boiteux, who was my classmate at the École Normale, had arrived in Casablanca from Gibraltar a few months ago. I and Boiteux had been fellow students during the 1942-1943 academic year, and neither of us knew that the other was preparing to stop studying to join the fighting French forces in North Africa. This testifies to the secrecy that had to surround such projects. Boiteux had crossed Spain in only two weeks without having been imprisoned by the Spaniards. He must have achieved this performance because he had crossed the Pyrenees escorting American pilots who had fallen in France; these pilots, once arrived in Spain, contacted their embassy in Madrid; Franco did not send the Americans to prison and a member of the embassy came to pick up the pilots and also Boiteux and then took them to Gibraltar. At the depot 209, I met Langlois-Berthelot, who had arrived from Spain by the same convoy as myself and who, having been admitted to the entrance examination at the École Polytechnique in 1943, was waiting like me to depart for Algiers. His stay in Spain had taken place in one of the "spas" because he had declared himself 17 years old; he had been better informed than me about the conditions of crossing of Spain. Finally Langlois-Berthelot and I left for Algiers, by train, settled, but comfortably, in cattle wagons.
A huge army of American, English and French soldiers was in North Africa and transportation obviously posed many problems. After several days and nights and many stops, especially in Oran that we were able to visit, we arrived in Algiers on 16th January; we joined the base 320 to which we were assigned and, after a large number of new formalities which enabled us in particular to obtain a definitive identity card, we waited for our appointment to the rank of second lieutenant, the appointment arrived on 3rd March! As soon as we arrived in Algiers I went to the offices of Radio-Algiers to send the following message "The muzzle of the tapir is turned to the sky"; it had been agreed with my parents and some friends that this sentence pronounced on Algiers radio would be the sign of my arrival in North Africa; the sentence was not heard by my parents, but it was heard and recognized by friends who immediately warned them. During the six weeks I spent in Algiers, I went to see Georges Darmois, professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Paris, who was then in Algeria; he told me, among other things, that Yves Rocard, also a professor at the Paris Faculty of Science, was also in Algeria. I had taken courses he gave for first-year science students at the École Normale, and in July I passed one of his oral examinations for the certificate of General Physics. M Rocard had left France by plane; he was a specialist in radio beacons, and the English had sent for a Lysander, which had landed on a meadow in the Poitiers area during the night of 13 to 14 September 1943. The Lysander were small four-seat single-engine airplanes: a pilot, a gunner, and two passengers. The Lysander landed on meadows indicated by the resistance, during the nights of full moon or the nights near by. About 640 people have left France for England; this figure must be compared with the figures of the French who crossed the Pyrenees: 23,000, and those who failed: 7,000. To these figures must be added a few thousand foreigners.
During these six weeks, I attended the library of the University of Algiers almost daily. I naturally wanted to return to the École Normale after the war to finish university, so I did not want to forget the mathematics I had started to learn. At the library, I read and wrote the proof of Hadamard's theorem on the distribution of prime numbers and began to study transcendental numbers. I also bought in Algiers one of the few scientific books I could find: the three volumes of Henri Poincaré's Mécanique céleste. In Algiers, I visited my uncle Albert Fabry and my aunt; he lived on rue Claude Bernard, in a villa from which one had a beautiful view of the city of Algiers; they were very hospitable and I slept at their home several times. At the beginning of March, Langlois and I received our second lieutenant appointments with the corresponding pay reminders and on 3rd March, we took the train back to Casablanca, making the trip, still as long, in a passenger car. Arrived in Casablanca, we were assigned to the Aircrew Personnel Preparation Centre, with twenty young aspiring French students; we were to be the next eligible class to complete a training course to become part of the Air Force's aircrew. We stayed in Casablanca until 12th April.
On 13 April, all trainees, two second lieutenants, Langlois and I, plus twenty aspiring students, arrived in Marrakech at the School of Training of Aircrew Personnel. The commanding officer who ran the school found it abnormal that Langlois and I were appointed second lieutenants without having ever been soldiers. So they told Langlois and me that we would stay and eat with aspiring students. Sleeping in a large room with bunk beds did not bother us at all, but for meals we queued with our bowl in front of the Moroccan soldiers who served us. These soldiers seemed stunned to see two officers queuing with the aspiring students who were still soldiers; they had to wonder if we were being punished, and Langlois and I were so embarrassed that after three days we took off our second lieutenant's stripes. This situation seemed to me very unpleasant, I suggested to Langlois that we go and explain it to the commander; as he refused, I went there alone and the commander agreed that he had made a mistake and set us up with the officers as well for sleeping as for meals, so we were taken into the officers' mess.
At the Marrakech School, I had chosen to prepare for the navigation certificate. For this reason, we were taking theoretical courses, which our instructors declared the level of the class of Special Mathematics, but that I found rather the level of the second class. At the same time we were flying as a student navigator or as a passenger, because to obtain the navigation certificate you had to have 100 hours of flight. The planes we were flying on were Leo 45's or Cessna's. Life on the air base was very cheap and 90% of our money was pocket money. Also, each month, after receiving our balance, we went in a group to have a meal at the hotel Mamounia, which was a hotel of very great luxury of world-famous; Churchill had already been there to stay and rest; the meals were excellent and the prices accordingly high. One day I had the opportunity to find Fontanet and Baylé and go with them for a day in Mogador, now named Essaouira; I left without authorization, which I probably would not have obtained, and I learned on the return that I was enrolled that day on the flight board and that the good will of my comrades and the understanding of an instructor had avoided me receiving a punishment. Towards the end of the internship, Langlois was flying as a passenger with a student pilot; he missed the landing and died as also did Langlois. With five other of Langlois' friends I carried his coffin to be interred at the cemetery of Marrakech. On the 18th of August the course was completed; I finished first, which was not too difficult, and received the navigation certificate.
Then I had to do a specialization course and I chose heavy bombers, for which the course was given in Great Britain. On 20 August, I left, with the newly qualified students who had also chosen heavy bombers, for Baraki depot near Algiers. We embarked from Algiers on the 7th of September (1944) for England; we sailed in convoy and arrived at Greenock, Scotland, near Glasgow, on 14th September.
7. Great Britain.
We spent a few days near London in a transit centre called "Patriotic School". In London I accidentally met General Leclerc's pilot who posted the next day, in Paris, the first letter that I could write to my parents since my departure from France. Also in London, on 25 September 1944, I bought a mathematics book: "A Course of Modern Analysis" by Whittaker and Watson; during my stay in Great Britain I studied, with great care, the contents of this book, always with a view to my return to the École Normale. Also during my stay in Britain, I wrote an article on the application of continued fractions to the formation of transcendental numbers; the relations between France and England being restored, I sent this article to my father, who submitted it to the "Revue Scientifique", in which it was published.
After London, I was sent to a centre at Filey, then to Dumfries, Scotland, at the Advanced Training Unit, where I stayed from 10th October to 4th December. Then I was transferred to Lossiemouth, still in Scotland, to a centre called "Operational Training Unit", where I stayed from 2 January 1945 to 9 March. In this centre, crews were trained and we flew at night as a member of the crew. Lossiemouth is located at latitude 58 degrees north and we were in winter; the night began very early, which was very convenient for night flights. Navigators also flew as a second navigator with other crews. I flew one night with an English crew when, on landing, the landing gear broke and the aircraft caught fire as a result of the friction on the runway; all the English managed to get out of one of the emergency exits, which I did not manage to do, all being surrounded by flames; the plane, a Wellington, was made of an aluminium structure covered by canvas; tearing the canvas between aluminium rods, as I am rather thin, I was able to get out too and hear the English crew members wondering among themselves what had become the "French navigator"; we were all safe and sound, but our comrades seeing the plane burn were convinced that we were all dead.
On the 9th of March, the crews from Lossiemouth were sent to a new base to be converted to fly on Halifax, planes on which we were to fly in a war operation. On 5 May 1945, we arrived at the group flying Guyenne planes, one of two groups of heavy bombers of the Free French Forces. We were greeted with a lot of irony and we were full of bitterness to end a difficult adventure that had lasted nearly two years. Three days later Germany signed her unconditional surrender, and the war was over.
We made flights over Germany, we dropped bombs that had become useless into the North Sea; on 18 June 1945, our crew participated in the parade on the Champs-Élysées. From Elvington, Yorkshire, we flew over the Champs-Elysees at the appointed time and came back to Elvington. In July, I was assigned to the precursor detachment which was to prepare the installation of the Guyenne and Gascogne heavy bomber groups in the base of Mérignac, near Bordeaux; it is from this base that, on 17 June 1940, General de Gaulle flew to London! From Bordeaux I was able to spend a few days in Paris to see my parents after 21 months of absence. At Mérignac I prepared the last license certificate I had missed, the certificate of rational mechanics.
Sent to the Centre de Rassemblement et d'Administration du Personnel in Paris, I was demobbed there on 21 October, two years and three days after crossing the Franco-Spanish border. On 24 October, I completed my bachelor's degree by passing the Rational Mechanics certificate, and returned to the École Normale for a second and final year.
Last Updated November 2019