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The story of my birth family’s exodus journey in 1940 during the fall of France

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MS Batory

I have been piecing this story together for a few years now with slim writings by my father and information published in Royal Bank newsletters. In the last few weeks I have managed to get many details from books and Royal Navy records I found on the Web.

My father and the family got to Paris in April 1939 because my father had accepted to become Manager of the Royal Bank of Canada at 10 rue, Scribe, or in the centre of Paris.

Since he had left Barcelona in the later part of 1938 when the bombing of that city became a terrifying routine, it may seem today that he had decided to get out of the “frying pan’ in Spain just to jump into the fire (being set by Hitler) in Western Europe, since it was well established by then that the Nazi regime in Poland was harsh and brutal.

But it’s also possible that he put too much faith in the way Somerset Maugham viewed Herr Hitler in 1939, to wit:

During annual trips to Germany he seems not to have noticed the Nazis. Even as late as June 1939, he was still echoing the complacency of his Riviera neighbour, Lord Beaverbrook, that “unless the Germans do something idiotic I think we are safe”.

In September of 1939 Britain, France and then Canada declared war with Germany when it refused a British ultimatum to end its invasion of Poland that was undertaken on Sep 1, 1939. But in spite of war in Finland pitting the Soviets against the Finns, as well as the Nazi invasions of Denmark and Norway, the war did not affect life in Paris until May 1940 when the German Wehrmacht attacked Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France on May 10.

Montage of World War II
Image via Wikipedia

My birth family’s status in France, once it was occupied by the German Nazis, would have been more than uncertain since we were citizens of a belligerant country, Canada, as well as British subjects.

In fact, we could have been imprisoned in France or even Germany if we had been forced to stay on in France after the Armistice signed by the Vichy Government of Marshal Pétain in mid-June 1940. In fact, that was the fate of many Britons who stayed on in France.

Here is the narrative of events that led to our precipitous and dangerous evacuation in late June 1940 from the southwest coast of France somewhere between Biarritz and St-Jean de Luz.

I have interwoven my own re-creation of family events with known historical events. The latter notes are in italics.

  • Armistice in Finland March 12, 1940
  • Takeover of Denmark begins April 9, 1940
  • Invasion of Norway by Allies then Wehrmacht April 9-10
  • Invasion of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Ardennes May 10, 1940
  • Allies move into Belgium Dyle River May 10-11
  • Battles for Meuse crossings at Sedan and Dinant May 12-14

My mother, who was then almost nine months pregnant, left Paris on May 11 or 12 to fetch J-P and Helen, my older brother and sister, who were in schools in and around Verneuil-s-Avre. Annette, the youngest was born in Verneuil on May 16. By then I was well into feeling like ” a displaced child” and there were many like me at that time in France.

I just realized that my little sister was conceived in Sep 1939 when war was declared on Germany after it refused to conform to an ultimatum issued by the British government that Germany evacuate Poland by midnight Sep 2.

The Battle for France 1940 was “shock and awe from the East”. The German blitzkrieg moved at a quick pace through the countries of Western Europe towards Paris and the Atlantic coast of France.

  • Breakouts from Meuse crossings May 14-15
  • Surrender of Holland May 14
  • German Panzer units reach the sea at Abbeville May 21
  • Evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk May 26 to June 4
  • First bombing of Paris industrial suburbs June 3
  • Ministries of French govt leave Paris for Touraine June 10 and arrive same day.
  • They then leave for Bordeaux on June 14.

My father left Paris on June 12 by car, probably at night. Apparently, he arranged for a truck to carry physical assets needed to set up a bank branch in the southwest of France. It’s not clear whether or not this was done with agreement from Royal Bank HQ. But my father was a doer and not a sheepish follower.

After doing more research about conditions for evacuation from Paris in June 1940, I got a picture of a very daunting environment of mass confusion, traffic chaos, as well as death and serious injury from constant and horrifying air attacks by the German Luftwaffe on anything and everything that moved on or off the roads. It is estimated that some 8 million people were on the move to the south and west of Paris during the months of May and June 1940. In fact, many residents of Paris couldn’t leave until June 12-13.

All that I have written here is not part of a family narrative. My parents and older siblings, my sister Helen and brother Jean-Paul, have never said much to me about this exodus from a large civilized country falling into the hands of racist monsters. I have read a wide variety of sources in books and on the Internet to flesh out the bare bones written by my father in his own too brief written memory of these events.

The likely route my father took to Cognac, which was about 600 kms from Paris, must have been to Le Mans (where my mother could have met my father June 13) then to Angers, Cholet, Niort and Cognac by June 16.

After giving birth on May 16 in Verneuil, my mother could have been mobile by May 19. What my mother did, as well as where and how she lived with her children between May 19 and June 13, remains unknown and unrecoverable to me. She no doubt encountered many tribulations since all of France was experiencing a mass exodus of citizens from the north  to the south and west of France from May 10 until well into mid-July. All forms of shelter were restricted and at a premium. Supplies of food and drink were under severe stress in all parts of France south and west of Paris. And local transport including trains, buses and whatever were overcrowded and chaotic given the level of violent air attacks by the German Luftwaffe on every thing that moved.

Ordinary French people were being inundated by rumor, refugees, and lots of frantic aliens who felt they had to find a way out from Nazi occupation. It is likely that shopkeepers and hotel owners would not be very forthcoming with help for a mother of 4 all holding British passports.

  • June 17th – The French Government of Marshal Petain requested armistice terms from Germany and Italy.
  • Cognac was on the wrong side of the German front by June 22.

My father could have left Cognac by June 18-19 again just ahead of the Germans who occupied a front between Angouleme and Bordeaux by June 22. It was on that day that Petain signed the Armistice agreement with the Germans.

  • June 17th – The only major loss during the evacuation from western France was off St Nazaire. Liner “Lancastria” was bombed and sunk with the death of nearly 3,000.

It is possible that my father had booked passage on the SS Lancastria, a Cunard line ship, since it was expected to board civilians and military personnel on or about June 15-16 in St- Nazaire Harbor. She sank off St-Nazaire, after being bombed by German aircraft, on June 17. Fortunately on that day my father was still in Cognac doing his best to get bank operations setup.

  • June 22nd – FRANCE capitulated and the Franco-German surrender document was signed.
  • Its provisions included German occupation of the Channel and Biscay coasts and demilitarisation of the French fleet under Axis control.

Most probably my father was told by British diplomats who were in Bordeaux about the naval operation named Aerial, which Lancastria was a part of. That evacuation operation would be picking up troops and civilians between Bayonne and St-Jean de Luz between June 22 and 25.

It seems possible that we got on one of the following ships sometime between June 22 and 24.

Philippe Pétain (1856-1951)
Image via Wikipedia
  • According to Royal Navy archives anti-aircraft cruiser CALCUTTA (Flag Rear Admiral Curteis, 2nd Cruiser Squadron) and Canadian destroyers FRASER and RESTIGOUCHE patrolled off Bordeaux covering the evacuation of St Jean De Luz where troopships ETTRICK (11,279grt), ARANDORA STAR (15,501grt), BATORY (14,287grt), SOBIESKI (11,030grt) were lifting troops from 22 to 24 June.
  • The convoy departed St Jean De Luz at 1300/24th escorted by destroyers MACKAY and WREN.
  • June 25th  – The Allied evacuation of France ended with 215,000 servicemen and civilians saved, but Operations ‘Aerial’ and ‘Cycle’ never captured the public’s imagination like the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk.
  • On the final day of the evacuation, Canadian destroyer “FRASER” was rammed and sunk by AA cruiser “Calcutta” off the Gironde Estuary leading into Bordeaux.
  • June 25th all hostilities between Germans and French ended officially and the German controlled zone was in effect, including all of France’s Atlantic Coast up to the Spanish-French border.

We probably landed in Plymouth on or about June 26 and made our way to London. My father then made arrangements for our return to Canada on MS Batory from Greenock, Scotland.

  • According to Royal Navy archives on the July 5th, battleship REVENGE met anti-aircraft cruiser BONAVENTURE (Captain H. J. Egerton) and troopships MONARCH OF BERMUDA (22,424grt), SOBIESKI (11,030grt), and BATORY (14,287grt).
  • These five ships, which carried $1,750,000,000 in gold and securities from the Bank of England for safekeeping in Canada, departed Greenock at 0545 on the 5th escorted by destroyer GARTH.
  • The British ships arrived safely at Halifax on the 12th.
  • Troopship BATORY with engine room defects was detached to St John’s, NL escorted by anti-aircraft cruiser BONAVENTURE which then continued on to Halifax.
  • Troopship BATORY arrived at Halifax on the 13th.
  • Monthly Ship Loss Summary mainly by U-Boat torpedoing in July 1940 – 67 British, Allied and neutral ships of 192,000 tons in UK waters.
  • During June and July 1940 German U-Boats were refuelling in Spanish ports of Vigo and El Ferrol.

Here is a link to the wordle from this post.

Here’s my final word in this post. I have recently (2009/11/5) discussed how I must have reacted to this family exodus from Europe under the boot of German Nazis and how I recall I reacted when we got to Canada. A dear friend and professional psychologist suggested to me that for most of my life I was suffering emotionally as a “displaced child”. But I don’t accept that as a free pass into being a victim of uncontrollable forces. Nor would any member of my birth family, if they were all alive.

We survived our bit of hell on earth in France and even in Spain in 1936. But we got out and survived very well thanks, witness that I’m 74 and writing these words with some gusto. I’m very glad that I didn’t live in any kind of prison for civilian aliens in Occupied France until from mid 1940 till later in 1944. And I experienced a lot of nightmare hours as a little boy, teen, young adult and adult. But that was a small psychic price for living that I paid. That has coloured my emotional life and combined with my bipolarism has given me more than my share of emotional zing. SO BE IT!


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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/07/10 at 14:17