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Time Witnesses: The Occupation

...The Germans arrived in impeccable order, with shining unused guns and dressed in new and clean uniforms...

Helene Delattre recalls the day when a German army marched into France.

For more memories of civilians in wartime please visit timewitnesses.org/

We were occupied by the German army.

In 1939, I was 29 I had 4 years old twins, and I was living with my husband, a Headmaster, at Beuvry in the north of France.

Then almost without warning the phrase "Mobilisation Generale" (General Mobilization) was everywhere. It made us shudder, especially for those who remembered WWI. In only a few days, everything was disorganized. All men left including my husband and my brother of just 21 years. All teachers went and all employees from the local authority. It was an indescribable muddle but eventually we got used to it all.

Before the hostilities started, we had the "drole de guerre" (the 'phony' war) which lasted several months when neither side moved from their frontiers.

The French army seemed a bit asleep. It did not remain vigilant. This was the impression that one felt, especially in the night of 9 to 10 May when suddenly the German attack struck us like lightning. Breaking all international laws, they crossed neutral countries such as Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg, they bypassed the Maginot line which was supposed to protect us.

In just a few days the enemy completed their invasion. There was no opposition to them. Our army hardly fired a gun. The Germans arrived in impeccable order, with shining unused guns and dressed in new and clean uniforms. They took immediately all administrative positions, mayoralties, schools, Post Offices, all mail was stopped. They did not steal or plunder, they had plenty of money and bought what they wanted, but shops rapidly sold out of all the essential goods: coffee, flour, butter, wool to knit, etc.

And then the government declared the end of war for us. France was now under the control of Marshal Petain, this man that had been the hero of Verdun in WWI. One heard from England a so called De Gaulle telling us to continue the war. Many thought he was a holy fool... "what does he know of our condition?" and gradually France divided into two rival camps, some for Petain, others for De Gaulle, and in many families one no longer dared to say what one thought, and there were denounciations to the local German authorities which brought terrible reprisals.

Thereafter, our great fear was from the bombing by English and American planes that aimed especially at railways, but many civilians were killed, by miracle none from our family.

So then we waited until 1945 in order that this World War should end. The Germans returned to their homeland, sad and confused, having lost the arrogance of their triumphant arrival.

Do not believe that De Gaulle remained a fool for us. Afterwards we understood that he wasn't. We also understood that Petain delivered France to the Nazis although during the occupation it was not always possible to know this. Quite soon our resistance movement organized itself.

I do not say that the Americans were wrong to have bombed. It was necessary to make the Germans submit.

My husband always thought that it was by the grace of the Americans that twice, in 1914 and in 1939, we have been delivered from our enemy.


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