Newsletter 20 – 2009
By John A Neal
Sixty five years ago, I landed in France due to the attack of a German Fighter Pilot named Heinz Philipzig. For the following five months, while I waited to be rescued, I survived through the courtesy, and bravery, of members of the French Resistance. These people still maintain a large part of my memory all these years later.
There was Albert Potelle, and his lovely wife, of the village of Suzy. They hid me for nearly three weeks while I enjoyed the “Soupe du Pays” created by the wife, and of which I have never tasted the equal since. There was Germain, the daughter (today a Tahon) and the young cousin who, sadly did not make it past the war in Algeria. Then there were the teachers in Bihancourt, whose names I never heard, but who were very kind to me for a week, during which I found that ants and Baguettes have a common housing. Then I spent a month with the Daubercies in Chauny, the man of the family being the local Justice of the Peace. Gladly he was on our side, as I had not arrived on what could be called a peaceful mission. Thankfully his wife Louise, had a fine touch for French cooking. While I did not live there, next door lived the family called Ponchaux. Of particular interest were the two young daughters, the eldest of whom very nearly caused me to change citizenship. Sadly wars had to come first in my priorities.
Then D-Day, and out to a farm at Ugny-le-Gay where seven of us Evaders filled up the haystacks while the ruckus in Normandy sorted itself out. Then out to the village of Bethanourt en Haut where Valeyre Reuns and his wife sheltered three of us until the “Ruckus” came through our region. Glorious Liberation for us, and mainly for the long suffering French people, had arrived.
Along with these few persons who gave me shelter, fed me, and saw to my well-being, were the many other members of the Resistance forces who, not only fought the occupiers, but risked their lives to see me safely back in England, and back to the war that was still being fought. I owe many thanks to all of them, and would like to be present to tell them myself. Sadly, age and health prevent this. However, along with others who were active in the forces of the Resistance, were those who had become victims of the Nazi hordes, but with little hope of retaliation. Such a small group aided me during my walk through France. On my second day, just as dusk was falling, I set out from my hay mound where I had spent the day. By that time I was getting very hungry and decided to take a chance so I could find something to eat. By then I was walking through a small Hamlet which I think was called Cassierres. I spotted two small cottages side by side, which did not appear to be pretentious, or housing any hostile persons. Walking to one house, I knocked on the door. A young lady opened the door, with a few small children at her back. They were all in clothing that could only be described as rags. The house behind her was little more than a hovel. The lady facing me cringed at sight of me, because I was still in uniform.
Opening my mouth, I uttered “Je suis un Aviateur Canadian”, immediately the faces changed to smiles, and I was invited in. One of the children was sent next door, and these residents quickly came into the house. It was smiles all round, but the talk was quite foreign to me, they were not speaking French. They knew just enough, I guess, to understand what I had said, and that I was one of the saviours sent to deliver them.
Quite obviously neither family had much to even feed themselves, but ‘nothing’ would not do, the visitor had to be fed! They found a bottle of wine, with which we toasted victory. They then sat me down to what was the best meal I had had in many days. When I was finished, the lady of the house packaged up food for me to dine on during my future walk, and after some emotional farewells, I walked away into the Foret de St Gobain. What had been a sad time of my life two days before, now had turned into an experience I will never forget. From what I could gather from talking to these people they were all from Poland. They had escaped when the Germans overran their country, and settled in France, only to be overrun a year later. The husbands had been taken away as slave labour.
Unfortunately, the lady of the house had included Linburger cheese in the package, and after some walking, it became evident that the aroma of the cheese was going to give me away. Sadly, it was consigned to the trees where I hoped it may have offered a false trail.
After the war, during visits to France, I tried to find these families but they had departed, probably back home to Poland. However, I do feel that they deserve as much of my thanks as do the members of the French Resistance Forces, who sheltered me, fed me, and became my lifelong friends. They had so little but were glad to share.