Today’s blog marks the beginning of a series on the Nazi Occupation of France during World War Two. We’ll talk about how the Germans took France by storm and recount the personal stories of several French people still alive in 2023.
When I first met Mr. René Avril, I found a kind and gentle man—mostly deaf and blind—who’d lived a long and fulfilling life despite a beginning wrought by war even before his birth. He was eager to talk about the war and told story after story of surviving the Nazi occupation.
Born near Saint-Malo, Brittany in June 1931, Mr. Avril came into the world when France still had not recovered from World War I. Every French man, woman, or child had lost someone. Not long after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, they knew another war was coming. “Everyone knew it, and everyone feared it,” he said.
The knowledge another war was inevitable set the stage for the events in May and June 1940 when the German Army made a surprise assault north of the Maginot Line. Named after the French Minister of War, André Maginot, France built a series of concrete fortifications and weapons installations, then filled them with special ops troops during the 1930s to defend France’s border along Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Italy.
The French had scaled back fortifications on the Maginot line north of Saarbrücken, which ran through rugged forested terrain where no one expected an attack. But, it was the perfect place for the Germans to break through French defenses, sending them southward in retreat. By the time German troops arrived in Paris on June 14, 1940, 1.8 million French soldiers were taken as prisoners of war—ten percent of the adult male population. Over a hundred thousand died.
Mr. Avril was nine years old when the German Army marched west and south, capturing most of the north of France and Paris. Like most French people in Brittany, his family was poor; their house had seven people, three bedrooms, four beds, and no running water. But they had a magnificent garden with vegetables and hens and enjoyed the company of friendly neighbors.
Once the Germans occupied the land, farmers’ lives became harder as German soldiers requisitioned the farmland, requiring farmers to yield a part of their crops to the German Army. Ordinary French citizens received the leftovers, which barely filled their stomachs.
As children, Mr. Avril and his friends tried to get news from the BBC. But soon, the Germans forbade wireless in French homes. Still, they heard the news from other sources passed along through the grapevine.
School-age children attended school, but a massive shortage of teachers made education difficult. Also, Germans requisitioned school buildings. Though the building where Mr. Avril attended was a beautiful facility, the Germans turned it into a hospital. Mr. Avril recalled the first time he returned in the fall of 1944 after the liberation. The building smelled like disinfectant, having been cleaned by American and French soldiers, removing materials Germans left behind, like their jackboot grease.
The French can attribute much of their resilience during the war to the French Resistance—the Maquis. Most of the one hundred thousand of them, by the war’s end, were farmers and peasants who wished to avoid conscription into the German military. Their stealth methods and brave actions saved countless lives—French, Jewish, and Allies alike.
Mr. Avril’s favorite uncle worked as a spy in Lorient, but unfortunately, he and forty of his compatriots received the death sentence when German soldiers discovered them. Though a sad loss, pride seemed to rise in Mr. Avril’s voice for an uncle who helped them win the war.
When the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, news of their arrival traveled like wildfire. The troops couldn’t advance, and Mr. Avril (now thirteen) and his friends discussed tactics. They knew General Patton led the front lines and suggested among themselves that he should attack west, as the peninsula was west, and no help could come by sea for the Germans. Then, when Patton did exactly as they had discussed, they declared him a genius. “He was a man I admired.” Mr. Avril’s blind eye twinkled.
In early August, Mr. Avril heard his aunt shout from another room, “They’ve arrived!” Of course, they were excited the Allies had entered Brittany. But they were also worried. It could mean battles nearby. Indeed, a significant battle occurred in Saint-Malo in which the Allies won, capturing Germans holding out in underground foxholes. But the battle destroyed the coastal town, making it a heap of stone, as with many towns along the way.
Mr. Avril’s family watched from their garden as German convoys migrated west on neighboring roads, hoping to hold off the Allies in the coastal town of Brest. But the Americans were more powerful. At first, the community was scared when they heard the noisy roar of American airplanes—P-47 Thunderbolts descending rapidly from the sky. But soon, they realized that if the planes descended, they were attacking Germans and would say in French, “Good riddance!” Mr. Avril said the words with exuberance. “It was a happy moment.”
In the post-war years, rebuilding ruined towns was a priority. Everyone participated. Mr. Avril’s father, a smith, repaired the ironwork on a railroad bridge. They also gathered piles of rubble into trucks and airplanes and dumped them into the ocean. The change was rapid, and life became a new normal.
When I asked my final question of Mr. Avril what message he wanted to leave the young people today, he didn’t hesitate. He wanted them to know that Marshal Philippe Pétain, President of Hitler’s Vichy government, had given in to the enemy. “These people were creatures of the Nazis; they helped them; they saved the industry to work for Germany … Pétain was against the resistance … [he] met Hitler and shook hands with him. He was a collaborator from the beginning.”
Mr. Pétain was tried as a collaborator and sentenced to death in August 1945. His sentence was immediately commuted to life in solitary confinement. He lived the rest of his life in a fortress on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast and died at the age of 95.
This blog post orignally appeared on December 4, 2023 on the Hero, Heroines, and History Blogsite at www.hhistory.com. It is the beginning of a series focusing on three women and one gentleman I interviewed in Libourne, France in October for my World War II slip-time novel. Though the interviews were part of my research, I discovered something of more inestimable value—how listening to their stories brings joy and dignity to them, as well as providing lessons that give context to our lives that we would miss if we never heard their stories. I will always be glad to have had the chance to get to know these people, regardless of what happens to my slip-time novel in the future.