- Contributed by
- Madeleine F. de Bruijn
- People in story:
- Gabrielle, Margaret and Lillian Coakley, Monsieur Cassé, Mme and Monsieur Charles Balbis, Georges, Ghislaine, Jean-Pierre and Michel Moch This is the harrowing story of my step-mother's internment in France during WW II and her flight across Europe to Britain with her mother and sister, to escape re-internment. All three women were French nationales who by a fluke of fate became enimies of the Third Reich. Decades after the fact, the three women tried to recall and record every pertinent detail. I have presented their story in brief with much of the interesting detail omitted. The longer edition will appear elsewhere.
- Location of story:
- France, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar,North Atlantic and England
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 November 2005
Lillian, Gabrielle and Margaret Coakley June 1940 France
Having fled the bombing of Paris, to Normandy, a family returns to Ville d’Avray, near Paris, once the Germans have occupied France. On December 5, 1940, Gabrielle Coakley (British by marriage) and her two daughters, Margaret (10) and Lillian (5) were rounded up by the Germans, and taken to an internment camp in Besançon, France. Some time before their internment, Mr. Coakley had returned to England to serve in the British armed forces. In the meantime, Gabrielle’s bank account had been frozen by the Germans. Unbeknownst to her, Monsieur Cassé, the tax inspector to whom she had explained her penniless plight, had, via the Resistance, organized a plan to help her escape; however, Gabrielle and her daughters were interned before his plan could be effected. Several decades after their release, the three women recorded what they could recall of that time. This is the much abbreviated version of their flight across Europe to England.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
With shaking hands, Madame Balbis unlocked the metal door to the walled garden of the house she shared with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren. A French policeman and two German soldiers strode past her into the kitchen where Monsieur Balbis and his daughter Gabrielle stood in their dressing gowns.
“We want Madame Coakley!” barked one soldier, “and her children. In two hours, we fetch you.”
‘My grandchildren can’t go with you,’ Balbis said. ‘They’re school girls. Take me.’
‘Nein! It must be Madame Coakley.’
‘Please, don’t try to escape,’ pleaded the policeman left to guard them. “I you do, they’ll take me.’
Not two hours but several hours later, a bus arrived to collect them. ‘Hold your heads high!’ Mme Balbis instructed them. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong! Don’t cry! Don’t show emotion!’
They spent the evening in an icy bus rounding up people and ending up on a side track of the Versailles train station. Packed into a sweltering, unlit wooden train compartment, the Coakleys trod on people in the aisles before finding a bench. Patrolling soldiers slammed shut the doors the passengers had opened to let out the heat. All night they travelled, hot, thirsty and hungry until six a.m. when they arrived in…Versailles!
Mid morning, the train departed a second time then stopped on a side track at Saint Georges, while military trains rolled by. People begged the railway workers for water and to mail notes to their families. Not knowing where they were going, with no access to food, water or toilets the train travelled four nights and days before they arrived at three a.m. on December 10, 1940 in Besançon.
“Raus! Raus!” the Germans pushed everyone onto a truck which made repeated trips to Stalag 142, (a former barrack) and dumped them in huge rooms with straw mats covering the concrete floors.
Left to scrounge for food, they found discarded tin cans, in which they melted snow on the stove in their quarters—that was their first meal. At nine, with lights out, they lay on bug-infested pallets while rats ran over them till breakfast.
Breakfast— roasted acorn coffee and bread .
Lunch--a tin plate with lard smeared on it, a watery soup with something floating in it and more ‘coffee’.
After lunch, coarse grey army blankets were doled out, which they held spread to catch straw-like mouldy black bread, thrown from a window. In their ‘room’, they scraped off the mould and made ‘toast’.
Dinner—some kind of ‘jam’ and a spoonful of lard that many threw away. For this ungrateful behaviour the water was cut for three days--thus back to melted snow. (Later, they peeled potatoes for the soldiers but received none themselves.)
People got dysentery; those too sick to get to the toilets, a hole in the ground four stories down, outside and across the courtyard, left excrement on the stairs and everywhere else.
After fifteen days (without a bath or change of clothes) Lillian caught chicken pox, forcing the Coakleys to spend Christmas alone in an infirmary room meant for ten people. It wasn’t such a hardship since they had real beds and a bath. The German camp doctor, (there was also a Polish POW doctor) tried to extend their respite. At Christmas, a POW soldier left two newsprint paper dolls on the girls’ beds. Also an open truck appeared with a news camera mounted and rolling to record the Germans offering the children oranges—but they refused them.
The prisoners organized a Christmas show about life in a POW camp. The camp commandant and officers attended, applauded and laughed at times but walked out when everyone sang La Marseillaise.
In March, when women with children were allowed to leave, they were taken to the train station where they saw trains full of wounded German soldiers, bandaged like the mummies.
In Dijon, they received a Red Cross a package and changed trains for La Gare de Lyons but arrived during the curfew which forced them to overnight on a table provided by the Salvation Army, who also gave Gabrielle money to take the train home. Arriving unannounced, the Balbis fell back in shock but that night the Coakleys slept in beds, with pillows and sheets!
Under house arrest, Gabrielle signed an act of presence daily in the Sèvres police station, an hour’s walk each way. Hearing from all sides that she’d be caught and re-interned, Gabrielle revisited Monsieur Cassé. This time he put her in touch with the police inspector in Chaville who provided her with a contact in Paris who organized another escape. He also confiscated all her ID and her camp release papers, so as not to compromise her should they be found on her. This meant travelling with her father using old ID papers under her maiden name. Now the whole family was on the run. No one could be left behind as hostage or punishment.
To avoid the family being caught together, Mme Balbis, Margaret and Lillian left first for Nevers. There, Mme Balbis applied for a permit to cross the Line of Demarcation, with a letter stating her daughter was desperately ill in the unoccupied zone. The German officer refused her permission because, he explained, she had to apply in Paris, from whence she came; thus grandmother and grandchildren went to a local hotel and waited till the Resistance contacted them.
Two teachers, a man and a woman, ,who crossed the Line of Demarcation daily, to teach, had a special permit. The girls pretended to be their children and were dropped off on the other side in Sançoin with two sisters (relatives of the man in Paris), where they waited for their grandmother to join them. Days later, after a secretive, perilous crossing Mme Balbis joined her grandchildren, rested a few days, then travelled to Nice where her daughter, Ghislaine was living with her husband and two sons.
Once Balbis and Gabrielle got word that Lillian, Margaret and their grandmother had safely passed, they started out. Playing for time, Gabrielle, claiming she was ill and in need of rest, arranged with a French policeman in Sèvres to allow her to sign her act of presence for two days running.
‘I never found out what happened to that policeman,’ she said. ‘I hope he wasn’t killed for his kindness.’
Gabrielle and Balbis left for La Gare Lyons, but too late to avoid the curfew, they spent the night in a in a hotel where they were asked to officially record their travels. Balbis invented an itinerary which he spoke out loud as if in thought, while his daughter recorded it, on her form, thus keeping their stories identical.
The next morning, they boarded the train to Saint Pierre le Moutier. Luckily, the Germans checking papers in the train did not demand theirs. They disembarked at their destination and went into a village café where the locals observed these two suspicious strangers ask their way to the local bank.
The bank manager told them to follow the road in front of the bank until they met a young boy with a bicycle. ‘Tell him you come from the bank and do what he says.’
They walked an interminable distance before they saw a young boy with a bicycle.
Gabrielle nudged her father. ‘I hope it’s this one.’
The boy approached.
‘Bonjour,’ Balbis said. ‘We’ve come from the bank.’
‘Okay, follow me,’ the boy replied.
They followed him to the gatehouse door of a large property where a man lead them to a room with five other people. All seven waited several hours in silence until dark. Then without light, they were lead through a park, a field and some woods, until they came to a river where they stood wordlessly. Two men arrived and quietly floated a submerged boat. Everyone got in and crossed the river to the free zone; however not without incident. One of the passengers, a drunken American, knocked Gabrielle’s suitcase into the river. He also tried to light a cigarette (no one knew why) but was knocked out cold by one of the Resistance.
In Nice, Gabrielle stayed with her brother-in-law Georges Moch (a jeweller), who had been demobilized in the unoccupied zone and had found a tiny apartment there; he eventually shared with his wife and two sons, his parents-in-law, his sister-in-law and her two daughters.
Georges’ wife joined him from Paris with much of his stock concealed about her body and in her baby’s milk bottle. Being a Jew, Georges was not entitled to practise his profession. He was detained overnight and interrogated on one occasion before he hid with his family (including his in-laws) in the mountains for the rest of the war.
Food was rationed and scarce, but it was in Nice the family saw their first potatoes in ages. The charwoman’s husband stole seed potatoes from the fields where he worked. Jean Pierre, the baby, ate them mashed while everybody stood watching him.
With white over-refined flour from America, they made a tasteless baguette. Because of the baby, Ghislaine was allowed to line up several times a week for a half pint of milk. Everyone watched her and her mother skim the cream (when there was any) off the milk, and churn it into butter with a fork—the result—a dessert spoon of butter.
When not lining up or scrambling for food, Gabrielle’s family schemed to leave France. Refugees were passing through Spain by train to Portugal and from there to England. Via a family friend, who worked in the Prefecture, Gabrielle got new identity papers. Never having been to England, she did not relish the long trip; nevertheless, she decided to leave immediately. Georges lent her money for a ticket to the border; thereafter, the British Consulate lent her money for the rest of the journey to Portugal. Often, they’d be a representative from Thomas Cook on the platforms along the way, who’d provide refugees with enough money for the next lap.
They left on a hot June day, so hot everyone in the train left the windows open, but since the train was stoked with wood, the soot and ashes flew in and left everyone looking like chimney sweeps. Because they had travelled squashed in place with men sleeping as they stood or in lying in the aisles, upon arrival, their only exit was via the train’s windows. In Barcelona, the British Consulate found them a hotel room and lent them money for fourth class train tickets to Madrid. Prior to crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border everyone was strip searched for smuggled goods. Gabrielle had her sunglasses confiscated.
In Lisbon, the consulate placed the Coakleys in a foul-smelling cockroach-infested hotel that the kids, who had never seen cockroaches before, crunched underfoot on the way to the toilet at night. At the consulate, Gabrielle met the wife of one of her husband’s former colleagues who arranged for the Coakleys to take her soon-to-be vacated room while they waited for a passage to England by ship. Gabrielle had tried to arrange passage by aeroplane but couldn’t get three tickets together.
They boarded a merchant ship, the S.S. Aguila, on July first or second. It was carrying cork.
Except for a bout of seasickness during their twenty-seven days at sea, being on board was the best part of the whole escapade and the least worrisome. They stayed in one place and knew where they were going. After all they had been through, it was like a holiday. They played shuffle board, had three-legged races, children to play with and best of all, good food.
However, Gabrielle realized every morning on the deck, when they counted the ships in the convoy, something could happen—they could loose it all. One passenger tied her six children to her waist, to ensure that if they went down she wouldn’t lose anyone. A Czech woman who never spoke to anyone but remained on deck while the rest ate was thought to read the Morse code the ships exchanged. In England, she was arrested.
The convoy formed in Gibraltar where they stayed several days, going ashore once where they saw the Ark Royal which the Germans had claimed they’d sunk. (Later, they did.) To avoid German submarines the merchant ship zigzagged its way to England, thus they endured several climate changes. For most of the voyage, a Dutch submarine would surface each day to send a message to the children on board. The last day before leaving the convoy, the submarine came close to the S.S. Aguila with all the crew on deck to wave goodbye then submerged and disappeared.
The Coakleys’ cabin was deep below the deck. If attacked, they hadn’t a chance. They were supposed to wear life belts all the time, but didn’t in bed because they couldn’t sleep with them on, so they kept them beside the bed. Had there been an alert, they wouldn’t have had time to put them on.
At one point during the voyage when they heard a tremendous banging against the boat, perhaps torpedoes glancing off the boat or the vibration of depth charges, Captain Frith told them not to worry, it was only whales chasing them away. Owing to the cork on board, they laugh nervously and say, ‘Well, if we sink we'll float.’
Liverpool July 29, 1941
As Gabrielle went down the ladder to get onto the launch to go to shore, her over stuffed suitcase burst open. A sailor helped her push everything back in. they were taken to a huge hanger, where men in army, navy and air force uniforms were sitting at little tables. The Coakleys went from one table to another showing any papers they had. The men wanted to know who they were, where they came from, what they had seen. They also wanted information about occupied France, e.g. if they’d seen any troop movement, any Germans, how many? Afterwards, the Red Cross took them to another location with long tables laden with tea and food.
After their tea, they left Liverpool and were taken by train to a Salvation Army hostel in Leeds, where they spent the night on stretchers. The next morning, after washing at a long table the wash basins were removed, and they ate breakfast at the same table.
Gabrielle felt lost. She didn’t know where she was or where her husband was. After breakfast, a policeman came for her and it was explained to her that he wanted to take her to the police station. She didn’t know why, but let him do it. There, she was directed to an office where another policeman, sitting at a desk told her there was someone who was going to talk to her. He then rang up someone and handed the phone to Gabrielle.
It was her husband. Flabbergasted all either of them could say was:
‘You are in Leeds,’ Coakley said. ‘Stay there, I'll come.’
When Gabrielle’s husband arrived, he was leaning on two canes and wearing a blue hospital issue uniform. Gabrielle knew nothing of his nine-month hospitalization.
While driving without lights during an air raid, the driver rammed a truck parked on the road and was killed. Coakley thrown free of the car, lay on the road for five hours with a broken leg and pelvis.
After their brief stay in Leeds, the Coakleys went to Ashton-in-Makerfield, and lived above a tobacco shop owned by Mr. and Mrs. Whitehill until they found a fully furnished house in Southport.
Unsure they wanted to rent to a family with children, Mrs. Lang, the elderly owner, and her daughter invited the Coakleys to tea (served by a maid) before deciding. Saying she would let them know, the Coakleys left the house, walked to the gate, closed it and were on the road when the daughter came running out and asked if they would please come in again?
‘Yes you can have the house,’ Mrs. Lang said.
They had passed.
Never seeing the owners again, the Coakleys lived in Southport for five years. Gabrielle resumed her role as wife and mother, while the girls went to school. Mr. Coakley collected a disability pension until he was put back in uniform, but without rank and stationed in London. First, he worked for the BBC, receiving and sending messages to occupied countries, Denmark in particular because he spoke Danish. Then, he was recruited by SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force).
Mrs. Coakley died in 2003, aged 97, in Canada. This summary of her escape and the book that will follow is dedicated to her.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.