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Journey of Escape in 1940icon for Recommended story

by Rakaia

Contributed by 
Rakaia
People in story: 
Mr C.Wennberg, Mrs W.Wennberg, Mr D.H.C.Wennberg, Mrs F.Wennberg
Location of story: 
Europe
Article ID: 
A2212228
Contributed on: 
18 January 2004

JOURNEY OF ESCAPE IN 1940

This is a story that has been told to me on many occasions by two people involved; my grandmother and my father. It is a journey they undertook in the summer of 1940 accompanied by my grandfather and great grandmother from Dinard in France to Stockholm in Sweden. The journey was to take over two months, travelling through three occupied countries and Germany itself. It is a story that is neither heroic nor sensational and, certainly not amusing, but I believe it is a story worth telling, if only to emphasis the point of how many lives were disrupted by the war. Alas, none of them are alive today to write the story for you but I am very fortunate to have not only my grandmother’s dairy but also her papers from a talk she used to give about the journey. I also possess copies of the German documents issued to the family along with some incredible photographs. They are of my father, who was seven at the time, standing in the Place de la Concorde with German military vehicles and swastikas flying from the buildings behind him.

My grandfather was a Swedish national who was involved in the business of importing and exporting timber. He married my English grandmother in 1932 and my father was born in 1933. In the spring of 1940 they were staying with my grandfather’s French mother at her house in St Jacut de la Mer, near Dinard. She had broken a leg some months earlier and was bed ridden with it in plaster so the family were looking after her. Then, on May 10th, Germany invaded Holland and Belgium. The weather was glorious with day after day of brilliant sunshine and hot temperatures which encouraged the family to visit the beach. However, the family were becoming more and more anxious day by day as the news from the front became more and more depressing. Within days of the invasion, they saw Dutch, Belgium and then French refugees begin to arrive in large numbers in Brittany. The cars they drove were overloaded with possessions and mattresses on top to protect them from air attack and were also used to sleep on when unable to find any shelter. Many told stories of being attacked from the air, packed roads and towns in flames. However, there was still a very strong belief that France would win. At the same time my grandmother was concerned for a cousin of hers who was serving in the BEF. Alas, he was killed on May 27th and she learnt of his death from his parents in England via a letter on June 8th , so interestingly one could still communicate with England.

With the Germans having entered Paris by mid June, the family decided to go to the British Consul in St Malo to obtain visas for England. They found the town in a complete state of confusion, over crowded with British troops arriving from England and heading off eastwards only to re-embark at Cherbourg. The Consul himself was besieged by many people wanting to escape to England but there was nothing he could do. Indeed, the last ship for England left that very same day. So the family could only return home and wait for the inevitable arrival of the Germans. Three days later, on orders from the Southern Railway Company who owned the port facilities in St Malo, the quays, dock facilities and oil installations were blown up. This could be seen and heard for many miles and so the last escape link to England was severed. The next day German troops arrived.

The family finally decided to return to Sweden but this was easier said than done. They did not imagine how long and troublesome the journey would be. The first hurdle to overcome was to obtain travel permits from the Germans. Several visits had to be made to the local German Commandant who was now comfortably installed in the best hotel in Dinard. At last, a piece of paper stamped with the swastika was issued authorising their departure within four days and allowing them to purchase enough petrol to reach Paris. The next three days were spent packing and storing their belongings and saying farewell to many friends. On Sunday July 7th they left St Jacuet-de-la-Mer, in a hired car with a driver, bound for Paris. Their own car had been sold in order to raise some ready cash and they had obtained some French francs advanced to them by the local bank against a cheque drawn on a bank in London. This cheque was not presented until after the war.

On the way to Paris there was practically no traffic apart from enormous convoys of German vehicles, about 50 to a convoy and each one with a trailer. Many of these appeared to be carrying the booty of war back to Germany. Otherwise there was nothing unusual to be seen and indeed few signs of damage. However there were a great number of French cars lying in ditches which, having run out of petrol, had been abandoned by their owners and the advancing Germans had merely pushed them off the road.

The family arrived in Paris at about 7pm, having taken just one day to complete the journey from Dinard. The first necessity was to find a hotel, but most hotels had either been requisitioned by the Germans or were unable to provide meals. Eventually, after many rebuffs, they found rooms at the Hotel Castile, just opposite The Ritz. The rooms were certainly first class but the food available was not. Fresh food, such a vegetables, eggs, milk and fish were no longer available so the lack of fresh food was already being felt.

The next fortnight was spent awaiting permission from the German authorities to continue their journey. The Swedish Consul in Paris worked unceasingly to obtain permission for the family to travel further. The family also went to see the American Consul for assistance but were told there was no hope of them going to America. Paris itself was very quiet as about two million inhabitants had fled. There was no traffic in the streets, no taxies, buses or private cars. Only the Metro was running and, of course, German vehicles. Indeed, the Place de la Concorde was designated a large car park reserved for German military vehicles only. The Germans had introduced an artificially fixed rate of exchange - 20 Francs to 1 Reich mark — which weighed heavily in their favour. This of course allowed many Germans to buy anything and everything they could lay their hands on, such as food, clothes and shoes. Very soon there was not even one pair of stockings left. However the family were amused by some German women, presumably wives of high ranking officers, who were disporting themselves in newly acquired but ill-assorted outfits. To help pass the time of day my grandmother took my father to watch the Guignols, akin to Punch and Judy shows which greatly amused my father. It was during their stay in Paris that my father celebrated his seventh birthday but he did not receive any presents as there was nothing to buy. The only thing he did receive were a few sweets.

Eventually another piece of paper signed by a highly placed German called Dr Von Schaeffer was given to the family. This allowed them to continue their journey but only as far as Brussels. This meant that the family had to move hotel in order to be close to the Gare du Nord. They had to report for their train at 4 o’ clock on a Sunday morning despite the train not departing for another two hours. My family remember how such a small detail became complicated as they not only had to find a new hotel but also move across Paris with all their luggage. Fortunately the hotel owner came to their rescue, found a hotel and even drove them himself across Paris in his own car to their new hotel.

So it was in the eerie light of dawn on July 21st that the family found themselves on a platform at the Gare du Nord. To their horror, they discovered that they would be the only civilians travelling on a German troop train all the way to Brussels. The station was already crowded with hundreds of German soldiers with guns and large packs. They were all very happy and excited as most were returning to Germany for some leave. My grandmother suffered one petrifying moment when a German soldier, intrigued by the sight of a small boy amongst all the soldiers, took my father on his lap and started to talk to him in German. My father fortunately kept his head and replied only in French (he could speak English as well) so the conversation soon lapsed, much to the relief of my grandmother. When eventually the signal was given to board the train, there was a stampede. The family tried to fight their way through a heaving mass of soldiers, guns, helmets and back packs but it was a fearful experience. Eventually, a German official came to their aid, saw that they had a valid permit and escorted them onto the train where he found them four seats close together.

Slowly the train pulled out of the station but what should have been a three and a half hour journey took nearly fourteen hours. This was because of the huge amount of damage that had been done to the railways by the recent fighting. The train crawled over temporary bridges, through burnt out stations and past large numbers of destroyed locomotives, coaches and freight wagons. During a stop at Cambrai some red Cross workers, who were very surprised to see a small child on board a troop train, gave my father some milk, something the family had not seen for weeks. It was late in the evening when the train finally reached Brussels. The whole family were totally worn out but still had to find a hotel to stay in. They enlisted the help of a Belgium railway porter who asked where they were going. They replied Germany but did not understand his quizzical look as if to say “That’s what you think!”. Little did the family realise that they would be spending two months in Brussels trying to get permission to enter Germany.

At first the family stayed in a hotel, but it soon became apparent that they could be in for a long wait and so to save what funds they had, they moved to a “pension.” They were the only civilians staying at the pension; the other rooms were occupied by German officers and administrative officials. They were, by all accounts, very polite and often treated the family to “Heil Hitler.” However, the family found it amusing to hear the Germans rushing helter-skelter down to the cellars every time there was an air raid warning. These occurred quite often and the family could hear gunfire and distant bombing at night but Brussels itself was very quiet. The lack of food was more keenly felt in Brussels than in Paris so each morning my grandmother would go out and see if she could obtain extra food. Skimmed milk could be found as well as plums which were plentiful as the British market no longer existed. One day, my grandfather was buying a paper when the Belgium newsvendor caught sight of an English Farthing amongst the small change in his hand. The Belgian said in a loud voice in English, “God save the King sir”.

There was of course no news from England and no means of sending any. The family knew nothing about the progress of the war, except what the official German bulletins told them. Occasionally they did hear whispered denials of these bulletins from Belgians who dared to listen to the BBC in secret. At this stage of the war the Gestapo were not much in evidence, but my grandmother did witness them carry out a raid on some newspaper offices and carry off files and furniture. The trams were still running around the city so it was possible to take a few excursions into the surrounding countryside. On August 15th the whole family spent the day at the vast park of Terveuren. Whilst in the park they watched the tremendous activity in the air as wave after wave of German aircraft passed overhead on its way to attack Britain.

The lovely summer evenings dragged on and the family began to despair, feeling themselves trapped in Brussels. My grandfather constantly visited the Swedish Consul who was doing his best, even undertaking a journey to Berlin to try and enlist the help of the Swedish Embassy, but to no avail. The Germans, it appears, were much too busy to bother about them as they had other people to deal with. Fortunately for the family there were several other Swedes who found themselves in the same plight. Most were engineers, businessmen and, in particularly, sailors who had been shipwrecked. The sailors had all been collected together at a seaman’s refuge in Antwerp, where they were making a thorough nuisance of themselves. Every night they were getting drunk and brawling with the Germans which resulted in some of the Germans being thrown into the harbour. At last the Germans saw the advantage of getting rid of these sailors and the Consul was allowed to prepare a list of all those who wished to return to Sweden, about 60 people in all. A communal passport was prepared, checked and passed by the German authorities. The passport was entrusted to a Swedish engineer who was put in charge of the whole party. The party naturally called him the “Fuhrer” and he lead the party to Sweden.

The date of departure was Monday 9 September; there were no taxies in Brussels so the family had to get to the departure on foot in pouring rain. The convoy consisted of two coaches and a truck which left Brussels at about 9am and drove to Antwerp to collect the sailors. The convoy then continued through Holland and arrived at the German frontier at Aachen at about 6pm. The party endured a long delay while the papers were rigorously examined but once that was over they were allowed to enter Germany and no one took any further notice of them. At Aachen railway station the family ate their first good meal in two months, as there were no shortages in Germany. The party then boarded the night train to Berlin but it was a night of agitation and little sleep because of frequent air raid alerts. The train was held up outside Cologne for a long time because of a British bombing raid. My grandmother remembered thinking that if they were all killed, no one would ever know what had happened to them.

Nevertheless by dawn they were near Berlin. On arrival at Friedrichstrasse Station, a Swedish embassy representative was waiting for them and he helped them to find taxies to take them across Berlin to Stettiner Station. The family saw only a brief glimpse of Berlin as it was before it was largely destroyed during the latter part of the war. The party arrived at the station just in time to catch the one daily train to Stettin and Stralsund on the Baltic coast. This was definitely encouraging for the family and they began to feel much more cheerful. This part of the journey was really pleasant, with agreeable companions and an interesting countryside to look at and soon they were all the best of friends. The train guard in the family’s section of the train was assiduous in his attentions to those of the group travelling in first class. It was thanks to him that my grandfather was able to make an advantageous exchange of Reich Marks into Swedish Crowns. As the train wound its way down into the town of Sassnitz they could see the Swedish ferry boat far below in the harbour. A tremendous shout of joy went up from everyone, but once again there were more delays. The Germans seemed unwilling to relinquish them and poured endlessly over their papers and the communal passport. Finally came the signal for embarkation and unbelievable relief for the family. Once on board they found that a delicious meal was waiting in the dinning room which everyone fell upon with great gusto.

The crossing was very calm and standing on deck in the clear evening light, the family watched the coastline of Hitler’s Germany fade away. They felt the tension and fears of the past months also ebb away, while below deck, in the salon, great jubilation was going on which lasted until the ferry berthed at Trelleborg. At last the family felt really safe and after a night at a local hotel, they took the train to Stockholm and the journey was over. They stayed in Sweden until the war ended, travelling to England in 1946

As a tailpiece, about four weeks after the family’s arrival in Stockholm, my grandfather received an official letter via the diplomatic bag from the Germany commandant in Brussels requesting that the family appear before him with visas for Germany and Sweden in order to obtain permission for them to leave Belgium.

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