- Contributed by
- Bramley History Society
- People in story:
- Location of story:
- Mons, Arras, Paris, Bordeaux, Bayonne and Plymouth
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bramley History Society and has been added to the website on behalf of Edith, who wishes to remain anonymous, with her permission and she fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Today I live in a small village in leafy Surrey, a long way from my home town of Mons on the French Belgian border.
Mum and I left Mons in early May 1940, just a few days before the Germans arrived in town on May 12th not knowing when or if we would ever see our home or family again. We made for Arras, the nearest large town by foot, taking lifts in civilian or army vehicles & trains and getting machine gunned and bombed along the way.
We arrived in Arras to find the town absolutely flattened to the ground — we walked around the large central square carrying our suitcases and the ground was quaking underneath our feet. I can remember, even today, how the trembling from the impact reached up my legs as far as my knees and the noise of the bombs falling all around us. We took shelter with many other people in the police station and that was when we recognised a voice in another room. It was a friend of ours from Mons protesting to some officials at being accused of being a spy he was about to be shot, but thanks to my Mum speaking out for him, he was freed! We slept on bales of hay that night and soon after set off for Paris with hundreds of others.
There were hundreds of us on the road trailing along like a long snake, pushing carts and carrying belongings — we were an easy target for the Germans and suffered many machine gun attacks. We took whatever transport we could and were turned back many times because our route was blocked, we had no food, drank from muddy puddles and at night slept anywhere we could, often in barns and we could hear the rats scuttling around! When we did find a train to take us part of the way we had to fight to get into the carriage because there were so many of us.
Paris was experiencing its first air raid when we arrived but despite the danger we did some sightseeing as we didn’t know if we would ever return!
It took just over 3 days on board a train from Paris to Bordeaux where some relations lived and we knew we could take shelter. The train journey was tortuous - we were bombed, people died, babies were born and all the time the machine guns raged. We had no money (the Belgian franc was worthless), no water and no food. But my overwhelming memory is the appalling smell generated by those hundreds of people in a confined space.
You can imagine our joy when we arrived in Bordeaux and met up with our relations and what a surprise to see some other family members who had made the long journey south by car.
We stayed in Bordeaux till August and then went on to Bayonne near the Spanish border where we caught the very last boat sailing to Plymouth. I will never forget the sight of the people’s belongings piled high on the quay as we were only allowed to take one suitcase each on board. The ship was very packed, the seats had been removed in order to accommodate more bodies and we sat and slept on the floor. We learned that we were being followed by an Italian submarine and so the Captain adopted a zig zag path to deter the possibility of being hit by a torpedo. At my young age (10 years) I thought this very funny and enjoyed sitting, watching and enjoying the motion! It was another hungry and thirsty journey as we only had the supplies that we carried with us from Bordeaux and while we were on board in the English Channel we learned that France had surrendered to the Germans.
I lost ten years of my childhood during that journey from Belgium to Plymouth! In May I left Mons as a carefree ten year old child but in August when I arrived in England, only three months later, the child had gone.
Our time in Plymouth was difficult. After spending a couple of weeks in a workhouse where our identities were confirmed we were given a little English money and set free! My Mum took a job in an office and I started school but couldn’t communicate with any of the other kids as no-one could speak French, we couldn’t even find a teacher who could understand me. It was a very miserable time but at least we were safe, that was until Plymouth was flattened too by German bombing - hardly a building was left standing and fires raged throughout the city.
Then came the most difficult and upsetting time of all for me, I had to leave my Mum as I was to be evacuated to Cornwall where it would be safer. I stayed with a wonderful family and learnt English with a broad Cornish accent, much to my Mum’s horror! I didn’t see much of Mum because although she was relatively near, transport was very difficult but of course we kept in close contact.
In 1945 we returned to Mons but I returned to England some years later.
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