- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Edna Hodgson
- Location of story:
- Rheims and Paris 1945
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 February 2004
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Edna Stafford and has been added to the site with her husband Bill Stafford's permission. Bill Stafford fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
"In early February 1945 rumours were going around that we could be on the move and on the morning of 19th February 1945, we were up early and in a convoy bound for Rheims. We arrived about 3 p.m. feeling very tired and dirty, but after a wash and something to eat, we were looking upon the journey as another experience. Rheims is a dusty town, due I was told, to the fine earth making it particularly suitable for vineyards and as a result being looked upon as the centre of the Champagne Industry. There is also a lovely Cathedral built in 1241, which suffered fire damage in 1481. After rebuilding it, it is still considered one of the most beautiful works of the Middle Ages, with many Royal ceremonies having been conducted within its walls. Naturally we went to the Champagne factory and as we left, each of us was presented with a bottle. The Americans fitted up beer gardens where we could spend an evening dancing etc. as at that time, it was considered unsafe for service girls to go out alone after dark.
There were hundreds of German prisoners stationed in camps near by and every evening they were marched to their tea, which meant them passing over the local rail bridge below our windows. They seemed never-ending, and to look down on them from the office windows, the comment was “Where was the so-called "Master race"?”. Also in the town were numerous coloured Americans and they were put in charge of the prisoners.
We did not stay long in this part of France but the time spent there was indeed interesting for, as the world knows, the war ended on the 8th May 1945. There was great activity going on - the various armies were moving quickly forward to Berlin - Russians, Americans and British. As at the commencement of the Second Front when people were wondering how long before things began to happen, so everyone was wondering how long it would be before the Germans conceded defeat.
Towards the end of April 1945 and the first few days of May 1945, German Officers could be seen visiting "the Little Red School" in Rheims. American M.Ps and the R.A.F. S.Ps guarded all doors and entrances and one could not pass in or out without a careful scrutiny of one's pass. There was an air of excitement about the place and word was passed around that some very high ranking officers were expected at the school.
In the early hours of the morning, the German Army Chief of Staff, General Jodl, had surrendered to Gen. Montgomery and other officers, such as Gen Bedell Smith, who was deputy to Gen. Eisenhower, and his chief of Staff. What had taken place in the early hours of the morning of 7th May 1945 was to be read about later in the newspapers in some detail.
In the afternoon however, Gen. Jodl arrived, together with Admiral Doenitz, and I understand, Admiral Friedeburg. There was also a Russian Officer looking very smart in his mauve uniform with polished belt and buttons, and gold braided epaulettes on his shoulders. As each officer came into the building so they were saluted by the Military Police and this was acknowledged.
Gen. Eisenhower and A.C.M. Tedder were also around but it was not until later that they met up with Gen. Jodl and Admiral Friedeburg. Gen. Jodl was dressed in his impressive uniform which was accentuated by the wearing of highly polished black knee length boots. He was the German Chief of Staff throughout the War and months later he was convicted as a war criminal at the Nuremburg trials and hanged.
After a few hours they began to leave the building and to avoid the crowds of interested civilians waiting outside, their respective cars drew up in the square at the rear of the school. Overlooking this square was a balcony and again we had a good view of what was taking place. Gen. Eisenhower and A.C.M Tedder both were driven away and within a few minutes the Russian Officer left. Then a car with drawn blinds drew up and we could see the German Officers, with brief cases under their arms, being hustled into the car, and with a wail of sirens from their escorts, they vanished out of sight.
It was a lovely sunny day and after they had all gone, we stood on the balcony talking about the day's events and whom we had seen. It was a day I shall never forget. When reading about the events of the previous 12 hours, it gave me a strange feeling to have been there at some part and to have witnessed some of the comings and goings. Signals were flashed to all parts of the world as the following day, the 8th May, was to be formally known as V.E. Day, with Mr Churchill making his speech from London and General De Gaulle to the French nation. Of course, His Majesty King George VI had spoken to the British Commonwealth.
All that remained now was to try and get things sorted out which would be a problem in itself, but more particularly to have the war with the Japanese ended as quickly as possible. It was not over for the soldiers in the East who were still suffering. The 8th May was another lovely day, symbolic of Peace, so it seemed, and as the hour of 3.00 pm drew near for his speech, groups of people, both indoors and out, gathered round any available wireless set. We were gathered in one of the offices and suddenly everyone became quiet. Our office overlooked the railway bridge and local streets, and I recall looking round at people close to me, catching the eyes of one or two, and it seemed as if the same expression of thankfulness and pleasure could be read in each, in a silent sort of way. Glancing out of the open window even the buildings seemed to reflect the atmosphere.
Of course, as soon as Mr Churchill had announced that the world that the War in Europe had ended, whistles, sirens and anything that could make a noise was sounded. People in the street kissed and hugged each other but the most poignant noise I thought, was the sound of the last "All Clear". It seemed to go on and on, and I thought about all the "All Clear" sirens I had previously heard when air raids had finished, and people emerged from underground shelters, or even houses to take stock of the damage done.
Now that the War had ended, we were very slack as of course there were no more reports to be typed out as to bombing raids etc. That night there were celebrations of all descriptions taking place and really I think very few people actually slept. All of a sudden the place seemed transformed as the French people put on their very attractive and colourful national costumes, and danced in groups on street corners. People formed themselves into processions and went down every street. They must have had some good hiding places for their costumes and dresses. As the summer evening wore on, torches were lit and bands began to play and wherever we went, we were immediately swept along with the crowd. Sometimes one felt choked at the emotion shown.
The following morning I was up at 6.30 a.m. and together with two or three friends, we were on the road to Paris. Again it was a lovely morning and as we were driving along, at a fairly high speed, the wind whipped the colour into our faces and we reach Paris feeling that it was great to be alive. Paris looked remarkably quiet at 9.30 a.m. but of course there were obvious signs of the celebrations carried out the previous night. Streamers and decorations were strewn across the roads and flags flew at every window and shop windows were decorated with red, white and blue. Bottles were lying in the roadway, some cafes had overturned chairs, all telling a tale of their own - but who cared? We made our way back to Versailles at lunchtime, returning to Paris and arranging to meet up with each other later in the evening.
My boyfriend at that time was a Welsh Guardsman and as we walked along one of the side streets off the main boulevard, we noticed a café. As we approached the proprietor was standing just inside and he had obviously seen us coming as he had a champagne bottle in his hand with a napkin over his arm. We were shown to a table for two set in a secluded corner, and the quietness of the place, broken only by the strains of a violin, made such a contrast to the noise and din going on outside. After a couple of hours, during which time our glasses were refilled time and time again, we decided we had better depart. Again it occurred to me that the French must have had some good hiding places for their wines and spirits during the occupation.
Feeling very happy, as one would expect in such an atmosphere, we strolled towards the Opera House, passing the Church of St. Magdeline. Trying to cross the famous Place de la Concorde, proved a very difficult job. Nobody seemed to have any traffic sense. As we waited to get across I heard my name called and looking round I noticed a jeep containing three of my officers and the American Colonel. We waved to each other, and as they passed by, my Wing Commander called out to me that I could come back to the office when I wanted as he would not be back for a few days!!! When they did eventually return to Rheims they had various souvenirs, amongst them a flag, which one of them had apparently taken down from the top of a lamppost, with complete disregard to his uniform.
With the American photographic section being next door to our own office I felt privileged to receive some photos of Gen. Eisenhower. One of them was of him arriving at one of his parties, together with a group of High Ranking Officers, one of them being A.C.M Tedder trying to hide a glass behind his back whilst the photo was being taken."
Sadly Edna Stafford passed away on 22 February 2004. Her husband, Bill, has requested that no further messages are left in response to her stories.
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