- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Pierre Requis, Andrée Requis, Eliane Requis, Grandmother Requis, Georges Hamelin, Mayor of Plumetot, Private Ronald Ritson, Major E.R. 'Peter' Hargreaves, Major Dixon, Major Barraclough
- Location of story:
- Plumetot, Caen, Calvados, Normandy, France.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 May 2005
Site of the 'Requis estaminet', Plumetot, Calvados, France in July 2004. On 7th July 1944, Pierre, Andrée and Eliane Requis were killed in their home when a German shell went into the room in which they were sleeping.
During World War Two there were many civilian casualties. It happened to people from many nations, sometimes close to where a battle was being fought and sometimes a long way from the front. Once fired, a bullet, shell or bomb did not distinguish between a serviceman or civilian.
One of my uncles, Private Ronald Ritson served in the Medical Corps during the Battle of Normandy and his unit was based at Plumetot, Calvados during most of June and July 1944. This article is about the Requis family who lived in Plumetot, which is a short distance north of Caen. They were the only civilian casualties from the village during the Battle of Normandy.
It has been written based on information I obtained from various sources. These include my uncle Ronald Ritson, his Commanding Officer Major E.R. 'Peter' Hargreaves and some latter-day villagers of Plumetot including the current Mayor, Monsieur Georges Hamelin.
I am pleased to acknowledge the kind assistance of all these kind and generous people who have shared their memories thereby enabling me to write this article. The Requis family were one family who did not survive the war so they cannot tell their own story. Hence, I would like to dedicate this article to their memory. I hope that others will learn a little about the family and perhaps remember them.
Plumetot in the summer of 1944
Within a couple of days of D-Day 6th June 1944, the Germans gave up Plumetot and the neighbouring villages without a fight and pulled back their troops to villages closer to Caen. At that time there were about 18 small farms in the village, a small 'boulangerie' (a bakers) and an 'estaminet' (a small inn). The estaminet was owned by the Requis family and situated opposite the entrance to the parish church of St Samson. There was no electricity supply to the village during the summer of 1944 due to the war.
The villagers gave a warm and generous welcome to the Allied troops. For the most part, they carried on as normal as far as possible, tilling the fields or tending to the farm animals and tried to ignore the German shelling or occasional air raid. Being a largely farming village, comparatively speaking there was an adequate supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. However, sweets and chocolate had been virtually non-existent since about 1941. In addition, the village château at that time was owned and inhabited by the De Postel family.
My uncle's unit was 26 Field Hygiene Section under the command of Major E.R. 'Peter' Hargreaves. Most of 26 FHS first moved into Plumetot in the evening of Saturday 10th June. They made camp in an orchard on the southern side of the village. Two Field Dressing Stations under the command of Majors Dixon and Barraclough also camped nearby. A few days later on Sunday 18th June engineers arrived in the area and laid down an asphalt landing strip for the use of Allied aircraft. This small aerodrome, designated B10, was manned by Canadians and British personnel attached to the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The Requis family
The owners of the estaminet were Pierre and Andrée Requis and they had one little girl, Eliane whom I believe was 7 years old. Pierre and Andrée had married at Nancy in the east of France on 26 September 1935. As was usual for many French couples at the time both Pierre and Andrée wore wedding rings engraved on the inside with the couple's names and wedding date.
The family had moved back to the village some years earlier to look after Pierre's widowed grandmother. I believe the grandmother was 90 years old in 1944, but unfortunately I do not know her first name. The family also had a German Shepherd bitch, or in French a 'chienne bergère'. This breed of dog is also known by some people as an 'Alsatian'.
During the four-year German Occupation of France Pierre and Andrée had managed to keep secret from the Germans a hidden cellar where they had stored various drinks and food preserves. Among the items hidden away were jars of bottled tripe and bottles of kirsch (a cherry liqueur), 'Grand Marnier au cordon rouge' 'Grand Marnier au cordon jaune', port, various other red and white wines and of course the famous Calvados cider! The 'Grand Marnier' was a cognac flavoured with orange ('rouge') or cherries ('jaune').
During the Occupation the Germans requisitioned or confiscated a lot of produce for their war effort. Hiding the things away was perhaps one of the few methods of resistance French families had at their disposal. When the Allies arrived, the family had no wireless (radio). The Germans had confiscated all wirelesses in the area some months before.
Listening to the BBC and exchanging rations
Because none of the villagers had a radio set, they were unable to the Free French news broadcast at 9.30 pm on the BBC. However, in the first days after Plumetot was liberated a lot of the villagers wanted to listen to the French language broadcasts and were allowed to do so at the 26 FHS camp. The villagers listened to these broadcasts enthusiastically, clapping and cheering especially when General de Gaulle was speaking.
On other evenings, Major Hargreaves took the wireless to the estaminet so the Requis family and others could listen to the broadcasts from there. Allied troops were allowed to buy (or exchange rations for) garden items or a little wine from the French civilians. For several weeks, until about mid-July, the Allies were on 'compo' (composition) rations. However, the allowance did provide for a 4 ounce bar of chocolate and 4 sweets a day. As mentioned previously, none of the French residents had seen chocolate for years!
Pierre generously showed his gratitude to the Allies by sharing some of his precious hidden liqueurs with the Allied troops. However, after one occasion when some of the Canadian Air Force lads had become a little too boisterous when sampling perhaps rather too much of the alcoholic drinks on offer, the estaminet had to be officially closed at 5.00 pm! Boys will be boys, but there was still a war to be won! Pierre and Andrée still allowed invited guests into the estaminet after 5.00 pm.
The Allies found Pierre and Andrée were enthusiastic about just about everything. Pierre promised that when Caen was liberated he would crack open three bottles of champagne from the cellar they had kept secret from the Germans.
A tradition among many French families at that time was that they would celebrate the 'Feast Day' of the Patron Saint of a family member. Additionally, one of the most important religious feasts was 29th June, the Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul ('Le jour de St Pierre et St Paul'). On 29th June 1944 Pierre Requis invited Major Peter Hargreaves of 26 FHS and a couple of others round to the estaminet to celebrate the Feast Day of St Peter. This included an American Colonel for Civil Affairs, although I do not know his name.
Sharing what they had, the Requis family generously prepared a menu that included soup, a little mutton, bread, lettuce, cherry tart and a 'chocolate fool'. Naturally, with the celebration being held in a French estaminet, a small number of alcoholic beverages were sampled!
As Major Hargreaves also went by the first name Peter and therefore a namesake of Saint Pierre, the young daughter Eliane presented him with a massive bouquet of red and pink roses and pansies. Roses and pansies bloom in Calvados each year in June. This was true even in 1944 while the Battle of Normandy was being fought. It was but a small presentation of welcoming friendship and one that should be noted and remembered.
Recipe for the 'Requis Chocolate Fool'
It was fortunate that Major Hargreaves obtained a copy of Madame Andrée Requis' recipe for the chocolate fool. Major Hargreaves subsequently shared the recipe with my uncle and myself. I shall give it the name of 'The Requis Chocolate Fool'. The ingredients were a combination of Anglo-French 'entente cordiale'. These are given below, as well as how to make it. The weights are given in ounces because chocolate bars were produced in ounces at the time (4 ounces is equivalent to slightly more than 110 grams).
10 x 4 ounce bars of 'English Chocolate'
4 x fresh eggs
1 ounce fresh butter
2 teaspoonfuls of sugar.
Slowly melt the chocolate and butter mixing it together.
Add the sugar and mix in.
Break the eggs and separate the whites and the yolks.
Beat up the egg whites and slowly add to the mixture while stirring.
Break up the yolks and add to the mixture.
Pour into serving dish, allow to cool and serve!
In June 1944, it would have been difficult to make the above dessert in Britain because of chocolate, eggs and butter was rationed. Whereas, in Normandy the Allied troops had plenty of chocolate bars to trade with and French civilians in this area at least had plenty of eggs and butter. Thus, in some respects it is a recipe that is unique to this place and this particular time.
For anyone who likes chocolate it is still a tasty dish. In 1944, in the context of everything that was going on at the time it must have been even more delicious!
The fateful day: 7th July 1944
During a visit to Plumetot in July 2004 I heard the following saying about the Feast Day of Saint Peter and St Paul for the first time:
«Saint-Pierre et Paul pluvieux,
Est pour trente jours dangereux »
Strictly speaking, I suppose this is really means that if it rains on St Peter and St Paul’s Day there is a danger of rain for thirty days. However, another way to translate this proverb is: "When it rains on Saint Peter and Paul, it is dangerous for thirty days".
On 29 June 1944, the Feast Day of Saint Peter and Paul, it was cloudy with heavy showers in Plumetot. It goes without saying that in the midst of what would become known as the Battle of Normandy that the following thirty days were going to be dangerous, whether there had been rain or not.
At about 1.30 am on 7th July a German shell made a direct hit on the ground floor room of the Requis estaminet where Pierre, Andrée and Eliane slept. They were all killed. Grandma Requis sleeping in a different room and the family dog sleeping outside in a kennel survived. Perhaps this illustrates how fine the balance between life and death was for people during the war. Even after Plumetot was liberated and some semblance of normal family life had returned, danger was still ever-present.
When I visited Plumetot Town Hall, I found the deaths of Pierre and Eliane Requis had been recorded by the Registrar on 7th July 1944. Evidently, their remains were recognisable to whoever identified them and the civic official carried out their duties, even in the difficult days of the war. However, I did not see the name of Madame Andrée Requis. Grandma Requis died a few months later. One can only imagine her emotions in the last months of her life.
Major Hargreaves bought the German shepherd and gave it as a present to Major Barraclough who ran one of the F.D.S. nearby. Initially, the poor animal was agitated and no doubt traumatised by events so it used to snarl and bark a lot. According to my uncle, he helped care for the animal together with Major Hargreaves and eventually it became quite friendly and settled. I know that my uncle was really good with animals, as was Major Hargreaves. I believe that most people, including myself, would not have been able to help this poor animal as well as they obviously did.
What makes the story more tragic is that on the same day, 7th July 1944, the Allies carried out the 'Thousand Bomber Raid' on Caen, leading to most of the city being liberated by 9th July. If Pierre, Andrée and Eliane had survived just a few more hours all would have been well. The German positions north of Caen from where the shelling of Plumetot must have come were no longer there. Many thousands of people were killed in the city of Caen, but villagers at Plumetot tell me that the Requis family were the only ones from Plumetot who were killed as a direct result of the war in 1944.
After the war, a new dwelling was built on the site of the Requis estaminet. When I visited the village in July 2004, the house had recently been for sale and the house was being renovated for the new occupiers.
While there is much sadness associated with this grim story from World War Two, there are also many good and happy things to remember. It is important that all these events of what happened during the war, the good and the bad, are remembered. Both my uncle, Private Ronald Ritson, and Major Hargreaves have both sadly passed away. Yet they have passed on memories of the Requis family and events that happened in Plumetot to their younger relatives.
I sometimes wonder if Pierre's secret cellar with his bottles of champagne, liqueurs and wine survived the German shelling, and if so if it is still hidden. It may have been destroyed in July 1944, or it may have been found when the new building was constructed or renovated. Perhaps it will never be uncovered.
Obviously it will be impossible to exactly replicate the taste of the Chocolate Fool made by Madame Andrée Requis for the Feast of St Peter and Paul in 1944. The chocolate will be different and of course the eggs would have been freshly-laid by free-range hens. However, if anyone does try the recipe hopefully they will enjoy it and perhaps remember the Requis family. «Bon apetit!»
Although the village has changed in many ways since 1944, the villagers of Plumetot are still as friendly and welcoming as the Allied soldiers and airmen of 1944 found. This is something that I am pleased to acknowledge.
«A la mémoire de Pierre, Andrée et Eliane, victimes de la Seconde Guerre mondiale»
(“In Memory of Pierre, Andrée and Eliane, victims of the Second World War”)
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