[ Note: I've put the entries from my father's 1944 pocket diary (translated by me from the French) covering this period at the bottom of this page to fill some of the gaps left by sheets missing from his almost continuous narrative.]
We had to travel many kilometres to find the front. We arrived at Gerjus close to Villeblevin and returned to our war routine. Late one evening we saw the headlights of a car coming from the German border. Lieutenant Michard and Sergeant Jamette were at post up front and went to stop the car at the edge of the village. In the night they could see on the back seat of the car an officer in fine German uniform. As the car approached there was a pistol shot and I was told later the bullet passed through the side of Jamette's beret. The Lieutenant shot back and killed the men before they could get a second shot. The Lieutenant cut the leather belt and took the German officer's revolver from within. On looking at his papers he saw that the officer was the Gauleiter of the region.
On the 1st October we started from Rambervillers. The war had turned very bitter and pitiless, it hadn't been quite as bad up to then. As before in forest, it was a trying time for the tanks. We were back to the business of driving down the road until something stopped you. If you happened to be the lead tank, that was just too bad. The weather was humid but there was no frost. The wooded terrain was not always convenient for us, but we had to pass through it. The Company manoeuvred, advancing through the trees and around the edges towards Anglemont. At one point we were stopped by some American officers. Because they were talking with our officers I got out of Montmirail in case of language difficulties. One of the Americans spoke French. He was very impressed with our tactics and our progress. He spoke to me in English telling me that our attack had been "Superb, absolutely superb!"
We had halted by a dense wood, the only possible crossing of which was a road blocked with a barricade of felled trees, about 50 metres in. It was down to us to secure this by-road so Lieutenant Michard asked for a volunteer from each tank. Five of us presented ourselves. I represented Montmirail. Champaubert was the tank that was to remove the barricade, piloted by my dear comrade Léo Jouhet. On foot there was Sergeant Yves Triolet and four men. Just at the moment we were going to start off a German soldier appeared before us with his arms in the air. He ran to us, then took out his papers. He was Austrian. Only that morning we had found two of our Spahis killed alongside a wall. They had evidently been executed! The Austrian took out a photo of his wife and six or eight children. He was very nervous and talked a lot, none of which we could understand. I had to leave to clear and de-mine the road, I had done a training course in mine clearance while at Sabratha, and as I was leaving I told my comrades not to kill him.
Arriving in front of the barricade, Champaubert positioned herself in the middle of the road as the three other comrades and I occupied ourselves putting the cables on and attaching them to Champaubert. [Before Gaston had time to move away] Jouhet's foot slipped on Champaubert's clutch, it moved backwards with a jolt and there was an explosion. When I got up again I realised I had a wound in my leg and another [Sergeant Triolet] was wounded to the head [The log had landed on a mine close by, exploding it]. Lieutenant Michard examined me and told me it wasn't serious. I had a mine fragment in my calf so he put a dressing on me. I was evacuated in a Half-Track with some other wounded. Jouhet was desolated, the others too were moved. Yet it wasn't for nothing that I said to Léo "See you later!"
The first aid post was on the front line, actually ahead of our position. Upon arriving at the post the stretchers were unloaded and the half-track left. I had the pleasure to be received by men with English accents. It was the Quakers [Pacifists, maliciously put into front line duty by the British military establishment] who had been with us a very long time. I was pampered by them and we spoke English. There were six or seven of us because there were one or two Americans who had been wounded in that sector. Very shortly after my arrival I heard noises very characteristic of German tanks close by, coming towards us. I warned the man who was helping me and everything moved very quickly. [The Germans were counter attacking] There was an ambulance near us. Gently for the seriously wounded, everyone was balanced in the ambulance without stretchers or anything of that sort. The Germans didn't see us but they were very close because the movement of their tracks and noises of their motors were perfectly clear.
The ambulance departed at top speed through the forest over rough terrain. One of the Americans was seriously wounded in the shoulder and bled a lot but there was no question of hesitating or slowing, so he suffered a lot. We finally found a road and another wounded American had need of a toilet. He called repeatedly "I want a crap". He suffered in addition to his wound. There was no question of stopping and finally he did it in his pants. He was not happy!
I arrived at an American field hospital. Everything was well organised. My leg was given an x-ray and a short while after an American surgeon came into the tent where he would do the operation. He told me the largest fragments were in my calf and he would open the calf by slicing it and extract the largest bits. He told me that the smaller fragments in the rest of my leg could remain there. The operation was done quickly. My calf was frozen and cut down its length with no pain, only the pressing of the knife along the muscle.
I was put in a very long tent where there were many other wounded. My leg had been plastered, without which the incision would not have healed. I rested there for two days after which I was transported to the Red Cross Hospital at Lyon. This was another world to me. It was nice and I slept between sheets. After a few days the plaster was removed from my leg following which I was sent to another hospital in the city. I wrote to Lieutenant Michard and the crew upon my arrival in Lyon and received a reply from the Lieutenant.
I met a comrade of the 1st DFL at this hospital and we spent many hours each day together. The doctor in charge of my care told me it would take three months for my calf to heal because it would need rehabilitation. I told him I was keen to rejoin my comrades. He gave me some crutches so I could start to walk because up till then I had been in bed for a dozen days since the operation.
I had a lot of difficulty walking because my calf muscle was only just healed and gave me pain when I put my foot on the ground. I persevered each day. I walked with the crutches for several hours each day and sweated a lot from the physical effort and effort of willpower.
About fifteen days later I could walk hesitatingly without crutches. A little under three weeks had passed since I had been wounded, when I received a letter from Lucien Asplanato, the pilot of Iéna announcing the news that the platoon had received Iéna as a replacement for Champaubert. I have always kept his few lines.
I told the doctor I would like to leave. He was a very kind gentleman and advised me against it. The next day he gave me a document permitting me to quit the hospital. I remember him well. I only had one shoe so I found a barrack or maybe an annex of the hospital where there were some French boots. I took the pair. I passed three or four days waiting at the hospital gate for an opportunity to go back into the Vosges. I benefited from that wait by attending the Lyons fair.
I managed to find an ambulance which was going to Remiremont so I hitched. That got a good part of the distance covered. I found Remiremont under snow. I got off at a crossroads and I wasn't very warm because I had been evacuated without a coat. I then had the good luck to see a lorry from our division coming. It carried me into the village. The Company was in the area so I rejoined my Platoon. I found them 400 yards from where I had left them.
However the news was very sad. The platoon was missing Champaubert. Lieutenant Michard told me some sad news about which he had not written. On the 2nd October, the day after I was wounded, Montmirail piloted by my friend Marc Casanova had attacked at Anglemont with Champaubert at the head. They were struck hard, Champaubert had taken several hits and Montmirail had destroyed two German tanks. All the crew of Champaubert were killed except the commander. My friend Roger Norcy, the gunner, a volunteer of 1940 who was just 22 years old. Léo Jouhet, the pilot who joined us at the Ivory Coast and who had married a charming lady who was also in her thirties while at Algeria. He would count the days to rejoin her. He was a very courageous man who, when we were together, would sometimes tell me that he didn't think he would survive the war. My friend Georges Renou, a young man of only 18 years had who joined us at Tunis. We had often gone out together on leave days. He was a very nice lad, he wasn't even old enough to drink ! Thomas was also killed and all four were buried on the spot.
I don't recall which of my comrades told me, but sadder still, Iéna had also been destroyed. Claude Philippon, gunner and a volunteer of 1940 was killed along with Lucien Asplanato, the driver, who had written to me while I was in hospital. Also killed was Daniel Renou, brother of Georges Renou, who had died in Champaubert. Iéna had been destroyed a few days later, in an attack on Petitmont with Montmirail. Iéna was lead tank and left with Montmirail. It was destroyed by an armour piercing shot from a PAK 75, a very powerful cannon. Seconds after Iéna was hit Montmirail was also hit, piercing the turret shield around the cannon but not the secondary armour on the turret. It was the second direct hit she had taken.
It was a miracle that Montmirail was still here, but the armour piercing shell had made a gouge across the carapace of her cannon, after which it had struck the turret without penetrating. The electric circuits also no longer functioned. The turret was welded to the chassis by the force. I immediately set about checking her fuel supply. I found myself at the rear of the tank when I heard the voice of Captain de Witasse who, realising that I had returned to the company had immediately come to see me. It was very considerate on his part and when I heard his voice I stood to attention from habit. My left leg buckled and I felt a great deal of pain but avoided falling. The Captain, with much affection, told me how happy he was to see me return and that I was the first of his men able to return after being wounded. This conversation re-enforced my dedication to serve France. That evening I had the pleasure to dine at the mess with the crew. It was Florkowski who prepared the repast.
A little while later the crew were separated from Lieutenant Michard. Montmirail left with Casanova, Florkowski, Lhopital and I to go for repair and Lieutenant Michard remained with the company. [ If a Platoon Commander's tank was disabled he would transfer his command to another tank in the Platoon and continue fighting. Evidently the job of a Platoon commander was particularly dangerous. He would fight without the benefit of any enforced rests arising from breakdown of or damage to his tank and these extra combat hours would be spent in the most exposed position in the tank. ]
We then rested a while at the workshops where we received a new carapace for the cannon. The electric circuit was repaired. Lieutenant Michard wrote to us, I still have his letter, asking us to bring back Montmirail because we had a long road to go to reach Berlin! On arriving back with the Platoon I found we had a leave of eight days. I headed for Rouen where I had an uncle and an aunt from my French side. I reached Darnetal by means of hitch-hiking. It was a mad journey! I went to the house I remembered from when I was small, but my uncle and aunt had moved. I eventually succeeded in finding them.
Someone told me they had moved into the village, and there I found my aunt who knew I was a soldier because she had received a notification [of Gaston's hospitalisation] from the Red Cross. She recognised me and we went off to find my uncle who hadn't seen me since 1937. He was working in a field. It was a very emotional moment, all three of us shed tears. I was greatly cheered to hear a few days later that the 2nd DB was at Strasbourg. I was very disappointed to miss this event.
My uncle made a lovely cider! The day of my departure he gave me a beautiful roast fowl and a bottle of Calvados. I rejoined Montmirail and Lieutenant Michard with much pleasure. We shared my provisions. The Calvados, which I offered to the Lieutenant, lasted a very long time because we drank it in small shots. The Lieutenant always carried a hip-flask of alcohol on his belt. He served it to the wounded or sick. We never drank before combat. We did very well in Alsace. When we did not find ourselves at the front, we would take our meals as a crew together with a family to whom we offered to share. Those moments were very happy.
In December the Platoon was sent to a village that had suffered greatly. Destroyed lorries, cars, artillery and tanks were scattered there. Most of the houses were empty. The remaining inhabitants had taken to their cellars, lit by candle light.
Our four tanks took guard on a roster. I always slept fully dressed. Once we found ourselves in a convent of sisters who were staying in their cellar, however it felt too awkward sleeping in one of the sisters rooms, so I recovered my sleeping bag and slept elsewhere.
The Lieutenant told me he was departing on leave to Ancimet [Close by the village of Doyet.] in L'Allier and he went, full of joy after a six year absence. He returned about the 15th January, very happy to reunite with his family yet not to have missed any combat. It was now almost four years that I had been with him and there was a great bond of friendship between us. He was 34 years of age and I 24. He led a very ethical life and I shared his ideals. He told me that his grandfather was overjoyed to see him become engaged. It was some 36 years later that I saw a photo of the young lady who had become fiancé to Louis for about three weeks.
Before re-entering Alsace I had a premonition that the Lieutenant and I were coming to the end of our life together. I wrote to Odette, my little Parisien of the Place de la Sorbonne with whom I corresponded, that fate would not allow us to continue and that either I or the Lieutenant, one of us would be killed. I put aside this presentiment and we left Lorraine at night in a great frost, without headlights and into a snowstorm. This journey through night became a veritable epic for the tank pilots. Ahead was black ice and disaster. Time and again we stopped and the Lieutenant went and checked each crew in turn then returned to the head of the column.
Finally it was broad daylight when we arrived at Sélestat. However we had no more than half the tanks in a fit state for combat, many now required repairs.
[Entries from Gaston's pocket diary for 1944/45 are below (translated from the French).]
09 September 1944: Close to Krauts.
10 September 1944: The last stand soon.
11 September 1944: Mattaincourt.
12 September 1944: We liberated 4 or 5 villages strongly held by Kraut artillery.
13 September 1944: [Tank] Argonne of 3rd Company burns, 1 killed 3 gravely wounded.
14 September 1944: At Nomexy. We killed almost 150 krauts with high explosive shells, that will reduce their desire to make war.
15 September 1944: [Tank] Douaumont burns, 1 killed, others gravely wounded. Strong Kraut counter attack.
16 September 1944: Quit Nomexy, despite us all the civilians are leaving because the Krauts will return to the town.
17 September 1944: About 20 Kraut tanks reported, we are on rearguard at a crossroads (five tanks 20 infantry).
18 September 1944: Everyone very tired. We pull back into a village in order to be able to sleep a little but still must guard.
19 September 1944: We enter Nomexy once more. My tank the first to enter.
20 September 1944: Chatel.
21 September 1944: Hortancourt.
23 September 1944: Close to Rambervillers.
28 September 1944: Anglemont.
29 September 1944: Close to Rambervillers.
30 September 1944: Rambervillers. The Kraut artillery spray us. Its now war without pity, no prisoners.
1 October 1944: Wounded in the left leg by an explosion, operated 5 hours later, all goes well. Jouhet 33 years, Renou 18 1/2 years, Norcy 23 years, Thomas 23 years killed, Champaubert burns. Privé, Triolet wounded. More good comrades dead. Norcy was Free French since 1940, we all loved him a lot. Renou is the one I called George in the small book during my stay in England. He was very young 18 and a half years. He was a brave young man, this one I will avenge. Jouhet was in my tank in Africa. He replaced another in the Champaubert, that cost him dear. He was married in Africa in March 1944. As tank commander he struggled to save them from the front hatches but they had locked the hatches from inside, something I never do. My tank had two Panthers.
5 October 1944: Evacuated to Vesoul.
6 October 1944: Evacuated to Lyon.
7 October 1944: I'm in a hurry to rejoin my comrades to continue the fight with them. [8 - 21 October at Lyons]
22 October 1944: Quitted the hospital with a Spahis who also wants to go back up to the front. We waited together to depart. The doctor was nice. On the journey I bled a little but that's alright. Slept at Remiremont.
24 October 1944: Rejoined my Company after 400 Kilometers of hitch hiking. Captain happy to see me, am the first of all the wounded to get back.
26 October 1944: Attack Baccarat. I arrived just in time, what luck.
27 October 1944: Advance 15 kilometers, having a rather hot time. All is well.
28 October 1944: Reherrey. Not slept for two days. Am pretty tired because I lost a lot of blood from my wound. All the civilians led away by the Krauts, there's nothing left not even a rabbit. All is like a desert, one could talk of a village struck by something terrible.
29 October 1944: Sedan to Baccarat.
30 October 1944: Vacqueville. Tired. Lots of artillery and guard duties each night.
31 October 1944: Attacked in the Baccarat sector by the Krauts, nothing to do we will not move.
02 November 1944: Boccardo, Fleuret killed. deCherchi wounded.
23 November 1944: Sgt. Chef Commeinheis interred at Bayonne.
24 November 1944: Saverne.
25 November 1944: Marmoutier. Rejoin the Company. They are close to Strasbourg. Montmirail is once again wounded.
26 November 1944: At the workshop with Montmirail. We are going to have trouble saving her because this time she has suffered badly.
01 December 1944: Still at the Workshop. Sleep in a room in the hotel opposite the workshop. Casanova and Mengual take turns with the bed. Étienne and I sleep on the floor in our blankets. Two tough oldies to roast! no bed, we dont want one.
08 December 1944: At the front at a sinister crossroads. Kraut patrols giving us it, especially at night.
10 December 1944: Montmirail advances a little into the woods but we find nothing or nothing finds us.
14 December 1944: Kertsfeld.
16 December 1944: Neunkirch.
17 December 1944: Neunkirch sleeping in a church constantly bombarded, its bad for the health and we are unbable to sleep. Constantly on alert. The krauts advancing at night with their tanks, yet we are only three tanks with little infantry, we hold anyway. 20 degrees below zero.
20 December 1944: It's not warm, long live Africa!
21 December 1944: Tired.
22 December 1944: Tired, still patrols at night, very cold, lots of snow.
23 December 1944: Constantly under artillery fire, it gets hot at times.
24 December 1944: Went on patrol with our squadies to pass the time and see what goes on with the krauts. I prefer my tank. Ate some chips! but always front line.
26 December 1944: Still very little sleep, well tired.
29 December 1944: I leave the tank for a few hours and go say grace for Odette, send her that.
30 December 1944: There's talk of us being relieved to take a meal but since we first heard no one beleives it.
31 December 1944: Odette 20 years. A little blue, that's rare.
01 January 1945: Finally relieved, everyone talks of a big meal.
02 January 1945: On the road under the snow, motors run poorly, no headlights, tired.
03 January 1945: Cross the Vosges travelling all night, ice on the mountain roads but full speed anyway.
04 January 1945: Bitche sector, Kraut counter attack stopped in 24 hours.
05 January 1945: Postroff.
06 January 1945: Waiting.
16 January 1945: Lieutenant returned from leave.
17 January 1945: Still in Lorraine anxious that we are not moving.
18 January 1945: It appears we will be moving again.
19 January 1945: Kraut counter attack in the Alsace, it will be seriously bad for their troops if we go there.
20 January 1945: Left 11 o'clock in the evening to again cross the Vosges under a tempest of snow. Terrible night but everyone happy we're for the Alsace, we'll give them!