|Free French parade through London.|
|General de Gaulle, Yorkshire.|
|Photocopy of Gaston's original signup.|
|Gaston Eve among the Nissen huts, Old Dean Camp, Camberley.|
|Captain Georges Ratard.|
|Camberley. One of the small half-tracks, a French Lorraine 37. Dad couldn't recall the soldier's name.|
My father Walter Edward Eve was a professional English soldier from 1896 to 1919. He served with the Royal Fusiliers until the age of 40 when he retired. He came to France with the first English troops in 1914. He married my mother Raymonde de Lattre, a French lady and returned to France in 1919 to work as a gardener in the [ British ] military cemeteries of northern France.
That was how I was born in France [near Rouen] on the 13 January 1921. My father wanted me to be English so I was sent to the English school near Arras. Then when I was ten years old I was sent to England, to an uncle and aunt, to complete my English education. English completely took over my life and I never spoke anything other than that.
My father was certain that there would be a war with Germany and he feared the consequences for the family, since we were in the north of France. So in 1933 my father, mother, brother and [surviving] sister came to live in England. [Gaston had three sisters while living in France. The oldest was killed by a car, the youngest by diphtheria. A second brother was born when they moved to England.] In 1939 I was working for an English airline and I was given my notice two or three days after the declaration of war. There was an arms factory near us, an Anglo-Dutch company and I had the opportunity to get a job there almost immediately.
I heard General De Gaulle's call on the 18 June 1940 when I was 19 years old. Some days earlier I had heard that France had fallen and I cried that night alone in my room. I was overwhelmed by memories of my childhood in France and I couldn't believe that she had been defeated. I always carried an English passport out of respect for my father, following his wishes on this matter, but despite this I never renounced my French nationality.
I told my (French) mother that I was going to respond to de Gaulle's call. She agreed. I said the same to my father. He was very angry with me. He maintained absolutely that I was English and couldn't respond to the call. I must wait for the call up and fight with the English army! If I left with the FFL I would lose my life and never return. I tried to explain to him that I had no choice, if I were in France and it had been England invaded I would have had to do the same for her. We could not be together without arguing.
I took myself to London to engage in service for France even though all seemed lost. Upon my return to the factory I handed in my resignation but it was refused. "You can't leave a reserved occupation just like that! You will have to write to the ministry." I stuck to my decision to respond to the call for France and wrote a request to be allowed to leave. This was sent to a ministry.
Six months later, in December 1940, I was told that the general manager wanted to see me. Mr. Van Damm (the manager) explained to me the advantages of remaining there. He told me that me and four other young men were the only ones among the thousands of employees wishing to go. He asked me if I still wanted to go because he had received consent from the ministry. I said, "Yes"! I will always remember the warmth of his handshake and congratulations. I took myself to London again to fill in another application form.
My father was not pleased. There was a very special bond between us. We loved each other very much and were overjoyed to the bottom of our hearts [when reunited] in August 1945. I was at his side when he died in 1962. We were very proud of each other, so we were very sad to differ on this subject.
Early one morning I took the 04:55 from Hackbridge to London. I had told my mother I would be leaving that morning and she made me a breakfast. My father knew I was going and had waited up to see me on the landing at the bottom of the stairs. He shook my hand and said "Good Luck!"
I returned in a British uniform with "France" on the shoulders for a few days before leaving for Africa. I put it on again for my return in 1945.
Enrolment for France and Camberley.
Arriving at 4 Carlton Gardens early morning, I presented my French birth certificate and waited there over three days for the formalities. For the first time in my life I drank wine with my meals. I found myself very disorientated because I had an English upbringing and an English accent. Even though I spoke French easily I was lacking many words. The facilities for eating and sleeping at Carlton Gardens were very inadequate because there were so many there, a mixture of sailors, soldiers and aviators waiting to be posted. I had no military training whatever and so was submitted to much good humoured teasing.
I was called to an office where a man told me he was forming a Tank Company at Camberley. I said I would really like to serve in tanks. That was one of the best decisions in my life. There were five or six of us taken by train from London to Camberley.
Arriving at [Old Dean Camp] Camberley at the beginning of February 1941 I saw a camp entirely made up of Nissen huts and right in the middle of it a French flag with a pennant of the Cross of Lorraine below it. I went to Captain George Ratard's PC where I was met by Pierre Tomio who was a "Caporal Chef". He was very nice and explained to me that the English army's equivalent was a Lance Corporal. He explained one thing and another and registered that I had not the slightest military training. The camp was covered in snow and mud and after the formalities he escorted me to a Nissen hut where I met my first comrades. I found myself eating and sleeping alone amongst the French for the first time and I gradually became used to this great change.
Some were French, others were like me French at heart. They spoke to me in either French or English, some with a strong Spanish or Portuguese accent. Obviously I was the "Englishman" and I quickly realised that the company wasn't just formed of very young French, come over from France, but also many who had come from every corner of the world to serve France. Captain Ratard told us from time to time that the company was formed with volunteers from 32 (I don't recall the exact number) countries of the world. Those who came from all these countries had either a French mother or father.
My memories of that first day are of Benjamin Abdul Youssef (from Argentina) and Maurice Jean-Renaud (from Chile). Jean-Renaud was one of those who was later separated from us at Brazzaville. He was killed at Bir Hakeim. I soon took to the military life and to the French flag with a Cross of Lorraine below it. I was, like all my comrades, totally occupied in courses of physical and military training of all kinds.
Life at Camberley was very active, but monotonous. We had very little equipment. We each had a rifle but no tanks, so we did infantry training. Meantime the French expedition to Norway had returned to England, but alas practically all of them decided to return to France. They left us some small half-tracks.
After a while my comrade Raymond Thauyre, who regarded me as an Englishman, stopped calling me "English". Raymond didn't like the English, and I kept out of his way when he had a few too many drinks. We ended up being very good friends. He was a very smart and faithful young man. (France would have been far better off if he hadn't been killed in Indochina.)
We had some small French trucks in which Warrant Officer Joseph Raveleau tried teaching us to drive. He was a man of a very military bearing but nice, however he had a problem. My French vocabulary was very limited. I didn't understand the words for engage or disengage clutch. When he told me to let out the clutch I would do the opposite or nothing at all. Finally he made me stop at the roadside to explain, which, thinking I was hard of hearing, he did in a voice both very loud and very clear. I had my first experience of arguing in French. It soon became evident that a number of us needed French lessons and over the following months each evening Lance Corporal André Corler gave them.
I found a strong spirit of camaraderie right from those first days and an ambience that greatly pleased me. I had not the tiniest idea what my future held for me but I knew my destiny was there. The military spirit soon took a root in me. In those early days we formed a loyalty for Captain Georges Ratard that has always remained with us. I was very happy in this atmosphere and never once felt at all homesick.
When I had learned to drive the van I was passed to learn to drive tracked vehicles with Warrant Officer Henri Caron as instructor. It was my great honour to get to know Henri Caron who gave every effort to make me a true Free Frenchman, a good tank driver and a balanced and completely confident person. It was he who gave me my first lessons driving a small half-track and was very pleased with my progress considering that until then I hadn't driven anything larger than a bicycle! He was a very decisive man so it was a great day for me when he said, "You will be a very good driver". How lucky to have been trained by such a worthy and noble man.
The course for student NCO's having started, early mornings I had to light the fire in their Nissen hut classroom, but I couldn't always get it started. One morning the day's instructor came in and seeing me struggling, gave me some advice on how to do it and a clip round the ear. After that first encounter I noticed, from time to time, the same instructor amongst the group of Camberley officers and though we didn't speak I found him a very decent sort.
Towards the end of February 1941 Henri Caron told me I would be the driver for a Lieutenant Louis Michard who, as he introduced me, I recognised as the Lieutenant that had helped me light the fire! I hoped I would get on with him so I was saved [any misgivings] when I learned that Henri Caron was his deputy. The two men had a perfect understanding and based on this I too was in harmony. It was great good fortune. The years that we were to pass together were fine. We had the same military and moral ideas, an absolute confidence in each other and a perfect understanding.
The training was very well organised and the best aspect of it all was the enormous confidence and esteem in which we were held by our officers and NCO's. I was never allowed to forget that like the other members of the company, I was a volunteer. It was in that spirit we served with absolute loyalty, with never a day of regret, whether it was good times or bad times, through physical training, shooting, driving, marching, mechanics, French, and all the rest. Inevitably, spud bashing was necessary from time to time.
England felt totally alone against the Germans and the loyalty of the Free French was very precious to them. During some parades in London, in particular 14 July, enormous crowds lined the route.
There was a severe labour shortage so now and again, in rotation with English regiments, the whole company would do service unloading coal trains. We would depart in lorries all together, singing and it was a merry atmosphere. We worked really hard in order to unload the coal wagons faster than the English, Canadian or Polish troops. The task accomplished in good spirit, at the end of the day we were completely black.
We also formed a football team at Camberley but I don't remember any of the matches. Now and again we would go see French films in a Nissen hut that served as a cinema and was always full to bursting. We would do our best to see the screen through the cigarette smoke! There was also a NAAFI where the troops could find some nice things to eat served by volunteers. There was a friendly atmosphere in the country and plenty of volunteers.
Now and then we would go on long route marches and to keep ourselves going down those long roads we would sing French marches delivered with great enthusiasm. I hope that no one along the route understood the words, because they had been changed and weren't very polite!
Apart from us there was a regiment of "Alpine Hunters" ( Chasseurs Alpin ) amongst whom were many young Bretons. We had a band so occasionaly there would be a parade. The English soon realised it was necessary to put the Alpine Hunters at the head of the parade because of their prodigious marching speed!
One of the funny things the Chasseurs did was during a parade through Camberley's surroundings. There were always women [along the route] serving tea. The Chasseurs, who I guess paced at around 180 steps per minute, left at the head of the parade. There was always a fair distance between the Chasseurs and the following English regiment. The Chasseurs would be clean out of sight and had time to take their tea long before the English troops arrived. I don't know if they left the English any cake!
Towards the month of June 1941 there was a medical check for everyone because we were going to leave England. We had the immunisations and we were all passed to the dentist. Extractions and fillings were done all at one sitting. For cavities the drill was simply held in place until the hole was deep enough. The filled teeth were really hot at the end of the operation.
We wore English uniforms and at first a mixture of French and English berets. We had no insignia for French tankers and were obliged to improvise so we would go to military outfitter shops to buy English tank regimental insignia and adapt them. On our shoulders we had a cloth badge of the Royal Tank Regiment and their [metal] badge on our berets, which we adapted. The beret badge was of a 1916 tank surrounded by a laurel wreath with a crown above the tank and the words "Fear Naught" beneath it. To avoid being the same as the English, those among us who had no French badge would simply remove the crown. The English tank officers we encountered and saluted never remarked on the subject no doubt because we had "France" on each shoulder.
Early one morning in August 1941 we left in full kit on a passenger train for Liverpool where we embarked on a large ship. There was a strange atmosphere in Great Britain. All the names of towns and villages had been removed and likewise all the road route signs. Talk of troop movements was not allowed apart from that necessary for the military and I think that the population obeyed that principle. Soldiers all over the place, that was normal.
Sea Journey to Africa.
The "Northumberland Castle" must have been about 18 to 20 thousand ton, a former meat carrying ship. As usual I had great confidence in the English organisation and the journey there and embarkation went perfectly. There was not the tiniest demonstration of support during it!
We had around 3000 English on the ship. Everything was superbly organised on the Northumberland by the English officers. Our company was sent directly to a pre-arranged location on the boat, specially fitted out for troop transport. We were in part of the boat that served as living room, dining room, and dormitory, everything in the same place. We had our hammocks which we hung side by side above the tables, from the meat hooks which had been left in place on the ceiling. We removed our shoes to sleep but otherwise remained dressed.
After removing them we would tie the shoes together by their laces and rest them on our chest with the laces behind our neck and were never allowed put our shoes on the ground. The theory was that in the event of an emergency there would be no confusion. We were already dressed and had our shoes ready to immediately climb to deck when the alarm klaxons sounded.
The departure from Liverpool went smoothly. There was no one on the huge docks when we departed for sea, no one for us to say goodbye to and no one to say goodbye to us. I've always found that extraordinary. At the departure all the troops on the boat had some practice because the alarms were tested once we were at sea. This was repeated and repeated and timed. We must pass through this passage, not that one, climb this staircase here. We must have nothing but the uniform we are wearing. We must arrange ourselves in ranks beside the lifeboats allotted us. All this was done with good humour. At night we did the same thing until the ship's naval captain was satisfied everything would go as planned.
We left on a beautiful day and the sea was calm. The organisation of the convoy was superb and little by little around 80 ships were assembled, merchantmen and troop transport, in perfect formation, in lines and columns, it was beautiful to see. In the distance one could see the warships that were going to protect us. Now and then a torpedo craft travelling at top speed would pass between the lines of merchant ships and troop transports. At first it was for training, but later it was for real when there was an attack by submarine to one side or the other. The first few days we also had the protection of the RAF and planes of Coastal Command. It was very impressive. There were several superb NAAFIs on the Northumberland and they were very well provisioned with cakes, chocolate, sweets and many other things. I think we were paid weekly on the boat. The organisation regarding meals was very good and each table received its food good and hot. I keep a deep and fond memory of the camaraderie between all the troops on the Northumberland and the organisation of all the services.
Even when we were far out at sea and no longer saw coastal command planes, the convoy kept itself in impeccable order. Now and again the klaxon would sound for real and we would see the warships rush across the convoy towards where there were some explosions of mines. All the alerts I saw and all the activities were at the exterior of the convoy. The voyage was very long but I never saw a boat, merchant or escort hit despite all the alerts.
We passed our time in physical training and other activities. Now and again there was a concert or show entirely performed by the troops. The FFL would take part and it was fun. We heard many English songs and my comrades learnt quite a few. Some still remain engraved in their memories.
There were some funny ceremonies when we crossed the equator. I don't know if it's a specially English custom, but anyway we had to take part and we weren't chicken.
After a long while we finally got to see the African coast. It was Sierra Leone, a very green coast. It was a beautiful sight and we remained a good distance out to sea for a day or two while the convoy was divided to go in different directions. After that time I saw only the Northumberland and a large warship to protect her.
We had no idea where we were headed. We had been told nothing in England or en route, but some time (hours) before arriving at a place called Pointe Noire we understood that that was where we would land. The English watched us disembark and we said many goodbyes. In those three weeks we had forged a close friendship because we all had the same goal.