Kano and Jos.
As we approached Kano we found a road for the final few kilometres. Our arrival at Kano was very pleasant because we had been separated from our comrades for a long time. Our captain received us with joy and we were finally home. The company barracks, a disused school, was the most beautiful camp we had had since Brazzaville and the French flag was there. With joy, we regained the special atmosphere of the company and its strong ideals that had knitted us together since the first days.
Our stay at Kano was very agreeable and very productive with regard to training. Even when not being inspected or in review, everything was kept perfect. We understood that our trust was based on the fact that we were all volunteers. I don't recall one occasion when our officers or petty officers were anything but satisfied with our conduct. We were, in our ideals, very disciplined and our conduct in camp and out of camp was exemplary. We gave honour to our officers and also to France. A lot happened at Kano and I hope I can recall it accurately.
My tank was there and for me that was perfect [An American M3A1 Honey, nicknamed "Stuarts" by English troops]. Lieutenant Michard had kept the post [vacant] for his pilot and we resumed the same friendship. The Lieutenant put me in our tank, Auvergne with the usual great smile he had when he was happy. The third member of the crew was Ellongiv. [Gaston has used the tanker's "nom de guerre". Ellongiv was a name adopted to avoid reprisal against family in France. His real name was the reverse, Pièrre Vignolle]
There was trouble at first because there were problems with our tanks' radiators. It was decided that Léon Baudon who was a mechanic, and I would get them mended ( We both spoke English, Baudon had an English mother and French father I had the opposite). With our permits to travel, we were sent to Jos, where there were several factories. At Jos we were put into contact with the English authorities who knew we were coming. We were well received.
We brought with us the faulty radiators that had been impossible to repair. Close to Jos was a cemetery for old lorries and vans and we removed some radiators that we took to the factory and cut to the size required to fit. The whole thing took us a fortnight and Baudon was the artisan.
The English partnered us with their NCOs who were well accommodated and fed. They didn't have any wine and we never let an opportunity pass without remarking that the FFL have wine with every meal. The NCO mess was very good. For their grade they were better paid than us. They took good care of us. Jos was a town with a far milder climate than Kano. The factory in which we fitted out the radiators was Negro and Baudon was able to give them some mechanical tips. We returned to Kano with more radiators than needed in case of breakdowns.
Back in Kano Again.
Our food at Kano was very good and Lieutenant l'Anglois was charged to oversee us in this matter. He often visited and was a very friendly and straightforward man. René Alençon always did his best as did the two or three comrades who worked with him. We had a good variety of food with chicken, game or antelope as well. Alençon managed it well. We also had a bar with whisky, liqueurs and Canadian beer. We lived according to our means, in the evenings Bernard Tronel and I would buy a bottle of beer by turns, which we shared.
We had amongst us Minne who was a champion at radio reception and radio [generally]. Our evenings were mostly passed listening to the BBC in French, but Minne had another set.
Now and again Henri Caron invited me to drink what he called a "Bistouille", black coffee with Cognac in it. He invited all the crews of the company in turn. I always had dysentery and Lieutenant Michard would tell me to drink a little spirits, which I did rarely. Inevitably from time to time some comrades drank a little too much, but it was the same for all of us in our camp. It was very hard for my comrades who never had any news of their families.
Once a week we went to a native cinema at Kano. It was an open-air cinema and very lovely under the moonlight. They had English or American films and the natives were very noisy because they discussed what was going on. There were French, English, American and natives there. It made for a funny atmosphere that we have never seen again up to the present. We would leave the camp on a lorry singing and everyone knew we were passing. I've always thought that they had a certain affection for us because of our loyalty.
Every day we had the flag ceremony. Our days always started early. Every morning there was physical exercise and often football because they had a football pitch in front of our barrack. We practised a lot of football because we had matches with an English RAF regiment.
After that it was breakfast and we were hungry! Then we would have without fail, practical and theoretical instruction on the subject of tanks. We had courses in first aid so we would know what to do in case of wounds. We had sessions and courses of all sorts given by our captain or officers.
One thing for certain was that all our days were occupied because we had our tanks to maintain, fitting machine gun bullets to bandoleers, lessons in driving, radio, artillery, map lectures, Morse code, tank to tank turret signals by semaphore. Everything was done to make us a perfect company and a credit to France. It was a very fine experience. All our determination was put into the task and we found strength and will power in all this for the years that followed. Our captain kept watch over and treated us as volunteers, for our part we were worthy of the enormous trust that had been conferred on us. We were young men widely differing but what was most remarkable was that I can't recollect the smallest dispute or disagreement. Seen from today it is extraordinary because the reality was that we lacked even the slightest certainty of what the future held for us. At the moment of writing this I have not the slightest doubt that the beautiful country for which we gave everything has never understood the FFL. I hope my comrades who rest in France are being recognised [honoured].
For myself, Henri Caron was continuing my training as a tank pilot. Lieutenant Michard had the good fortune to be teamed with a superb man, an example of all that is finest in a man. I always saw Henri as the complete man of tanks.
We often went out in "Auvergne" across impossible, rocky terrain and very steep gradients with the tank at its limit of balance. Where I would not see room for two tank tracks he would say, "Go! You can pass". If I was a little too much right he would press on my left shoulder or vice versa. He had huge trust in me because viewed from the turret the terrain looked worse still. I can write with certainty that that tank went everywhere and it was a great experience for me. Very rarely there would be an enormous downpour, which would flood the surroundings in about 20 minutes. At these times Henri Caron would take the section to drive in the rain through the bouillabaisse, which demanded all our skill because even streams would become torrents. All this forged a great trust between us.
The question of health at Kano posed a problem. I was up often in the night with my dysentery. I was very thin and my legs sometimes turned to rubber but I never gave up. We did some very long drives on night manoeuvres and as he always did to his final day Lieutenant Michard came to see each of the crews in turn to see that all went well when we stopped. While we were sleeping an hour or two he would come check us. If we couldn't sleep for one reason or another he would come sit with us beside our fire and speak to us and help us if we were having a difficult time. All this was very kind.
A good number of us acquired large red blisters between our thighs and we went to an English military doctor. We painted them with tincture of Iodine. That went on for a very long time.
If one of our riflemen became sick I would take them to the doctor because I could speak English. Some became very sick and it was very difficult for them so far from their families and not speaking the local language. I was always warmly appreciated for the help I gave them by explaining their illnesses and it was always a beautiful moment when they returned to the company and seeing me would come to me with their great smile.
I was to perform this task for the last time a few days before we left Nigeria and our rifleman was resting there but I was not able to go see him as I had done for his comrades.
One time the dysentery worsened and I had to spend a couple of weeks in Kano hospital. Since I had dysentery I was not put in the large ward with the sick soldiers and men of the RAF but in a pretty room in the same hospital. It was very comfortable, a beautiful bed with white sheets. The food was served on silverware and precisely at four o'clock, English tea! The "Free French Boy" was well looked after. When I returned my condition was stabilised and I wasn't passing any blood. It didn't last but that was how it went.
Football was very important for the company because it allowed us to measure up against the English who played a lot of it and it aided us in building the great company spirit that was so important to us. At first our team lacked training and experience. Our first football match, which like all the matches was on the football pitch at the Club Syrian, was against the RAF, the best team in Nigeria and we were beaten 10 or 11 nil. Since I spoke English our Captain designated me team captain. It was a gesture of great trust from him because he and Lieutenant Davreux were in the team and in view of their rank one or other could have been captain. But all the decisions, military, personal, football had one aim, all of them were for the best for the company.
Having been beaten by the RAF so soundly we decided that it wasn't going to continue like that. We had enough players to make a good team. In truth we had too many and for example it was very difficult to decide between Le Saout and Rio for goal-keeper. We also had in the company a man much older than us ( he was photographed with the team) who knew all about training so we put him in charge of that subject. I don't recall his name (Debruyn?).
Day by day and bit by bit we improved ourselves and in the great spirit that he had, Captain Ratard charged the coach and I to choose the team. English regiments were far larger than ours and had greater choice of men for their teams but even so, in the great team spirit of our company we were able to make up a superb team. It wasn't simply a matter of football. We were representing France in Nigeria.
For their part, the English kept beating the French and the stronger the English the harder the effort we gave to the game. In all our efforts to win, we fought English regiments with very good teams. The end of matches would always finish with much hand shaking and congratulations. The referee was always the same English major.
We eventually came to beat the RAF second team, but the first team had always beaten us 3-0 or 3-1 each time. Our last match at Kano was against the RAF first team who held the Nigerian shield and cup. It was an excellent team because it had two or three professional footballers who had been mobilised.
That match was the high point of football for France in Nigeria and we got a 0-0 result. We were very happy and the RAF, who had found it impossible to beat us congratulated us. The match over, the English major told me that our team had made tremendous progress and was a good team of exemplary conduct on the pitch. This was a great time for our company and for our officers who had come in numbers to the Club Syrian to encourage us.
At one time during some manoeuvres of English, French and Belgians we played a match at Zaria against the Belgian army and that too we had a goal less draw. Zaria was one of the great matches because there was a beautiful football stadium there and a huge native crowd which had lots of atmosphere.
The manoeuvres in Nigeria with English and Belgians brought together a large number of troops and offered much training because we had a goal to reach. In general our training was in the north of Nigeria which was very desertified and we went away for about eight days at a time. Our riflemen took part and there were many Negros in the Belgian Congo. They were very disciplined as well. Inevitably all our journeys were on tracks and all our manoeuvres were in clouds of dust because our tanks made a lot of it. At the end of the day we would be covered in dust and it was a pity that we weren't able to have photos taken of our faces at that time, because the different terrains we had crossed gave us different colours.
At one in the morning during one of the large-scale manoeuvres, when I had been driving all day long, Lieutenant Michard told me that we would swap places for me to rest from driving. It was very dark but the Lieutenant, who like me knew everything about tanks, started quite normally. Suddenly I noticed that there was a very narrow bridge ahead of us. Bridges in Nigeria were only little wider than our tanks.
The Lieutenant was running a little too fast given that the crossing seemed so narrow. About twenty metres from the bridge I saw that he was a little too far to the right. The tank hit the masonry on the right side of the bridge and I was projected head first against the back of the turret.
The tank stopped very suddenly and the Lieutenant got out. When I got down too, Henri Caron who had been behind us came up and teased the Lieutenant on his driving. Arriving beside them I fainted, I had a cut lip. When I awoke I was stretched on the ground and Henri Caron was putting some whisky in my mouth. I quickly revived and we all laughed. "At last you've drunk some whisky Eve. It's not so bad you see!" he said and more like that. The tank wasn't damaged and we got back in immediately, Lieutenant Michard driving. My comrades teased for a long time about that incident and it went on for months and months after. I drank a bit of whisky from time to time after that.
Now and then we would invite the English to our camp but, since there were many English regiments, we were more often the guests. I had the impression that compared to us the English drank a lot and when we went to them they had a lot of beer and alcohol. Inevitably we drank our fill, some a little too much, some a lot too much, the English as well.
The sessions lasted several hours and some slept before the evenings end. At these times the English soldiers and NCOs drank together. I have fond memories of many occasions, when with the participation of our English comrades, an English sergeant major's beautiful moustaches were trimmed one side or sometimes both sides. English sergeant majors always cultivated magnificent moustaches. They were none too pleased to wake up the next day, but that's how it went. Inevitably it was the Free French that did it! All this was done in the friendliest spirit despite the damage done by the scissors.
After our final large scale manoeuvre in the north of Nigeria a big review of all the troops was held there and it was very impressive with the numerous regiments. With the lack of trees one could see all the material, canons, tanks, half tracks, trucks, motor bikes and so on. I had the impression that we were assembled there to attack Dakar. Fortunately we were not sent there.
Our tanks had aircraft engines that used a lot of fuel and nearing the end of our stay at Kano we were made to carry on both sides of the tank, just behind the turret, two wooden frames in which were two large containers of fuel to augment the normal supply. It was obviously to have enough fuel to do a long run in our tanks and still have fuel for our trucks.
At Kano we had another review of all the troops to which a lot of the local dignitaries came and we had the flag with the Cross of Lorraine on the stands. At all these occasions huge crowds of natives would come by foot or horse, it was fine to see.
Ramadan was also a fine occasion to see with the Emir and his entourage and all the Nigerians dressed in white. There would be huge crowds at prayer and we had the opportunity to watch all that.
The parade of the Emirs on horseback and all their followers with all their colour, drums and cries of all sorts was fantastic. The Emir of Kano if I remember right had his teeth all filed into points and made a big impression. The Emir of Sokoto was a much larger man, less black than the Emir of Kano who was a "noir bleu" [Can't translate, presumably meaning very dark]. I have very fond memories of all this, the music which was simple and the sounds accompanying it all. The Emir's retinue was very rough and pushed all the people out of the way in order to pass. The horses, in superb harness danced more than walked.
Now and then we would assemble in a large get together in our quarters and our captain would talk to us after we gathered around him. The spirit of the company had always been something special and lasted the whole war. The comradeship and absolute trust one in the other was very strong.
Our stay at Kano was marked by the death of our comrade Aymar De La Villeglé, who died very suddenly of a gastro-intestinal infection. He was interred at Kano after a mass. The RAF and representatives of all the English regiments were there. I can't recall for certain but I have the idea that the RAF were the guard of honour and played "The Last Post". Prior to leaving Kano I went to see the grave. It was beautifully maintained by the British authorities and was among other military graves.
Our days at Kano had come to their end. Kano had been very special for the company because we were a small part of France which lived on in us and which found more and more strength in us. We knew ourselves well, we understood our strengths and our weaknesses. Seen from long after it was perfect, because we were ready to take the road, which at that moment there, had no end.