|Beirut 1943 with a comrade from Djibouti.|
|Rabat. New Sherman. On tank L to R Moal, unknown, Jamette. Standing, Huguet, unknown, Michel Philippon.|
|Sabratha with a Crusader on loan from the Desert Rats. Top row L to R, four unknown then Jamette, Treguer. Bottom row, unknown, Jaouen, Eve, unknown.|
I found my comrades again. They had been disarmed, told they could not stay in French North Africa and had been transported into exile to the area of Sabratha in Libya. They went in the clothes they stood in, with their Free French insignia, sleeping bags and nothing else. They had no tents of any kind, nothing. Even their field hospital was exiled with them! Since they were "traitors" the Vichy government made no arrangement of any kind for feeding them and mercifully, the superb organisation of the 8th Army came to their rescue in a very modest way, since food was short all round and I found that my Free French friends drank tea every evening, not coffee!
Because our lives were always being disrupted I was greeted as if it had only been a few days since we last met. They expected my return with the same certainty that I had that I would see them again. It was a great moment. In a few minutes I recovered my place as if I had always been there. I found Lieutenant Michard again. He had my sleeping bag and my effects. Sadly Captain Ratard had left. [He had been transferred to Regimental Headquarters] There were many new faces.
Someone told me all about Captain Jacques De Witasse and his epic journey to come and join us. I went to see him and he told me that Lieutenant Michard had spoken of me and that he was happy I had returned.
Our camp was in an oasis under palms. My comrades had made a little barrack of wood for Lieutenant Michard, and since we slept never minding where in the bush, I put my sleeping bag beside the barrack and slept there each night. There were no other habitations at the oasis and apart from the training, life was very monotonous. We had learned to be very patient since our departure from England and we needed it now because, as impossible as it seemed just then, our end goal was approaching.
There was great bitterness at Sabratha, for it seemed that after all we had endured we were to be forgotten and Frenchmen who had deliberately kept out of the fighting were accorded favourable treatment. We were told we could not go to Tunisia and civilisation. We had to stay in our camp near the sea, plagued by millions of flies, dust and heat, while the Vichy soldiers enjoyed Tunis, Algiers and Rabat. We asked ourselves what would become of us? We understood that for now, no one wanted anything to do with us in North Africa. Despite our bitterness our morale did not flag.
There were about a thousand of us there. We recovered our comrades from Camberley amongst the regiments around us, those sent to Syria while we were in the AEF. Some were members of the First Tank Company who had suffered many casualties fighting the Vichy French in Syria, others were from Bier Hachiem. I listened to the tales about those who had died in these battles.
Then we began to be joined by other men who wanted to fight under De Gaulle, ones who had escaped from German prison camps, who had slipped away from Vichy France via Spain and also men who had deserted the AFN ( Armée Francaise Nationale). From all of them we accepted as being quite reasonable the explanation that until then we had not been near enough for them to join us. Many of our men had families under German subjugation and had to use assumed names because of it.
Our officers came and spoke to us from time to time. General Leclerc visited us and gave the impression of being very fatherly towards us. To us all he was a 'good bloke'. He believed in his officers being very close to his men and practised this himself. But best and most thrilling of all he told us "I promise you I will lead you back into France and more than that I promise you also that we will take Paris and Strasbourg." We never doubted that this would be so, that was the sort of faith we had in Leclerc.
Again the food was mediocre and we had to compete for it with the flies. It was absolutely necessary to eat with one hand while swatting the flies off with the other in order to avoid eating flies. In the morning when we turned our backs to the morning sun within one or two minutes our backs would be covered in flies.
We trained in the English Crusader tanks, (The 8th Army gave us a few Crusader tanks to help us keep in training) and we followed many training courses to improve ourselves. I did a course on mine clearance amongst other things and the weeks at Sabratha turned into months.
The FFL was abandoned in the desert and we knew it because nothing was going well between the allies in North Africa. The Americans had brought General Giraud from France because Roosevelt didn't want De Gaulle in charge. [A political struggle was in process between British, Americans, ex-Vichy and de Gaulle. A deal was done and new enrolments to the "illegal" Free French were officially stopped. So there began some very mysterious resurrections and soldiers who it was thought were long dead or invalided out re-appeared on the rolls. New recruits were simply enrolled under the names of the departed.]
At the end of each day we would go to the sea by lorry and that was the high point. The sea was quite a way from Sabratha. It had a beach and a superb Roman theatre where we had one or two concerts. Otherwise there was absolutely nothing!
I had some boils on one arm and the doctor who had been with us a long time lanced them. My comrade Emile Fray came down with a very serious fever [Emile told me it was in fact Blackwater Fever]. The doctor came and said he had a gastro-intestinal infection. He was the third to suffer, the other two were dead! I was in the area and the doctor told me to draw some well water and to soak two blankets in it to cool them. Afterwards wrap them round Emile to bring down the fever because he was in danger of dying. I don't remember seeing Emile react to anything, but as long as he was alive that first remedy was repeated.
He was evacuated to the company hospital, which was close by us. It was just a few long tents in the bush and it was tremendously hot. I went to see Emile from time to time. He was very sick and in a permanent delirium. A few days later he recognised me. He was very feeble and his complexion was yellow. The slightest movement was an effort and he had no strength to speak. I feared for him. I put my face close to his and told him he must start to get better and this was not the time to give up because we needed every volunteer for the fight. He gave me a nod of his head. I returned many times. It was so sad to see a comrade in that tent, so hot and totally lacking comforts. He rested there for many days perhaps some weeks and I heard that he was evacuated to a hospital, in Tunisia I think. I had the great joy to see him months later. He was cured. I got the impression that he never remembered any of my visits or talks. It's not surprising, he was at deaths door for most of the time.
Then we were told that we were to go back to French North Africa. So finally the company left its Crusader tanks at Sabratha and embarked in lorries for Gabes in Tunisia from where we took a train all along the North African coast to Casablanca where our new Sherman tanks awaited us. The whole train journey was made in cattle trucks but at least we could lie down in them. It was good to eat the lovely grapes which we could buy in North Africa. Better still to turn on a water tap at various stops. We put our 17 Sherman tanks in working order and went back to Rabat where the 2nd French Armoured Division was being formed out of some Free French and some Vichy troops, as on our own we were too few to form a division. Much of the time was spent in divisional training.
We were told we would be part of the 501ème RCC ["Regiment Chars de Combat"] with the First Company, which had left Camberley before us and the Third Company, which had left Camberley after us. The three tank companies of the FFL were all there.
Insulted and dishonoured as we had been by Vichy French and U.S. governments, we now knew that we would fight on. De Gaulle having inevitably asserted his irrefutable French national authority and thwarted U.S. international policy, became leader of the provisional government re-created in French North Africa. He appointed one of his very first officer supporters of 1940, General Leclerc, to command the 2nd French Armoured Division. With the amalgamation of French troops De Gaulle decreed that, the first part of our task achieved, the Free French Forces were disbanded and we accepted this as inevitable. But we could not cease to be the noble volunteers of 1940. All those of us who had been Free French continued to wear the emblem of the Free French Forces. Nothing could be said to us by the military authorities since, General Leclerc and General De Gaulle always wore theirs!
Early one day Captain De Witasse with whom we..................
Next 3 Pages of notes missing, story resumes at page 81.
On one occasion Lieutenant Michard had to go and address a neighbouring regiment, I don't know on what subject. He returned very angry because it had been evident that the regiment remained faithful to Marshal Petain. There had been an exchange of words and finally, he told me, his audience had sung "Marechal Nous Voila" [a song praising Petain] to him as he left their camp. He stopped and told them they were Nazis.
We made many problems for the officers of the FFL, because we refused to salute officers of any rank of the AFN. I don't recall having taken this decision with my comrades but it had become automatic. The result was that when we went out in Rabat and saw an officer of the AFN no one from our company would salute. I don't know what was said about this in the officer corps, but after a short while it was accepted. It's a fact that this decision included the regimental officers who were in the DB with us. The first few times I stopped and explained to them politely, but firmly that I had enlisted in the FFL and I would not salute anyone but the officers of Free France, in whom I felt total confidence. That was very embarrassing. Afterwards I would continue to walk. Sometimes I was called back, but I never went back. When there were a number of us one would speak for all of us. After a while we ceased even to halt. I don't recall a single officer of the FFL who reproached us. Lieutenant Michard always understood us on this subject. It's very sad nowadays to remember this subject, but we hadn't accepted the role of the AFN. It caused many problems but we stuck to it. Things were put back in order when we fought together.
When I was at Rabat I heard that a football team had been formed to represent the DB in a match. My comrades and Captain De Witasse, who was also a good footballer, gave me the honour of being the captain of the [company] team. We had had many games against the English and Belgians and others and we took it very seriously. We were well trained and we had amongst us four or five very good players.
I was astonished to find that a [divisional] team had been selected without any of our company or even the regiment having the opportunity to play a trial match for the DB team selectors. Since that was without doubt regrettable, I made some approaches to find out who in the DB was responsible for selecting and training a team without even speaking to our officers. When I found out I went to find the commander responsible (I don't recall his name). I told him a had the honour to be the captain of the second company team and ask when my comrades would have the opportunity to play in front of him to see if there were any amongst them good enough to be selected.
Knowing that if I didn't salute first, a conversation would not follow, I saluted him but he didn't respond. His attitude was not friendly although he seemed to be very nice. He told me a team already existed. I asked how it had been selected. He said it had existed before. I asked him how, not having seen my comrades of the second company play, he could know if he has the best players possible. I said some of my comrades are good players and had represented France for three years. He said the decision had been taken, that the DB team existed and that the conversation was over!
There was the question of what names to give our tanks and the decision was to name them after Napoleon's victories. Lieutenant Michard did not want foreign names and most of all not German names on our platoon's tanks and he was firmly decided on this subject. I don't remember the details but French names were given to our tanks. These were the victories of Napoleon, but our five tanks were named after the victories that preceded the great defeat and retreat into France, Montmirail, Romilly, Champaubert, Arcis Sur Aube and Montereau!
On our arrival in Morocco all the other regiments of the DB took the decision to style themselves as Regiments of Cavalry. We didn't want to be cavalry. We were tanks. We had three companies, not three squadrons. I've never known the details but we remained the 501st Tank Regiment and always remained so.
The Liberty Ships.
We set off again for Casablanca and almost three years after our departure from England in small numbers, a whole French division was on its way back to that country. Our embarkation on the Liberty Ships, boats which we soon understood floated on [top of] the waves, was done on a very rough sea. It took cool nerves and good steering to drive the tanks into the boat, which rose and fell about a metre. [Actually, at this point the Division was divided up. Two crew members from each tank accompanied it on its journey inside an LST (Landing Ship Tank) to England. The others got a rather more comfortable journey on the liner "Cape town Castle". Gaston's "Liberty Ships" were LSTs, which accounts for their considerable discomfort.]
We rested a short time in Casablanca Harbour. I don't remember the number of Liberty Ships but there were a lot. The tanks were secured to the ship's decks with chains and our berths were to the side. There was no refectory, we ate where we were without a table.
We got onto deck to say goodbye to Africa and upon leaving the harbour I saw the single warship that was our sole escort. The reason was very simple. The liberty ships were very flat. They could not be torpedoed. Our stay in the port had been very short. The sea was very rough and the boat rose and fell with the waves, which were considerable. The voyage took more than two weeks because we made a large detour to avoid the French coast and the risk of aerial attack.
At our embarkation and disembarkation I did not see an American officer or sailor and I think the crew were very few.
Like many of my comrades I had sea sickness during the early hours and those who weren't sick at first joined us very soon. We were all in our berths and didn't eat. The most difficult problem with food was that we weren't satisfied with the tinned American food and couldn't accept it. We ate practically nothing and after about two or three days one or two comrades had to go to the kitchen, empty pieces of the tinned food into a pan and make a sauce a little more to our taste. We ate a little and continued to be sick. The only comrade I saw on his feet for the whole voyage was Jean Kermel, a Breton!
We were obliged to go once or twice a day to check the chains that secured the tanks, otherwise there could be a terrible accident. We did this despite being too feeble to get around. After a few days I went up on deck in order to get some air and escape the disgusting atmosphere we were in. The sea was bad and the waves tall. The warship was there and the Liberty Ships near us looked small in the waves. I don't recommend an Atlantic voyage in April.
We slept on a floor along the side of the boat, which was clearly made of iron. We were very happy to see Port Talbot, Wales and we soon recovered once we had left the boat. For those amongst us who left England in 1941 this was a very special moment because we had often asked ourselves, with good reason, if truly we could succeed when the Germans swept all before them in Russia.