Philip Smith. “Summer 1940. The fateful day”

Philip Smith

Philip, aged ten. This was the bike he rode

You can read the first part of Philip’s story here: Leaving England

The fateful day

On 11th June, my father returned from the Paris office at lunch time – he had walked the 7 kilometres, because the railway termini were jammed with people and his General Manager had received instructions from London Office to evacuate their operations to temporary offices in La Rochelle on the Atlantic seaboard. Each member of staff was to make his own way as best they could. My parents had made the decision early in 1937 to send my brother and I to boarding school in England. Only after the war did I come to realise the financial sacrifice that this decision had meant, for by late summer 1937 the French Government devalued the Franc by 100% which changed the exchange rate from Frs 80 = £1 to Frs 160 = £1, and my father was paid in Francs, thus immediately doubling the school fees bill. The consequence was that when we came home from school after our first term, we came home to a different flat – a much older apartment block with much less modern facilities than our very nice modern flat – but of course the rent was correspondingly less. Also, my father had sold the Talbot car, and as it turned out in June 1940, it had been a Godsend that, to enable us as a family to go for picnics in the Forêt de Saint Germain, we had acquired a bicycle each. Thus, after lunch at home on 11th June, my father took the decision that we would leave that afternoon and head for La Rochelle “en bicyclette”. We took the minimum of things: two blankets, some spare clothes, and some money. We left our flat, gave the keys to the Concierge, Madame Roger, and set off. My wish of the previous autumn (“why doesn’t something interesting happen?”) had been granted. It was 3:00PM on a warm June day.

The Exodus

Philip Smith

Philip Smith (left) with brother Derek, at a farm where they stayed a night

Bois Colombes is west-north-west of Paris, so we headed east-south-east, to cross Paris, heading for Fontainebleau. I should explain that my father had agreed to rendez-vous with his long-time friend and colleague Alec Parker: they had shared digs together on first coming over to Paris in 1919. Alec had yet to buy his wife and daughter bicycles. We learned later that he did so but only by paying a hugely inflated price: the humble vélos beloved of so many French people had become a Rolls-Royce article overnight. As soon as we got to the outskirts of Paris proper, we had to dismount – the streets were choked with cars loaded to their roofs with all manner of possessions, and people were even pushing prams filled with belongings. It was slow progress, and I recall the skies were increasingly filled with oily-smelling smoke, a gendarme said that some oil and petrol depots had been deliberately set on fire. So we pushed and pushed, through the Place de la Concorde and beyond, always masses of civilians of all ages going somewhere. At about 7 or 8 pm we stopped at a south-east Paris suburb and my father made some enquiries at the local Mairie (town hall). This resulted in our being shown up to a kind of loft/roof space, and we were each given a straw-filled ‘Paillase’ mattress on which to kip down.

Before long the whole loft was filled rather like the dormitory of a Victorian Workhouse. We must have managed to get something to eat, though I don’t recall having any food. Next morning we returned our Paillases with grateful thanks, and set off again at 5.30 am. As with the previous day one could hear very distant gunfire; the roads were still completely filled with humanity – cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and still oily smells and burning in the air. There was a difficulty getting anything to eat – cafés and small restaurants were chocked full – I seem to recall my father coming back with some bread and a bottle of wine. Eventually we were able to mount our cycles and make a little more headway, but it was very much by way of weaving in and out of bottlenecks and hugely long queues of cars which were stuck fast. We reached the town of Fontainebleau at 7 pm on June 12th.

My father found a small Pension (guest house) which had one room left. We were able to wash under the fountain in the courtyard of the building.

June 13th. This day was spent frustratingly sitting at cafés on the main Fontainebleau boulevards, looking out for Alec Parker and his wife and daughter – with no success. I recall in the late afternoon, a very smart French Cavalry Officer, on hearing us speaking English, asking my father what we were doing here passing the time of day. He told my father that the Germans were already in Paris and that the next day Paris would be surrendered as an “Open City” to the Germans.

He advised us to leave without delay, and that as he was off to join his regiment, he kindly gave us the keys to his flat, told us to make ourselves at home, and leave early next morning, giving his keys to the concierge. And so we did, having a very nice sleep and a good wash, but even so, nice as the flat was, the ‘Loo’ was a hut in the middle of the courtyard, and inside was the standard large square ceramic vitreous base on which were moulded two ‘foot imprints‘ and you placed your feet on these and did what you had to do; no niceties for the female sex!

June 14th: We learned much later that the city of Paris had indeed surrendered to the Germans this day – and here were the Smiths some 60 kilometres away on bicycles. The saving grace was very likely that the Germans would take a rest and carry out the administrative procedures of occupying the city and prepare for a victory parade up the Champs Elysees at which Hitler himself was present. Thus we had a bit of time to add to the distance between the German armoured cars, etc., and our bikes.

Read the next part of Philip’s story: “Summer 1940. Travelling from Fontainebleau”

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