The Odyssey of Henri Cabannes, 1943-1945


I. The escape from France
     1. Preparing for departure
     2. Marching across the Pyrenees
     3. The journey across Spain
     4. Leaving for Morocco

II. Joining the Air Force
     5. Casablanca and Algiers
     6. Marrakech
     7. Great Britain



I. The escape from France

1. Preparing for departure

In October 1942, I entered the École normale supérieure after resigning for the second time from the École Polytechnique. I had namely gained entrance to the École Polytechnique for the first time in 1941, when I attended the preparatory class of Special Mathematics at the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris. On February 16th, the national radio announces the institution of the S.T.O. (the Compulsory Work Service). The young men born in 1920, 1921 and 1922 will be called up and sent to Germany to relieve the workers there. Concurrently, the general census of the young men from 21 to 31 years of age is going to be taken. On the same evening, with a promptness which has now become the rule, the answer comes from London : "No to the census !" The movement to evade the census is spreading widely. The campaign conducted by the French in London against the S.T.O. goes in all respects beyond the preceding radio campaigns : "If you want to shorten the war, do not work for Hitler !" On August 1st 1943, the list of objectors amounts to 85,000 names. Being born in 1923, I was not concerned, nevertheless I decided to interrupt my studies at the École normale supérieure and try to reach England or North Africa.

In August 1943, one month after passing the examinations for the certificates of General Physics, Differential Calculus and Superior Analysis, I set out for Bernadets-Desbats, in the region of the Hautes Pyrénées, to do rural Service at the farm run by cousins of mine. I was astonished to hear that the three young men called up for the S.T.O. had left for Germany, while the Spanish border is only 44 miles away. In Tarbes, I called on Mr Denis Prunet, a friend of my parents ; as I told him about my wish to go over to North Africa, he offered me to get in touch with a clandestine network for crossing the Franco-Spanish border. I just needed to come to his home, where I would be lodged until the departure from Tarbes. I travelled back to Paris via Marseilles where I stopped for a visit to my grandmother on my father’s side, who strongly criticized my project, arguing that, as a result, my father, who was professor at the Faculty of Science at Paris University, would be arrested. I also spent some days in the district of Var, at Les Lecques, where my parents owned a villa ; the village of Les Lecques lies on the coast between Marseilles and Toulon. Without any precise intention, I observed the various defences on the shore and in the villas along the sea front, which were meant to block a possible landing.

As I was back in Paris, I heard that two former students of the École Polytechnique, Fontanet and Baylé, who where comrades of my elder brother, wished to find a way to leave for Spain, which was quite a difficult problem, and I was lucky enough to know of one. As soon as he had concluded his studies at the École Polytechnique, Fontanet had gone to Lourdes to get in touch with a network to which he had been directed, but the network, having been discovered, worked no more. So he came back to Paris to join temporarily the Research Unit of Caudron-Renault which worked for the Messerschmitt plant in Augsburg. The École Polytechnique had appointed there some of its students to comply with the S.T.O. There he met his fellow student Baylé who had entered the École Polytechnique the same year ; some students in science also worked in that Research Unit in compliance with the S.T.O. When Fontanet and Baylé were told by my elder brother that I knew of a secret organization and that, not wanting to set out alone, I was looking for companions in escape, the three of us decided to leave together. During the last days of September, I went with my father to visit Georges Bruhat, Deputy Director of the École normale, to inform him that I was leaving, so as to prevent the École normale from searching for me ; we agreed on pretending that I was taking some rest in the South of France, and Mr Bruhat wished me good luck ; I never saw him again, since he was deported to Buchenwald and died in Sachsenhausen. So, on October 4th (1943) Fontanet and Baylé disappeared from their Research Unit, and the three of us left Austerlitz station by the night train for Toulouse. In Vierzon, in the middle of the night, the German soldier who was controlling the passengers told me in German that I had to come out of the train because my identity card did not bear the right stamp. So I got down from the train and spent the rest of the night in an empty coach which stood on a siding. The following day, I went to the Kommandantur in Vierzon, where the right stamp was put on my identity card. I went back to the station, to wait for the next train starting for Toulouse, where I arrived on October 5th around 8 p.m. Considering the difficulty and the risk which asking for a room in a hotel would involve, I went to the house where the parents of my comrade Jean Combes lived : 80, rue du Taur. I had learned by heart (since we could not keep on us any written document which might be compromising) quite a number of addresses in Toulouse, Tarbes, Madrid, Casablanca, Algiers and Brazzaville. Jean Combes and his parents saw me arriving as if had dropped in from another planet, and put me up for one night. The next day, I took the train for Tarbes, where I arrived in the afternoon, and went to Mr Prunet’s house. It was agreed that I should be lodged at night and have breakfast there, but that I should stay all day outside and have my meals elsewhere. The day before, he had a visit from Fontanet and Baylé : they were lodged under the same conditions, until their departure for Spain, at the home of a courageous young couple, friends of one of Baylé’s sisters. The following day, Fontanet, Baylé and I were able to meet and we decided that every day two of us would spend the time together, whereas the third one would remain alone : it appeared to be a lack of prudence for three boys aged about 20 to stroll together for several days along the streets of Tarbes. So each of us in turn wandered alone, not through the centre of Tarbes, but in the surroundings. Only once, the three of us went to Lourdes. We never met the organizers of the escape plan, who just let us know that we had to be at the station in Tarbes on Friday October 15th (1943), carrying, as only piece of luggage, a rucksack containing food for several days. On the same day, I sent back to my parents in Paris my suitcase with the now useless belongings it contained.



2. Marching across the Pyrenees

As we had arrived, separately, at the appointed time at the station in Tarbes, two persons, probably in charge of the organization, asked us to pay the sum on which we were agreed : 3,000 francs each (a research scientist beginning his career at the National Centre for Scientific Research, CNRS, earned 2,000 francs monthly). The train, a slow train for Bagnères-de-Bigorre, was already in ; it was a train in which the third class coaches had separate compartments with two doors, one on each side. They opened one of the doors and told the three of us, Fontanet, Baylé and me, to enter the compartment they had just opened. The bulbs at the ceiling were broken, and we could scarcely make out two persons sitting in the compartment. As the train stopped in Pouzac, one of the passengers in the compartment opened the door looking on to the track and told us to get out of the train, which we did . Once the train had left, we found out that we were nine candidates for escaping over the Pyrenees, with two or three guides. In Bagnères-de-Bigorre began the forbidden zone, which no one was allowed to enter without being authorized by the Germans. We immediately started out across fields and meadows. We went through Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and walked all night long towards the Aspin pass. Then our guides left us, telling us that other guides would come and fetch us to walk further during the next night. So we tried to sleep in the open, at the altitude of 5,000 feet, in October. During the first night we spent marching and the first day of "rest" in the forest near the Aspin pass, we got acquainted with our companions in escape. The youngest, aged 17, an Alsatian, was forced to join the Wehrmacht ; he had courageously "deserted" and was trying to reach Morocco to join the French Army. Another one had succeeded a short time before in the competitive examination for entrance to the École de Saint-Cyr ; he had been wandering for a week in the Pyrenees, thinking he could reach Spain by himself with a map and a compass ; on hearing that Fontanet, Baylé and I came from the École Polytechnique or the École normale, he felt reassured, but he was already exhausted ; besides, he carried quite a heavy equipment : a cape, a second pair of shoes,... whereas the three of us, following the advice given by the organizers of the network, had only a light rucksack with food for a few days. I keep but a somewhat vague memory of the other four companions in escape. In the evening of Saturday October 16th, new guides came to fetch us and led us, after only a few hours’s march, to a barn where we spent the rest of the night and the next day, Sunday October 17th, of course in total silence and without going out. On Sunday evening, new guides again came to fetch us ; the most perilous passage was in the village of Vielle-Aure, the crossing of a bridge leading to the opposite slope of the valley. German soldiers were sitting at a table in a café of the village. So we crossed the bridge one by one, each time obeying a sign made by one of the guides, who perhaps was living in the village. Next we reached a slate quarry where we had a "rest" until 5 a.m. Then new guides came to fetch us and we marched further, this time following a path along the mountain side, on the eastern slope of the valley, until we reached an area dominating the Hospice of Rioumajou, where the snow was beginning to cover the whole track. It was on Monday October 18th at 11 a.m., and our guides showed us the pass "le Port du Plan" at the altitude of 7,500 feet, behind which Spain was situated ; they told us we would be there within half-an-hour and wished us a happy end of our "journey". We began to climb up the snow-covered mountain, with the snow first going up to the calves, then up to the knees. At 2 p.m., the pass was still in sight, but nearing more and more slowly. At 3 p.m., feeling exhausted, I abandoned in the snow my rucksack and the food it contained ; Fontanet and Baylé, being stronger than I was, gathered the food ! Six among us went on climbing, the other three, having no strength left, decided to walk back to the valley. At 4 p.m. we arrived at the Port du Plan, on the border. Of course neither the Germans nor their French auxiliaries could watch all the passes, particularly those as difficult of access as the Port du Plan, which we were just reaching.


3. The journey across Spain

We were in Spain. We counted, without yet knowing it, among the 23,000 Frenchmen who succeeded in escaping from France through Spain. It was becoming dark, and we walked down to the valley until we found a barn in which we settled for the night. Our clothes were drenched after the long march in the snow, so we slept stark naked in the hay and spent there the first relaxing night since we had left Tarbes. The following day, Tuesday October 19th, we walked further down to the valley of the Cinqueta ; on our way was a bridge which we could not avoid crossing ; just after the bridge, on the opposite slope of the valley, Spanish civil guards were waiting for the young Frenchmen who at that period came several times a week over various mountain passes, all situated at high altitude. We remained with these civil guards until they had finished their service hours, at about 4 p.m., and walked down with them to the village of Plan where they were stationed. Some peasants in the village welcomed us and gave us food : bread and salami, for we had nothing left. Then the civil guards locked us in, for the night in their quarters, quite a modest place, and told us that within a few days they would take us to the nearest town, so that we may meet the French Consul. We had nothing, we knew about nothing and we were unable to go away, where, owning nothing ? In the daytime they left us free, and the villagers of Plan gave us to eat ; they too seemed to be very poor. After several days, I do not remember the precise date, we set out, first walking with the civil guards, then supposed to take the bus which would drive us to the nearest town in order to meet the Consul ! This town, unknown to us , was Barbastro, about 66 miles away. After a 7.5 miles’ march, we arrived at Salinas de Sin, where we had to wait for the bus which linked Bielsa and Barbastro. Our guards asked us for money to pay the fare. We said we had none ; actually we wanted to keep the small amount of money we still had. They told us that, such being the case, we would have to walk to Barbastro, a distance which we were not afraid of, since we had already been marching several nights from Pouzac to the village of Plan. So we marched further to the next village, where we took, with our civil guards, the bus arriving from Bielsa. In the small town of Ainsa, the bus stopped for a while, and our guards took us to a café, the owner of which gave us to eat without asking for payment, since we had so little money. It seems that for these Spaniards who fed us during several days, we were heroes. Maybe they thought that by going to fight against Germany, we would hasten the end of Franco’s power, which probably was one of their wishes. Finally we arrived in Barbastro at about 8 p.m., and our guards led us to a building, a former monastery, where we entered with them. Once the door was closed, we realized that we were not at the Consul's residence, but in prison ! Our credulity had been boundless, but at any rate we could not have done otherwise.

We were in prison ! We got registered, were questioned about our identity and had to remit all we possessed, namely nothing except for some French money, which they confiscated, giving us anyway a receipt which never was of any use to us. Then they led us to a large hall already occupied by about 70 Frenchmen ; how long was it since they arrived ? By squeezing a little more, our companions in jail left four straw mattresses for free for the six of us. Fontanet, Baylé and I stretched out on two of the straw mattresses and used to sleep thus during the whole period we spent in Barbastro, which lasted one month. Our only clothes were those with which we had crossed the border, and which we kept wearing until December 26th : on that day, as we were on the way to embark in Malaga, the Red Cross (which one ? ) gave us new clothes. Our companions in captivity asked us for news from France and news of the war : their questions induced us to think that they had been here at least for six months ! and we found this awfully disheartened. After some further conversation, and seeing us so disheartened, they set laughing, for at that time the stay in Barbastro lasted about one month ; each new group arriving was received with the same joke. The day after, we went to the prison hairdresser who shaved us from head to foot ; around 10 o’clock a.m., all the men in our hall went down to the prison courtyard for an hour : there we met the Frenchmen who occupied another large hall in the prison. Among them, Fontanet and Baylé met one of their fellow students of the École Polytechnique, whereas I met Jean Beydon, who had been a comrade of my elder brother at the Lycée Saint-Louis. Jean Beydon had attended there the class preparing to the Naval Academy : the École Navale, which had been suppressed, but the competitive examination for admission still existed, and the successful candidates attended the courses of the École Centrale in Paris. Many Spanish Republicans were imprisoned in Barbastro : they had been there for several years and may have stayed much longer, since General Franco remained in power until he died in 1975. The Spanish prisoners did not go out into the courtyard at the same time as the French. Anyway the courtyard was not large enough for all the prisoners. Each Sunday, mass was celebrated in the prison ; it was compulsory for the Spaniards, optional for the Frenchmen, who all attended it, since it was an opportunity to leave once more our large common hall. At regular intervals, other Frenchmen who had just crossed the border, arrived at the prison. One day, we saw among them one of the three companions who on October 18th had walked back from the slopes of the Port du Plan. He explained us that, with one of the other two, he had marched down to the Hospice of Rioumajou, whereas the third one, being exhausted, had stretched out on the snow and had died : it was the one who, by succeeding in the competitive examination, had gained admission to the Military Academy, the École de Saint-Cyr, which had been suppressed, though the preparation classes and the competitive examination for entrance still existed (probably in view of the future) ; he was aged 21 ! His name was Sapone. At regular intervals, the prison Director came and read the list of those due to leave Barbastro ; after a month, Fontanet, Baylé and I appeared on the list of departures. We were so happy ! So we set out, linked two by two with handcuffs, travelling by train to Saragossa. Once arrived at the station of Saragossa, we walked, still linked two by two, along the streets leading to the prison. It was quite a modern prison, where we were locked up in groups of about fifteen men in a room measuring around 110 square feet ; in a corner were a water tap and a hole to be used as a toilet. After an hour or two, straw mattresses were brought, but it was impossible for all of us to lie down at the same time ! These infernal conditions lasted three days, after which we left again, as we had come, by train, for the concentration camp of Miranda.

The camp of Miranda, following the purgatory in Barbastro and the infernal days in Saragossa, appeared to us as Paradise. The camp had been built at the time of the civil war, on Hitler’s judicious advice ; it could contain and has indeed contained several thousands of prisoners. It consisted of numerous, well aligned wooden huts ; in each of them were lodged 120 to 130 persons. The camp was guarded and organized by the Army. A classical camp with walls, barbed wire fences and watchtowers. It was under the command of a major who did not seem to have any francophobe feelings. Nevertheless, the brutal reality of life in a concentration camp made its appearance, particularly with the distribution of utensils, a dirty, disgusting mess tin, a spoon, a straw mattress and a ragged blanket smelling of vermin. Each hut was divided by a central corridor on each side of which small "rooms" were aligned on two floors ; each "room" was delimited by "partitions" made of old blankets. The only electric bulb cast a dim light in the corridor. I settled in one of the huts, whereas Fontanet and Baylé, as coming from the École Polytechnique, were accommodated at the "officers’ pavillon", where I called on them. Once I was thus paying a visit to them, I became aware that Jean Rousseau, whom I had known at the Lycée Saint-Louis, and who had just gained admission to the École Polytechnique after the competitive examination in 1943, was also lodged at the "officers’ pavillon". The officer in charge of the pavillon was Captain Louis, probably the senior in service. So I explained to Captain Louis, who was a prisoner as all of us, that I too had gained admission to École Polytechnique, even twice, in 1941 and 1942, but had resigned in order to enter the École normale, and that I thought I had just as many titles as Jean Rousseau, and even more, to be lodged at the "officers’ pavillon". Captain Louis, who had been in Barbastro and Saragosssa with Fontanet, Baylé and me, told me to fetch my belongings, namely almost nothing, and to come, which I immediately did. Of course, life in Miranda was hard and the hygiene deplorable ; Miranda is situated on the Ebro 50 miles south of Bilbao, 1,400 feet above sea level, and we were in December. However, inside the camp, we were free to move and could spend the whole day walking around. Every fortnight, lists including the names of several hundred men, maybe thousand, who were due for freedom the day after, were placarded. On December 24th 1943, Fontanet, Baylé and I appeared on the list of departures for the next day. On December 25th, we went through the door of Miranda camp and became free men in Spain.



4. Leaving for Morocco

On leaving the camp of Miranda, we were received by the delegates of the French National Liberation Committee, which had its seat in Algiers. We went to a restaurant in Miranda to have at last a proper meal, and in the evening we set out by train for Madrid, where we arrived on December 26th in the morning. We were led to a centre of the Red Cross where we left off the clothes we wore without having been able to change since October 4th, when we had started off from Paris. Wearing new clothes, after a shave and a shower, and besides well fed, we received a small amount of Spanish money and were requested to come again in the evening in order to leave for Malaga. I called on Guy Lefort, who had entered the École normale in 1939 and was teaching at the French Lycée in Madrid. Mr Carcopino, the Director of the École normale, and Mr Bruhat, the Deputy Director, had obtained the appointment to the French Lycée in Madrid of several of their students, who thus avoided being called up for the S.T.O. Of course, these students had arrived in Madrid travelling in a sleeping car and holding a visa. Lefort’s address was one of those I had learned by heart. As he welcomed me, Lefort told me, as it seemed, with some pride, that he too, and his colleagues of the French Lycée , were following de Gaulle : as I asked him what he meant, he answered me that from now on, they were no more paid by Pétain, but by de Gaulle ! I congratulated him for this brave deed, and told him that, as for me, having spent more than two months in the Spanish prisons, I was setting out for Morocco to join the Air Force. We left Madrid by bus ; the busses were driving all night long ; we found them comfortable, but we would have found anything comfortable. At daybreak, we stopped for half-an-hour in Granada ; then we arrived in Malaga in the morning ; it was on Monday December 27th (1943). The numerous Frenchmen, about 1,500, were mostly coming from the camp of Miranda, but also from some prisons and some "Balnearios", hotels and boarding houses in which as many 2,000 Frenchmen, having stated that they were under 18 of age, were detained. In Malaga, until our departure, we were "accommodated" in the arena, where straw had been spread for us on the ground instead of mattresses. During daytime, we were free. From October 21st to December 29th, six convoys of two ships left Spain, starting off from Malaga, transporting a total number of about 9,000 young men who had escaped from France. On December 29th, the Sidi Brahim and the Gouverneur général Lépine, the same two ships which made up the five preceding convoys, were in the harbour of Malaga ; Fontanet, Baylé and I, together with the 1,500 Frenchmen lodged in the arena, walked to the harbour. We went aboard. In the afternoon, we looked back towards the Spanish coast from an increasing distance. We were leaving for Morocco ! On Friday December 31st (1943) I set foot on the African soil, in Casablanca. The escape from France, the journey from Paris to Casablanca, had just come to an end ; it had lasted 88 days.


II. Joining the Air Force

5. Casablanca and Algiers

On Friday December 31st, 1943, all the Frenchmen disembarking in Casablanca from the two ships arriving from Malaga were taken to a transit camp in order to comply with numerous formalities. The first one was to obtain a provisional identity card in accordance with the statements of the person concerned. Then some officers questioned us at length about our curriculum vitae, our studies, how we crossed the Pyrenees and about our stay in Spain. By this way, I was informed that as from October 18th, the date at which I passed the Franco-Spanish frontier, I became second lieutenant. All those who had escaped from France and belonged to the four military Academies : École Polytechnique, École de Saint-Cyr, École Navale, École de l’Air, or to the following Civil Institutes : École normale supérieure, École des Mines de Paris, École des Ponts et Chaussées, École Centrale de Paris, École Coloniale, became second lieutenants according to the same provisions. Other officers questioned us about was could be of interest for the next fighting in France ; so I indicated what little I know about the defence system on the beach at Les Lecques and the villas on the seashore. Then I signed a commitment to serve in the Air Force until the end of the war. From that day onwards, Fontanet and Baylé went their own ways which diverged from mine : Fontanet had joined the Artillery and Baylé the tanks. The young men having escaped from France could choose which service of the Armed Forces they wanted to join. Each group arriving from Spain included some false Alsatians, actually Germans spies : they were shot. On Monday January 4th (1944), I left the transit camp for Dépôt 209 in Casablanca, where we got quite a complete military pack. There I waited until I was sent to Algiers, where my entrance to the École normale had to be checked on the "Journal Officiel", and my nomination to the grade of second lieutenant had to become effective. While staying in Casablanca, I called on André Moitessier, a first cousin of my mother ; his address was one more among those I had learned by heart. He told me that Marcel Boiteux, who had gained admission at the École normale the same year as I did, had arrived in Casablanca some months ago. Boiteux and I had shared the same room during all the school year 1942-1943, and neither of us knew that the other one was planning to interrupt his studies and join the French Fighting Forces in North Africa. This witnesses of the secrecy which surrounds such projects. Boiteux had crossed Spain in no more than two weeks without being incarcerated by the Spaniards. He owed this achievement to the fact that he had been convoying through the Pyrenees American pilots who had crashed their plane in France ; these pilots, once they had arrived in Spain, got in touch with their Embassy in Madrid : Franco did not put the Americans in jail, so a member of the Embassy came to fetch the pilots, together with Boiteux, and then took them to Gibraltar. At Dépôt 209, I made the acquaintance of Langlois-Berthelot, who had arrived from Spain by the same convoy in which I had come and, having gained entrance to the École Polytechnique after the competitive examination in 1943, was waiting, as I was, to leave for Algiers. During his stay in Spain, he was lodged in "balnearios" for he had declared that he was aged 17 : he was better informed than I was about the way of travelling across Spain.

Finally Langlois-Berthelot and I set out for Algiers by train, in a cattle waggon where we had settled ourselves down rather comfortably. A huge army of American, British and French soldiers was stationed in North Africa, a situation which, of course, posed many transportation problems. After several days and nights with numerous stops, particularly in Oran, which we thus we were able to visit, we arrived in Algiers on January 16th ; there we joined Base 320, to which we were appointed, and after a fair number of new formalities, thanks to which in particular we obtained a permanent identity card, we waited for our nomination to the grade of second lieutenant, which we got on March 3rd ! As soon as we arrived in Algiers, I went to the office of Radio Alger to send the following message : "The tapir’s muzzle is pointing towards the sky". It had been agreed with my parents and some friends that this phrase pronounced on the radio in Algiers, would mean that I had arrived in North Africa ; my parents did not hear it, but it was heard by friends who at once informed them. During the six weeks I spent in Algiers, I paid a visit to Georges Darmois, professor at the Faculty of Science in Paris, who was then staying in Algeria ; he let me know, among other facts, that Yves Rocard - he too was professor at the Faculty of Science in Paris - was also staying presently in Algeria. I had attended the lectures he gave for the first year students in Science at the École normale, and in July he had been my examiner for one of the oral tests pertaining to the certificate of General Physics. Mr Rocard had left France by plane ; he was a specialist in radio beacons, and the British had sent to fetch him a Lysander airplane which, in the night from September 13th to September 14th 1943, had landed on a meadow in the region of Poitiers. The Lysander airplanes were small, single-engined, planes with four seats, for a pilot, a machine gunner and two passengers. They used to land on meadows indicated by members of the Résistance during the nights of full moon or the nearest ones. About 640 persons thus left France for England ; this number must be compared with that of the Frenchmen who succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees : 23,000 and of those who failed : 7,000. To these figures, several thousands of foreigners must be added. During these six weeks, I went almost every day to the library of Algiers University. Of course, I wanted to get back to the École normale after the war to complete the course of my studies there, and I therefore wished not to forget the knowledge I had begun to acquire in Mathematics. In the library, I read, and then wrote the demonstration of Hadamard’s theorem about the distribution of prime numbers, and I began to study transcendental numbers. I also bought in Algiers one of the few books of science available : the three volumes of Celestial Mechanics by Henri Poincaré. In Algiers I called on my uncle, Albert Fabry and my aunt : they lived rue Claude Bernard in a villa with a beautiful view over the city of Algiers ; they were very hospitable, and upon several occasions I slept at their home. At the beginning of March, Langlois and I received our nomination to the grade of second lieutenants, with the back pay for the past months. We travelled by train back to Casablanca, this time covering the distance - which however we found quite as long as the outward journey - in a passenger coach. Once in Casablanca, we were appointed to the Preparation Centre for the navigating Personnel, together with about twenty French student cadets, as the next group to attend a training course enabling us to join the navigating Personnel. We remained in Casablanca until April 12th.



6. Marrakech

On April 13th, all the trainees, namely two second lieutenants, Langlois and I, and about twenty student cadets, arrived in Marrakech at the Practical School for the Navigating Personnel. The captain in charge of the School found abnormal the fact that Langlois and I had become second lieutenants without having ever been soldiers. So he told us, Langlois and me, that we would have accommodation and meals with the student cadets. Sleeping in a large barrack room with stacked beds was no problem for us ; however, for the meals, we had to wait in file, holding our mess tin, before the Moroccan soldiers who served us. These soldiers seemed astonished to see two officers waiting in file with the student cadets who, as for them, were still soldiers ; they must have wondered whether we were punished, and Langlois and I felt so embarrassed that after three days we removed our second lieutenant’s stripes. Finding the situation most unpleasant, I suggested to Langlois that we should go and explain it to the captain ; as he refused, I went alone, and the captain agreed that he had made a mistake and put us together with the officers for accommodation as well as for the meals, which we thus had at the officers’ quarters. At the school in Marrakech, I had chosen to prepare for the Navigator’s Licence. For this purpose, we attended theoretical courses which, according to our instructors were on the same level as the class of special mathematics, but, in my opinion, were rather on a level with the tenth grade in a secondary school. During the same period we had to practise flying, either as navigators or as passengers, since 100 hours’ flying were required to obtain the Navigator’s licence. We flew aboard Leo 45 or Cessna airplanes. Living at the air base was very cheap and we could spend 90% of our pay as pocket money. So each month, after receiving our pay, we went in a group to have a meal at Mamounia Hotel, a world-renowned, high luxury hotel ; Churchill already used to stay and rest there ; the meals were excellent and the prices in accordance with the quality. Once I had the opportunity of meeting again Fontanet and Baylé, and spending with them a day in Mogador, which since has become Essaouira ; I had left the school without permission - probably I should not have obtained it - and on coming back I was told that on that day my name was included on the flight plan, and that the good will of my comrades and the understanding of an instructor had spared me a punishment. Towards the end of the training period, Langlois was flying as a passenger with a student pilot who crashed the plane on landing and died together with Langlois. With five other friends , I carried his coffin and buried it in the cemetery of Marrakech. On August 18th, the training period was concluded. I finished first, which was not too difficult indeed, and obtained the navigator’s licence. Then a specialized training was required, and I chose the heavy bombers, for which the training took place in Great Britain. So, on August 20th, together with the new licence owners who had also chosen the heavy bombers, I left for the depot of Baraki, near Algiers. We embarked in Algiers on September 7th (1944) for Great Britain. We navigated in convoy and arrived at Greenock, Scotland, near Glasgow, on September 14th.


7. Great Britain

We spent some days in London in a transit centre called "Patriotic School". In London, I happened to meet General Leclerc’s pilot, who the following day posted in Paris the first letter I was able to write to my parents since I had left France. Still in London, on September 25th (1944), I bought a book of mathematics : "A course of Modern Analysis" by Whittaker and Watson ; during all the time I spent in Great Britain, I studied very carefully the contents of this book, for I kept planning to go back to the École normale. During my stay in Great Britain, I also wrote a paper entitled "Application des Fractions continues à la formation des nombres transcendants". As the communications between France and England had been restored, I sent this paper to my father, who submitted it to the "Revue Scientifique" in which it was published.

After staying in London, I was sent to a centre in Filey, then to the "Advanced Training Unit" in Dumfries, Scotland, where I remained from October 10th to December 4th. Then I was transferred, still in Scotland, to the centre called "Operational Training Unit "in Lossiemouth, where I stayed from January 2nd 1945 to March 9th. There the flying crews were formed, and the members of each crew had to fly together by night. Lossiemouth lies at a latitude of 58° North, and we were in winter ; so it became dark very early, which was quite convenient for night flying. The navigators also flew as second navigators with other crews. So it happened that one night, as I was flying with an English crew, the landing gear broke off at touchdown and the plane caught fire by rubbing against the runway ; all the Englishmen succeeded in coming out through one or the other emergency exit, which I could not do, since all of them were surrounded with flames ; the Wellington airplane was made of an aluminium frame covered with canvas : by tearing the canvas between the aluminium uprights, since I am rather thin, I was able to get out and hear the English members of the crew asking one another about the "French navigator" ; all of them were safe, but our comrades, seeing the plane afire, thought we had all died. On March 9th, the crews stationed in Lossiemouth were sent to a new base where we had to be trained again, now to fly on Halifax airplanes, as we would have to do in war operation. On May 5th, 1945, we joined Group Guyenne, one of the two groups of heavy bombers of the Free French Air Force. We were greeted with much irony, and, as for us, we bitterly resented the conclusion of a difficult adventure which had lasted almost two years. Three days later, Germany signed its unconditional capitulation, and the war was over.

We flew over Germany, we dropped into the North Sea the bombs which had now become useless. On June 18th 1945, our crew took part in the parade along the Champs Elysées. Starting from Elvington in Yorkshire we flew over the Champs Elysées at the appointed time, and flew back to land in Elvington. In July, I was appointed to the advance detachment in charge of preparing the installation of the groups of heavy bombers Guyenne and Gascogne on the base of Mérignac near Bordeaux, the base from which, on June 17th 1940 Général de Gaulle had been flying to London ! From Bordeaux, I could travel to Paris and spend some days there to see my parents after a 21 months’ absence. In Mérignac, I prepared for the last certificate I needed to obtain the "Licence" degree, the certificate of Theoretical Mechanics. I was sent to the Parisian Centre assembling and administrating the Personnel, and there I was demobilized on October 21st, two years and three days after crossing the Franco-Spanish border. On October 24th, I completed my "Licence" by taking the examination in Theoretical Mechanics, and I went back to the École normale for a second and concluding year.


(Translated from the French by Hélène Jousselin)