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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

De Gaulle's Free French Army- a wartime anniversary celebration this summer

This summer will see the 70th Anniversary of the Free French - so named after General deGaulle's June 15th speech in 1940.

Through the Gaps appeals to its readers for stories or photographs or other recollections from, or connected to, the Free French in Newlyn - email any responses in the first instance.

This summer will see an important anniversary in Anglo French history and a commemoration of the part played in this story by the neighbouring Celtic countries of Brittany & Cornwall. Seventy years ago this summer, most of France was occupied by the Nazi army. Hundreds of French people, unwilling to accept German occupation, escaped to the UK, many of them to Cornwall.


On 15th June 1940 General de Gaulle left France and on the 18th made his famous radio broadcast from London to the French people. He told them, We have lost the battle; We have not lost the War. He asked them to join him in fighting for a Free France. This was the beginning of the Free French movement which was to grow into a major force fighting alongside the Allies.


French fishermen from Brittany had been fishing around Cornwall since 1902. Newlyn, St Ives and Scilly were almost second homes for them and many friendships were made. They were the first to respond to General de Gaulle’s appeal. At a time when much of Europe was occupied and Britain was fighting alone, many people thought this a hopeless cause. Not the people of the tiny island of Sein off Brittany’s Land’s End, the Pointe du Raz. The local lighthouse keeper had a radio and listened to General de Gaulle’s message. He told the islanders about it and they held a meeting to decide what to do. In an act of extraordinary faith and courage, they decided that practically all the men of the island would leave and sail to Newlyn to join the Free French.


The first wave set sail from the Ile de Sein and headed for Newlyn on the 24th June 1940 in the local light house tender Valleda and Prosper Couillandre’s sloop crabber Ruanez ar Mor (Breton:Queen of the Sea.) The second wave of volunteers sailed for Newlyn two days later in three crabbers, Martin Guilcher’s Maris Stella Au 1703 (Star of the Sea), Francois Fouquet’s Ruanez ar Peoc’h (Breton: Queen of Peace) and Pierre Coillandre’s Corbeau des Mers Au 1684 (Sea Raven). Meanwhile, in nearby Audierne, a group of young volunteers boarded the Ile de Sein mail boat Ar Zenith and were soon joined by Lieutenant Dupont and his 15 soldiers of the Chasseurs Alpins regiment. The Ar Zenith headed for Plymouth with her volunteers. She served as an ammunition carrier at Falmouth docks during the War and is now preserved as a French national monument at St Servan near St Malo.


On 19th June the large crawfish boat Trebouliste, which had spent her peacetime voyages fishing off Mauritania, West Africa, set sail from Douarnenez with 108 young pilots from the French Airforce school near Morlaix. Many of these young flyers were to give their lives fighting for a Free France. They are honoured by a monument on Douarnenez’s Rosmeur harbour.


Many others escaped from Brittany in fishing boats. Among the best known was Jules Mevel, known in Cornwall as Captain Jules who sailed from Camaret in his crabber Louis Jules Cm 2436 and fished from Padstow throughout the War. When he later built a new boat she was called the Padstow. The Ma Gondole D 3377 arrived at Newlyn from Douarnenez on the 20th of June. M Andre Bouguen recalled, I landed at Newlyn on June 20th and went to the Seamen’s Mission where we had cups of tea and sandwiches and then we went straight to Falmouth.

Most of Newlyn’s bigger boats were called up for Royal Navy service as auxiliaries and their place was taken by a large fleet of modern & efficient Belgian trawlers which kept the port afloat during the War years. Many Belgian families lived in Newlyn & had their own Anglo Belgian club.

Several French boats also fished from Newlyn throughout the War. Prosper Couillandre’s Ruanez ar Mor had a successful lining career and was known as the Turbot King. There were also the Lorient trawler Entente Cordiale, the Boulogne registered long liner Esperance from nearby le Portel, Skipper Delafosse’s Marcel Pierre F 747 from Fecamp, the first to return to her home port after the Occupation, the large Morgat long liner Reder ar Moriou which escaped by accident in April 1941 when a compass error brought her into Plymouth, the trawlers Alliete Jacqui and Appel de la Mer, the netter Reine Astrid from Gravelines, the famous Douarnenez mackerel drifter La Brise D 3378 and the Joporo from Concarneau whose crew lived in Clarence Street. Madame Pourre, who lives in the Pas de Calais, remembers her voyage as a three year old in the Esperance. When they landed at Newlyn her shoes were forgotten and her father had to ask the stern policeman, guarding the boat, for permission to go back aboard and find them. All escapers were checked by the Security Services at what became known as The Patriotic School in London.

The Germans soon tightened up their control of the occupied coast and escapes became more difficult and dangerous. On 16th December 1940 the crabber Emigrant Cm 2212 left Camaret with 14 escapers, including two RAF pilots, nailed into a secret compartment. The crabber was searched by the Germans with their dogs. They went ashore wishing them Bon Voyach!. This escape was led by French Airforce pilot Jacques Andrieux and the legendary Daniel Lomenech who became a leader in secret operations. Among the crew was Jean Louis le Breton who later married a local girl & settled in Penzance. Colonel Andrieux wrote of their arrival off Cornwall, The skipper shouted “Cornwall straight ahead!” Everyone was delirious. The boat rushed on through a heavy swell. England was there, a dark line on the horizon. The skipper--- unrolled the Tricolour which was wrapped around his body. In an instant our colours were flapping at the masthead. We were welcomed like heroes. Surrounded by men of the security service, we left for London.

On 3rd October 1942 the le Guilvinec crabber Audacieux Gv 5167 was escorted into Newlyn by the Belgian trawler Zeemeermin H 56. The Audacieux had been involved in landing arms to the French Resistance and her crew escaped from the Gestapo in the nick of time. They spent the rest of the War living safely at Gwavas Quay, Newlyn & working for J & F Pool of Hayle.

Cornwall was also deeply involved in Secret Operations sending agents into occupied France in French fishing boats. Agents sailed from Newlyn, Falmouth, the Helford & the Isles of Scilly. M Franck Bauer, who served as Free French officer at Newlyn wrote, In effect there reigned at Newlyn an odour of secrecy and espionage. I met, without always identifying them, many of the actors in this silent war.

Not all secret operations were successful. Starting in October 1940 the Camaret crabber Marie Louise made 5 secret voyages from Newlyn to the little coves of Cap Sizun for the Free French which ended with her entrapment and capture on 14th February 1941. The Emigrant was also sent on secret operations and was captured on her second voyage on 19th April 1941.

The most successful operation was led by Lieutenant Stephen Mackenzie and Daniel Lomenech in the ex Concarneau trawler le Dinan in April 1942. They sailed from the Isles of Scilly, made a rendezvous with the courageous crew of the little Concarneau sailing boat Les deux Anges and rescued resistance hero Colonel Remy and his family. They also brought back the War winning plans of the German Atlantic Wall coastal defences.

Among those who served in secret operations was Mr George Peake who later became French consul at Newlyn where he was greatly liked and respected by generations of French fishermen who knew him as Monsieur Georges. He served in the sailing vessel le Mutin which still sails as the oldest ship in the French Navy. Her crew are well aware of her story and take great pride in it. On 7th November 1942 the Allies began Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. The Germans immediately invaded the Vichy or Free Zone of France and in February 1943 introduced compulsory work service, Service de Travail Obligatoire under which thousands of young French people were shipped off to work in German factories. This speeded up the pace of escapes to join the Free French, many of them from Brittany to Cornwall. The Germans were infuriated by the number of escapes from Douarnenez and imposed even stricter controls.
Perhaps few Cornish people realise the role of Cornwall in these dramatic and dangerous times, leading eventually to the Liberation of France and the defeat of Nazism. Plans are being made to commemorate this story in a lively and imaginative way. In June a flotilla of Breton traditional boats will arrive at Newlyn to remember the events of June 1940 and the beginning of Free France. It is hoped that the boats will include the Belle Etoile from Camaret, the Cap Sizun from Audierne and the Corbeau des Mers, one of the original four Ile de Sein crabbers which brought those courageous volunteers to carry on the struggle against Nazi tyranny seventy years ago.

Thanks to John McWilliams for providing the historical details story for what promises to be a fascinating reunion and celebration of little known events that helped change the course of the war. John's richly described and heavily illustrated book, A Century Of Friendship, covers over 100 years of Breton fishing activity in and around the far west of Cornwall, including the Ilses of Scilly.

10 comments:

  1. I was delighted to read of the plans to commemorate the 70 anniversary of the Free French in Newlyn. My late father John Douglas Nicholls (1914-1994) was in the Intelligence Corps during World War ll. He was based at Newlyn harbour, where he had his office, during the period concerned - until he had a bad accident and had to spend the rest of the war receiving treatment for his bad head and arm injuries.

    My parents John and Minnie Nicholls married on 1st January 1944 and a Belgian called Jules Hart, who also worked with my late father, was best man at their wedding. I have recently discovered photos of them.

    I recognize many of the names in your article - amongst them the Couillandre family.

    After the war my father returned to the family business 'Wilton & Co. Ltd', Ironmongers, of Market Jew Street, Penzance. I myself remember how many of the Breton fishermen would seek out my father in the shop when they ever came into Newlyn or visit my parents at their Mousehole home.

    I find it thrilling that the work of these many brave people is still remembered.


    Mary Chown nee Nicholls

    ReplyDelete
  2. Many apologies for an error in my last submitted entry!

    It should have read that after World War ll my father John Nicholls returned to work in the family business 'WILTON & NICHOLLS Co. Ltd', Ironmongers, which used to be located at 18, Market Jew Street, Penzance. This former ironmongers business used to be where 'The Works' is now located on The Terrace and it is still remembered by many local people.


    Mary Chown

    ReplyDelete
  3. John le Bretton9 May 2010 at 15:11

    I am delighted that this vent is going ahead my father was on the Emigrant on that voyage he is Jean Louis Le Bretton, I would have loved to have been able to do this crossing in memory of him he passed away on 17 December 1989, and my mother who was a Cornish girl died 4th January 2002.
    Jean Alcide Le Bretton ( John)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Juliette Micheneau31 May 2010 at 13:56

    To Mary and other people who may comment on this comprehensive article.
    I'm a journalist working for the French public radio in Brittany.
    I'm looking for stories just like yours Mary. Stories from war time in Newlyn, focusing on the arrival of these Breton fishermen who sailed from the Isle of Sein to join De Gaulle's free forces.
    Please feel free to contact me at this address : juliette.micheneau@radiofrance.com
    I'll be in Newlyn next week.

    Juliette Micheneau

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hallo, I am thrilled to discover this site. I live in Lismore, Australia. My father, Jean Kervroedan escaped in a fishing boat, the Dalch Mad, from Douarnenez and arrived at Newlyn in April 1943. There were I think 19 men on that boat, including a Canadian airman. My father passed away a year ago, and I am going to be visiting Douarnenez in August, but decided to also visit Penzance for a couple of days in the hope of finding further information for a book I'd like to write about my parents. I will be in the Newlyn area on the 24th and 25th August. If anyone responds to this post, perhaps we can get in touch. Many thanks,
    Yvonne Hartman

    ReplyDelete
  6. very interesting and well written. thanks Laurence Hartwell. Prosper Cuillandre who sailed in June 1940 to Newlyn and had a good career there during the war as 'turbot king' came back to Sein island and bought a large piece of land in 1948. he built an impressive maison de maitre which has now been restored and is rented as holiday apartments called Le Kestell or Le Chateau.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Yvonne, fascinating to read your post. Good luck with your research. I am an English woman who lived in Douarnenez for 5 years and I have two sisters living near you at Brunswick Heads. I know Lismore quite well. I now live at Ile de Sein near to Dz. They are very knowledgeable at the Port Musee in Dz and should be able to help you. Mithe Howell is Breton woman now living in Penzance might be helpful too. she'll be in the phone book. Cheers, Abigail Heard

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hello Yvonne, fascinating to read your post. Good luck with your research. I am an English woman who lived in Douarnenez for 5 years and I have two sisters living near you at Brunswick Heads. I know Lismore quite well. I now live at Ile de Sein near to Dz. They are very knowledgeable at the Port Musee in Dz and should be able to help you. Mithe Howell is Breton woman now living in Penzance might be helpful too. she'll be in the phone book. Cheers, Abigail Heard

    ReplyDelete
  9. Many apologies for an error in my last submitted entry!

    It should have read that after World War ll my father John Nicholls returned to work in the family business 'WILTON & NICHOLLS Co. Ltd', Ironmongers, which used to be located at 18, Market Jew Street, Penzance. This former ironmongers business used to be where 'The Works' is now located on The Terrace and it is still remembered by many local people.


    Mary Chown

    ReplyDelete
  10. Juliette Micheneau14 June 2011 at 09:20

    To Mary and other people who may comment on this comprehensive article.
    I'm a journalist working for the French public radio in Brittany.
    I'm looking for stories just like yours Mary. Stories from war time in Newlyn, focusing on the arrival of these Breton fishermen who sailed from the Isle of Sein to join De Gaulle's free forces.
    Please feel free to contact me at this address : juliette.micheneau@radiofrance.com
    I'll be in Newlyn next week.

    Juliette Micheneau

    ReplyDelete

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