Young woman on D-Day

Claire Bouriez

“In ’44, the Germans had taken away all the radio sets, but we had upstairs on the top floor an old broken radio, and we gave them that to take! They were quite happy.”

Interviewer: Peter John for War Chronicle (18 December 1999).


Claire Bouriez (Photos by Chuck Solomon, 1999)

Q: Mlle. Bouriez, were you born in Bieville?

Mlle. Bouriez: No, in Paris, because at the time my father was a French Army Officer in Germany in the Army of Occupation. This was in 1921. Like my sister and younger brother I was born in Paris. When I arrived in Bieville, I think I was only one year old. My first step was taken in Bieville, but I can’t exactly remember when or where! I spent my youth in Bieville, but my sister and I went to school in Paris between Christmas and June or July. In Paris we stayed with my grandmother. After I had finished school, I stayed in Bieville again until I was about 18. In fact it was when I was just 18 when, through friends, and friends of friends, we found that I could go to Poland and stay with a very important royal [aristocratic?] family. I have some pictures here [Mlle. Bouriez produces magazine photos of a most impressive palace]. They were terribly nice people.

On 1 September 1939 I woke up in the morning and found the floor shaking (I was sleeping upstairs, of course), and this was from bombs from German aeroplanes. There were three daughters in the family, and their name was Branicka [pronounced ‘Branitska’]. They were aged about 15, 13 and 8.

Just before May 1940, I was told that the American Embassy, because the US was not involved in the war with Germany, organised an exchange of civil prisoners. I would have stayed with the Branicka family, because I was very happy with them, but they told me that, if ever the Russians should come, I must go, so it was better that I go now. We travelled by train, and by 12 May we had arrived at Stuttgart, where we were kept by the Germans in a convent. We each had a bed; we were well fed; nothing bad happened. We didn’t know what would happen to us, of course. About two weeks later, we were exchanged through Switzerland, through Brise. I came back to Bieville just before the Germans arrived!

I spent the war years here quietly, then we had the landing in 1944. After the war I went to America, to New York: my sister had married an American, which made it easier for me. For four years I worked at the New York Society Library on 79th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues. I enjoyed my work, and living in New York. Afterwards, I worked for the French Embassy, the Economic and Commercial Conseil, then I moved to London where I worked again for the French Embassy. I left in 1983, when I retired, and came back here to Bieville.

Q: How did your life in Poland change after the Germans had come?

Mlle. Bouriez: Very little change, because the people with whom I was living were very rich. They had wealthy friends coming and going all the time. One of their friends was an Austrian lady, who could speak perfect German: she managed the Germans very successfully! We certainly had plenty to eat ….

Q: Were you allowed to remain in this rather grand house the whole time?

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes. Now two-thirds of it is a museum. The family were not thrown out until after the war, after the Russians had come. Two of the daughters are dead now: this is Anna [photograph], who is still alive. She was the brightest of the three. When she wants to go into the house now, she has to buy a ticket like everybody else!

Q: When the Embassy organised the evacuation, was there a special train? How many people did they get out of Poland?

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes, there was a special train. There were about one hundred people who were to be exchanged. There were German guards on the train, including the Gestapo. They were quite polite: in fact there was absolutely no problem for us. They even organised, when we were in Stuttgart, a person who spoke perfect French, so that they could go out with us if we wished to walk in the park. In Germany, we each had a proper bed to sleep on, but in Switzerland, where we were only one night, we had to lie on straw on the floor!

Q: When you got back to Bieville, the French government had moved to Bordeaux,  to be followed shortly by the Vichy government under Petain?

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes, but we were in the Occupied Zone here. This finished on the line of the Loire River, beyond that was Vichy. We didn’t like the German occupation, but in the evenings we could hear the BBC News from London.

Q: You could receive this easily?

Mlle. Bouriez: Oh yes: the Germans put out interference, but when you are young you are clever enough to be able to re-tune to a different frequency which they were not jamming!

Q: Did you hear de Gaulle’s broadcasts from London?

Mlle. Bouriez: Oh yes, we followed that very closely. On the day before the landing we were listening to the radio from Switzerland, and there they said, “Landing is imminent— one day only!” so we did know it was coming. We were waiting for you! In ’44, the Germans had taken away all the radio sets, but we had upstairs on the top floor an old broken radio, and we gave them that to take! They were quite happy.

Q: Did you have Germans billeted on you, staying with you?

Mlle. Bouriez: Several times. The first time, when they arrived, some troops from Munchen, they were quite ordinary. I think my brother Philippe has told you about ‘Pantefleur Rose’ [Pink Slippers].

Shortly after the occupation begun, a German officer took up quarters with the Bouriez family. Madame Bouriez forbade him to wear his smelly leather boots in the house. To accommodate, the officer wore a pair of pink slippers.

Q: Was he with you for a long time?

Mlle. Bouriez: A week or so, I think.

Q: Was that all? I’d imagined you would have soldiers billeted on you almost throughout the occupation.

Mlle. Bouriez: No, for short periods only: I can’t be quite sure for how long, but they were not here long. Just before the landing, we had an officer from Czechoslovakia, but he didn’t stay for more than a week: perhaps he was scared because both my brothers were also here, they were 17 or 18. Almost all throughout the war, there were Germans at the château, which was burned later on—we never knew whether it was actually burned by a bomb from the British or the Germans. It wasn’t burned too much. In about ’43, we had been ordered not to show any lights at night—always to cover up the windows at night. Well, we always covered the windows at the front of the house, along the street, but never those at the back!

Q: Were there organised German troops in the village, in huts, or a camp, or barracks?

Mlle. Bouriez: Oh yes, in the château. But they left at one time, and that gave us the chance, we had permission from the owners, who were Alsatians, to go to the château and take part of their furniture and bring it back here to the manoir, to our house, and we saved it like this. One of the farmers helped by carrying furniture with his horse and cart. I don’t know whether the Germans ever realised, but we got the best of the furniture out like that, and kept it here for the rest of the war.

Q: In the spring and early summer of ’44, the British had a big campaign to bomb railways and bridges all over France as a preparation for the invasion, but without showing where the landings might take place—

Mlle. Bouriez: You should ask Philippe about that, because he was a little over 16, and with my other brother he had to look after a length of railway, they had to go up and down about 500 metres of the track, to patrol.

Philippe Bouriez and his brother guarded railroad tracks against sabotage by the Resistance.

Q: What I was getting at was to ask whether you had noticed more planes at night at this time?

Mlle. Bouriez: Oh yes, and there were many aircraft which people said were crossing Normandy on their way to Italy, and coming back the same way much later. Of course, I don’t know if we were right about this, but that’s what people told each other.

Q: Were there anti-aircraft guns in the village? Could you hear anti-aircraft fire at night?

Mlle. Bouriez: I don’t know where they were: they weren’t in Bieville, but we could certainly hear them at night. Philippe might know, because he was in the Resistance, but he never told me about that at the time. The Germans had prepared … I remember I found behind this house one day, the land goes up a little after the little stream through le marais [the marsh], when I was out with my little dog (I love dogs) I saw they had made a hole ready to take such guns, but they never did. Perhaps that’s why on 6 June when we were in the cellar, there was a bomb dropped near there. It hit a house and killed some cows, but there was no gun. Afterwards I found these [shows fragments of bomb or shell casing] in my garden.

Q: During the war, did the Germans take the local men and make them work in factories?

Mlle. Bouriez: In Germany? Yes. They tried to take women too, at the end, but not to Germany. It was just for work to last for one day, so I went to Paris … I wasn’t there when they tried this. We had a laissez-passer [travel permit] to allow us to go into Caen, and people from Caen had to have a laissez-passer to come here. No-one was allowed to go to the beach. Towards the end, we had friends coming from Caen, and the soldiers never asked to see the passes: they could not read a word of French or German—they were a regiment of Russians.

Q: How did you get a laissez-passer? Where was it issued?

Mlle. Bouriez: I don’t remember—it might have been from Caen, it might have been from here ….

Q: Can you remember when the Germans stopped people going to the coast? Would it have been as early as 1943?

Mlle. Bouriez: Maybe …. At the end … you see it was 55 years ago, not yesterday!

Q: You had two brothers living with you here at the time of the landings?

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes, one of my brothers, the elder, who is dead now, unfortunately, was in the Navy based at Toulon. I don’t remember the year, but he came here after they were all sent away. He was in the South of France for a time before it was occupied, I’m not sure what he was doing there, or the year, but he was here during the landing. Only my sister was in Paris in June ’44.

Q: How many brothers and sisters were you?

Mlle. Bouriez: We were two girls first, with brown hair and brown eyes, and two boys later with blonde hair and blue eyes! The boys were Philippe and Marcel.

Q: Was Marcel still a Naval Officer?

Mlle. Bouriez: No more, because there was no more Navy, so he worked at the munitions factory [cartoucherie], for the Germans. But by doing that he did not have to go to Germany, he could remain in France.

Q: Where was the cartoucherie?

Mlle. Bouriez: Lebisey – the worst place!

Q: Can we talk about the Liberation itself now ……

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes, I will show you something … we had been in the cellar, and somebody came and said, “They’re here!”. Philippe and I went out from the cellar, and together we met … [shows photo in the right-hand column of two “wild men” from the KSLI]. There were two regiments here, I think, the Warwicks, and KSLI. The photograph was taken near the château, but a little further away. You will see they [the soldiers] are black [with camouflage paint].

Q: On the morning of the landing, were you aware of the bombardment from the ships off the coast?

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes, but I don’t think we received much of the British shelling on that day. The British, unfortunately, burnt the château in the next village, in Beuville, they were separate then but are one now. It was a very pretty château … The château here, too [Bieville], was burnt, but it did not explode. It has been rebuilt outside, but inside there had been a very pretty stair [case] in stone, but this was not rebuilt. The owners don’t live there now. We had serious damage, too, to the church. You will see from these photographs where part of the tower was rebuilt. When the stones from the tower fell they did a lot of other damage, many things in the church were broken.

Q: When did you all gather in the cellar to take shelter?

Mlle. Bouriez: On D-Day, in the very early morning, when a bomb fell nearby. It was already daylight, about 7 or 8 in the morning. A little later, someone coming to Caen from the beach, on their way to work, told someone in the village, “The British have landed: the sea is full of boats!” That is how we first knew about the landing. People began to come down to the cellar, and they remained there until someone told us, “They are there”, and we went outside and Philippe took the photograph.

People believed then that it was all over, so they went back to their houses and farms. Later on, they came back for the night, so we brought furniture from the house for people to sit. Before that there had been nothing in the cellar.

Q: Had you used the cellar as a shelter before, during air-raids?

Mlle. Bouriez: No, never.

Q: How many people do you think were in the cellar that night?

Mlle. Bouriez: Different figures have been given, but I believe there were between 80 and 100—and it is not a big cellar! Younger people, such as my brother, were sleeping under the seats, between the legs of chairs.

Q: Was there any food or water?

Mlle. Bouriez: No, and you must appreciate there was no electricity or telephone either. My brother and others organised themselves to go down to the well nearby and bring water as it was needed, and when it was safe to go! You should also know that it was the same here the next winter: no water, no electricity, and no glass in the windows either. We had 250 panes of glass to repair!

Q: What do you remember of the evacuation of the village? How did it come about?

Mlle. Bouriez: We were not evacuated for about two weeks after the landings. Of course, we had all thought that after a few days everything would have moved on, and all would have been quiet again. I do not really know how the evacuation came about, but one day an American Civil Service Officer just turned up, and told us we should leave the village for somewhere safer. He said he would return with transport, and the next day two American lorries came for us. I think almost everybody left – perhaps seven or eight only would not go.

We were taken to Bayeux, and I worked there in a convent in the Rue des Bouchers with my mother. The convent was being used as an hospital for French civilians. There was a soup-kitchen there, which many people used, but there was plenty of food to buy: this is a very agricultural region, it was summer, there were plenty of things being grown, and the farmers could not send their food to markets in the rest of France, so there was plenty of food! The work in the convent was quite easy, as there were not very many patients for most of the time. I remember one lady very clearly: she had a moustache and a bonnet, and was wearing an American Army pyjama jacket. I also remember a young orphan girl —she had lost all of her family during the fighting, and had been injured herself—she was only a teenager, but she died at the convent.

We also had some civilian casualties from Bayeux, and they were very frightened. My mother and I told them they would be safe here, and got them into bed. There were not enough beds for some of the lightly-wounded, so we put them on chaise-longues. These people had been injured when the Germans started bombing a bridge which was near the convent: I think it was the only German air-raid on Bayeux, but we were certainly not bombed again while we were there.

Some of the people from Bieville stayed in the convent, but my mother and I went to stay with some of her friends in Bayeux after one or two nights, returning to the convent in the daytime to work.

Q: Did you think of yourselves as refugees?

Mlle. Bouriez: No: I suppose we were, but I didn’t feel to be one. I think I did not believe I would be away from Bieville for very long. In fact, we were allowed home on 16 or 17 July, so it was less than four weeks. The only other thing I remember about Bayeux was that de Gaulle was in the town on 14 July, and I was allowed to go and see him.

Q: When you returned to Bieville, were there still soldiers in the area?

Mlle. Bouriez: There was still a lot of traffic to and from the beaches, but not many soldiers near here. I think there were still some British artillery, but there was a French-speaking Canadian regiment here who had been sent back from the fighting. They were the Le Régiment de la Chaudière, and it was their padre who cleared up our church. There was no curé here at the time. When we needed a priest we had to send for the curé from Blainville.

Q: How many civilian casualties had there been in Bieville since the landings?

Mlle. Bouriez: I am not sure, but the names are on the memorial in the village. I think perhaps four had been killed, but many more injured, of course.

Q: Do you remember Mme. Barrett?

Mlle. Bouriez: Oh yes, she was a trained nurse. She was a widow then, her husband had been a surgeon. She had been a French Army nurse – as had my mother also. Where she lived was called La Rubercy [La Rue Bercy?]. Now it has been re-named Rue Mme. Barrett in her memory, as she was a very respected woman in the community. She had a daughter and a step-daughter, but the step-daughter was wounded while she was working in her own kitchen by a shell. She was evacuated to Bayeux, but died there. I do not think there is anybody left from her family now.

Q: Did Mme. Barrett use you cellar on 6 June?

Mlle. Bouriez: No, she was in another cellar with other villagers near her own house, and I do not think I saw her at all during the time we were using our own cellar. People have told me that she was very brave in looking after wounded British soldiers on D-Day and afterwards, but I did not see anything of that myself because we stayed close here.

Q: Who can you remember as being in your cellar?

Mlle. Bouriez: Apart from my family, I can remember the Dyvrande parents and grand-parents, and the two boys of course. Mme. Jeanne Dyvrande used to help my mother as her domestique.

Q: Do you have an overall impression of those stirring weeks after the landings?

Mlle. Bouriez: Yes, but you must realise that for us it really was the ‘Liberation’. We were so pleased to get rid of the Germans. I still feel very proud to honour those who gave their lives as our liberators.