An unexpected trip. The end

Previously on “An unexpected trip”: my mother Renée has joined the French Air Force at the end of WWII. A captain orders her on a mysterious mission. They are to board a military plane, taking off from Paris, destination unknown.

Berlin 2

“And you took off?” I asked. “Just like that?”

“Just like that.” My mother said. “Remember, in the Army or the Air Force, you don’t ask many questions. Or, better, none at all.”

“Yeah, I remember”, I said, thinking of my ‘own’ Captain, back in the Army.

“Everything had gone so fast.” My mother said. “The Captain, the new uniforms…”

“And the shoes.”

“And the new shoes, yes!” She laughed. “On top of everything, it was a military plane, can’t remember what type. American most certainly, all our military equipment was American then. And those things were rather noisy. A DC3 maybe? Not really First Class and a glass of Champagne. The Captain was sitting next to me. Reading a bunch of papers he’d taken out of a fancy leather portfolio. I had no idea where we were going. Just think: this was my first airplane flight!”

I opened my eyes wide, thinking of the million miles she later flew on Air France, and said, thinking aloud:

“Of course, you’re right. I don’t think there were many opportunities to fly in Brittany during the war…”

“Exactly. None. So, there I was, barely nineteen, in my brand-new uniform, and fine leather shoes, on my first – military – air flight, destination unknown. I tugged the Captain’s sleeve to get his attention and asked him, shouting above the roar of the engines:”

‘Er, Captain…’

‘Yes? What is it?’ He was not exactly the talkative type.

‘Captain, may I ask… where are we going?’

‘Berlin.’

“Berlin!” I almost screamed. “On June or July ’45?!”

“I almost screamed too.” My mother said. “I was thinking: Berlin? Are they still fighting? What about the Russians? So, I asked the Captain:”

‘Berlin, Captain? And… what will… our mission be?’

‘You will be the English interpreter to General Koenig in our talks with our “beloved” allies, the English, the Americans, and the Russians. You will handle the English translation. We already have a Russian interpreter.’

“Koenig?” I said. “The Commander-in-chief of the French forces in Germany?” I couldn’t believe it. Why had my mother never told that story? There were stories she’d told so many times, I could tell them backwards with my eyes closed, but this one? First time I’d heard anything about it.

“Yes. General Koenig himself.” She said.

General Pierre Koenig (1898-1970), Maréchal de France, was a highly decorated French general who had served as early as 1917 in WWI. His family was from Alsace, hence the German name. Koenig means King in German. He probably spoke German or Alsatian, but no English apparently. He joined the Free French Forces in June 1940. He was in command of the First Free French Division at the Battle of Bir-Hakeim against Rommel’s Afrika Korps and paved the way for Montgomery’s later victory at the battle of El-Alamein.

Eisenhower_and_Koenig_in_Paris,_1944Left to right, first row: Bradley, Eisenhower, Koenig (holding a stick) and Air Marshall Tedder (a Brit no doubt; not the foggiest who he was), in Paris, August ’44.

“Okay.” I said. “Koenig. Interpreter. Berlin. 1945. And then?”

“Then, not a word more from the Captain. I was already reviewing my English grammar in my head. Irregular verbs and all that. And we landed in Tempelhof.”

“Of course. Tempelhof was Hitler’s “pet” airport. A major symbol of the third Reich!”

“Absolutely. And the Americans had taken great care to NOT bomb Tempelhof, because they knew they would need a military airport immediately after the war. Particularly with the Russians holding most of Berlin.

Today, Tempelhof is a vast park and a favourite destination of Berliners, to spend a sunny Sunday on the grass. Kids and pets running everywhere…

“And what was your first impression of Berlin?” I asked, ever the interviewer… (I dabbled in market research for a long while…)

“The smell,” my mother said. “A smell of smoke, soot and decay. Bodies were probably still trapped and rotting under the bombed houses and buildings… ruins everywhere…”

We both fell silent. I could see the images of Berlin in my mind’s eye. The destroyed capital of a Reich that was meant to last a thousand years. The civilians scavenging for food. Burying their dead. The Russians avenging Stalingrad. The scorched Reichstag. The same – rebuilt – Reichstag I would see some years later, standing anew in front of an immense lawn, where young people strolled and took the sun. The new Reichstag with the inscription above: “Dem Deutschen Volcke”. “To the German people.”

“And the talks or negotiations began.” My mother said. “Not that there was much to negotiate, Roosevelt, who hated De Gaulle’s guts, and Churchill, had already split the world in Yalta with Stalin. “So much” for the Russians, “so much” for the Americans, “so much” for the English. The French were just trying to lose as little as possible. Most meetings were… to set boundaries. Who would do what and up to where. One of the many issues was to fine tune the exact map of the Allied zones. Street by street. I did my best with my poor English. Hah!”

“I can imagine.”

“At any rate, the Americans spoke no French. Maybe some of the English did, I don’t remember. The Russian interpreters helped me out when I got stuck!” Smile.

“Really?”

“Yes,” my mother said. “Really. A few of the Russian interpreters were actually quite cute. You know, blonde hair cropped short. Green eyes. Mischievous smiles. They were always passing me notes to join them in their room in the evening to share a bottle of Champagne. How they managed to get Champagne beats me. They’d probably looted a few Nazi dignitaries’ caves…”

“And then?” I was running out of clever retorts…

“And then, nothing. Negotiations went on and on, sectors were agreed, finalized and set up. And I was sent back to Paris. Discharged. Honourably. And out of a job. Went back to Brittany for a very short while, then back to Paris, to Air France, as a typist. I used my Air Force “experience” to land the job! And that’s where I met your father, as you know.”

“And what is your impression on the whole… adventure?”

She laughed. And said: “You know the French Sector in Berlin was the smallest of the four “Allies”. The Russians had taken almost half of Berlin, the East side. They arrived first and took the lion’s share. Independently of the respective positions of power – the Russians, the Americans and the English had it all, the French sector of Berlin was cut out from the American and English sectors because de Gaulle had screamed bloody murder. He’d not been invited to the Yalta conference.”

“Not to Potsdam either. He must have had a fit.”

“He must have!” My mother went on: “But historical… explanations aside, I have always thought that the French sector in Berlin was so small because of my faulty English translation!”

And that, my dear friends, is the end of the story. My mother died a few months later. I’ve always wondered why she had never told of her Berlin trip before. She never said another word on that. Like her mother at her own death, she stopped talking in the very last weeks. I didn’t ask more about Berlin, there were more… pressing issues to attend. I wish I had, though. I have thought of asking the French Ministry of Defence for her military records. They are technically available, it’s been more than seventy years, which is the legal delay for publication of military files. But I’m not sure I want to face the French red tape. Or any red tape!

I was also puzzled by her mention of General Koenig. I knew he was Commander-in-Chief of the French Forces in Germany, but I thought de Lattre de Tassigny was before him. That didn’t check. As I did a bit of research for this writing, I confirmed “both” Koenig and de Lattre. De Lattre was French Commander-in-Chief in Berlin from May to July ’45. Barely a month and half. Koenig was in charge from July 1945 to 1949. It checks.

My take on the story? She was an unexpected – very – small actor in the big drama of History. She took it in stride, and then the little typist from Brittany moved on to build a shining life for herself and her family.

ka53ad1

With my father Cyril, in their own everyday version of “Casablanca”. “Just another” cocktail party, Karachi, Pakistan, c.1955.

Thank you for flying Equinoxio’s Time-Space shuttle. Have a shining week-end.

113 thoughts on “An unexpected trip. The end

  1. Coucou Brieuc ! J’adore la photo avec tes parents… Très classe et chic !
    Pour ce qui est de l’histoire, lorsqu’elle sera en version Française, je la lirai bien volontier… Là, ce n’est pas si t évident… Je comprends mais bon…
    Sinon merci pour ce partage du passé.
    Bisous et passe un bon week-end !!

  2. Yes, I guessed right, Brian 🙂 What an incredible story! When I was young I often heard the other young people saying that we lived in a bland and uneventful time and didn’t have a chance to do anything remarkable. In fact, it is not about the times. People are those who make the history, like your Mother did. Beautiful, gifted, positive, I am glad she had a happy and quite adventurous life – she sure loved a good adventure 🙂 Thank you for sharing this story!

    • Haha! She knew that. It was her partuicular brand of humour. And as for Churchill and de Gaulle, they clashed often. Though respected each other. Remember that at the beginning, de Gaulle was quite alone. Until, slowly, ever so slowly, more joined the Free French Forces, and the French could again take their share of the fighting.
      Have a nice week-end.

    • Glad you liked it. Crazy? Not so much. You can check with your grandmother. One of the reasons that generation didn’t “tell” was that to them they were just doing their duty. So, duty done? Let’s move on. I hope she is still alive and you can ask her more details…
      How’s the fire? Still on right? That is a nightmare…

      • No she is gone now sadly. There were other reasons she didn’t like to talk about it which I would love to tell you about some other day.

        Fires are still on and even worse. 40% contained only and over 600 missing. It’s really really terrible.

      • Hmmm. Sorry about that. It will be interesting to know that story. Time will come. 🙂
        Well, 40% is better than nothing but still not good. And the numbers missing are awful. I know some will show up alive eventually, but that is avery high number and not good omen.
        Let’s hope for the rain. Poured cats and dogs here all day wednesday, and I was sorry not to be able to send some up North…
        Stay safe.

      • That is heartbreaking. Just saw the updated status. 70% contained? 70 victims, close to 700 missing. It is a tragedy. I hope all your loved ones are safe and accounted for…

    • Pas de quoi Gilles. C’est une histoire intéressante. Au-delà des grands mots et des grands personnages. On n’y pense pas, mais il y avait des secrétaires qui tapaient les discours de de Gaulle avant qu’il ne parlent à la BBC. Ou un 2e classe qui conduisait la Jeep de Leclerc… 🙂
      Bon ouiquande.

  3. Wonderful, thank you for sharing. I was stationed in West Berlin in the 1980’s. A grand and wonderful place. I hated that wall and I can not imagine really what it’s like without it. Your mother may have played a far bigger role than she gave herself credit for. Hugs

    • Hi Scottie. Yes! I remember your mentioning that. I’ve been to Berlin too. After the fall. And I tried to imagine my mother walking among the ruins… It is a strange city.
      Be good.

  4. Enthralling.
    I reckon it would be worth the effort to get those records.
    Few of us have such a detailed history of our families – I know Tish is fairly well researched – and perhaps your mother’s records would fill in a few gaps?
    I have no idea what the protocol is for getting them released, but with the internet it can’t be as pedantic as Snail Mail, surely?

    • Yes memsahib Tish has good research. 🙂
      I may try to get those records next year. I’ve spent half the year fighting the Frog bureaucracy on other issues, and I’ll give it a rest before I commit “Frog-icide”.
      (They are pedantic indeed)
      PS. I sometimes take more than a day to go through comments, so no worry. Particularly when some days like yesterday are dog-days… No offence to dogs of course. 🙂
      Cheers Mate. Have a great wee-end.
      B.

    • Time, time, my friend. Does not stretch enough. But rest assured. Your comments are too valuable to be left hanging for too long. (Week-ends excluded. I seldom touch WP then)
      Enjoy your wonderful garden avec birds, spiders, snakes… (Leopards by any chance?)

  5. Wow, what an incredible story and colourful family history you have…

    I fit was my mother, I would request the records. The information belongs to you and your family, and you never know what other great interludes in which your mother was involved.

    • True. I will start looking for the right procedure… 🙂 I have my father’s military records, because he got it when he was discharged. I don’t have my grandfather’s…

  6. I really enjoyed this. It makes me remember the stories my grandpa used to tell; no, not of war, rather trading with the Native Americans who had a village just north of our farm’s boundaries and on the other side of the creek. I suppose now we are the elders and need to recount our own stories for posterity. Didn’t you have a book you were working on once? A novel? I can see black raven’s in my memory. Maybe it’s a memoir instead. Or a collection of essays? But valuable none the less. Cheers, Brian.

    • Hi Janet. Glad you lied it. You must write the stories your granpa told you. That memory need to be passed on.
      As for book… I have a few novels under my belt (none published. Couldn’t open the doors. Aw shucks!) 😉 And short stories. I’ve “stopped” writing a lot of stuff. Soul’s mending slowly I’m afraid. But I’ve made an inventory of the stuff I’ve left half-way and will make a plan to finish in order… Cheers back, “Juanita”. 😉

    • “Dashing”. 🙂 I don’t think I’ve heard that word in over 30 years. 😉
      People did dress up well in those days.
      I’ve always wondered, never thought to ask, how men wore those… “dashing” tuxedos in the Indian heat… 😉

  7. Herstory…a powerful and beautiful narrative…thank you for sharing Brian…no words…I so love the images…I love seeing. them…I went back through some of parents this past weekend as I cleaning my art room…your mother is amazing! many smiles ~ hedy ☺️

    • “Herstory”? A opposed to “History”? That’s a good one I’d never heard before. I’ll mention the concept to Daughter #2 who’s very strong on gender issues.
      It’s an uncanny story to me. very strange to hear it from her only once at the end of her life, and only because my brother had blown-up and old pic… 🙂
      Art room, my dear? I need to work on that. Right now I am content with finally setting up a library in the new house. Looking for a deep leather armchair… 😉
      Smiles back.
      Tot ziens.

  8. Wonderful way to preserve history. I love how seamlessly you blended the format of an interview with that of a novel; it was as entertaining as it was educational, and brought what might have otherwise been a page from a textbook into the real world. 👏👏 BTW, Thanks for the follow!

    • My pleasure about the “follow”. 🙂
      I hadn’t thought of it as an “interview” mind you. I was just so surprised I kept asking questions (maybe a professional bias!)
      Novel? Short story? Non-fiction? I almost always do some research when I write. So when I sat down to write the story, I knew exactly what I wanted to research. Berlin, the early days of May, Koenig. It was fun to write, and a pleasure to see the feedback.
      many thanks for visiting, and I will most certainly go back to your blog.
      Be good.

  9. bravo my friend and sorry it took so long to finish the read ❤ sounds like an incredible adventure and I thank you for sharing it with the world and myself ❤ ❤ she was a lovely lady 🙂

  10. A beautiful photo of your parents, Brian Your mom really had an intriguing story to tell and you retold it very well. I wish that I had known more about my family’s role in the war. It wasn’t talked about much, but I know they lost loved ones to the enemy. Isn’t it awful that people should have enmity between one another? I guess the world will always have wars. I wish it were not so.

    • Our parents and grandparents generation didn’t say much about the war. I think they considered it a duty, and once done: “next”. They never complained, did they? 🙂
      I wish as you do. But I’m afraid war is mankind’s ultimate fate. A stupid bunch we are, if you don’t mind my saying…
      ‘Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving. And the idiots who pretend to rule us will find something else to do. 🙂
      Cheers.

  11. Tout simplement EX-TRA-OR-DI-NAI-RE ! Autant par l’aspect historique et inattendu de cette histoire que par cette découverte de ta maman … nous pensons tout savoir de nos parents alors que jusqu’à la fin ils gardent en eux une part de mystère… j’ai pris beaucoup de plaisir à te lire, même en anglais. Merci à Toi !

    • Comme disait Michel Fugain: c’est une belle histoire… 🙂
      Sorry pour l’Anglais, mais c’est la langue de ce blog. Et oui, l’histoire continue à me surprendre. Même après avoir vérifié les dates, en particulier au sujet de Koenig. C’est assez dingue, non?
      Tout va bien chez toi?

      • Au contraire, ainsi mon anglais se dérouille un peu 😉
        C’est effectivement une TRES belle histoire, et un magnifique héritage ! Si comme moi tu aimes les surprises tu es comblé ! 😊
        Pour l’instant tout va bien chez moi au sens le plus strict … par contre, si par « chez Toi » tu entends, en France, c’est un autre débat …

      • Effectivement ça fait partie de l’héritage. 🙂
        “Chex toi” = ta maisonnée, ta famille, tes amis, le monde dans lequel tu vis. Ravi que tout aille bien. 🙂
        “Chez nous” serait notre douce France… qui, si j’en juge par les nouvelles qui me parviennent au loin, ne me paraît pas aller bien du tout. Quelle tristesse.

      • C’est terrible non? En plus, j’ai vécu dans tellement de pays “pourris” que je pensais toujours que la France était une sorte de… “refuge”. Et je sais par expérience qu’on peut “enfoncer” un pays assez vite. Mais le redresser prend des années. Tsss.

      • C’est ce que je me tue à dire, qu’il faut regarder autour de nous … mais c’est peine perdue, je le crains … tout comme je m’inquiète pour le monde que nous laisserons à nos enfants, petits-enfants… les dégâts sont déjà plus importants que dans les projections les plus pessimistes, mais là-encore, c’est peine perdue …. 😞

      • Peine perdue… c’est bien ça que je ressens. On a l’impression que plus personne n’écoute. Que l’idéologie a remplacé les idées. Que les faits sont de plus en plus… déformés? Et je parle de ce que je lis, dans la presse Française. De loin. Et pourtant, pourtant… il doit quand même y avoir qqc à faire… 🙂

      • Je ne lis plus la presse à ce sujet et ne suis plus les infos. J’avoue être très inquiète…. il me revient sans cesse cette phrase ( issue de mon éducation et de ma pratique catholique ) : « Pardonne-leur, ils ne savent pas ce qu’ils font » … ça résume complètement mon état d’esprit.

      • C’est une bonne phrase. Mais, encore une fois j’ai vu trop de pays détruits par la stupidité de quelques uns et ça m’énerve un peu. Enfin. Ça me passera j’espère. 😉

      • Pour tout te dire ça m’énerve aussi ! Encore aujourd’hui je suis sortie avec ma fille et je me suis faite insultée. Je n’adhère pas au mouvement des gilets jaunes, mon gilet est rangé dans ma boîte à gants, (puisque la loi nous impose d’en avoir un), et je ne klaxonne pas quand je croise un gilet jaune à un carrefour … mais je ne cherche pas les ennuis.
        On me dit : « ils ont quand même le droit de manifester non ? », mais moi, je n’ai pas droit au respect sous prétexte que je n’ai pas les mêmes idées !! Je n’aurais jamais pensé que MA France tomberait si bas ….

      • Trés bas. Je suis effondré. (Avec les images des Champs SAmedi!) En fait non. Pas effondré. Furax. Dans un monde de plus en plus sanguinaire, la France avait réussi à maintenir un espace de paix, de civilité (et crois-moi en Amérique latine je sais de quoi je parles…)
        Et tout semble voler en éclats. La violence commence par les insultes. On sait où ça finit.
        😦
        Fais bien attention à toi et aux tiens.

  12. Wow, what a story. I’ve noticed that people will often keep the most dramatic stories to themselves, but share the mundane. Over and over. Is it because they are more precious, or because we think that we have already spoken about them? Your mother was absolutely beautiful. I’m sure she charmed everyone at that meeting.

    • True. Though they did have a fair share of incredible stories which they’d told. She knew her looks. 🙂 And definitely charmed everybody. I’m sure she was responsible for at least half of my father’s career.
      Glad you liked the story Julie.
      A bientôt. Bz.

  13. It’s a beautiful story, and your mother (besides being a gorgeous woman) was also fearless! I like all of your posts, but the stories in which personal history blends so greatly with world history fascinates me! Congratulations!

    • Thank you. I’m just the story teller. 😉
      And that particular story had indeed impressed me quite a bit. So I’m glad to have shared it.
      Yes, she was brave. I think it was both the education and the times she was raised. Plus personality I guess. People who went through the war had a different attitude to Life. Neither she nor my grandfather ever complained. Tough cookies. 🙂
      Take care.

    • Pleasure Paul. Yes, you are quite right about the devil-may-care attitude. A good definition of her. And, I think, a good story, as memory fades into history soon to dissolve into oblivion. (Ricoeur)
      Luckily the Berlin you live in now is another story.

    • Glad you liked it. It is just one small story in the big scheme of things. To me it is a testimony to what happens in a war. What surprised me most was when she spoke of the smell of Berlin. I would not have thought about it, but it makes sense. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

    • Well, ask your mother. You might surprised.
      And yes mine was adventurous. And rather fearless. 🙂
      Glad you liked the story. I need to write more of those, before the memory fades away.

    • Possibly. Though… descendants really live in totally different world. I took a step forward when I was writing this post as I researched some of the dates (e.g. General Koenig).
      I’ve had too much dealings with French bureaucracy this year. So will probably wait a bit. Then make a try on-line for my grandfather’s “Etats de service”. (Service records?) He fought in WWI. If that works, I will move on to my mother’s.
      Again, thanks for the visit. Take care.

    • Yeah. It’s the tiny details that make for a good story. Let’s remember that, at the time, People in Paris had food tickets, rationing, didn’t have enough to eat. But for such meetings? New uniforms and shoes. (The shoes were what my mother liked best!) Thanks for the visit.

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