It’s difficult when admiring the peaceful countryside we see today, to imagine the barbarity which went on in this part of the world around 80 years ago. German forces took over south west France and the reality which had to be faced by the people who lived here was unthinkable. And while the military heroes are deservedly saluted each year on days of commemoration, civilians (whose fathers, sons and brothers fought on the front line) and what they lived through, are often overlooked. Their discreet part in the war effort is largely unsung but their stories are equally, if not more, fascinating than their family members who fought in the armed forces.
Jean-Louis, the man from whom we bought our house in Gaillac, who remains a neighbour and friend, is one such witness to life during the war. His family lived on a farm near Toulouse when war broke out and he has clear memories of that time when he was just a young boy. He remembers the day when his family were visited by SS officers searching for resistance fighters and illegal weapons. They had apparently been tipped off by neighbours (such was the level of distrust at the time) and while walking around their home, one officer noticed a photograph of Jean-Louis’s father, Gaston, dressed in army uniform. The officer spat on the floor in contempt upon which six-year-old Jean-Louis also spat on the floor. His young patriotism was rewarded with a sharp tap on the cheek with the officer’s whip.
Gaston, at the time of this unwelcome intrusion, and unbeknown to the rest of the family, was a prisoner of war. A soldier in the 14th Infantry Regiment, he had been captured in 1940 in the Vosges Mountains. After having been initially kept prisoner in Italy, (he escaped twice before being recaptured), he was subsequently transferred to Rawa Ruska, a prison camp in the Ukraine. Rawa Ruska was known as “the camp of thirst and slow death” and from 1942, was where French prisoners endured torture and starvation as punishment for refusing to work in German factories, or for sabotaging German facilities. Gaston was kept in this hellish place before finally being repatriated at the end of the war in 1945. For over two years, Jean-Louis and the rest of the family didn’t know whether he was alive or dead.
Jean-Louis’s wife, Christine, has an equally fascinating personal recollection of the war, also around the Toulouse area. When war was declared, her father, André Mot, became a member of the Blagnac Résistance. This part of France was under the control of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government and along with many others, Mot felt he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. He became heavily involved in the Résistance’s communication networks. He was responsible for distributing Résistance newspapers as a sideline to his respectable accountancy job. But Mot soon became engaged in far more dangerous activities.
While on an illicit journey from Bordeaux to Toulouse on a reconnaissance mission for the Résistance, he had to take cover from a German sentry just metres away. He jumped into a ditch and stayed there for eight hours. Unknowingly, he had been spotted by a young farm girl. Pretending to chat to the German soldiers, she surreptitiously threw him a package of bread and cheese as she walked past.
His efforts varied from helping French prisoners escape to concealing Jewish families – all under the constant threat of being detected by the Nazis. One of his close compatriots, Jean Pain, was exposed and consequently executed by the Milice (the French military police who sided with the Nazis). Mot himself narrowly escaped death during a surprise attack by the SS Das Reich. Nine of his team were killed in the attack.
His determination was undeterred and in the summer of 1944, while disguised as a worker in the fields near Toulouse airport (at the time occupied by the Luftwaffe), he observed an unusually large number of bombs being transported along the runway. That night, he and an accomplice managed to sneak onto the airfield and diffuse some of the bombs.
A few weeks later, while on his usual surveillance rounds, he noticed a Henkel bomber with what seemed to be another small aircraft mounted on the top of it. He made a rough sketch of it (see main picture) and quickly had it delivered to his Résistance chief. The diagram was then forwarded to the Allies through the Résistance networks. That night of the 14th August, the Luftwaffe’s Toulouse base was subjected to intense bombing by a joint British and American attack and was completely destroyed. The attack became the catalyst for the withdrawal of German troops from Toulouse a week later.
Mot was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery and initiative in this mission which was followed by a host of other awards including the Légion d’Honneur. He died in 2011 as the last remaining member of the Blagnac Résistance, at the age of 91.
Selfless endeavours such as undertaken by our neighbours’ families during the war are rarely acknowledged – it was simply what they had to do in a time of war. The ever-diminishing generation who remember life during that period in history hold countless stories of what happened – but mainly in their heads. How great would it be if they recounted them in school classrooms so our children get a real taste of what life during a war is like?