Wednesday, July 24, 2013

From Paris to Liverpool via Frontstalag 142

From Paris to Liverpool via Frontstalag 142
“Running from the bombs! We were running from the bombs!” cried my stepmother when I asked her where she spent the Second World War.
My boomer generation will have had many a relative unwilling to recall life under Hitler, but decades later, still haunted by their experiences, some are managing to recall the horror, deprivation and loss they endured. To speak of the past is to relive it. In attics and trunks everywhere lie letters, diaries, photographs, and even home movies waiting to come to light. Nazi Germany’s propaganda films are being posted on YouTube. After sealing its records anywhere from thirty to seventy years, France is just beginning to crack open its war archives; although, some still won’t see the light for another quarter century.
Always curious for details of life during the Second World War, I was talking to Meg, my stepmother about her experiences when she mentioned that her flight from Hitler was recorded on cassettes that she had made with her mother and Lillian, her sister. On them, Gabrielle Coakley vividly recounts her internment with her two daughters in Germany-occupied France, their escape to Vichy France and their flight to Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar, where they sailed in convoy to Liverpool. Both Meg and Lillian contributed to this oral history, squeezing the tiniest details from their memories, but Madame Coakley’s recollections painted the larger picture.
Transforming their memories into a coherent text proved an intimidating task. After assembling and ordering the transcript, scanning photographs and printing the finished result for the Coakley family, the story continued to disturb me. Aside from being a detailed family history, it’s also a contemporary narrative of how women and children continue to bear the brunt of war the world over.
For more than fifteen years, I have wanted to present their story to a larger audience, but did I have the right? Should it be told as a child’s adventure tale or as one novelist suggested, a love story!  The slant needed to do justice to the Coakleys’ ordeal, still repeated to this day by refugees everywhere.
“Why not tell it as it is?” asked my ever-pragmatic stepmother.
Why not indeed? Because their testimony raised questions I could not answer, like, what was the Line of Demarcation and why couldn’t you cross it? Why did the French along with other German-occupied countries starve? Why did Dutch submarines escort the convoys to Liverpool? What was the role of the commodore ship in a convoy? And who were these brave merchant seamen like their captain Master Frith, who twice survived torpedo attacks and the sinking of his ship the S.S. Aguila? What were depth charges, ASDIC, and degaussing to name but three war technologies? I couldn’t tell the tale without elaboration and explanation.
To fill the blanks in my knowledge, I studied the published memoirs and unpublished papers of several women interned in Frontstalag 142.  I read three accounts of life on board the accompanying Dutch submarines. I visited French, British and German war museums.  I perused Internet naval sites for facts and personal accounts. I watched British, German and American documentaries and propaganda films including fatuous, fictional accounts of life as a POW. I searched newspaper archives, read historical tomes and novels of the time period, and sought French war memories from my contemporaries’ parents. I downloaded passenger lists and discovered my friend’s father sailed the same route on the same boat with the same captain two months prior to the Coakleys. I unearthed a passenger list showing that my own father, always reticent about the war, had taken the perilous convoy route from Alexandria to Liverpool. A former colleague of my husband’s once mentioned to me that his father, prior to becoming the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, had been the commander of a Dutch submarine. That submarine (O 24) escorted the Coakleys’ convoy, HG 67.
Barbara Tuchman once pointed out that seductive though research can be, there comes a time when one must get down to the hard slog of writing. I am in that process now. To Professor Hanna Diamond, je dois tirer mon chapeau. I take off my hat not only for her two books I found especially useful (Women and the Second World War in France 1939-1948 and Fleeing Hitler: France 1940), but also for constructing and posting this Internet site. Lest we forget.

Madeleine de Bruijn
November 11, 2012
Saint Sauveur de Bergerac

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