Nancy Powell’s Escape Diary

  1. Prologue
  2. 14th - 16th June
  3. 17th - 18th June
  4. 19th - 22nd June
  5. 23rd - 24th June
  6. Exode / Escape 1988

Monday, 17th June

They very kindly gave us breakfast and lent me their daughter’s bicycle to go into Guer to a garage. At the first garage at which I called the boss said: “No repairs for at least three days, we have had such an accumulation of broken-down cars”. The next said: “If you can get the car here, my principle is to look at the cars as they come in and if the trouble can be remedied quickly, I do this right away to enable refugees to get on their way again”. Back I went to the farm. The farmer and his wife suggested that we could possibly get a tow from their neighbours who had gone up the road to one of their fields with their horse and cart and would be returning shortly they thought. These neighbours agreed to do this. Actually all we needed was a tow to the top of the hill – then it was “plain sailing” downhill to the village. The difficulty was to get the car back on the road, ready for the tow. Never have I pushed so hard to get the car into position. Within a very short while the garagist had got the car going again – the trouble was due to grit in magneto – and we were away again (10.30?). The traffic was light on the whole. From Guer we were again directed southwards, possibly due to the nearness of the Polish Headquarters to the north of Guer, but from Malestroit, about twenty kilometers from Guer, we found little difficulty in going north to Josselin.

Somewhere between Josselin and Pontivy we stopped at the roadside for a picnic lunch. Very soon a car drew up and the driver said: “No need to go any further, the war is over, the French have asked for Armistice, so you can go home now”. I replied “We are British”. I knew now how urgent it was for us to get out of France.

As we had stopped for the lunch break we had noticed a jeep with British Staff Officers aboard drive down a side lane, obviously for a lunch break. This was before we had received the information about the Armistice. But with this information in hand my Father suggested we asked them what port to go to, to get out of France. I was detailed to go and ask them. No sooner had I imparted the knowledge about the Armistice, than lunch was forgotten and they were away in a flash. I can’t remember whether they ever gave any advice other than to “Try and get out of France as quickly as you can”. I often wondered who they were. They certainly were top-ranking Staff Officers.

We pursued our way through Pontivy, Rostrenen, Carhaix. At Huelgoat we were able to get petrol with coupons – with the knowledge had been asked for, they said: “If it can help you get to England, so much the better. That much less for the Germans when they get here”. Little did we know that two days later German motorised units would have already reached western Brittany.

At about 6 o’clock, we reached the Hotel Guilloux, Landivisiau, where we were welcomed by the proprietor and his wife. Monsieur Guilloux was a business colleague of my father with whom he traveled in the surrounding countryside to purchase Brittany Post Horses – for export to Brazil for Remount purposes.

After the evening meal Mother and Father just wanted to retire to a comfortable bed. Though I realised that each hour lessened our chances of getting away to England, in no way could I deny them a night’s rest.

Tuesday, 18th June

Up early after very little sleep. I had been told the previous evening that some of the British Army were pulling out through Brest – confirmed by the non-stop traffic during the early part of the night. There had been a certain amount of air activity as well, presumably enemy planes.

By nine o’clock we started off to Brest in a hired car (the one Father always hired when travelling around to buy Breton Post Horses), leaving our car with mattress, bicycle and sheets as well as the sheepskin rug with our friends. We reached the British Vice Consulate about 10am to find a few other British stragglers there and that advice given to those in front of us was to get down to Commercial Port and see if the skipper of a small British Collier would take us aboard and back to England. The last boat evacuating British troops had left in the early hours of the morning and the British Vice Consul had gone too. It had been left to the one French Employee of the Consulate to try and organise our “escape”. In fact the doors of the consulate were closed as we left and the French Representative of the Consulate and “our” hire car helped transport the little group down to the port, where the French Representative discovered that the crew of the British collier had got drunk the night before and been taken away by the police. However the skipper of a Norwegian collier working under contract to the British Government (Norway had already been invaded by the Germans) agreed to take us aboard – he was scheduled to leave for England at 7pm. Our complement had now grown to 9 civilians, 7 army and 2 airmen who had reached Brest too late to get on the last troopship to leave.

The skipper suggested we went and got some lunch and purchased food to take aboard, returning early afternoon.

So we went up into the centre of Brest and had what was to be our last lunch in France for many a long day. Father and one of the others went straight back to the boat after the meal in “our hired car”. Mother myself and the others stayed behind to shop. We had arranged for the car to return to pick us up but he failed to return and we decided to walk back to the Commercial Port as soon as possible. I think our driver felt he would be safer back at Landivisiau for by this time pandemonium resigned in Brest. Just before going up into the town Brest had its first air-raid and with the battleship Richlieu in the roads of Brest, the response from the guns of the battleship was to say the least of it frightening. We were sheperded into a somewhat dubious air-raid shelter and the all-clear went about half an hour later.

By the time we returned after lunch to the Commercial Port it was to see many people hugging what was no doubt their most precious belongings and getting into a variety of small craft to get out to the small islands or more isolated parts of the coast. We also discovered that we would not be leaving alone but that we would be in convoy with a French Naval boat with French Marine Fusiliers aboard, and that in fact one of two small cargo boats like our collier would also be in convoy with us.

The crew of our collier had also found out that the Commercial Port (and presumably the Naval Port) was being dynamited during the late afternoon and this proved to be true, for when we were well out in the roads of Brest we heard the explosions and saw the sheets of flame.

What amazes one was that the departure of the small convoy, destination England, was so well organised.

The skipper received detailed instructions which, for security reasons, were not to be opened until we had left the quayside – as he knew no French it fell to me to translate the contents of the sealed envelope. The portent of these instructions were that, together with the French Naval ships, we were to be convoyed across the Channel by a British destroyer when we left the roads of Brest.

So this is how on a beautiful June evening we left our beloved France – wondering what her fate would be.

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