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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Gondrée Family; Remembrance Day Reflections
My final 2007 post follows in my predominant theme of people. Now, Pegasus Bridge and the battle for it in the early morning of D-Day could easily make for a great story in itself. Rather, I'd like to tell you about a single French family whose name has since been always connected with the bridge and the events which took place the early morning of June 6th, 1944. This is the story of the Gondrée family of Normandy.

First a general history of what happened from the military point of view:

It was the night before the D-Day landings on June 6th. Just as American 82nd and 101st Airborne troops were landing inland to destroy coastal guns and the like, the British 6th had its own midnight objectives. Among them, they had to capture bridges in the coastal region near Caen both to cut off German counter-attacks against Sword Beach and to allow for movement through the region once the time came. The bridge over the Caen Canal near Ouistreham and Benouville in Normandy and the river bridge parallel to it were among them.

Six plywood Horsa Gliders carrying 180 British Airborne soldiers in heavy gear and blackened faces - led by Major John Howard - dropped quietly through the night sky (3 gliders for each bridge). At 12:16am, the 3 gliders landed almost directly next to the bridge and the 90 men rushed out, attacked the surprised groupd of 50 or so German defenders, and captured the bridge within the first ten minutes of the attack. They then defended the bridge for the next 2 hours until they were reinforced by further paratroopers from the 6th Airborne dropped 40 minutes after they had.

2 of the 90 men attacking the canal bridge died. All things considering, it was an extremely successful attack. It was well-planned and well executed. The reasons for the excellent planning? Among them, the residents of the small house next to the canal bridge . . .

The Gondrées owned a small house next to the bridge that they used as a café during the day. During the occupation, Georges Gondrée made sure that his family - himself, his wife Thérèsa and their daughter (who was joined by a sister in 1944) - slept in separate rooms of the house so that German soldiers could not billet themselves in any empty rooms of the small café. Nevertheless, the bridge meant that there was always a military presence in the area . . . and the Gondrées often found themselves serving food and beer to the soldiers during the five years of occupation against their obvious preference.

By May 1942, the pressures of occupation pushed them past their limits. The Germans took the best of everything and paid with useless money; they took the men away to labour camps; they imposed curfews and limitations on travel; they shot dissenters . . . the Gondrées knew they had to fight back.

While the Germans only saw them as a typical Norman family, Georges had worked as a clerk in Lloyd's Bank in Paris before buying the café and understood English while Madame Gondrée came from Alsace and spoke German; both hid these facts from the Germans and began assisting the resistance. Thérèsa would overhear what the Germans were saying in the café and would tell her husband. Her husband would then tell Madame Vion who managed the local maternity hospital. Madame Vion would then tell the resistance group in Caen who could then pass it on to British Intelligence. Georges and Thérèsa weren't fools to the danger they were now in. If the Germans found out, they were likely to be tortured and then hanged . . .

Thankfully that was never the case, and the Gondrées were able to give the Allies a great deal of important information regarding the bridge. Through the help of Georges and Thérèsa Gondrée, the British knew that there was now an anti-tank gun emplacement, that the pillbox next to the bridge had been completed, and that the detonator for the explosives underneath the bridge was in that pillbox. They told the British that the bridge defenders were preparing and training for a possible airborne attack and had dotted the open fields with anti-glider poles nicknamed "Rommel's Asparagus". There is absolutely no question that the information supplied by the Gondrées contributed greatly to the success of the midnight attack.

When the British attack was in full force, Georges was the first to wake up from the noise and crept to the window to look out. Outside the house, a freshly-wounded British soldier saw Georges' movement inside and sprayed the window with his Sten submachine gun. Unhurt, Georges quickly left the window, woke up his family and rushed them into the basement for the remainder of the battle.

Several hours later at about 4 or 5am, the gunfire had died down tremendously and Georges took it upon himself to come back out of the cellar to check on things. Again, British soldiers spotted him and began asking in French, "Vous civile?" While Georges was able to answer that he was indeed a civilian, the soldiers couldn't understand his French. Not wanting to risk exposing himself as knowing English, Georges tried some choppy German which also failed - he headed back into the safety of the cellar once again.

Another hour later, Madame Gondrée put her ear up to a hole in the cellar to determine if the soldiers were speaking German. She couldn't understand them, which was possibly a good thing. Finally, Georges heard the words "all right" from one of the men outside . . . he knew they were British at last!

Georges opened the door to the knocking paratroopers - in part to finally greet the allied soldiers, in part to make sure they didn't just break the door down. Admitting the two paratroopers with blackened faces and submachine guns, he told them that there were no Germans in the house and - after a moment's concern over his leading them down into the house - that his family was still hiding in the cellar.

With the words, "It's all right, chum," spoken by one of the paratroopers, the Gondrées knew they were finally safe.

Madame Gondrée with tears of joy rushed forward, kissing and hugging all the airborne troops as they came to the café. After kissing all those blackened faces, Madame's face was quite black as well . . . but she kept it that way for the next few days as a mark of pride. Georges, meanwhile, went into the garden and dug up 98 bottles of champagne that he had hidden in 1940 before the Germans arrived. Free drinks went around to all the airborne troops, with enough cork popping "that it was heard on the other side of the canal," as Major Howard later described. But it was a worthy celebration: the Gondrées were the first French family to be liberated in the war, their house the first building. The café went on to act as an aid station, where they tended to the wounded.

As the day of June 6th, 1944 passed by, soldiers and tanks from the beaches came to push further inland over the bridges. Again, Georges Gondrée came out with glasses of champagne for the men as they drove by - something that all present were especially glad to savour, considering the day they had just gotten through . . . the day they had just survived . . .

The canal bridge has since been named "Pegasus Bridge" in honour of the 6th Airborne. As for the Gondrées, they were now part of history. The café stands very much as it was in the 1940s, albeit with a lot more 6th Airborne memorabilia and photos along the walls.

Every year on the anniversary of D-Day, the Gondrées and the men of the 6th Airborne would meet at the café to celebrate and reminisce. Georges became good friends with many of them including Major Howard and a Jack Bailey (with whom he would go duck hunting every year). Madame Gondrée went on to be known as the "Mother of the 6th Airborne" one year.

The actual attack on Pegasus Bridge has been recreated in popular culture several times. A scene in the film "The Longest Day" depicts the airborne attack, and the first mission of the British Campaign in "Call of Duty" even recreates the battle (albeit in the fun, inaccurate video game way).

A funny story about "The Longest Day", actually . . . during the actual attack, the British soldiers quickly captured the pillbox so that the Germans wouldn't be able to explode the bridge. They lucked out because although the demolition charges were wired to the bridge, the actual explosives were not. For the film, producer Darryl Zanuck insisted on having a scene with British sappers climbing underneath the bridge and picking out the explosives even at the protest of Major Howard. Zanuck also wanted half-dressed German soldiers rushing out the windows of the Gondrée house to combat the attacking British . . . Madame Gondrée would have none of it and emphatically insisted that no German soldier EVER slept in her house, and that the scene HAD to be changed . . . so Zanuck changed the scene.

When Georges and Thérèsa died, their two daughters took up ownership of the house and continued the pride and tradition of of Café Gondrée. Even today, veterans who come to the café may drink for free. I learned this firsthand when I travelled to Normandy this past summer. I was waiting for the "replacement" Pegasus Bridge to lower so I could go to the Pegasus Bridge Museum on the other side, and went into the café. Inside a British veteran was cheerfully going about getting a drink, but only had a large bill or so. Hearing English from both sides of the counter, I offered to break the elder man's bill with my smaller bills; the woman behind the counter - very likely one of the Gondrée sisters, told me not to worry about it. "He's a veteran," she told me.

Eventually I went to the museum, saw and walked across the original Pegasus Bridge, and afterwards came back to the café to kill some time and write down my travel notes. From the café, I bought a copy of Stephen Ambrose's "Pegasus Bridge" (the book I used for most of this post's info'), a glass of beer and a croissant and sat down at a table outside, looking at my pictures and whatnot.

For the rest of my time alone in Normandy, I read through that book extremely quickly. The further I read, the more I realised just how important that little café actually was . . . I mean, I saw the pictures, the mementos and the "Historical Monument" signs all over the place, but I didn't realise just how important the Pegasus Bridge Café Gondrée truly was! Believe me when I say that I wish I had taken a few more pictures of that place before I headed back to my hotel in Caen . . .

. . . just goes to show ya, I guess. Just as it's true for people, every house has its story. And you'll be amazed at just how incredible those stories can be . . . and how a lot of times, the story still isn't over . . .

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(Pegasus Bridge after its capture; note how close to the bridge the gliders in the back actually landed.)

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(My photo of the Café Gondrée, June 2007)


Another year gone, another year to remember the deeds of those from years past. With this being . . . the fifth Remembrance Day I've shared with people online like this, I'm sure I've probably already said a lot of things already. So what can I add this year 'round?

I'm not sure if I did it intentionally or not, but as a lot of you noticed I did a lot of this year's write-ups about people and individuals more than I did about battles or other large-scale events. I knew I had to write about the Gondrées by the time I finished reading "Pegasus Bridge" (Ambrose, the author, is the same guy who wrote "Band of Brothers, if anyone's curious). Their story just floored me. I suppose part of it was because I had actually stood in their house and bought food and drink from them. Still, I think the other part was that they weren't soldiers. They were just a family who happened to live next to a strategically significant landmark - they had a young daughter and another who came along during the war years. They were good people . . . they just wanted to survive the war.

It's not that easy, though. It's never that easy.

Edmund Burke said it himself: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Wars these days aren't always so clearcut. We're never sure if we're fighting (and dying) for the right reasons, and if our actions are just or not. We all know it, soldier and civilian alike. Oftentimes people say "give the people something worth fighting for and they'll fight for it." These days it's not as easy . . . but when it does, you might be quite amazed at how strong you'll fight.

Normal people don't want war. Still, I'd like to think that in most of the stories I've told this past week, normal people are also capable of extremely heroic deeds whether you're a Russian peasant girl, a bagpiper from Chilliwack or a French café owner . . .

They did all the heavy lifting. All we need to do today is remember them for that. Like I said yesterday: they gave their all . . . we can afford to give them a couple minutes of thought.

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