RAF Typhoon Pilot Frank ‘Dutch’ Holland had had the misfortune to be shot down on 7th June whilst over Normandy. He had gone on the run to evade capture and had been helped by the French.
Eventually he had moved to a farmhouse and adopted the identity of a French farm labourer, complete with false papers, assisted by his ability to speak French. He was therefore in a unique position to see the German occupation of France:
Throughout most of July, we were at most only 30 miles from the front and you could often hear the artillery further north. Also, of course, there were frequent overflights by British and American aircraft and German ones. Overall it was clear that the Allies had primary control over the skies, even if they didn’t on the ground.
There were, however, a number of dogfights that we saw. But only once did I see one of our aircraft shot down. The fights usually ended with the Huns as the losers, either shot down or fleeing. When I saw one of these kills, I had to restrain myself and never show my feelings about it, certainly not shout anything, as I had outside my barn in Lion d’Or, since there were often German soldiers around witnessing the same events.
But I silently rejoiced every time an enemy plane was shot down. In the Lair household, we kept up with the news by means of an old crystal set hidden in the chimney, which we took out from its hiding place and listened to at least once every day, usually at night, around the kitchen table. The sound was fairly terrible — you literally had to bring two crystals together to get the transmission — but it was good enough to get the gist of what was happening in the war.
It was on this radio set that I first heard about “doodle-bugs” being used to bomb London. The French term was “avion sans pilote”. Hearing about these reminded me immediately of course about our earlier attacks on the V1 installations. Using this set, however, was not without risk because of the German soldiers who were camped out in the village.
They all felt free to enter the house without much more than a quick knock, or not even that, to ask for an egg to be cooked or the like. If any of them had caught us listening to the crystal set, the least that would have happened would have been confiscation of the radio. But there might have been punishment of some kind as well. Still, we were never caught.
So, it was the secret broadcasts that were our main source of news from the front. And it continued to be disappointing. Progress was being made on the Cotentin peninsula and the fighting around Cherbourg, mostly involving American troops, was pretty fierce before the Allies broke through enemy lines. The Germans were clearly fighting back strongly, especially around Caen. It was apparent, four and more weeks after the start of the invasion, that Normandy was not being taken by the Allies in a walk, not by a long shot.
Patton’s army had come south from the Cotentin peninsula and was now coming around the back of Caen, as it were. But the city was still held by the enemy and the progress of the American and British forces seemed agonisingly slow. Yet, it was also clear that the Germans were taking some heavy punishment and that this was beginning to take its toll on their morale.
One day, two Germans, driving two large wagons, stopped in front of the farmhouse, got out and demanded cider and eggs. André questioned them and learned that one lorry was filled with ammunition, the other with petrol. They were taking both of these loads to the front at Caen. They admitted that they didn’t like doing this job in the daylight because they felt they were sitting ducks for the “Tommies” of the RAF. (To many of the Germans, all British servicemen were “Tommies”, not just those serving in the Army.)
In fact, they said they would rather have the Tommies machine-gun their trucks from the air well before they got to the front rather than at the front, where the fighting was so intense. In a way, I was surprised to hear this from them, that they would be so candid about their fears to French civilians (plus one Brit in Frenchman’s clothing!) in occupied France. In telling us this, did they really think we would be sympathetic to their plight? Or were they just getting it off their chests, thinking that it didn’t matter really what we thought. (Probably the latter.) Of course, we tried to look poker- faced at this, and certainly didn’t say anything unsympathetic. But in incidents like these, you could get a glimpse of German morale beginning to crack.
To my great satisfaction, they got their wish. Four miles down the road, this two wagon convoy was strafed by Spitfires and the vehicles were turned into wizard flamers. The two drivers, however, escaped since they abandoned their lorries at the first sign of the Spitfires. This incident was seen by several Frenchmen, who expressed their pleasure later that evening.
In fact, the German fear of strafing of their vehicles was quite general. Many of the vehicles had a soldier stationed on the running board, whose job was to look out for approaching British or American aircraft. If any were spotted before the aircraft saw them, the lookout would immediately tell the driver and he would quickly try to conceal his vehicle.