By Brian Martin-Onraët / Equinoxio21 (link Blog)
Previously on “An unexpected trip”: my mother Renée has joined the French Air Force at the end of WWII. A captain orders her on a mysterious mission. They are to board a military plane, taking off from Paris, destination unknown.
“And you took off?” I asked. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.” My mother said. “Remember, in the Army or the Air Force, you don’t ask many questions. Or, better, none at all.”
“Yeah, I remember”, I said, thinking of my ‘own’ Captain, back in the Army.
“Everything had gone so fast.” My mother said. “The Captain, the new uniforms…”
“And the shoes.”
“And the new shoes, yes!” She laughed. “On top of everything, it was a military plane, can’t remember what type. American most certainly, all our military equipment was American then. And those things were rather noisy. A DC3 maybe? Not really First Class and a glass of Champagne. The Captain was sitting next to me. Reading a bunch of papers he’d taken out of a fancy leather portfolio. I had no idea where we were going. Just think: this was my first airplane flight!”
I opened my eyes wide, thinking of the million miles she later flew on Air France, and said, thinking aloud:
“Of course, you’re right. I don’t think there were many opportunities to fly in Brittany during the war…”
“Exactly. None. So, there I was, barely nineteen, in my brand-new uniform, and fine leather shoes, on my first – military – air flight, destination unknown. I tugged the Captain’s sleeve to get his attention and asked him, shouting above the roar of the engines:”
‘Yes? What is it?’ He was not exactly the talkative type.
‘Captain, may I ask… where are we going?’
“Berlin!” I almost screamed. “On June or July ’45?!”
“I almost screamed too.” My mother said. “I was thinking: Berlin? Are they still fighting? What about the Russians? So, I asked the Captain:”
‘Berlin, Captain? And… what will… our mission be?’
‘You will be the English interpreter to General Koenig in our talks with our “beloved” allies, the English, the Americans, and the Russians. You will handle the English translation. We already have a Russian interpreter.’
“Koenig?” I said. “The Commander-in-chief of the French forces in Germany?” I couldn’t believe it. Why had my mother never told that story? There were stories she’d told so many times, I could tell them backwards with my eyes closed, but this one? First time I’d heard anything about it.
“Yes. General Koenig himself.” She said.
General Pierre Koenig (1898-1970), Maréchal de France, was a highly decorated French general who had served as early as 1917 in WWI. His family was from Alsace, hence the German name. Koenig means King in German. He probably spoke German or Alsatian, but no English apparently. He joined the Free French Forces in June 1940. He was in command of the First Free French Division at the Battle of Bir-Hakeim against Rommel’s Afrika Korps and paved the way for Montgomery’s later victory at the battle of El-Alamein.
Left to right, first row: Bradley, Eisenhower, Koenig (holding a stick) and Air Marshall Tedder (a Brit no doubt; not the foggiest who he was), in Paris, August ’44.
“Okay.” I said. “Koenig. Interpreter. Berlin. 1945. And then?”
“Then, not a word more from the Captain. I was already reviewing my English grammar in my head. Irregular verbs and all that. And we landed in Tempelhof.”
“Of course. Tempelhof was Hitler’s “pet” airport. A major symbol of the third Reich!”
“Absolutely. And the Americans had taken great care to NOT bomb Tempelhof, because they knew they would need a military airport immediately after the war. Particularly with the Russians holding most of Berlin.
Today, Tempelhof is a vast park and a favourite destination of Berliners, to spend a sunny Sunday on the grass. Kids and pets running everywhere…
“And what was your first impression of Berlin?” I asked, ever the interviewer… (I dabbled in market research for a long while…)
“The smell,” my mother said. “A smell of smoke, soot and decay. Bodies were probably still trapped and rotting under the bombed houses and buildings… ruins everywhere…”
We both fell silent. I could see the images of Berlin in my mind’s eye. The destroyed capital of a Reich that was meant to last a thousand years. The civilians scavenging for food. Burying their dead. The Russians avenging Stalingrad. The scorched Reichstag. The same – rebuilt – Reichstag I would see some years later, standing anew in front of an immense lawn, where young people strolled and took the sun. The new Reichstag with the inscription above: “Dem Deutschen Volcke”. “To the German people.”
“And the talks or negotiations began.” My mother said. “Not that there was much to negotiate, Roosevelt, who hated De Gaulle’s guts, and Churchill, had already split the world in Yalta with Stalin. “So much” for the Russians, “so much” for the Americans, “so much” for the English. The French were just trying to lose as little as possible. Most meetings were… to set boundaries. Who would do what and up to where. One of the many issues was to fine tune the exact map of the Allied zones. Street by street. I did my best with my poor English. Hah!”
“I can imagine.”
“At any rate, the Americans spoke no French. Maybe some of the English did, I don’t remember. The Russian interpreters helped me out when I got stuck!” Smile.
“Yes,” my mother said. “Really. A few of the Russian interpreters were actually quite cute. You know, blonde hair cropped short. Green eyes. Mischievous smiles. They were always passing me notes to join them in their room in the evening to share a bottle of Champagne. How they managed to get Champagne beats me. They’d probably looted a few Nazi dignitaries’ caves…”
“And then?” I was running out of clever retorts…
“And then, nothing. Negotiations went on and on, sectors were agreed, finalized and set up. And I was sent back to Paris. Discharged. Honourably. And out of a job. Went back to Brittany for a very short while, then back to Paris, to Air France, as a typist. I used my Air Force “experience” to land the job! And that’s where I met your father, as you know.”
“And what is your impression on the whole… adventure?”
She laughed. And said: “You know the French Sector in Berlin was the smallest of the four “Allies”. The Russians had taken almost half of Berlin, the East side. They arrived first and took the lion’s share. Independently of the respective positions of power – the Russians, the Americans and the English had it all, the French sector of Berlin was cut out from the American and English sectors because de Gaulle had screamed bloody murder. He’d not been invited to the Yalta conference.”
“Not to Potsdam either. He must have had a fit.”
“He must have!” My mother went on: “But historical… explanations aside, I have always thought that the French sector in Berlin was so small because of my faulty English translation!”
And that, my dear friends, is the end of the story. My mother died a few months later. I’ve always wondered why she had never told of her Berlin trip before. She never said another word on that. Like her mother at her own death, she stopped talking in the very last weeks. I didn’t ask more about Berlin, there were more… pressing issues to attend. I wish I had, though. I have thought of asking the French Ministry of Defence for her military records. They are technically available, it’s been more than seventy years, which is the legal delay for publication of military files. But I’m not sure I want to face the French red tape. Or any red tape!
I was also puzzled by her mention of General Koenig. I knew he was Commander-in-Chief of the French Forces in Germany, but I thought de Lattre de Tassigny was before him. That didn’t check. As I did a bit of research for this writing, I confirmed “both” Koenig and de Lattre. De Lattre was French Commander-in-Chief in Berlin from May to July ’45. Barely a month and half. Koenig was in charge from July 1945 to 1949. It checks.
My take on the story? She was an unexpected – very – small actor in the big drama of History. She took it in stride, and then the little typist from Brittany moved on to build a shining life for herself and her family.
With my father Cyril, in their own everyday version of “Casablanca”. “Just another” cocktail party, Karachi, Pakistan, c.1955.