Five French Boys Canoe the English Channel
After France had signed the Armistice with Germany in 1940, French citizens of strategically important towns on the English Channel lived under German occupation. Free French General Charles de Gaulle urged the French people to fight on, and five young French boys in an occupied coastal village in France took him at his word.
The Boys Repair Two Canoes and Collect ProvisionsPierre, 19, Jean, 17, Reynolde, 16, Guy, 16, and Christian, 17, were afraid that the Nazis would conscript them for the German Army so they decided that they would escape to England to fight with the Free French. By September of 1941, the boys had made their plans. Christian collected maps, charts, navigation instruments and navigation data.
Jean and Pierre acquired one canoe. Reynolde and Guy managed to buy another canoe for only 300 francs because it had a huge hole in it. It took the boys six weeks to make the canoes seaworthy, but they managed to work on them right under the noses of their parents and the Nazis.
The boys collected food and water and waited for calm seas. On the night of September 16, 1941, their preparations and opportunity converged and the boys decided that this was the time to move. At 9 pm., an hour after curfew, they sneaked out of their bedroom windows. Each of them pinned the same message on his pillow, “Chers Parents, I have gone to join General de Gaulle.”
Setting Sail on the English Channel
Gathering on the beach, the five boys suddenly dropped to the ground and lay flat behind a sand dune. They listened to a Nazi patrol pass. Then they quickly dragged the two canoes to the water’s edge and stowed everything away. Climbing into the canoes, three of them in Pierre’s big Canadian canoe and two of them in the other, they pushed off into a small stream that led to the English Channel. They set their course by the compass that belonged to Pierre’s grandfather.
Once the boys reached the channel, they tried their canoes together and raised the sails. For hours the boys rowed and bailed water from the canoes. At daybreak, they pulled down the sails for fear they might be spotted. Suddenly, they heard an airplane engine. A Spitfire circled around them within 50 feet of the water, but then it disappeared. Much later, Pierre spotted a motorboat on the horizon that he thought the Spitfire had sent to look for the canoes. By now the canoes sat right in the middle of the sunset rays and it would be difficult to spot from the air.
The Channel got rougher and the boys got colder. Since Raynald had been paddling steady for twenty hours he was exhausted, and he and Pierre changed places. In the dim light, Pierre saw Christian pick a soggy packet from the bottom of the canoe. Christian answered Pierre’s unspoken question. “These are some of my books. I was going to take my baccalaureate (college) test next month, but I’ve just escaped in time!”
The Boys Beach the Canoes and Meet A Scotsman Wearing a Kilt
Pierre peered in front of him. Rocks rimmed the coast ahead. The canoes were fragile and the waves and rocks could easily break them to pieces. Pierre also felt certain that the beach was mined. The boys paddled until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and then pulled the canoes around on the side and clutched the slippery rocks with numbed fingers. One by one they heaved themselves out of the canoes. They all laughed weakly, because as soon as each of them had stepped on the rocks his legs gave away and he folded into a helpless heap. Cliff, sea, and rocks all whirled around in a wild jig.
Finally, the boys fell asleep. The sun beating down on their backs woke them up. They looked around and discovered that they were about half a mile offshore on a long tongue of rock. Clutching their French flag, the boys scrambled over the rocks. Suddenly, they heard a gruff voice shout, “Halt!”
They gaped at a woman with a very short skirt holding a rifle. Pierre knew that the British were expecting an invasion from Germany, but didn’t think that tough women in short skirts would be guarding the coast. Pierre approached the woman. He shouted back to the others, “It’s a Scotsman in a kilt!”
The French Boys Train for the Free French Army
They five French boys had arrived at Eastbourne in England, but the Scotsman spoke perfect French. He soon realized that the boys were not Nazis and he took them to a cottage where the occupants gave the refugee boys a spot of tea. Then two police cars came along and took them French boys to the police station. Pierre, the curly-haired 19 year old leader told their story, but no one revealed their last names or where they were from for the sake of relatives still living in France. Then the boys took hot baths, received dry clothes, and had a good rest before they went off to London.
After they arrived in London, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill toasted them. Later Prime Minister Churchill and General Charles de Gaulle assured Christian that he could take his “Bache” in London. He may have escape from the Nazis in France, but he had not escape from his exams!
The five French boys were enrolled in the Free French Cadet School in Malvern, England, to train with fifty other boys. After they completed their training, they joined the Free French Forces. About 150 French boys had already been trained at Malvern and served in General de Gaulle’s Free French Army.
Someone asked Christian what the French people thought of the RAF bombings of occupied France and the French casualties from the bombings. Christian shrugged, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” he said.
The French Army, 1939-1945, Free French, Fighting French & the Army of Liberation, Ian Sumner, Osprey Publishing, 1998.
Fortress France: The Maginot Line and French Defenses in World War II, J.E. Kaufmann, H.W. Kaufmann, Stackpole Books, 2008.