The word freedom can conjure up memories of disastrous happenings, sorrowful occasions or perhaps memories that remind you of situations that you hold dear but other parts of which you would rather forget. The last of these, without a doubt, were at the forefront of my 86 year old Grandfathers mind this day as we drove over Rochester Bridge on the way to Dover to catch the early morning ferry to Boulogne. My wife Barbara sat in the back of the car to keep him company. This was the second time my wife and I had made this journey in the last month. The first time was to holiday in France, but this time to set things straight for my Grandfather. Let me tell you our story.
My name is Peter Banham and my wife’s name is Barbara. At the end of June we had gone on holiday to the Loire Valley in France, We decided to first travel via Mayenne and visit some friends living in Chailland. The sea crossing to Boulogne was very choppy, and we were relieved to drive off the ferry and make for Rouen, and then on towards Alencon on the A28. We didn’t see much of the landscape due to torrential rain and spray from the passing vehicles.
The torrential rain was making driving difficult so we decided to make a stop. We came off the motorway on to the A88, and then got lost; we eventually ended up at a small village just south of Sainte-Honorine. Seeing a small café ahead with a B&B sign outside, we stopped and went in, shaking the rain water from our clothes. We were met by a cheerful lady who looked to be in her 60’s, slim, attractive and smartly dressed with a waist pinafore of blue and white stripes. We were pleased to find she could speak perfect English. I had a weird feeling that I should know her, which left me slightly puzzled at the time. There were also a couple of other customers in the café.
‘Have you come far?’ she enquired.
‘From England. We have decided to make a stop until this weather improves; we hope it won’t be long.’ I said as we sat down at one of the tables.
‘This rain may last some time according to the forecast. However, I have a room you can use if you wish to stay overnight. Then you could perhaps see the area in a better light, if you wanted to. It is very beautiful here when the sun shines.’ said the café owner, smiling.
‘What do you think, Barbara? The weather is atrocious, and we aren’t in a desperate hurry’ I said to my wife.
‘Why not, let’s stay overnight Peter. We can phone Betty in Chailland to say we will be there tomorrow.’ said my wife.
‘That’s settled then. I will make up the room for you. My name is Jeannette.’ said the café owner.
We were brought drinks and cakes we had ordered by an elderly lady who turned out to be Jeannette’s Mother. I guessed she was in her mid 80’s, and very active for her age; she also spoke very good English.
After finishing our drinks Jeannette came and said that our room was ready. I signed the register while Jeannette looked on, and we made our way upstairs to a very pleasant room. It was ideal, very cosy and with a tea and coffee making tray. That evening we sat down for a meal with Jeannette and her Mother, whose name was Alice.
After the meal we went into their sitting room which had a large open inglenook fireplace made up with logs on a raised grate. We made ourselves comfortable in armchairs as Jeannette brought in a tray of coffee.
I asked Jeannette’s Mother ‘Have you always lived here?’
‘Yes, even during the war, despite the situation’ she said.
I said, ‘What happened to you then? Did your parents take you away somewhere?’
‘Oh no, we still lived here, but it was difficult at times’ Alice said.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ I asked.
Jeannette sat down on a sofa next to her Mother and handed the coffee to us.
As she passed a cup to her Mother she said to her ‘I know you want to tell Peter and Barbara your story. I shan’t stop you.’ Alice said ‘Are you sure Jeannette, I know how you get upset when I talk about it.’
I looked at both of them and was confused by the looks they had given each other. But I was really Intrigued now, so I said, ‘Please do Alice. You have really aroused my interest now’
Alice said, ‘All right. Well the story goes like this.’
‘It was in March 1942 when the war had been in progress for over two years. British airmen were being shot down all over France. Most of these were captured and ended up being interrogated by the Gestapo and tortured in the process. One of these pilots had been picked up locally and taken to Caen. After two weeks in captivity, and being tortured and locked up in isolation with little to eat or drink, he was put on a train with several other prisoners and told they were being sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Although this was a relief from the torture he had been through he was not looking forward to be locked up in a prison camp for the rest of the war, and was determined to try and escape whenever the chance came.
Fortunately, the train had to make a stop due to damage to the line, carried out by local resistance. While the guards were otherwise engaged in sorting out what to do to get the train moving, he and another prisoner decided to make their break for freedom They managed to jump from the train and dash into nearby woods. They decided to go their separate ways, but the other prisoner was captured soon afterwards. The pilot managed to hide and remain undiscovered from the search parties. He was very lucky to get away, especially not knowing where he was or how to reach safety. He finally ended up in our barn, wet, exhausted and hungry, too weak to hide or resist when he saw my Father approaching the barn. He collapsed and passed out and we managed to get him into the farmhouse and give him some dry clothes and feed him. He had got wet from hiding in a stream under some rushes so he wasn’t spotted by a group of Germans when they came close.
Alice put her cup on the table and took out her handkerchief to wipe her eyes, as they had started to water. Jeannette, put her hand on her Mothers and said. ‘It’s alright mother, let me tell the rest of the story’
Alice sat back and nodded her head, to indicate Jeannette should carry on.
Jeannette took up the story. ‘As mother said, she and my Grandfather took the pilot in and fed and clothed him and then made him sleep in their barn just in case the Germans came. He was extremely grateful. The next day Alice went into the barn to see if he was alright and because he was a very personable handsome young man, took to him instantly. To cut a long story short they had a liaison, and they became intimate.’
At this Alice closed her eyes and breathed a heavy sigh.
Jeannette carried on. ‘I was the result of that liaison.’ She looked down at her hands and hesitated before carrying on. ‘We had messages from the resistance that the Germans thought that the pilot was in our area somewhere. If he was found at the farm they would all be in danger of being shot for collaborating with the enemy. The pilot would most probably be sent on to the prisoner of war camp after being tortured again and be put in isolation for weeks. His dash for freedom would have been for nothing.
The pilot, whose name was Leonard, said that he would give himself up if the Germans came, and say that the farmer and his family did not know he was sheltering in the barn to save anyone being harmed. Also that he had stolen his clothes from a house far away from where he was now. He was told that he must stay free for all their sakes as the Germans would not believe him, and probably shoot many local villagers as well as them. The resistance set up a false trail to make the German soldiers think the pilot had moved on towards Alencon. While the Germans followed the false trail the resistance had laid, the pilot escaped back to England, and freedom, ready to carry on with fighting the war. The Germans moved on and never suspected what had happened. They finally gave up, and as I said Leonard managed to get away thanks to the local resistance who let it be known that he had reached England safely. We heard later that the other prisoner who escaped with Leonard ended up at Stalag Luft III, and was one of the prisoners who took part in the Great Escape. He never got out the tunnel so was saved from the fate of prisoners who did. Fifty men were shot as a result of that escape, He survived the war and now lives somewhere near Cranbrook in Kent.
Jeannette looked at us and then turned to her Mother. She said to Alice. ‘Shall I ask them?’
‘Before you do can I ask what happened to your Father.’ I said.
‘Actually’ said Jeannette ‘’that was what I was going to ask you’
‘Me? How should I know?’ I said.
‘Well you signed the register with your full name, Peter Banham. The pilots name was Leonard Banham and the last we heard he had married a girl in England who came from the Rochester area, where you live.’ said Jeannette.
I sat back and gasped, and said ‘My Grandfather is called Leonard. He was a pilot in the war and has told us how he escaped from France after a crash, but that’s all.’
‘Is your Grandmother still alive?’ said Jeannette
‘Sadly no, she died last year.’ I said.
We carried on talking and eventually discovered that there were too many similarities and that he had to be the Leonard that Jeannette had spoken of. I wondered why he hadn’t returned to see Alice after the war, I would have to ask my Grandfather this when I saw him and told him Jeannette’s story.
That was a month ago. Now with many mixed feelings we were going back to the Café to see Jeannette and Alice. When we arrived they were nervously waiting for us. It was a very emotional moment when Leonard met up with Alice again. They both burst into tears and hugged each other tight not wanting to let go of each other.
Jeannette burst into tears of happiness as well, because she had at last met her father. She said that she had been so looking forward to this moment for a long time and thought it would never happen. I was overcome with emotion also, because not only did I bring them together, but I now had a new sister. Now I knew why I had been puzzled when meeting Jeannette for the first time.
I found out the reason why my Grandfather hadn’t returned after the war. It was because he had met and married my Grandmother soon after getting back to England. If he had known about Jeannette, maybe I wouldn’t be here today, seeing the result of his historic dash for freedom all those years ago.