‘They scavenged scraps’: the Britons rounded up by the Nazis in occupied France

The soldiers and gendarmes came early – so early that some of the people they took were still in pyjamas. In the first days of July 1940, barely a week after the armistice, few had been expecting the first Nazi roundup of enemy aliens on French soil.

Aided by lists dutifully drawn up by French mayors, the occupying Germans seized 1,648 men in the départements of the Nord and the Pas de Calais in those initial raids, and the total would go on rising to 3,000 civilians including women and children.

A typewritten list of names begins with Abbott, Ambrose and ends with Young, John. In between are Alfred Boot, William Corbett, George Edwards, James Goodman, Harold Hartley, Percy Johnson, Horace Neville, Ralph Powell, and a lot of Smiths.

“It’s just one forgotten episode in the sweep of the war,” said Frédéric Turner, whose grandfather, father and uncle – Frederick, 43, Frédéric, 19, and Albert, 18, – were all on the list. “But the first organised Nazi roundup in occupied France was of British citizens.”

Turner, now 73, has spent much of the past 17 years researching the fate of the several hundred British and Franco-British families who were captured 80 years ago this month and interned for the duration of the war. He has compiled a book of their stories.

“My father and grandfather never talked about it much, if at all,” he said, sitting in his living room in Arras, northern France. “The first I really knew was when my father asked me to take him to visit the fortress of Huy, in Belgium, and started crying.”

Huy, an imposing 19th-century fort high on an outcrop overlooking the River Meuse, was a staging post for most of the British internees on a journey that took them from jails in Arras, Boulogne, Béthune, Dunkirk, Saint-Omer or Valenciennes to a grim barracks in Lille, and then to a detention centre in Belgium and on to Germany.

“More than 800 British men, all civilians, were held there,” said Turner, “and they suffered for five weeks. They scavenged scraps from the bins because there was so little to eat, and slept on bare bricks. Outside, regularly, firing squads executed resistance fighters.”

Turner said his father, still a teenager, was traumatised by the experience. “He had nightmares about it all his life. In the horror of that war, of course, there was far worse. But that does not diminish what they went through. More than 10% died.”

Like almost all the older Britons seized that July, Turner’s grandfather, Frederick, was a veteran of the first world war who had either chosen to stay behind after the armistice in 1918 or returned soon after, and had subsequently married a French woman.

“He was from Lambeth, not 17 when he volunteered,” Turner said. “Rejected first time, then lied about his age; wounded on the Somme but fought at Arras and met my grandmother, Marie Lescieux, just after the war. She lost her first husband in 1915.”

The couple’s paths crossed while both were working – he, demobbed, as a civilian cook – at the Zeneghem British army depot, where mountains of abandoned military equipment was decommissioned or destroyed.

Frederick and Marie settled in her home village, Holque, and he took a job at a nearby tile factory. By the time war again broke out, he was a manager and the couple had three children. They sheltered a string of British soldiers and airmen and dozens of refugees fleeing south before Frederick was arrested on 12 July 1940.

The Britons rounded up in northern France worked a variety of jobs: labourer, engineer, doctor, chemist, farmhand, office clerk, stock controller, business owner, even priest. After the war, some had careers with France-based British companies. Turner’s father and grandfather worked for BP in Dunkirk.

Among those rounded up was the writer PG Wodehouse, detained at his villa in the seaside resort of Le Touquet on 21 July. He was transferred to Huy and then Tost (now Toszek in Poland), where he stayed until June 1941, before he was removed to the Adlon hotel in Berlin to make five controversial broadcasts over the Nazi radio network.

They were ill-judged, light-hearted, jolly-jape accounts of his experience, and cast a long shadow over his reputation. Being an internee was, he said, “in many ways quite agreeable”; he and his fellow captives were in fine spirits; he had never met such a cheery bunch, and their captors were frightfully hospitable.

“It caused a great deal of bitterness,” said Turner. “Many of the men he had spent the past 12 months with heard those broadcasts, and what Wodehouse was describing was really not their experience at all. He neglected to mention the cold, the ill-fitting clothes, the hunger, the depression. The suicide attempts.”

Wodehouse is pictured in a faded camp photograph wearing round spectacles, a scarf and jaunty knitted hat. One of the men alongside him is Donald Campbell, born in 1898 in Kirkhill, near Inverness. He was working for the War Graves Commission tending the Vis-en-Artois cemetery, Haucourt, when he was detained on 14 July 1940.

Eighty years later, Campbell’s grandson Marc, 63, is the mayor of Dury, a small commune just south of Amiens. “My grandad fought in Flanders, came back in 1920 or 21 and met my grandmother Françoise soon afterwards,” Campbell said, pointing him out in photographs laid out on Turner’s dining table. “But to be honest, he rarely said much about either of his wars.”

Campbell’s father, also Donald, was six years old in 1940 and was allowed to go to his uncle’s home. Donald Sr spent the remainder of the war being shunted – with other Britons including, for a while, Wodehouse – between the grim internment camps at Tost, Kreuzberg (Kluczbork), Giromagny in eastern France, and Westertimke, between Bremen and Hamburg.

“He kept a sort of diary,” said Campbell, pulling out a scuffed red notebook. “My mother gave it to me on my 50th birthday. He drew a map of where he was taken, and how – by bus, train, cattle truck. Here: ‘My travels on the continent, from 14 July 1940 to 16 April 1945 – all at Adolph’s [sic] expense.’”

The chirpy humour disguises what must have been a miserable and profoundly unsettling time. The internees did their best to keep their spirits up, putting on shows and organising sports tournaments, but despite regular Red Cross medical visits, many fell ill and several attempted suicide.

The Germans considered the internees’ French wives to be British by marriage; at least one was arrested and detained immediately after her wedding to a British man released specially for the occasion. Many were held with their children in a different series of camps, ending up in Besançon or Vittel in the Vosges region.

“Families were allowed to send photos and letters,” said Turner. “A commercial photographer would come in; everyone would dress up in their best jacket and tie, trying to look reassuring. But the first punishment for any misdemeanour was no correspondence, in or out.”

A third descendant, Régis Hammerton, 66, told how his grandfather Percy, born in 1888, fought in Flanders with his five brothers. Universally known, for reasons unclear, as Georges, he met his future wife, Elodie, while on leave from the front in the small Pas de Calais village of Merck St Liévin, where her parents ran the bakery.

One of Georges and Elodie’s sons, André, Régis’s father, a locksmith, enlisted in France and mostly evaded capture; another, Fortuné, a butcher’s boy, made his way to England and joined the British army, where his poor English meant he was always known as Frenchie. Only Georges, another War Graves employee, was interned in July 1940.

“He wasn’t well after,” said Hammerton. “Grandad wanted to integrate. He liked his Christmas pudding and afternoon tea, but his kids had to speak French. He helped a British naval officer flee the front that June, but he wasn’t a hero. None of them were. Just ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, doing what they could.”

When after five long years they returned home, liberated by US troops in April 1945, northern France’s interned Brits just “wanted to forget all about it [and] pick up their lives again,” said Turner. “They very rarely socialised together, after. If anything, it’s us, their descendants – all with our British surnames – who feel the stronger tie.”