John Stevens – from “Canadians on Radar: RCAF 1940-1945”
Taken from “Canadians on Radar: Royal Canadian Air Force 1940-1945” edited by Robert F Linden and others
Corporal John G Stevens, a RCAF radar mechanic on GCI convoy 15082, provides the following account of progress from Omaha beach to the city of Paris:
At the end of D-Day, 47 of the 120 men from our Unit were casualties, including our Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Trollope. It would be a couple of days before our destroyed convoy vehicles would be replaced from England.
The move inland from Normandy to Paris provided some interesting moments. As I was the only person in the unit who could speak and understand some French, our new Commanding Officer and I rode in the lead vehicle with the driver. The other 35 or so vehicles were to follow as we headed out, this time for Paris. We were “briefed” by our two American Liaison Colonels, being told where to go when the front broke, in order to get to Paris. Unfortunately, these two gentlemen were killed by a land mine a few days before our scheduled move.
We made our way around the east side of the Falaise Gap, aiming for Paris as instructed. As all road signs had been removed or obliterated by black paint, we often stopped to ask the local people for advice as to which road to take to get to Paris. They needed the unit operating as soon as possible in order to provide air cover. This necessitated several stops and directions from the local people, who became more co-operative as we neared Paris.
Our instructions were to go to the Bois de Boulogne and set up the radar and communication equipment, make it functional, and contact London. However, we were unable to reach the Bois de Boulogne, as each route we tried was blocked by upturned trucks piled up with paving stones taken from the roads.
Finally, we stopped at one of these barricaded roads which we had hoped to use and it was agreed with our CO that I would go through the barricade and seek some advice, while the convoy awaited my return. There was quite a bit of sporadic gunfire but nothing apparently organized. The distance from the first to the second roadblock was one city block. As I ran past the stores taking evasive action and dodging into store front, “someone” was firing inconsistently towards the first roadblock. About halfway along the street, I dodged into another doorway, where I met, much to my surprise, a well-dressed French gentleman of about 50 years of age. He was drunk and was holding two champagne glasses with the stems between his fingers. He smiled happily to see me and extolled the glories of Liberation, peace and good fellowship, as drunks are wont to do – in French. He then said “à boire messieur à la Liberation.” A drink of alcohol was something I did not want! As somebody was still firing down the road, I hesitated going up the road long enough for my “new friend” to produce a bottle of champagne, half fill the glasses, and present one to me. As the firing had stopped, I drank the champagne, thanked him while refusing any more, congratulated him on the peace and ran up the street to the other roadblock.
There was a sign on one of the buildings which said FFI Headquarters (Free French Interior) Communist Section. The proceedings there were apparently being run by a young woman about twenty five years of age, who wore a navy blue tailored jacket, navy blue skirt and matching tam hat. She looked like a model. When she finished giving orders to her troops, she turned to me and in English asked what I wanted. Before I could answer, she unbuttoned her jacket and produced a 45 calibre revolver and called a man’s name. When he turned his head, she said in French, “I knew it was you,” and pointing the revolver at him, gave orders to her minions to take him behind a billboard and shoot him – which I believe they did.
She put away the revolver, which you would never guess she was carrying, turned to me and asked again what I wanted. I told her that our RAF convoy was on the other side of the second barricade and that we were trying to get to the Bois de Boulogne. She had someone in her command go into their headquarters and bring a large detailed map. There was no available route for us, so she suggested Longchamps Racetrack as an alternative; and sent me on my way with a head full of instruction like “tout à droit – tout à gauche, etc.” Somehow we reached the racetrack and I went into the building, just inside the gates. There was no one in any of the rooms, but there were indications that they had recently left: cigarette butts, warm coffee cups and a smell of cigarette smoke.
On returning to the gate, I found all the people laughing hilariously. It is always sad to miss a good joke so I asked what was so funny, and was amazed at the answer. They told me that this was the Gestapo Headquarters and that the Gestapo had gone out the back windows of the building when I went in the front door. Members of the joyous crowd hoisted me on their shoulders and started moving through the crowded street. Suddenly a small German tank, which I could see from my vantage point, began firing, and knocking chunks off the buildings, columns etc. The lads lowered me and the crowd evaporated in seconds by running into all buildings with unlocked doors. I don’t know who else in our unit got the short VIP treatment.
Our equipment was moved to the middle of the race track, but due to the buildings and trees we could get no satisfactory results. That evening two twin-engine German bombers came over the convoy and accidentally bombed the four five-storey tenements nearby.
On the second day, we left the racetrack to move to a site which had a higher elevation located down the road to Fontainebleau. On the outskirts of Paris, we met some American Sherman tanks coming in our direction and pulled over to the side of the road to allow them to pass. To my surprise the lead tank started to elevate its cannon. I told our driver to turn our “lorry” across the road so they could see the huge RAF roundel painted on the side. In a few minutes, two very large, six-foot-six military policemen on motorcycles rode to meet us, and asked in a brusque manner what we were doing. In a fit of sarcasm, I told them we were in Paris for a couple of days and that it would be now safe for them to enter. We pulled our vehicle over to the side and they passed us without further incident.
The equipment was set up in a farmer’s field, with his permission, and operated very well in this new location. There was little action from the German Air Force. In due course an American Radar Unit, with very sophisticated equipment, arrived to take over the work. We were instructed to return to the Cherbourg peninsular for repatriation to England.
The next day, a dispatch rider on a motorcycle arrived with a telegram for me personally, from our Group Captain. He asked me to go to North Belgium to help with another microwave unit. Good grief !
John G Stevens
North York, Ontario,