Riri and Fonfon 2

The phoney war, which had lasted for eight months came to an end on 10th May 1940 with the German attack on the Low Countries and the beginning of the Battle of France.  Two months later, not only was the drôle de guerre just a memory for French people but their army had been humiliatingly defeated and an estimated 1.8 million men taken prisoner.  The dynamic phase of the war was over for France and years of grinding occupation and privation lay ahead, whereas in Britain the war entered a dramatic, dangerous but thrillingly heroic phase.  The Dunkirk evacuation, the Battle of Britain and the nightly bombing raids on London and other major cities were met with the famous Blitz Spirit and a feeling of national solidarity in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, which is still referenced and respected today.

But how did it feel in France?  No longer an independent Republic but a vassal state, no matter how it was divided, France was in a very different situation and entirely subject to the demands and requirements of the German Reich. 

Bundesarchiv. Bild146-1994-036-09A. German soldiers parade on the Champs Elysées

It was not long before the Reich was demanding French workers to fill the place of Germans who had been massively mobilised for Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, launched in June 1941.  France too was desperately short of manpower, since around 10% of the total adult male population was languishing in German POW camps, and unsurprisingly the drive to recruit volunteers elicited a very unenthusiastic response.  So the unsavoury Pierre Laval, at that time head of Pétain’s puppet government, came up with an idea to make the scheme more palatable to the population.  He proposed that for every three workers who left for Germany, one POW would be returned.  Laval was a slippery character, whose favourite tactic was negotiation and compromise with the Reich.    In a stupefying speech delivered on 22 June 1942 Laval announced the scheme, called La Relève, and went on to declare that a new Europe was in the making, in which he ardently desired France to play a leading role.  It is stupefying with hindsight because it speaks of a united and peaceful Europe such as we live in today, whilst entirely ignoring the totalitarian barbarism of the Nazi regime.  One phrase stands out : “Je souhaite la victoire de l’Allemagne, parce que, sans elle, le bolchevisme, demain, s’installerait partout.” (I hope for a German victory because without it bolshevism will take over everywhere).  Laval was tried and executed for collaboration immediately after the war.

To encourage enrolment, posters like this appeared, but still the numbers fell far short of what was required and in any case almost no POWs returned to France. Hitler demanded ever more French workers for the Fatherland and eventually even Laval’s powers of negotiation failed.  On 16th February 1943 the conscription of young men into the STO – Service de Travail Obligatoire passed into law.  All young men born between 1920 and 1922 were obliged to work in Germany (very occasionally in France) for a period of two years. 

Riri and Fonfon were exactly in the age bracket – Fonfon was born in March 1921 and his brother in July 1922 – and in exactly the place where they had no possibility of evading what was in effect deportation as forced labourers. They were amongst the 24 thousand young men who left for Germany directly from their Chantiers de Jeunesse camps.

Musée de la Résistance en ligne


They wrote to their uncle Emile as they were about to board a train at Pont de Claix near Grenoble, bound, as they thought, for Hanover.  It is a brief letter, neatly written in fountain pen and the cursive handwriting which all French children are still taught at school.  It is carefully dated, 30th May, at 9 pm.  There are no crossings out or blots and the letter, like all those that are to follow, is numbered – a portentous Lettre No 1 is inscribed diagonally across the top left-hand corner of the page and underneath the recipient has noted, in the same curly script, the date it was received – June 1st 1943.  The letter was written by Fonfon, but both brothers sign and send love to their Tonton and two sisters – “les petites”. 

What is striking about the letter is the upbeat tone: the brothers and their companions are all in good spirits, they write, and no one is depressed at the idea that they are on their way to Germany.  Riri and Fonfon are chiefly anxious to pass on a clever idea that they have come up with for a code to evade “la censure Nazie”.  They ask their uncle to read all following letters very (underlined) carefully and with a pencil and paper to hand.  By noting down any deliberate spelling mistakes and crossed out words or letters it will be possible to reconstruct phrases that they will have slipped past the German censors. 

It is a touchingly boyish idea: they are on an adventure into the unknown but it is still an adventure.  In actual fact, Brice was unable to discover any indication that the code ever worked.  Later on there are spelling mistakes, crossings out and corrections, even beer and butter stains, but none of it seems to hide any secret information.


Almost at once there is a change of plan.  Letter number 2, written the following day and received a week later, was sent from Dijon, where they had arrived at 7 am.  Since they are now in the Occupied Zone the brothers have for the first time had to deal with the German authorities who, they remark, behaved very civilly towards them.  After completing various administrative formalities they are now free to explore the town until their departure for Paris, probably the following day.  But in the meantime they have been approached by members of a special group, which they refer to as “Les Jeunes du SOT”, who have given them some advice.   Was this a first attempt at the code?  Probably not.  Initially the scheme had been called Le Service Obligatoire de Travail, but the abbreviation SOT immediately caused ribald comment (sot means idiotic or stupid) and the title was hastily reorganised with the adjective last.  Riri and Fonfon either made a genuine mistake or were still thinking of the scheme as it was first explained to them. 

Anyway Les Jeunes have a proposal for them.  They explain to their uncle that they had been initially enrolled as manual labourers – “cack-handed stop-gaps” as they put it – but they have learned that if they agree to follow a three-month training course and qualify as specialised workers they will be much better paid.  (Later on in the story there is a lot of discussion about their pay and the cost of living, so I tried to find some sort of conversion to present-day values but it proved impossible to make any meaningful calculation). 

The training will take place in Germany but in camps and factories which are “solely French staffed and run” (underlined).  In fact, they say, it will be similar to the organisation of the Chantiers, and there will be a similar uniform, blue rather than green and “fort chic”.  They have weighed the pros and cons and decided, despite the fact that they will be in a collective environment again and subject to discipline (though less strict than in the Chantiers) on balance they will go for it.  So now, instead of travelling directly to Germany via Alsace, they are headed for Paris, where they will spend a couple of days getting fitted out with the chic uniform.

Did they make the right choice?  As manual labourers they would probably have been billeted in farms and rural areas but it is likely that they would not have been able to stay together.  The STO was presented as a legitimate employment “offer”: there was always a formal contract, stipulating the duration of service, salary, deductions for health and accident cover and leave entitlement.  It probably looked like a pretty serious proposition to the brothers and the attraction of staying with their own countrymen in an environment which was familiar to them is likely to have influenced their decision. 

So they are off to Paris and then on to Hanover via Brussels; they end their letter by humorously noting that they are on an interesting and educational journey and in good spirits.

Cover Picture: Le Pont de Claix in 1930. Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.

2 thoughts on “Riri and Fonfon 2

  1. Great idea to publish the account in episodes with a bit of a cliff hanger at the end – like reading a Dickens novel or the Strand magazine for Sherlock Holmes

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