Four days later, Riri and Fonfon arrive in Paris, but they only have a short time in the city before their departure at 6am from the Gare de l’Est the following morning. They have been taken under the wing of the organisation which they now correctly identify as the JOFT, the Jeunesse Ouvrière Francaise Travaillant en Allemagne and they discover that they are not going to Hanover but Dresden. Announcing this to their uncle they stress that this is a stroke of luck, since “Dresden has never as yet been bombed” (underlined) and they pass on the address to which letters can be sent, writing particularly clearly and carefully spelling out the unfamiliar German words. The cost of postage will be 4 francs.
They are just going to be fitted for their uniforms and then they hope to have some free time to explore Paris.
By this stage of the war aerial bombardment had become a terrifying reality for many Europeans. But in France the population as a whole had as yet no direct experience of air raids, (a situation that was sadly to change with the Normandy Landings in June 1944) and the idea that the brothers were heading into danger must have been an additional worry for their family. It’s for this reason that Riri and Fonfon are at pains to reassure them that they will be relatively safe in a city that was chiefly known for its outstanding cultural and artistic heritage.
The rapid advance of aviation technology in the interwar years had created the belief that future conflicts would depend heavily on mass bombing raids. Nonetheless, at the outbreak of the second World War the Hague conventions, which laid down the rules of conduct in times of war, (and make for pretty chilly reading), had not been updated since 1907 and therefore did not sufficiently cover aerial warfare: crucially aerial bombardment of civilian areas in enemy territory was not specifically prohibited. At first an attempt was made on both sides to restrict air attacks to legitimate military targets, although in many cases inaccuracy in hitting the desired target zone, combined with the vagueness of the Hague conventions meant that the lines very quickly became blurred.
Aerial bombardment was employed extensively from the very start of hostilities. On 1st September 1939, the Luftwaffe opened the German invasion of Poland with an air attack on Warsaw, followed by more devastating raids a week later. The bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940 brought about the swift capitulation of Holland, a country which had planned to remain neutral as it had in World War I and had therefore refused to arm itself. The Battle of Britain – Germany’s bid for air supremacy prior to an invasion of the British Isles – was won by the RAF in September 1940 and a furious Hitler directed his air force to attack major British port cities and most especially London, which suffered 56 continuous days and nights of bombing raids – the so-called Blitz. British bombing raids into German territory began with attacks on the Ruhr industrial belt in May 1940 and accelerated later that year with an intensive incendiary raid on Mannheim by the RAF on 16th December, in retaliation for the devastating German raid on Coventry the previous month.
This was the start of a drift away from precision attacks on military targets and towards area bombing raids on whole cities and French families with sons and brothers in Germany worried understandably about this terrifyingly indiscriminate new form of warfare.
However in 1943 France had been pretty much spared and the Paris the brothers saw looked very much as it does to us to day. This was undoubtedly their first glimpse of the city and they particularly want to visit the Arc de Triomphe, the Opéra and Montmartre. I hope that they were able to take in the sights of their beautiful capital, still beautiful even after three years of war and privations, despite the German signs replacing the names of famous avenues and monuments, despite the soldiers, the checkpoints, the swastikas everywhere.
I hope that they were able to pause at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, with its eternal flame which even the Nazis respected, to gaze at the flamboyant façade of the Opéra, to wander up the endless steps and along the twisty lanes of Montmartre and to admire the Eiffel Tower from the esplanade of the Sacré Coeur Basilica. This was their chance, and I am sure that they took in as much as they possibly could on that long summer evening and that, as patriotic Frenchmen, those impressions will have sustained them as they prepared to leave their native land behind.
Riri and Fonfon boarded a train like this one, possibly even this one, since the photo is dated May – June 1943. But there was no one at the station to see them off, for one last kiss, to wave them goodbye.
These brothers, who had lost so many close family members in their short lives, had left all their nearest and dearest behind in the far-off Ardèche. And yet, as their letters attest, they faced the journey with stout-hearted optimism and courage. After all they were still together and they had to accept what they could not alter. The train pulled slowly out of Paris and set off on its 1,030 km journey to the East.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.