Gaston Le Baron
Memories of 1944
I lived in St. Ouen du Mesnil Oger 6 km, to the South of Troarn, close to the Dives and the marshes. On June 6th 1944, I was 17, fanatical and very determined to help with our liberation. I caused my mother a lot of worries at that time!
In the night of 5th to 6th around 11 pm, everything came ablaze all along the coast, the planes were flying so low that we could see the Dakotas which were trying to drop their cargoes of paratroopers. We were afraid of the bombing, because our house was situated close to an agricultural bridge over the Dives. We set off to take shelter in a large ditch. At dawn, I set off to find possible paratroopers in the marshes, with water up to my knees. The marshes had been flooded by the Germans, there were blockages in the river. My curiosity was quickly rewarded, I found 1, 2 and 3 parachutes in the rushes, which I furled and hid as well as the flying jackets.
I continued my progress through the water and the tall grass and suddenly bumped into a group of Paras, maybe 40, sitting on a bank (with a machine-gun in position). My astonishment was complete to see these khaki uniforms with a whole tackle I had never seen before. We thought we were going to be liberated, but alas, they had been dropped 10 km too far to the South of their target (Bois de Bavent), and had made several fruitless attempts to unite again with their battalion, apart from a few individuals.
On June 9th around 8am, they decided to cross the Ham Bridge from the right bank to the left bank, as a column. In front of them, 2 motorbikes and a convertible assault vehicle suddenly appeared, with 6 officers "one of which was a General" and 2 escorting soldiers. Instantly, the Paras fell flat on their stomachs in the tall grass. However, one of them was spotted by a passenger in the vehicle, who instinctively opened fire and wounded him seriously in the leg. The riposte was immediate, and the car finished its course in the ditch. The shooting lasted maybe 2 minutes. On the German side: 6 dead, 1 wounded, 1 prisoner, who attempted to escape in the marshes but was captured.
After this feeble victory, we turned round and went back to our starting point and waited, like everyone else, for the Allied Forces advance, hoped for any day then. Our situation was becoming more and more preoccupying. They were completely dependent on the people around them with a lot of risks. We went through extremely dangerous moments.
German reinforcements were arriving night and day from Southern France, from the North and from Germany. Some came for milk, they were constantly among us, they paid with their bread or their packed lunches (or nothing) and I kept everything preciously for our Paras.
These German units were composed of many men from occupied countries, Alsacians, Poles, Czechs, Georgians. They made a point of telling us that they were not German "when they were alone". I managed to persuade two to escape, one of them was from Alsace, I was able to find his address there 30 years later. He died in 2001.
There was also a Georgian, I do not know what happened to him. I wrote to the Georgian Embassy in Paris (no reply). All their tackle had been handed over to the Paras. Close to these troops, I managed to obtain precious pieces of information, which I passed on to the Para Officer Nicholls, regarding the Allied progress, the size of units, their itineraries, their lack of progress in front of Troarn. We were constantly under the fire of the British artillery, the air-raids, the pounding of German convoys marching to the front, coming across files of refugees …
On July 17th, a wrong piece of information was provided to Lieutenant Nicholls, which said that the "Goodwood" operation had been launched and that "it was possible to join the Allied troops on the Caen-Paris road". During the night, they left St. Ouen du Mesnil Oger - Cléville to go towards Croissanville. But around 5 am, they were intercepted by a large S.S. unit. The group of men was made prisoners in a dreadful state of exhaustion, fatigue, hunger, thirst, dirt … apart from one who managed to hide in the undergrowth. In the evening, a neighbour happened to walk past him and brought him to our house. We gave him civilian clothes, a false identity card (deaf and dumb). I hid his uniform and military papers in the hay. I always remembered his name “Albert Livesey” of the 8th Battalion.
As for Lieutenant Nicholls, he was separated from his men and tortured during a day to make him confess how they could have survived since June 6th and who had given them information, housed them, fed them. But he said nothing. Thank you, Mr. Nicholls.
The exodus. On July 18th, we received an order to leave within a few hours and had to leave the doors open. With our horse and cart, we gathered our most precious belongings, and placed my younger sister, aged 5, and the small dog on top of the cart, on a mattress. We tied two cows behind it. My mother and our deaf and dumb man brought up the rear. I had installed a large cage under the cart for chickens and rabbits. It was not a success. We left, walking along the river Dives, across the marshes, under the raining water and shells, along impracticable paths.
We spent our first night on the brow of the island in an isolated and crumbling house, where a widower lived with his five children, aged two to ten. What sadness… !
We slept in a cowshed on hay. We stayed for four days, still believing in the Allied troops advance. We were compelled to press on, meeting interminable files of German convoys marching towards the front. When planes appeared, all vanished in the hedges. At the front of our lamentable convoy, I had nailed a large French flag (for the planes) which I had to remove. But I laid it flat on the mattress. We often slept under the stars. On the day of our liberation, what joy! But our deaf and dumb man left us to go away with the Allied troops … saying he would come back.
We went back home around August 23rd. What desolation, our house was standing. The roof had been damaged, no panes were left in the windows, all the inside had been vandalised or stolen, the ground strewn with linen, plates, photos … There were shelters everywhere, the wardrobes had been used to cover the shelters with earth on top. Sheets had been laid so as not to get the uniforms soiled. Many trees were fallen down. There was ammunition everywhere - danger. A cannon had been destroyed, a half-track was abandoned, all sorts of civil and military equipment, graves nearly everywhere, dead animals … but we were free.
In November 1944, we had a surprise visit from Albert, our Para. He had come to see us to thank us and most of all, to get his military papers back, so as to prove that he was a British paratrooper. Without success, he went back to the Ardennes to join his unit. When he left us, he said he would come back after the war … We never saw him again. He was killed in Holland while crossing the Rhine in April 1945. After a long search among the veterans, I managed to discover that Albert had died and that Officer Nicholls was looking for me.
We met again in 1985 and he would come to see me every year. I was invited to ceremonies with the veterans of the 8th and 9th Battalions in England and in Scotland with Generals Pearson, Hill and Flood. I have been honoured in Great Britain, but not in France … The ill-fated adventure of Lieutenant Nicholls and his men.
Gaston Le Baron’s letter of April 7th 2001. In memory of my friend Nicholls, a veteran of 1944. Note in the margin: Nicholls' son informed me that his father had died. I replied, here is the photocopy. I have not had an answer.
23rd March 2001. I receive a letter from Great Britain from Nicholls junior. “Bad news”, he informs me of the death of his father, my friend, Mr. Nicholls, whom I met at the beginning of June 1944. He was the Lieutenant of a group of paratroopers in the British 8th Battalion, 6th Airborne Division.
During the night of 5th to 6th of June, from 11 pm onwards, a racket from hell started, the bombing all along the coast, “Air Force, Navy”, incredible illuminations from everywhere. Aeroplanes were flying at all altitudes, some were so low that they could be seen in the black of the night. They were attempting to drop their cargoes of paratroopers. Their target was 10 km further to the North.
This was the start of our liberation. We were not thinking about what we were about to suffer from June 6th till August 23rd under a never-ending pounding of fire. We lived 20 km from the sea at St. Ouen du Mesnil Oger close to the Ham Bridge on the Dives, on the edge of the marshes, which had been flooded by the Germans to stop the Allied troops. In this area, the Germans were just passing. On June 6th at dawn, I set off to find our potential liberators.
The rushes were hiding the parachutes. Total amazement: 1, 2, then 3 parachutes. I only needed to follow the tracks in the water and the grass. To my surprise and shock, I found a first group of paratroopers, maybe 40 or 50 with big smiles on their faces and speaking a language I did not understand. They were convinced that they had reached their target.
But one had to admit that there had been a pilot error after several aborted attempts to reach the left bank of the Dives in the area planned for the 6th Division between the Orne and the Dives. After a few days, German reinforcements kept arriving night and day from Germany and the South of France. We were completely invaded. The front was stabilised around Ouistreham, Bavent, Troarn, Caen. We were 10 km from there, but "on the wrong side". We lived through extremely dangerous moments because of our determination not to abandon our paratroopers, who could only survive thanks to us and our help. [one illegible line] in the middle of marshes in dreadful conditions. We could only meet at night. It was not easy to remember "faces" and our Paras kept moving around so they would not be spotted.
One day, I decided to go and see my friends. When I arrived, I could not find anyone. But I found them again easily, as I knew the marshes extremely well. Wading through water and rushes, I arrived at another ruin more than a km away. The ground floor was a cowshed and as the loft for hay was empty, it was used as an improvised army dormitory.
Having made myself known, a Para made himself understood: where was I from? He unfolded an extremely detailed silk map on which I was able to recognise the position of our house. And who had told me they were there? They made me understand that their commander was coming very soon. I saw a man come towards me, he was in civvies [note in the margin (Nicholls)], with his head shaved, wearing old ill-fitting clothes. He asked me in bad French: who told you we were here? In a not very nice tone.
Again I pointed at the map, showing him where I lived on the map and saying that I came in the night to see them. He did not appear very convinced. He said I should come with him. We went across the fields, towards a farm about 2 km. away, where there was a Frenchman, an escaped prisoner from Germany, who had helped them a lot (Louis Villon). Mr. Nicholls was walking in front of me, saying nothing, I could see the butt of his revolver sticking out of his right pocket. I must say I did not feel reassured. I thought the worst.
On arriving at the farm, he signalled to me to remain at the end of the house, he went and spoke with the Frenchman, probably to ask for information about me, i.e. if he could trust me. The conversation was not long, he came back towards me, with a very different attitude and with a smile (the first one), he said I could go, I felt relieved. And what if the farmer had not been a friend? Following this rather eventful encounter, I could carry on with my nightly visits, which were welcome, provision of fresh supplies, information, orienteering.
It is with a certain emotion that my friend Nicholls and myself could recall those sad moments in our lives. Lost in the marshes, overwhelmed by anxiety, fear, hunger, thirst, heat, expectancy, dirt and thousands of mosquitoes. To cap this odyssey, to be made prisoners by a large group of S.S. between Cléville and Croissanville on July 17th at 5am. Completely exhausted, with the hope of reaching the Allied troops on the Caen-Paris road, the "Goodwood" operation was launched in the Falaise direction.
My friend Albert Livesey took advantage of a moment of inattention on the part of the Germans to hide in the bushes (that is another adventure). Here ends the ill-fated epoch of the group, Lieutenant Nicholls and his men.
16th August 2003: United at Last
In June we met Gaston Le Baron, he lived on the marsh side of Troarn and helped many parachutists who landed there. One man was Albert Livesey (8th Battalion) who was killed in Germany in 1945. We managed to trace Albert's brother Reg who came with his family to meet Gaston for the first time. We had arranged to meet up at the Pegasus Memorial Museum and after Mark Worthington, one of the guides, had explained about the landings on the sand map we made a presentation of Albert's photograph to Gaston, something he had wanted since the last time he saw Albert, 59 years ago.
Gaston then took us all around the area pointing out the places where our brave men struggled to survive, the barns and farm buildings, the ditches and the fields, all quiet now but not forgotten. It was eerie to take a photograph of Reg on the same spot with the man who saved his brother so many years ago.
The efforts of the many French people are forgotten. Although some French received a plaque after the war, Gaston had nothing as he was considered "too young to have made a contribution". Someone was wrong !
Gaston was thanked by a representative of the Parachute Regiment and presented with a plaque on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day at Le Mesnil.
This story was researched by Bernard and Fay Robins to honour and respect Gaston Le Baron, a brave man who undoubtedly saved the lives of many British Parachutists in 1944, a man we are proud to call our friend.
Lieutenant Ivor E. "Nick" NICHOLLS 17th March 2001
Corporal "Jimmy" JAMES 20th September 2005
Kindly translated into English by Mrs. Jeanine WALLACE (Registered Translator)
Gaston Le Baron died on the 16th October 2007.
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