The Gondrée Family
Georges Gondrée was born in 1898 at Trouville sur mer. His parents worked in the construction industry and built hotels and domestic properties, a form of work that greatly influenced their son. Georges, a good natured and intelligent man, was educated in Trouville and thereafter pursued a career in banking. He spent many years as an employee of Lloyds Bank, and his frequent dealings with British finance led to him becoming a fluent speaker of English. He also worked for the casino in Deauville, on the opposite bank of the River Touques, and his work here resulted in frequent travel to the company's casino in Cannes. It was while in Cannes that Georges met his wife-to-be, Thérèse. She was born in Alsace on the 4th August 1904, and her family were farmers and owned a considerable property. She trained as a nurse at the famous school in Strasbourg and later worked in the American Hospital in Paris. Her work, as a nurse to the highest aristocracy, involved a great deal of travel, particularly to the south of France, thus leading her to Cannes. Georges and Thérèse settled in Bénouville, owning and living in the small café next to the Bénouville Bridge. By the time of the Invasion they had three daughters, Georgette and Arlette, and the newly born Françoise.
The family had always been distinctly anti-German as a consequence of Adolf Hitler's policies and the occupation of their country. Their defiance began humbly, by denying the use of their home as a billet for soldiers by ensuring that they and their young children unnecessarily occupied every bedroom. Their revulsion at how the Germans were treating their countrymen increased and encouraged them to more daring activities. Thérèse, having been raised in Alsace, could speak German fluently. Traces of a Germanic accent in her tone led to several of the locals treating her with modest suspicion, but she never allowed her knowledge of German to become known, and so was able to eavesdrop on the soldiers' conversations, which she and Georges duly passed on to their contacts in the resistance.
The information collected by the Gondrée family did much to give Major Howard and his Coup de Main force a thorough understanding of the defences around the bridges. Amongst the details that Thérèse discovered was the precise location, in a pillbox housing machine-guns, for the trigger mechanism for the explosives which were to demolish Bénouville Bridge in the event of an attack. Georges Gondrée was known to British Intelligence, and even Major Howard had heard his name during the planning stages of the Invasion. The great contribution that the family made to the success of the operations around Bénouville is perhaps best demonstrated by the example of early May, when Generalfeldmarschall Rommel inspected the bridges and ordered that an anti-tank gun emplacement be established next to Bénouville Bridge. Within two days, Major Howard had been warned that some new structure was being built next to the Bridge, and within a week Georges Gondrée's observations had confirmed both its purpose and the completion of the position.
At 00:16 on the 6th June, the first glider of the Coup de Main force landed next to Bénouville Bridge. The Gondrée Family were asleep in their beds at this time, but were soon rudely awakened by the sound of explosions and a great deal of small-arms outside their home. Georges crawled to the window to see what was happening, a perfectly understandable reaction but a most unwise one in the midst of a battle taking place in darkness. He discovered this fact very soon after he dared to peer over the window ledge; his protruding head was spotted by Lieutenant Richard Smith who immediately fired several rounds from his Sten gun at the shape, fortunately Smith's aim was a little high and Georges was not hurt. Taking this very clear hint, Georges made no further attempt to see what was going on outside, but instead gathered his family together and headed for the shelter of the cellar.
Very soon the fighting began to die down and then ceased altogether. Thérèse urged Georges to go upstairs and discover what was happening. He later said "I am not a brave man, and I did not want to be shot, so I went upstairs on all fours and crawled to the first-floor window. There I heard talk outside but could not distinguish the words, so I pushed open the window and peeped out cautiously. I saw in front of the café two soldiers sitting near my petrol pump with a corpse between them." These were believed to be men of the 7th Parachute Battalion, who had arrived to take over the defence of the western bank of the Caen Canal. One of them asked Georges, in French, if he was a civilian. He assured him that he was, but as the soldier knew little French beyond this single question it was difficult for Georges to find out who they were. He could have spoken to them in English, but as he could not be sure that they were not Germans, it would have been most inadvisable to attempt it. Having made little progress, Georges decided to return to the cellar and wait until it was light.
At dawn the family were listening to the sounds of various voices outside. Georges was most encouraged to realise that the voices bore no similarity to and none of the authoritativeness that he associated with the German garrison, and he thought that he could detect some English amongst it. Thérèse listened to the voices and could not identity any German words. Very soon there came a knock at the door, and Georges immediately rushed to answer it, not wanting the soldiers to separate the door from its hinges if he did not arrive promptly. When he opened the door he found himself confronted by two paratroopers, wearing their distinctive Dennison smocks, their faces blackened with camouflage cream, and each holding Sten guns, still hot from firing. They spoke to him in French and asked if there were any Germans in the house. He said that there were not and led them inside to show him his wife and children in the cellar. When the two men spoke in English and used the phrase denoting the successful capture of the bridges, "Ham and Jam", Georges was at last certain that the day of liberation had come and he burst into tears of joy, whilst Thérèse embraced and kissed the paratroopers. She greeted all soldiers in a similar fashion for several days, resulting in her face being blackened with the camouflage cream, but she was too proud of her British liberators to clean it off.
Very soon the café was taken by the 7th Battalion to serve as their Headquarters and Regimental Aid Post. Georges disappeared into the garden to dig up no fewer than ninety-eight bottles of champagne that he had buried in June 1940, and very soon the scene was one of great celebration as free drinks were handed out to all and sundry. Upon hearing of this, Major Howard ordered all of his men to report sick at the Aid Post so that they could get their share of the drink. Georges continued to serve complimentary drinks to the 7th Battalion, the Coup de Main force and the arriving Commandos throughout the day. The kind hospitality offered to the British soldiers by the Gondrée Family continues to this day. Ever since, when veterans have returned to Normandy to mark the anniversary of the battle, no man of the 6th Airborne Division has had to pay for a drink at the café.
Georges Gondrée died on the 5th April 1969, Thérèse on the 2nd July 1984. A most distinguished couple, they were held in the highest regard by French civilians and British veterans. The ownership of the café and its close links with the British Airborne Forces have been maintained by their family.
My thanks to Françoise Gondrée, their youngest daughter, for her assistance with this account.
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