Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, 10 am, Thursday 16th November 1944
The cell door crashed open, revealing Vogel in his immaculate SS uniform and I read my end in his arrogant smile.
A guard reached in, grabbing my arm, pulling me to my feet, pushing me down the corridor towards the door to the execution yard. I had watched others take this journey and knew it awaited me. Through the door the sky was a dome of frosty blue, winter sunshine splashing extravagantly onto the concrete walls, honeying their greys. A distant honking pulled my eyes to a pair of elegant geese, sailing above the north German plain towards the Baltic.
The guard stopped and I turned round in his grasp. Vogel stood motionless behind me, adjusting the set of his black uniform jacket which he deemed fractionally incorrect. His eyes flicked to the guard, motioning him away. Then his cold eyes found mine.
I stood in a strange calmness, yet a butterfly softly beat its wings in regret, somewhere below my heart.
“There will be retribution.”
I spoke a simple truth. Even here in Ravensbrück, news of the Nazi’s continuing defeats in both the east and west trickled in but it did not raise hope: hope required energy and we had none. Surviving each hungry, painful, limping day absorbed all our effort. But we knew an end approached, somewhere in the future.
Vogel’s lips narrowed to a thin smile, one sardonic eyebrow raised. “You think such a threat will save you?” He spoke excellent English.
I waited before replying, savouring another breath. “I am not trying to save myself.” I kept my voice even. “I’m trying to save you.”
I saw a flicker in his eye. A whisper of self-doubt, perhaps?
He stepped back and lifted his pistol from its holster, half-raising it towards me. “Enough. On your knees.”
How strange at this moment to recall the anger of Madame Joubert, my Maths teacher, when I giggled as she told me off.
“And if I don’t, what then?” I chuckled softly. “You’ll shoot me?” The same grim comedy filled this situation, even though the end of it … was my end.
His eyes narrowed.
I held his gaze, taunting him. “Is it difficult to shoot a woman who is staring into your eyes?”
His lips thinned, the pressure outlining them in white. As he stepped forward, the black circle of the pistol barrel grew towards me.
December 1939 – November 1940
When the war broke out, my English father insisted we move back to England. I heard the arguments through my bedroom wall. My mother wanted to stay; she could not countenance leaving her position teaching chemistry at the Sorbonne, her French family or her friends; but my father had re-joined the RAF and England represented safety for the people he most loved.
In the last war, Paris remained free – moving to England for this war seemed unnecessary. I wanted to stay in Paris with all my friends, where I’d spent most of my life. My mother’s older sister, and her five children, my cousins, lived in Normandy where I’d spent summer holidays. We’d also visited England of course, staying with my English grandparents on the outskirts of the New Forest west of Southampton, but France – Paris – was my home.
My wishes and those of my mother counted for nought: we left Paris in mid-December 1939, just after my eighteenth birthday. Mother and I went straight to my grandparent’s house in Lyndhurst leaving father in London.
My grandparents made us welcome and father joined us for two days at Christmas, rather dashing in his uniform with the droopy RAF wings on his chest, a Squadron Leader’s rings on his sleeves. He assured everyone – but principally my mother – that he expected to be posted to a squadron as Intelligence officer or something like that and would not fly operations.
Granny Roberts volunteered with the local Red Cross, helping sort out and care for the children evacuated from London. She scooped us up to help with this and I passed the rest of the winter caring for a group of children from poor East End families. France has poor families, but not on the boulevards of Paris and my grandparents’ middle-class world had cocooned me during my visits to England.
These dislocated, scared youngsters from London’s east end taught me some realities of life. Torn away from London, their homes and the people they knew, their world had been shattered. As spring started to bud in gardens and the nearby New Forest, most of the children settled into the countryside life, but a few remained distraught at the cataclysmic change evacuation had brought. Some of the older children asked about returning to London as the war seemed a non-event, with none of the much-feared bombing of cities.
A group of disturbed and restless children of varying ages coalesced around me – perhaps because of my youth, diminutive stature and exotic French accent, signalling that, like them, I belonged elsewhere. They brought me their troubles; I listened and we hugged, sharing fears and tears. A quiet April blossomed into an unwarlike May and the push to return to London became louder.
One morning, I took my group of misfits on a walk into the fields and hedgerows, playing a game with them – they named what we saw and I taught them the French word which they had to remember and say when they saw it again – blackbird: merle, sheep: mouton. As children of the city, many lacked the English names for what we saw and I had to provide those as well – hawthorne: aubépine. We picnicked, eating our sandwiches in the dappled shade of a large oak growing in a hedgerow. When we returned to the Red Cross centre, drawn faces and rising tension greeted us.
Panzers were rolling across France and the low countries.
Through the next weeks, we watched in disbelief as France disintegrated and surrendered. My mother came close to collapse as the Wehrmacht swept through our country. Even the miracle of Dunkirk failed to raise our spirits as the unthinkable became a reality: England was next.
This terrifying, existential threat brought great unity of purpose to the country and clarified my thoughts; young and fit, I could contribute so much more than rambling through the fields with a group of evacuees.
I owed France for my happy years of childhood; I was honour bound to repay that debt.
I asked my father about joining the WAAFs – the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Two weeks later, having stretched to meet the minimum height requirement, I boarded a train to the WAAF training base at Harrogate.
Father had told me that since February, everyone entered the WAAFs at the bottom. This threw together people from all walks of life in basic training – and my education about the real world that started thanks to the East End children continued. I slept in a barrack room with eleven other women – all older than me. I’d never shared a room before and viewed the others in my barrack room nervously. My embarrassment peaked when ordered to strip to my panties while male doctors prodded and stared at me. But my shyness evaporated over the weeks of basic and by the end, I wandered around in undies in the barrack room like everyone else, thinking nothing of it.
In the last week of basic, they listed the jobs open to us, but made it clear that what we wanted counted for nothing against what the country needed. With no real idea about any of the jobs, I thought being a Met Observer, watching and recording the weather, sounded interesting, so I selected that. True to form for the armed forces, which usually confounded the desires of its members, I found myself training as an RDF operator, watching the skies for incoming enemy aircraft. The first thing we learned was that RDF stood for Range and Direction Finding – later called radar – and that it was top secret.
We were reminded about the Official Secrets Act we had signed on joining up.
I took to this specialist training: it piqued my interest and suited my unconventional science background, courtesy of my mother; perhaps the RAF understood me better than I knew myself. Our group of girls worked hard but wanted some fun as well. Our world might end tomorrow and that loosened restraints. The officers watched us closely and suspected every man of harbouring nefarious intent. But as those officers, too, wanted some diversion, we found ways to skirt round them, sneaking off to the local pub and once into town for a dance.
Churchill named the existential conflict in the sky the Battle of Britain. A daily, furious battle raged in the southern skies throughout our training. News filtered through that the Luftwaffe had bombed RDF stations and killed WAAFs, which gave us pause for thought. When a couple of trainees ‘washed out’ having failed the same test twice, I put my head down and fully applied myself.
We all wanted to work in the thick of it, in one of the RDF stations along the south coast where the big raids were coming in, but at the end of the course the RAF posted me to a place we had never heard of – Nether Button on the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. Inevitably, one of my compatriot trainees rudely dubbed it Nether Bottom. I wondered if that’s what the people stationed there called it.
Just getting to Nether Bottom ... er Button ... proved quite an adventure involving two days and nights, multiple trains and a ferry. I arrived there at the beginning of September, with the Battle of Britain still raging down south. Nether Button proved to be the RDF station and a pair of nearby crofters’ cottages located about five miles south of Kirkwall, my port of arrival. We stayed in billets in Kirkwall. The RDF station fell under the command of RAF Kirkwall, currently host to a squadron of Hurricanes, but we never saw the station commander. Squadrons rotated through the airfield from the south, each getting a brief respite from the intense fighting while training replacement pilots with great urgency.
The RDF station never closed, its sleepless eye sweeping out across the North Sea towards Norway, enemy territory since April. We worked two four-hour shifts a day in a rotating three-day pattern that nominally provided us with a day off every ten days. But with sickness, transfers and people on occasional leave, shifts varied. Each day we checked the roster before leaving the station for the cold and draughty ride to Kirkwall in the back of a truck and set our alarm clocks for the following shift once we got to our digs.
At the start of the battle, the Luftwaffe sent unescorted bombers on daylight raids from Norway – but guided by our RDF, the fighters mauled them severely. They now only tried that at night. We found this frustrating: we watched them approach on the screens that showed us their position and height. From that we reported the track, altitude and the probable number of aircraft, but the RAF had no night fighters early in the war so the Boche carried on unopposed into England and Scotland until their returns faded from our screens. We’d track them again as they flew home having bombed their targets, the ghostly returns mocking our inability to engage.
News from the south suggested our boys were beating the Luftwaffe when they tried big daylight raids against London. But Nether Button stayed quiet and boring, untouched by that drama. This continued as late summer drifted into autumn and then winter, despite the Blitz visiting its night-time horrors on British cities.
Although I spoke excellent English, people noticed my French accent. One grey and windy November morning as I arrived, Sergeant June Ackers (inevitably called ‘Ack-Ack’, but never to her face) waved at me. “What have you done now, Colette? Flight Officer Marten wants to see you, pronto.”
I made my best ‘don’t know’ face, hung up my greatcoat and checked myself in the mirror by the door (Marten was a stickler for this – ‘My WAAFs must be properly dressed at all times’). Walking through the hut to our CO’s office, I tried to work out what I’d done wrong but failed to remember anything. Nervous butterflies started up in my stomach. I knocked on the open door and waited.
Flight Officer Marten lifted her head from the papers on her desk. “Come in Roberts. Please shut the door and sit down.”
As I sat, the butterflies multiplied their numbers to wing strength, all running up their engines in my stomach.
Why behind closed doors? Had something happened to my father?
F/O Marten picked up a file and flipped through several pages.
“You were born in France, Roberts?”
I blinked, confused, as I expected a reprimand or bad news. “Er … No, Ma’am. Here in England – in London.”
Are they going to kick me out because I’m not English? Heaps of foreigners serve in the RAF – including lots of pilots…
“I’m sorry Roberts – but you are French, aren’t you?”
I thought for a moment, disoriented by the direction of her questions. “I’m not sure, Ma’am – I might be both French and English. My passport’s British though.”
The CO’s face crinkled in confusion, so I rushed on. “My father’s English but my mother’s French. We lived in Paris from before my second birthday – I think – until last December. My parents met when my father flew scouts … er … fighters in the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War.”
“Hmm.” She consulted the file again and then put it on her desk. “You speak French, then?”
How did she think I managed in Paris for 16 years?
I stifled the sarcastic response. “Yes, Ma’am.”
She picked up the file on her desk and scanned a page, a frown forming on her forehead. “Well, it seems we need people who speak French.” Her eyes narrowed, assessing me. “Are you interested?”
I blinked, trying to get a grip on this. “They don’t say why they want French speakers?”
F/O Marten’s eyes flicked down to the paper in the file. “No, they don’t. But if this interests you, they want to interview you.” She smiled. “In London.”
Yes. I might get a free trip to London out of this. Get to spend time with my father, perhaps wangle a trip to visit mother in Lyndhurst.
My commanding officer saw me stir at that and frowned. “Well, you’re doing well at your job, Roberts, and I don’t want to lose you. But … if it’s in the best interests of the country, I’d have let you go.”
I glowed inside at her praise. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“You want me to put your name forward then?”
“Yes, please, Ma’am. If it turns out that they don’t want me, I’ll come back here.”
F/O Marten nodded. “Get back to work, then.”
Nothing happened for a week – except a huge storm that grounded all planes, ours and theirs, for a couple of days.
The afternoon flying resumed was spent staring at a few friendly blips on the RDF screen. At the end of my stint, I stood massaging my aching neck. “There’s nothing happening, Betty,” I told my relief, rubbing my ears, now free of the heavy headphones, and rotating my head to relieve the tension in my neck. “There’s a couple of Spits up from Kirkwall and that’s all.”
She slipped into the seat and put on the headphones. “Okay.”
I stepped away from the set and stretched, still working my neck to relieve the kinks.
Time for a tea.
The complete lack of drinkable coffee no longer disappointed me. I headed towards the kitchen but the F/O intercepted me.
“Ah, Roberts. Step into my office for a minute, please.”
I followed her down the corridor into her office. “Shut the door, please and sit down.”
Here we go again …
She sat at her desk and picked up a file. “It seems we’re losing you after all.”
“Er … yes, Ma’am?”
“You’re being transferred to a station down south. You’re to report to a Flight Lieutenant James at this address in London to pick up further orders.” She scowled down at the file. “This is a bit irregular, but that’s what the orders say.”
“Here’s your orders and a travel warrant. I suggest you get packed this evening and head out on tomorrow morning’s ferry.”
I took the proffered papers and, with a sigh, she picked up another file.
“I’ve now got to rearrange the shifts – yet again – to cover for your absence.” She glanced up. “Off you go, then.” Her voice betrayed resignation at this task.
Back outside, I met Sergeant Ackers in the kitchen. “I’m being transferred, Sarge.”
“Oh yeah.” She tilted an eyebrow at me. “Where to, you lucky girl?”
I shrugged. “Down south somewhere. I’m to report to some office in London to pick up the details.”
“Really?” Sergeant Ackers sounded doubtful. “That’s a bit unusual.”
“The boss said that too.” I thought for a moment. “Something about security, I suppose.”
She laughed. “They’re worried that Adolf might win the war if he finds out where you’re going?”
“Of course.” I joined her in laughing.
“Sorry to be losing you, Colette.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re heading off tomorrow?”
She glanced at the wall clock. “You’re back on in half-an-hour for your final shift. Don’t screw it up.”
“No, Sarge.” You needed to keep your wits about you on this job.
The rumour mill worked in high gear and by shift’s end everyone in the watch knew about my transfer. A bit of a crowd gathered round me once we’d handed over. They congratulated me and called for drinks at the pub.