Fernand Lépinay is a friend of my grandparents who lives outside of the small town of Laigle in the rainy Orne department of Lower Normandy. In his own words, he lives “like an old bear in his den,” in a small house surrounded by an impeccably tended lawn and delicately pruned rose bushes. He was born in Laigle in 1925, and, at the age of 15, he saw his hometown invaded by Nazi armies. His account of the subsequent German occupation has been translated and edited for length and clarity.
Fernand Lépinay: In 1940, everyone made an exodus—after the Dutch, the Belgians, and the French, it was the Normans’ turn to hit the road. We stayed, not waiting for the Germans, not that we were waiting for them or anything like that, but they ended up arriving Sunday the 16th of June at Laigle. I know it all by heart, not that I’ve recited it time after time, but I lived it. I was a kid, and you know, you remember. Events like this never fade.
I had to go down to mass and shots started, you know, popping, or as I later learned to say, sporadic gunfire. The Germans were coming in on the road from Rugles, while I was going down towards the church to get bread. I passed the Cygne Bridge; troops were packed in front if it tighter than at the market in the morning. And me, I was just a little guy, I walked by, minding my own business. I ran into the priest, Father Girard, who we called the doyen [elder], the only notable person who had stayed at Laigle. The mayor and everyone else had gone. I told him, “The Germans are at the Cygne Bridge.” He went over there, I got bread, I went home, I didn’t see the doyen again.
Half an hour later, the park around La Boissière, the big house where my parents worked as caretakers, had filled up while I was gone. There were a bunch of soldiers—in the greenery, damn right they were having a ball, just lazing around.
And they wanted to go in, and we weren’t about to protest, we had the keys, we opened, and you know, they were exquisitely polite—taking care to step aside and let me go through every door first. Of course, this was because behind doors, sometimes you can find surprises. You learn those things, and it comes in handy because you find yourself doing the very same thing later.
So then they occupied the big house. At the time, there was basically no electricity around, so no running water. Near the castle, there was a very deep well with a submerged pump and no electricity. So there was a Fritz—yeah, I’ll call them Fritzes [equivalent of Jerries], the hell do they care?—who asked me for water. He had a canteen and asked me for water. So I point him to the fishpond with its lovely layer of green scum…to put it politely, I thought I was going to get his canteen right in the face.
In October, November 1940, the Occupation was really put in place. Laigle was pretty tightly controlled throughout the whole era. There were the big mansions, like La Boissière and many others, and then they had placed people in houses they considered under-occupied. I had quite a surprise when walking around of seeing two German soldiers who were occupying my brother’s house. They were normal people, they weren’t there to beat up on people, you know what I mean, they were just enlisted men.
The Occupation also brought a number of prohibitions: there was a curfew at night, and gatherings were illegal. In terms of food supply, rationing was introduced. Then the black market was happening. I wasn’t really part of it, but everyone did what they could to manage. When we knew a butcher was slaughtering on the sly, we all tried to get in on it. That was the state of things. There were black market butchers who lived off that without much of a profit and then there were those who really took advantage of the situation.
My parents’ employers didn’t live in La Boissière during the Occupation, but they had an Alsatian maid who stayed in the house for that whole time and…well…she lived it up. I don’t have a firsthand account, but our cellar was under the big house. We didn’t hang around much in there, but there were evenings where everyone was having a grand old time. And ladies from Laigle came there too. That’s the funny thing: I would see them around. Like everybody, they end up disappearing. There aren’t any I know anymore, but at the time, very lovely people, obviously. Life went on despite everything.
Emily Lever: When did you start to be involved in the Resistance?
FL: It wasn’t much, really. When the Americans invaded North Africa [Operation Torch] in November ’42, I was already sort of in the loop without having done much of anything. A good many comrades 2 or 3 years older than I had already gone over there. I was 17, so I didn’t go to the Maghreb. But I was already in contact with Resistance circles. And we wanted to do something without really knowing how to go about it. So after the North Africa landing, in ’42, there was someone in Laigle who was a little too chatty, who wore his opinions on his sleeve a little too much. He got lucky, because it didn’t result in his arrest. But I got into contact with him to ask him “is anything going on?” You know, when you’re 17…we were fired up. And things picked up afterwards, because a comrade who was a little older than me who’d had to leave his family had come back to the area from Bernay, not too far away—and he almost got snapped up by the Gestapo. His house overlooked the fields behind the rue des Jetées and he had the reflex—well at the time you needed to have reflexes or else you were screwed—to make a run for it. He lost them, and he came knocking on my parents’ door. We were friends, I knew what he was up to over in Bernay, so he knew that by knocking on my door he could get away from the Germans. And that’s how my belonging to the Resistance became more substantive. He was really in the know over there and in late April, early May ’44, because he was in the know, he asked me if I’d join a group of resistance fighters that operated between Bernay and Pont-Audemer. I left Laigle to join up with 3 or 4 other guys, including my friend’s cousin who had been drafted in ’39, people who knew the drill, if you know what I mean: there was another fellow who’d been in the International Brigades in Spain. I walked in there like a choirboy. Another was a Navy veteran. The cousin and the Navy man were both shot by German firing squads. There were six of us and two lost their lives.
We left for Pont-Audemer, and, a few miles in, we stopped at a little café run by a fellow who we’d been told about, the kind of guy with a pistol in his belt. I mean it was a hamlet in the middle of nowhere, and he was just trying to swagger. We’d learn later that he was a guy who had managed to infiltrate the maquis, and we had no choice but to get rid of him. There’s no getting around that. We had a trial, well, a pseudo-trial—everyone’s life was on the line.
At Fourmetot, we ran into some trouble. On the night of Sunday, June 4th, we were almost surrounded. We had people standing guard who saw some movements, some trucks and sidecars, that made us suppose an operation was coming. Our bosses assessed the situation, and we split. In military terms, we “disengaged.” The people I was with—and I take no credit for this—we didn’t know the terrain, but we were with people who knew it like their back pocket, and we managed to slip through the net, which was still loose at that point. Our leader knew the patrolling times by heart, and we ran in between patrols, boots hanging from our necks, tiptoeing in socks for those who had socks. There are several kilometers between Fourmetot and Pont-Audemer, and there are always people around. I still remember the leader of the maquis, Robert Leblanc, who said “if you can’t walk barefoot then go on back to your mom.”
Anyway, we made it out and didn’t find anything better as a place to crash than one of those big bourgeois houses in Pont-Audemer, one like La Boissière, but it was empty and we occupied it. Being used to wide open spaces, it was rough to find ourselves locked in there, blinds all closed, locked in there, but then on Monday evening we got communications letting us know D-Day was happening that night. So we were able to breathe. When we got back to Laigle, almost everyone was in the countryside and the Resistance was practically inexistent, especially since Romain Darchy, the head of the Resistance for the Orne, had been arrested, and the movement had been figuratively decapitated. Laigle was bombarded on June 7th, but I wasn’t there. And since the bombing didn’t have that precision, unlike on some occasions where it was neat as bespoke tailoring, and so we piled up rubble in the streets because the Germans had no bulldozers. It was a big help for the boys [the English and Americans]. German propaganda was quick to say “look at your English friends come to liberate you who’ve only brought grief,” and yes, it’s true that there were 120 people killed in Laigle. But there was no other way.
There was a stockpile of weapons moved to Saint Symphorien while I was away. I went to pick some of them up with a friend. To be honest, we didn’t end up using them much but they almost got us captured. On our way out of the farm we stumbled upon a German patrol on bicycles. We were on bicycles too. And then my friend gets a flat tire. The Fritzes laugh their asses off—they were on bikes just like us, so since it was us instead of them picking up whatever nails or debris were on the road, they had a laugh. And we try to laugh too, but no way we’re convincing. They would’ve wanted to know what we had in our bags, thinking they’d find a lump of sugar or butter…well, I had a grenade in my pocket. And there would’ve been enough to go around.
Three days later, the Nazi equestrian troops that were retreating from Falaise needed feed for their horses, stopped by the farm, and found the weapons in the hay. They shot that guy three days before the Liberation.
EL: What did you do after the Liberation?
FL: After the Liberation, I didn’t do too much dancing. I went back to Laigle with the English, but I didn’t join in the freedom festivities. Less than eight days later, I enlisted in the regular army with former FFI [French Forces of the Interior, the name for the unified Resistance forces] and others, who hadn’t participated in the least but who still enlisted once the Liberation took place. In September, I was in Alençon with the 2nd régiment de marche of Normandy. The boss was Commander Mazeline, the head of the Resistance for the Orne department. We had high hopes, but we were not deployed in the battle for France or in Germany. And that was a huge disappointment for us, and I still feel that 70 years after.
EL: Did you see a lot of former collaborators around after the war?
FL: At Laigle, there were two boys my age who were in the Legion of French Volunteers against bolshevism. One died in the ruins of Berlin, but the other, Bobo, came back and worked at a gun shop. He’d enlisted in the LVF to get his mother’s husband freed from POW camp. I mean, it was kind of laudable. Well, it was a little foolish to enlist for his father-in-law. I would have just said, so what? He’s going to be released soon anyway. But like everywhere, there were people in Laigle who collaborated. If they hadn’t snitched on anybody, I say, no harm done. There were no nooses hung at Laigle. I wasn’t even there for that, but I wouldn’t have taken part in that sort of thing. Because then you have to start with the waitress in a café who was nice to the German to get tips and go all the way to the Countess of Laigle, I mean, how many people would that be?
And Mrs. Loriot and her daughter ran the LVF office. They didn’t do much jail time. But in certain cases—not them; they were loyal servants—there were cases where the Resistance had decided to eliminate people who were in the LVF, who were just bad people, then the day before it was supposed to happen the Gestapo would come to arrest them because they were playing a double game. I mean, that was complicated.
Oh, here’s an important episode: my parents’ employer, Mr. Béni who lived at La Boissière, was a great man, a [World War I] veteran who had enlisted in ’40 even though he could very well have stayed by the fireplace. When he saw how the war was going, he had given his wife instructions. He’s brought back a weapon, like a paramilitary-type machine with a wooden case that had a sliding bracket where you could slide the butt of the gun into the case, and it turned into a rifle. It was a really beautiful piece. Mr. Béni was taken prisoner, but before that happened, he had told his wife to get rid of that weapon. When things went south in May-June of ’40, Mrs. Béni told my dad, take it for a swim. And my dad, who was a disciplined man, sent it for a swim. So I learned later that this had happened, and man, to let that thing gather rust while we were in dire straits for lack of guns…so I said to my father, where’d ya put it? And he’d thrown it in that very same pond that I’d told that Fritz to drink from! So my dad leads me there, I get up in that pond slime and find the piece—I took advantage of the Fritzes having left to go on this little fishing expedition. I find the piece, wipe it down, and it’s in mint condition in its wooden case.
The boss was let out along with the old and the infirm, and he didn’t come back to live in that house, but came up from Paris and knowing that he wasn’t a collaborator or anything of the kind, I showed him the gun and man, did he read me the riot act, like, “Are you crazy?” So after all that, I just didn’t offer to give it back! I put the thing back in my drawer, and a little while later I took it with me to Pont-Audemer. It was a 7.63 Mauser C69 service pistol. When I got to Fourmetot, I felt like I was the man with my gat.
EL: When did you fish the gun out?
FL: In ’41 or ’42.
EL: So you weren’t in the Resistance yet.
FL: The idea was seriously starting to tickle my fancy at that time.