Sunday, March 31, 2024

May 1946: My grandparents' first car? - a Fiat Simca 5

My grandparents didn't own a car before WW2 started, and they didn't have one during the war, either.  But, after the war ended, my grandfather started working for the French government, helping to rebuild France, and they provided him with a car for use in his job. It was probably this car:

Source: Par Pantoine — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 2.5 

Ok, I probably shouldn't say it was their car, as they didn't own it, but the family photos below give me reason to believe they were allowed to use it for personal use, to visit Grandpa's father and stepmother in Belgium.  

He told me about the car in 1988 when I recorded his oral testimony about the war:

Arthur: The administration of France was restarting as an independent country, and we were a section of the department of rebuilding France. I became a, not a civil servant, but a temporary agent of the Ministry of Urbaine. Urbanism and reconstruction. You know what is urbanism do you?     

Me: City.

Arthur: City, yes. Designing cities. And so I work as a, in charge of the city of Valence, of this as an agent of the ministry.

Arthur: Yes. I got a car and gasoline coupons. You say coupons [pronounced: “cue-pons”] or coupons [pronounced: “coo-pons”] ? How you say?

Me: Either one.

Arthur: I … gasoline coupons, in large numbers. Well, France was a country in a complete mess after the war. Gasoline was nearly in-existant and Roma could exchange those gasoline coupons against a lot of food and shoes and I don’t know what else. That’s the way it worked over there. And, ah … But I have a car, and to drive to the mountains, to take care of the workers. 

He mentioned the car again when he told me about my mom's birth:

     And the car I had, which was not mine, I was given because of the reconstruction, and used it as much as I wanted. It was difficult to start in cold weather. So every couple of hours, I went down and walked half a mile to where my car was parked in a porte cochère [carport], and started the car, heated the engine for five minutes, and go back ... So when it became apparent she was supposed to go to the hospital, I went and got the car and drove her to the hospital, and Paul remained with Lillian who was at the time, well, five-and-three quarter. 

I didn't think much about the car, until I was re-reading my Aunt Lilly's autobiography Across the Ocean Bars which she wrote for school when she was 15:

     During September 1945 we moved to Valence, a city of 50,000 inhabitants. Are (sic) home was a tiny apartment and through good fortune we obtained a car or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Our car was a two passenger vehicle named the “Simca Cinq.”

With a bit of digging (and the help of my historian friend in France), I found out that she was referring to a Simca 5, and she was right that it was a two-seater, and it is absolutely adorable car:  

Par Arnaud 25 — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0

Source: Par Arnaud 25 — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0

Then, I remembered there were a couple of photos that included a car in the photo album:

May 1946, Antwerp, Belgium
L-R, Arthur and Roma Lubinski,
Felicie Turska, Lillian Lubinski (on car)

Note: I know the probable date and location from clues on other photographs.

Looking at the front of the Simca 5, it's clearly the same kind of car shown in the family photos. But ... it had no back seat! And the photos were taken in Antwerp, Belgium ... which means my grandparents drove about nine hours from Valence, France to Antwerp (about 850 km/528 miles) with their two children (my mother would have been about 5 months old at the time) all crammed into this tiny car!  

I do wonder when Arthur learned to drive, though.

L-R: Lillian, Roma, Arthur
May 1946, Antwerp, Belgium

L-R: Lillian and Roma Lubinski
May 1946, Antwerp Belgium. 
This is the photo that allowed me to identify
that it was 1946 (not '47) and Antwerp - it's written on the back.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

July 1944: Arthur witnesses the destruction of an airfield (variations on a theme)

The Chabeuil Airfield was an outright thorn in the sides of the Maquis. The German Luftwaffe used it to send gliders full of soldiers to the Vercors plateau and to bomb the towns there. 

Heinkel 111z towing two Gotha 242 gliders. 
Gliders like these carried German troops to the Vercors Massif, to Vassieux in particular.

It was only a 5-10 minute flight from the Vercors massif, and the flight path went right over where my grandfather was stationed during the summer of 1944.

Note the Vercors Massif (dark green on the right)
The Chabeuil Airfield was less than 20 km/12 miles away

The Resistance made multiple requests that the Allies destroy it, and eventually, they did (but not before bombing the wrong airfield ... twice!).  In this case, I have descriptions from many places, including verified historical sources.

Arthur wrote in 1974 (and I love both his poetic description and that he admitted to disobeying orders):

    One day at noon, once more we heard planes above. But their roar was different, more powerful, more singing, more friendly. In spite of orders we were all out at once to see a squadron of two-engine silver planes, with stars, flying overhead and then diving toward the plain below.  Shortly after, a violent bombing and gun fire could be heard at the distance from the direction of the airfield and then – everything became silence. Never again German planes came back. 

    Twelve hours later at midnight a squadron of RAF night bombers appeared and we all run, as far as one mile, to the edge of the high plateau and we saw from there the most beautiful fireworks I ever could dream. Parachutes with magnesium white and color burning lights were slowly dropping down amid German flak bursting around. Then a new wave of invisible airplanes roared in the black sky, powerful bombs exploded starting many fires which very soon shrouded the airport at the distance in a red and orange mist.

        The enemy air power was over, but we could not enjoy it very long.

Dr. Michel Planas in 1955:

I am in charge of a liaison mission at the end of the afternoon and arrive at the KIRSCH cantonment on the plateau to attend the bombardment of the Chabeuil aerodrome by the English air force. It was a huge fireworks display for a national holiday.

I believe Dr. Planas was mistaken about the date (he wrote that it coincided with Bastille Day/Fête Nationale on July 14). While it was possible that the airfield was bombed then - it was a target on multiple occasions - I cannot find outside evidence that the airfield was bombed that day, and other historical sources state that the bombing occurred later. The description of it as a fireworks display matches other sources that place it on the 24th-25th of July.

Michael Pearson wrote in his book Tears of Glory in 1979:

At last, after all these repeated pleas, the Allies have gotten around to bombing Chabeuil!  At last they had found the correct airfield! The raid destroyed or damaged 30 German aircraft on the ground – some of the planes, no doubt, that had caused so much havoc among the troops on the plateau. Like so many of the events connected with the Vercors, it was useless because it came too late.

It's worth noting that my grandfather did not agree with Pearson about it being a useless gesture, nor too late (possibly because Grandpa was one of the survivors of the air raids).

The Museum of the Resistance Online is somewhat more clinical:

07/24/1944: At 11:29 a.m., 70 American planes flying at 3,000 meters dropped 3,000 kg of 10 kg bombs. One in five bombs does not explode. They did not destroy any planes from Chabeuil but killed around fifty French people in Chabeuil, Malissard and Valence; there were 27 dead, 56 injured, 10 buildings destroyed or damaged.

07/25/1944: At night. Two hundred bombs were dropped on Chabeuil during a second bombardment and caused significant damage to the airfield and its annexes, numerous injuries but no deaths.


Monday, March 25, 2024

August 1944: Arthur and Michel meet the American Army (variations on a theme)

 Another example where Grandpa Arthur's story matches that of Dr. Michel Planas's. They both agree that on August 21, 1944, they met the American army as it attempted to prevent the German retreat:

Michel was very matter-of-fact:

We leave in a vehicle lent by the battalion and after the crossroads of La Croix in ROMANS on the RN 538 we see, before VAUNAVEYS, the first American elements, part of a platoon of PATTON tanks lined up along the road. We stop to greet them and fraternize. They fill us with food, cigarettes and give us two jerry cans of petrol. --1955

Grandpa was a bit more excited about it:

A few more days elapsed and the moment came which for ever will vividly remain in my memory. The 4th Company was marching North in an open highway. Two long lines of FFI were moving Indian-style on the two shoulders of the highway. On the pavement moving in opposite direction hurried jeeps and trucks and tanks. In endless white-star vehicles young American soldiers kept waving and smiling to us.  I felt elated. Years-long dream was finally becoming true. Somebody came to relieve me in carrying the heavy automatic rifle. Every one of us was supposed to carry it for 15 minutes, but I refused because this time I did not feel its load on my shoulders. --1974 

     Then I remember when we were walking along a highway, already on the plain below the mountains, and we were walking on two sides of the highway, and we have one heavy machine gun, which was very heavy to carry; it was not made to be carried by a man. So we carried it, for five minutes each person of the resistance, of the FFIs – changed themselves. 

     In the middle of the highway were driving American jeeps, American tanks, and American trucks and I felt a fantastic elation, to such an extent that I didn’t feel the extremely heavy load of the machine gun. Not a submachine gun, but a heavy, huge machine gun. Extremely elated after years and years of dreams. It became suddenly true. --1988


July 1944: Operation Cadillac and the Daylight Airdrops (variations on a theme)

"Parachutings of July 14, 1944 on Vassieux"

Up until mid-July 1944, the Allies always dropped parachuted supplies to the resistance at night so that the maquis could locate the drops and get the payloads and parachutes squared away before daylight. This was important because if the parachutes were left in place, they were visible from the air, and that would tell the Nazis that there was resistance activity in the area.

But on the French national holiday (AKA Fête nationale française in France, Bastille Day outside of France) on July 14, 1944, the Allies dropped hundreds and hundreds of airdropped payloads, during the day. And instead of the usual white parachutes, they were in the national colors of France, and it is sometimes referred to as "parachutage tricolore."  It was simultaneously a massive middle finger to the occupying Nazis but also a joyous moment for the exhausted French.

Bastille Day functions similarly to Independence Day (July 4) in the United States or Canada Day (July 1) for our northern neighbors. Now imagine a friendly foreign country dropping desperately needed supplies using parachutes in its national colors.

Because France shares its national colors with the United States, it makes it much easier for me to imagine a sky filled with hundreds and hundreds of red, white, or blue parachutes, all being dropped on the 4th of July.  Damn. I try to imagine it, and I feel my emotions well up, joy but also pain because, with historical hindsight, I know Nazi Germany retaliated by invading the Vercors, burning towns, massacring civilians, and executing any maquisards they found.

Here is how Dr. Michel Planas described it in 1955:

    We see the 72 flying fortresses pass on their way to VASSIEUX to make the spectacular daylight parachute drop which will trigger the bombardments of the Vercors and the attacks against the whole of the massif.

Here is how my grandfather described it:

    14th of July. Bastille Day. National Holiday. In the morning a strange, powerful, singing noise could be heard on the sky. Looking upward we could see hundreds of American Flying Fortresses shining in the sunshine. The first time Allied airplanes fly in the daytime above our mountains ... Later I knew that they performed the largest parachuting of material in this area of the entire war. 


     Well, in any event, on July 14th … July 4th is the holiday in America. July 14th is the holiday in France; it’s the Bastille day, the day during the French Revolution – which was about the same time as the American Revolution – the French took the Bastille prison in Paris.  

    In the Bastille jail, people were imprisoned and the world forgot about them. They were not told why they were imprisoned; they didn’t go through any trial; they didn’t have access to any lawyer. They just … [CBW: flaw in tape destroyed a few seconds of the story] … oubliette. Oublier means forget. People who are forgotten. Well, in the 14th of July, the French Revolutionaries – people, not any army – took the Bastille, freed all them, and since that day, the 14th of July, Bastille Day is the French national holiday. 

     And on July 14th, 1944, we saw at about eleven o’clock a large number of American super fortresses flying very high; but a large number of them. I forgot; maybe it is in the book. Maybe seventy of them. I don’t know how many, flying over the mountains, the first time parachuting, parachuting in great masses on the plateau of Vercors, in daytime. 

    Well … [sound: laugh] this created a great enthusiasm, but the Germans reacted immediately and they attacked the Vercors plateau.



Summer 1944: Arthur summarizes the news for his Maquis unit (variations on a theme)

Here is a particularly exciting (and rare) research event: My grandfather describes the same event on more than one occasion (in 1944, 1974, and 1988) ...

Headphones on, pencil in hand, he quickly takes a few notes by the flickering light of a candle. A few minutes later he announces the latest news: "No message concerning us - Rus [Russian] advance of 40 km in 24 hours in the Bialystok sector. - One thousand American bombers attacked German fuel resources. - Enemy counter-attacks repulsed by British south-west of Caen, etc...".

-- Arthur Lubinski, 1944

In the farm kitchen and later in the woods and mountains, if only bombs were not dropping and bullets were not buzzing, the writer listened a few hours a day to the broadcastings of the B.B.C., British Broadcasting Corporation.  He used to write news bulletins and place them on bulletin board. These news from various battle fronts were sometimes exciting, giving a lot of hope for a fast liberation. Sometimes they were disheartening; why the beachhead did not enlarge since a whole week? Shall we spend a winter snowbound in the mountains?

--Arthur Lubinski, 1974

The radio operator, I was listening to personal messages and for news from the world, and once a day I had to give them a … summary of what happened on the front of Normandy – in the world – because I was listening all the time.

-- Arthur Lubinski, 1988

... AND someone else describes my grandfather by name as he reads the daily news summary to the maquis unit.

Each day, the summary of the communiqués received on a biscuit post [radio] by LUBINSTKI (sic) was read at the Company gathering where the instructions of the day were transmitted.
--Dr. Michel Planas, 1955


June 1944: Arthur and Michel and the battle of La Rochette (variations on a theme)

Here is another account where Michel Planas's story and my grandfather's story match, both in the date and in some of the details. Interestingly, on the previous day, both men were away from their HQ in Ourches (Michel to run some errands for the unit and my grandfather because he was on leave), and returned on June 28th to mayhem:

    Arriving at OURCHES [on June 28] we find the Company in turmoil.

    The advanced guard posts signal the presence of a column of 17 vehicles parked on the RN 538 near the crossroads leading to Upie.

    Some of the occupants of the trucks moved in our direction while some of the leading vehicles continued on their way towards ROCHETTE to attack the neighboring Company of Roger MAISONNY. 

    A few minutes later, a HEINKEL 111 came out from the north, parallel to our positions, machine-gunned and dropped a few anti-personnel bombs on the first line of hills after the village of OURCHES.

--Dr. Michel Planas, 1955

    Before dawn [June 28] I was on my way back and soon after the sun rose I saw four planes flying South above the foothills and a few minutes later a sound of bombing could be heard. Then at intervals, other planes flew over the mountains and bombed. I could not see which was the bombed valley and did not know whether our company was involved, but I felt sorry being far from my comrades and I hastened my steps.  Finally, a few hours later, I was back and found the entire company in advanced positions behind a ridge blocking the valley. I was told to listen to the radio for a few minutes only and then join everybody with grenades and my submachine gun. A battle was raging behind a mountain in La Rochette valley which was parallel to the Ourches valley in which we stayed. Airplanes flew forth and back pouring loads of bombs over the men of the company that stayed in La Rochette Valley. Artillery guns shot toward La Rochette from the plains below, rifle and machine gun fire could be heard at intervals.

    After an hour or so, airplanes started flowing above our valley and bomb our own positions. Hiding against rocks and in holes, nobody was hurt. In such a terrain only a direct hit could hurt. But it was impressive and frightsome. Before a bombing the engine roar was growing noisier and noisier. Then low flying planes were appearing from above the hills. Small, perhaps 15 years old, single engine double wing airplanes would be obsolete and useless against any other enemy that air defenseless maquis. Then, before the planes were above us, 3 or 4 small, 100 lb bombs could be seen leaving each plane and moving along trajectories toward us.  Every one ducked in, closed his eyes. A powerful, ears-bursting blast from a bomb which hit perhaps 10 feet away rising a cloud of dust.

    After some time the calm came back again. The battle in La Rochette valley came to an end. 
--Arthur Lubinski, 1974


Ice Cream Recipe Review: David Lebovitz's Vanilla Ice Cream, Philadelphia Style

“Vanilla Ice Cream, Philadelphia Style” on page 29 of The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz.

  • The online recipe can be found here
  • My other vanilla ice cream reviews can be found here.

This ice cream recipe doesn't have a sweet syrup, nor a texture agent, so I'm guessing it will freeze harder, and be less smooth.  It also doesn't have eggs, so it doesn't thicken prior to churning, which made it VERY easy and fast to get it into the churn.

I mostly followed the recipe as written, though I put all of the dairy in the saucepan (instead of reserving some), and brought the mixture to a full simmer.

The recipe calls for both a vanilla bean and vanilla extract, so the vanilla flavor is nice and strong.  When I develop my own recipe, I'm planning to use both.

 I prefer vanilla beans from Vanilla Bean Kings which are by far my favorites, but I needed to use up old stock, and so used a vanilla bean from Penzey's (which was perfectly fine). I also used Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract which merely OK (it's better than most regular grocery-store brands, but I've since found much better extracts) so I'm trying to use it up too.

The flavor out of the churn was very good, but it was less complex than I'd like and definitely less rich (I really do prefer egg-based custards for vanilla ice cream), and I think Jeni's vanilla recipe is a better egg-free vanilla).  I think the lack of cooking (other recipes call for boiling the dairy, sometimes for as long as 4 minutes) means less caramelization of the milk sugars or something.

Substitutions and Techniques:

  • Turbinado sugar instead of white sugar (always) as I prefer the flavor.
  • I put all of the dairy (instead of just 1 cup of the cream) in the saucepan. I also brought it to a full simmer (instead of removing it from the heat as soon as the sugar is dissolved).


  • Same day: The soft-serve stage is smooth and the vanilla flavor is great, but the flavor is thinner somehow, and less rich even than other eggless custards.  I wonder if the lack of cooking caused this?
  • Next day: I definitely prefer the strong vanilla flavor that this recipe provides. However, the texture is definitely not as smooth as other recipes I've tried, both with or without eggs. It's even slightly icy.  Thus far, this is my least favorite philly-style vanilla.


  • I turned the ice cream into chocolate-chip raspberry ripple ice cream by stirring homemade chocolate chips (do NOT use plain old chocolate chips - they will be hard, waxy, and flavorless because they are not intended for ice cream) into the ice cream, and then when I packed the freshly churned ice cream before putting it into the freezer, I alternated layers of raspberry ripple (Jeni's recipe) with the chocolate-chip ice cream. 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Ice Cream: The right kind of chocolate chips

 Chocolate chips for ice cream (adapted from Dana Cree's recipe):

You don't want to use regular chocolate chips in ice cream, not even mini chips, because they will be hard, flavorless, and waxy in your ice cream. The problem is that chocolate chips are formulated to melt at a relatively high temperature, which means when they are cold, or when your mouth is cold from eating ice cream, the flavor of the chocolate doesn't come through.

You need to lower the melting point of the chocolate by adding coconut oil. It's easy (but a little messy).  You want to use refined coconut oil (look for "expeller-pressed" or "refined" on the jar) so that it does not add coconut flavor to the chocolate. 

  • 16 ounces of good chocolate chips (your choice of white, milk, semi-sweet, or bittersweet)
  • 1/4 cup of coconut oil
  1. Place chocolate chips and coconut oil in a big glass measuring cup. 
  2. Place it in the microwave and give it a 20-second blast on high. Stir.  
  3. Alternate microwaving in 20-second increments and stirring, and as the chocolate gets close to melting, shorten the microwave times to 10 seconds. 
  4. When the chocolate is smooth and shiny, pour it onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and spread the chocolate into a fairly thin layer, no thicker than about 1/4 inch (6 mm).  
  5. Place in the freezer until hard (at least 2 hours or overnight). 
  6. Break the sheet of chocolate up, and keep the big chunks in the freezer while you prepare your work surface.
  7. Place a flexible cutting board (if you have one) on the cookie sheet (preferably one with tall sides to help contain any chunks of chocolate that go flying).  Or maybe work in a tall-sided roaster to help contain the chocolate.
  8. Take 1-2 chunks of chocolate out of the freezer, place them on the cutting board, and chop them up with a serrated knife.
  9. Transfer your chocolate chips into a second container, and keep that in the freezer as well.
  10. Repeat the previous two steps until all of the chocolate is processed.
When not being chopped up, the big chunks and the chips should be kept in the freezer, so you will be going in and out of the freezer frequently during this process.

It's messy - chocolate flies everywhere, and any that gets on your hands will melt.   But this amount makes enough very tasty chocolate chips to make at least 3-6 batches of ice cream.  

Added: I wonder if it's possible to make the chocolate chips even more melty, perhaps by adding more coconut oil?  I worry that if I add too much, it will get funky.  But how much is too much?

Saturday, March 23, 2024

August 1944: Arthur and Michel feel explosions from 170 miles away (variations on a theme)

Here is an example where my grandfather's account, and Dr. Planas's account perfectly match.  On August 15, 1944, during Operation Dragoon, both men felt the explosions of the coastal artillery from about 270 kilometers (168 miles) away.

340mm/45 Modèle 1912 gun. 
The diameter of the projectile was more than 13" across.

        On August 15, we hear in the distance many roars of aircraft engines and in the calm of the atmosphere of a region where there were practically no trains or cars, we hear huge distant detonations. The message of 12:20 p.m. told us of the Allied landing and the detonations were those of naval guns and aerial bombardments. The days of August 16 and 17 unfold like a dream, in the constant comings and goings of liaisons with the Departmental C.P. [Command Post] and with neighboring units, the departure and arrival of patrols which monitored the movements of the enemy. --Dr. Michel Planas, 1955

I have heard the personal message on the radio and allied troops landed on the beaches of Southern France. This secondary episode for a Second World War historian, was for me the greatest, the most important fact, the one which undoubtedly saved my life.   All night heavy navy guns could be heard firing somewhere 150 miles to the South. But the deadly small firearms noise ceased in the mountains around and elated joy filled the survivors’ souls. --Arthur Lubinski, 1974

        A few days later, a week later, there was the landing, the subsidiary landing in southern France on the Mediterranean, in Fréjus, if I remember correctly, Fréjus. And we, in the mountains of Vercors heard the heavy navy guns. How many? One hundred sixty miles away. One hundred sixty miles away, and we heard over the mountains a booommmm, boommmmm of the heavy navy guns. Well, all right.  --Arthur Lubinski, 1988

To understand the distance, Arthur and Michel were in the vicinity of Châteaudouble, Drôme, France. The secondary landing in Operation Dragoon came from the Mediterranean, concentrating on the southeast portion of the French coast, adjacent to Italy, and yes, Grandpa did remember correctly, Fréjus was right in the middle of that area. Google Maps tells me that that is 270 km away.  For comparison, I show the actual locations on the French map, as well as two locations in the United States that are similar in distance.

Fréjus to Châteaudoble - about 270 km (168 miles)

Imagine being in Trenton, NJ, and being able to feel explosions in
Washington DC. Note Trenton's proximity to NYC. 

Still... being able to feel explosions from 170 miles away?  It's hard to imagine the size of the explosions and the guns that have that produce that kind of power.

Wiki tells me this about the German defenses during Operation Dragoon:

Along the coast, about 75 coastal guns of heavy and medium caliber were placed. Toulon was protected by a complex of heavy 340 millimeters (13 in) gun artillery batteries in mounted turrets. After their military take-over in November 1942, the Germans improved the coastal defense further by repairing damaged and outdated turrets, as well as moving in additional guns. This included the 340 millimeters (13 in) guns taken from the dismantled French battleship Provence.
These guns were massive:
  • Weight: 270 tons
  • Total length:  33.6 m (110 ft)
  • Barrel length: 15.3 m (50 ft)
  • Shell: Projectile plus charge combined: approximately 465 kg/1000 pounds. It used a separate projectile (about 700 pounds) and charge (bag of explosives weighing about 300 pounds).

340mm/45 Modèle 1912 gun converted to railway mount.

340mm/45 Modèle 1912 gun taken from the Battleship Provence,
and mounted on an existing turret along the French coast.
Note the soldier standing on the ground in front of the barrel.

340mm/45 Modèle 1912 guns when they were still aboard the Provence.

It was loaded with hoists or small cranes, and could fire a round every 30 seconds or so. The area behind the gun held about 8 rounds, so I think it could fire every 30 seconds for 4 minutes, before needing to be "re-loaded." If the hoists weren't working properly, a crew of eight men could manually work the hoists, and then it took seven minutes to load and fire it.

So ... yeah.  Hearing and feeling the guns 170 miles away? I think I believe it.


May 1944: Arthur gets an armband, and blows up a bridge (deleted chapter)

Sometimes when there are gaps in the research, an author has to make some guesses, and in this case, I guessed really, really wrong.  

At the time, I hadn't been able to find any info on where Grandpa's FFI unit got their armbands, so I made 3 guesses:

  1. I thought maybe they sewed them in-house. 
  2. Maybe their commanding officer, Dr. Jean Planas, designed the armband himself.  How cool would that be?
  3. Sometimes, I placed events (when I didn't know the date) to fill up thin parts of the novel, so I depicted the armbands in May, during the lead-up to D-Day.

Now, here's the real story about the armbands. Contrary to my previous assumptions, they weren't made in-house or designed by Dr. Jean Planas. In fact, there were two designs, one from London, and one from Algeria. Grandpa's armband is the Algerian design, and they were delivered to the FFI units several weeks after D-Day.  Some FFI units did resort to sewing their own armbands when there weren't enough to go around, but these were usually the simpler design that came from London. There's no evidence to suggest that Grandpa's unit was involved in this DIY armband production.

Source: Museum of the Resistance in Ligne
A pack of undistributed armbands packed for airdrop

I also am pretty sure that got Grandpa's role in the bridge-blowing mission wrong. It's true that the FFIs were tasked with causing chaos on D-Day by destroying bridges and cutting off communication lines. But did he personally participate in blowing up a bridge? 

Well, no, I really don't think he did.  He never said as much in his writings or oral testimony, and when he discussed it at all, he described it as being a task that his unit was responsible for, and nowhere does he say, "I blew up a bridge," or even, "I helped blow up a bridge."

But because I assumed he had, I wrote a chapter in which he did blow up a bridge.  

And when I read Dr. Michel Planas's history of their FFI unit, and read a bit more about D-Day, I realized I had also gotten the timing wrong—the bridge was destroyed on the night of June 5-6, 1944 (not in May).

Here's how Dr. Michel Planas described it in 1955, and I tend to think he got it right - the date makes sense, and while he wasn't present, his father and older brother were:

The Plan Vert had started on the night of June 5 to 6 ... Its objectives: RN 7 between FIANCEY and PORTES, the Voulte bridge.

A group commanded by my father assisted by Richard ... had left to adjust the explosive charges which would blow up the culvert of the PARIS-MARSEILLE railway line, a few tens of meters from the hamlet of LA PAILLASSE where there was a small German garrison...

While the group is at work, a German sentry guarding the railway approaches to piss against a haystack where four of ours were hidden to cover the plastic [explosive] handlers with their weapons. A 20-minute pencil [detonator] is set up and the group's return is uneventful.

Not only that, there is a story there.  Even though Michel wasn't there, he tells the story, and it feels ... personal, somehow.  My grandfather on the other hand, didn't include blowing up a bridge as part of a story.  There are no details that suggest that he was there:

I have omitted to write that on the 6th of June, the D-day, especially appointed groups blew up railroad bridges all over France. Our company blew up a bridge at Portes-lés-Valence. The traffic was stopped everywhere. After a few days, Germans repaired the damage. 
-- Yellow Legal Pad Stories, 1974


     I started working for the Secret Army just prior to January 1st, 1944. And the job consisted of blowing up bridges, and transformers feeding manufacturing plants which worked for the German armed forces, and the … And to the telephone lines, telegraph lines, etcetera. So it was one activity. 

     All right, so twenty-four hours before the landing, we got a personal message which was the same to ALL underground, all over France. We all understood this message, meaning that this message was a verse of a French poet, Verlaine … But the message meant: We are landing within the twenty four hours. They didn’t – we didn’t know where they would land. Pas-de-Calais, or elsewhere. But, the landing is imminent; will happen within 24 hours. 

     They let us know because the meaning for us was: sever ALL German communications, blow ALL the bridges, all the telephone lines, stop and engage German troops EVERYWHERE, so they couldn’t move for twenty … that’s why they let us know. 

--Oral Testimony, 1988

After I read Michel Planas's account, and then re-read Grandpa's stories, I realized that there was no evidence Arthur had taken part in bridge demolition, that I'd probably made an incorrect assumption.  So, I cut the chapter entirely.    But it was a fun chapter, so I'm re-printing it here in all its erroneous glory.

Also, this chapter was cut very early on and was never revised, and is little more than a rough-draft. 

Arthur gets an armband and blows up a bridge

--Mid May, 1944--

     On her next visit, Jeanne brought blue, white, red, and black fabric, buckles, thread, and a rubber stamp with ink. Arthur had been listening to the BBC to prepare his daily summary of the news when she arrived, but he heard her come in. She always brought interesting news, so he stood in the doorway of the office, with his headphones on, still listening, as he watched to see who she would talk to.  Usually, it was Dr. Planas, but sometimes it was Arthur.  

    This time, it was neither. Instead, she went to the company seamstress, whose workshop was in one end of the main room, just on the other side of the office wall. Jeanne spent a few minutes talking with the seamstress and the two men who knew how to sew as Dr. Planas looked on.  

    The seamstress sketched something on a piece of paper, pointed to it, and talked as Dr. Planas and the others listened. Dr. Planas nodded.  Then she took her tape measure and measured several men’s arms.

    They were making armbands.

    The seamstress got a straight edge and began making a pattern, which she cut out and handed to the two men, and they got to work cutting pieces of fabric.  When the pieces were cut, she started assembling them on the old treadle sewing machine.  The armband only took her a few minutes to make, and when she held it up for Dr. Planas’s final approval, Arthur could see that it was a small rectangle of fabric 20 or 25 centimeters long by about 10 centimeters tall.  One side was blue, the other was red, and separating them was a white diamond.  A black Cross of Lorraine was in the center of the diamond.  There were straps on each end. A small buckle was affixed to the end of one.  

    Dr. Planas smiled and nodded.  The men got started cutting many additional pieces, making hundreds of them this time, not just one

    The seamstress flipped the completed armband over, inked the rubber stamp, and stamped something on the back.  Then she handed it to Dr. Planas. He wrote something on the back, then strapped it to his left upper arm.  

    The American, General Eisenhower and his staff had gone on the BBC to explain that the armband was a uniform and that anyone caught wearing it should be treated as any other soldier.  But, their unit had heard through Jeanne and others returning home from leave, that the Germans and the Milice considered the Resistance to be civilians, and therefore terrorists. Instead of imprisoning them as prisoners of war, they were summarily executed.  Shot immediately.

    Should we have gone into hiding again?

    No. He wanted to fight rather than flee this time. He hoped that by fighting the Nazis, he helped raise Liliane’s and Roma’s and his own chances of surviving, that they might defeat the enemy before the enemy caught up with them.  Because the Germans — with their efficiency and cleverness and determination — would someday catch up with them. 

    Therefore, they needed to be defeated before that happened.  He finally understood why Paul joined the RAF. He hoped his brother was alive. It had been three years since he’d last heard from him.

    Three days later, Arthur got his own armband.  Someone had already written 2nd Battalion, 4th Company on the back, and he wrote his own codename “Biscuit” there as well.  

    Two things happened in the third week of May.  

    The first was that three non-commissioned officers from the French army joined their company. They had escaped from the prisoner of war camps, and joined the Resistance.  All such trained soldiers were being dispersed among the Resistance units, to help train the civilians to be soldiers as best they could. Now, Dr. Planas was no longer the only experienced soldier in their unit.  He set them to training the men, and leading the detachments that would soon be going out.

    The second thing that happened was that the Allies broadcast a message to Arthur’s company to put Plan Vert into effect, to disrupt the rail system. They needed to begin making it difficult for the Nazis to send troops to where the invasion was going to be.  Dr. Planas didn’t know where the invasion was going to be, but he guessed it would be in the north of France.  

    There was to be no airdrop that night, so Arthur and his team were assigned to be part of a detachment that would destroy a rail bridge near Valence.  

    The non-com, who was codenamed Puppy (Arthur decided it must have been an ironic decision) would be leading the mission, demonstrating how to use the plastic explosives.

    Puppy held up a long thin tube, a little thicker than a pencil. “This is a number ten pencil detonator.” He pointed to a package of putty sitting on a table nearby. “That is plastique.  It is very stable, and you do not need to handle it especially carefully.”

    “How do you use them?” André asked.

    “I’m getting to that.  First, affix the plastique to whatever you are going to blow up.  Next, you take the pencil detonator, and crush this end — there is a glass vial of acid inside — with pliers or stomp on it. That releases the acid, which begins corroding a wire holding back a striker.”

    “What kind of acid?” Arthur asked.

    “Cupric chloride,” he answered. “Check the inspection hole. If it’s unobstructed, remove the safety strip, jam the end of the detonator into the plastique, and get out.”

    “What happens? How does it work?” André asked.

    “When the wire breaks from the acid, it releases a spring-loaded striker, which hits the percussion cap and ignites it. That is what causes the explosion.”

    “How long do we have?” Arthur asked.

    Puppy held up a pack of the pencil detonators. “These cause an explosion in about 10 minutes.”

    “About?” André asked.

    “What if the inspection hole is obstructed?” Marcel said at the same time.

    “Yes, plus or minus a minute or perhaps two. The times aren’t exact and are influenced by temperatures and other conditions. Obstructed means the striker wire has already broken, and the striker is resting against the safety strip, obstructing the inspection hole. Discard it, and get another.”

    They hiked in silence to the bridge. When they got there, Puppy sent them to scout the area, ensuring there was no one nearby to interfere, then divided them into three groups. A group was assigned to each end of the bridge, and the third - comprised of men who could swim, were to set charges in the center of the bridge at the water line.  Arthur could swim, so he was assigned to the center group. Andre was going to set the charges just above the waterline.  They crept down the slope, to the water’s edge. 

    Arthur and André took off their boots and socks, tied them together, and hung them around their necks.  They waded out to the center of the bridge. Fortunately, the water was only waist-deep, and slow-moving.  

    Marcel and one other man remained on the side of the river, with their Stens at ready.

    “Where should I place this?” André whispered.

    “On this beam.” Arthur quietly smacked the beam in question. “It’s the main support.  Place it on the inside, so the blast can hopefully get the main support beam on the other side,” Arthur replied.  

    Arthur held the detonators while Andre placed the putty against the support beam and secured it with a cloth strap. Arthur whistled, and he heard Marcel repeat it. That told the other two teams to arm their explosives. They wanted the two on the ends to explode first, then the center one to go off just after. Arthur and André waited.  

    A moment later, Arthur heard a whistle.  “Now,” he whispered and handed André a detonator.

    Andre squeezed the end with pliers — they could hear the crunch of glass.  He then held it up so it was silhouetted against the crescent moon as he peered through the inspection hole.  “It’s good,” he muttered.  

    André jammed the business end of the detonator into the plastic, then wiggled the metal tube so that it was also held securely by the cloth strap.

    Arthur and André crept out of the river, and walked barefoot to a safe distance, then sat and put their boots back on.  The rest of the detachment joined them, and Puppy helped Arthur up.  

    The detachment walked along the river bottom until a bend in the river provided cover from the explosion.  

    Puppy glanced at his watch. “Let’s see if Biscuit the engineer picked the right support beam,” he said grinning.

    Arthur felt his eyebrows go up. “I didn’t pick the wrong one. But what would happen if I did?”

    “The blast weakens the supports and the bridge doesn’t collapse until a train is on it.” Puppy shrugged. “Either way, it’s a success.”

    “What if someone is aboard the train?” 

    “If German soldiers are aboard, all the better.”

    “What if there are civilians?” Arthur asked.

    “Collateral damage.” Puppy didn’t smile. 

    Arthur decided it was better to take the bridges down without harming anyone.  He didn’t care (much) if Wehrmacht soldiers died, but the idea of harming innocent people in a country that had sheltered him didn’t sit well.

    They stood waiting and those with watches watched the minute hands by moonlight. Arthur had to carefully tilt his watch to catch enough light to read it.  Eight minutes after Arthur waded from the river, the first charge exploded, followed very quickly by another.  One minute after that, the charge at the waterline exploded.  Arthur peaked around the bend and grinned when he saw the bridge collapse into the river.  He drew back when debris from the third explosion began raining down.  

    “That will take them some time to rebuild,” Puppy commented. “It should still be down whenever the Allies invade us.”

    They began the long hike back to headquarters, and Arthur smiled the whole way. Blowing up bridges was fun. 


Friday, March 22, 2024

Summer 1944: My grandfather appears in someone else's stories

    I grew up hearing many of my grandfather's WW2 stories, but in his stories, he was both the narrator and the main character, and they existed in a sort of context vacuum - I didn't know if or how his stories matched up with historical records.

    It's not that I didn't believe my grandfather - he was a scrupulously honest man, but ... how was I to write his stories, if I couldn't tie them to any sort of historical record?  Did his exploits exist in any stories outside of his own? Did he appear as a character in someone else's story?

    As I looked at his story, hints emerged.  He told of surveilling the Wehrmacht as it traveled across southern France in November of 1942.  What was going on then?  Well, the Germans occupied all of France that November, instead of just the area north of the demarcation line between occupied France and Free France.   What else?  The Allies were invading North Africa as part of Operation Torch, and the Germans were high-tailing it down to the Mediterranean to be transshipped by the Italians to Africa to repel the Allied attack.  

    He described fighting in the open after June 6, 1944, and the resistance prevented several German battalions from reaching Normandy during Operation Overlord.

    He helped pick up the Allied airdropped supplies on Bastille Day (July 14, 1944) on the Vercors Plateau during Operation Cadillac.  Then, he witnessed the German reprisals that followed.

    He felt the shore battery guns shaking the ground over 100 miles away during the secondary Allied invasion of southern France on August 15, 1944, during Operation Dragoon.

    So, connections to historical milestones started to emerge, but I desperately wanted to find evidence of my grandfather outside of his stories.  

    ... And then my first bit of evidence emerged! I found two web pages centered on my grandfather's commanding officer: 

        At the time I found the site, the history document wasn't available, though I did find evidence that the town of Ourches had a copy, as did the Drôme Departement Archives in France. However, the only way I could view the document was to go to France.  While I'd love to do that, transatlantic travel is pretty expensive.  

       So, I wrote to the Planas family, and they not only sent me a PDF scan of the document, they also gave permission to make it available on the website above. I was unbelievably grateful and delighted because that document mentions my grandfather by name several times!  I wept with joy when I got that message.

    The document contains an alphabetized list of the 160 long-term members of the unit. Of those 160, most are never mentioned in the main text of the company history. Michel Planas frequently mentioned the ones he knew well, which makes sense - he remembered the people he knew the best.  My grandfather fell into a third group - someone Michel didn't know well, but who was at least important enough to mention by name. 

A snippet from the list of names of those
who served with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Company of the Drôme FFI.

But here's what Michel Planas actually said about Grandpa Arthur:

Note: English translations follow. Click the images to enlarge.

    "A Hors-rang section included:

 - the secretary - radio LUBINTSKI (sic)

- the gunsmith Jean BERANGER." 

    A hors-range section was a support unit that was intended to serve all of the regularly-organized groups within the unit.  This is how I learned that Grandpa was the company secretary/clerk. I also like how they referred to him as "radio Lubinski." He was the company radio operator.

    "Each day, the summary of the communiqués received on a biscuit post by LUBINSTKI (sic) was read at the Company Gathering where the instructions of the day were transmitted."

    The "biscuit post" is a reference to the "biscuit-tin radio" distributed to the resistance by the Allies. The radio was packed in metal cookie box.

    "The chief muleteer Farnetti had been killed, two mules killed by incendiary bullets, the rest of the troop had been able to fall back and the two mule-drivers - PINOT and DEFAYSSE - brought back the two remaining mules. DEFAYSSE was slightly injured. One of the mules killed led by FARNETTI carried the box which contained all the archives of the Company held by the Captain and the Radio LUBINSKI." 

    This is how I found out that Grandpa (along with his commanding officer) was responsible for maintaining the company archives.

    The impersonal nature of the mentions is what leads me to think they didn't know each other well. My grandfather was also 34 at the time, while Michel Planas was about 20, and was a medical student, and his father put him in charge of the company's medical team.  I believe their combat roles just didn't intersect that much.  

    Either way, I'm grateful to Dr. Planas for writing his history, and for mentioning Grandpa.  I'm also delighted that Jerome Planas and his siblings agreed to make their father's work available to me.  I don't think they'll ever understand how important this was to me, nor how grateful I am.  And the same is true about my historian friend who scanned the document and published it online.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

August 1944: Downed American airmen join the Maquis (variations on a theme)

"After the bombing of August 18, 1944"
You will need to step through the photos - it's the 36th photo.

Here's another pair of matching stories about the same event from Dr. Michel Planas and my grandfather regarding some American B-17 crewmen who joined their FFI unit.

In 1955, Dr. Planas (who served in 4th Company with my grandfather) wrote:

    On August 7, we took in three American airmen who had escaped from their plane shot down near Chabeuil, by the flak of the aviation camp during the US Air Force's attack on the Valence bridge at Granges les Valence and the town's outlying installations. This action had been carried out using the catastrophic "carpet bombing" method responsible for needless destruction and death. Once comforted, our airmen had to do two mule patrols to make them reflect on their inappropriate methods.

In 1974, my grandfather wrote:

     The same day the unexpected news came that Germans are hurriedly leaving our mountains. The reason why was a mystery to me, but later I understood that at that time the Allied fleet left southern Italy, or North Africa and Germans undoubtedly knew that a new landing somewhere in the south is impending.

Soon later a news came that all the bridges on the Rhone river have been bombed. In the evening one of our patrols brought to the camp two American Air Force soldiers and I became an interpreter. They were crew members of a flying fortress which has bombed the bridge in Valence-sur-Rhone. The plane has been hit by flak and one man killed. All the others bailed out. One more died before reaching the ground. Three others, who were wounded, could do anything else as stay and undoubtedly became German prisoners. All the others fled in groups of two East toward the mountains and one of these groups has been picked up by our patrol. One of the two Americans was Larry Gault, first lieutenant, plane’s commander. He lived in Oregon, where he owned forests and sawmills. The other’s name was Edward Mettler, the plane’s gunner. He was before the war an art student in Chicago.  

    Soon after the liberation, some ill feelings developed between French and American soldiers. Such feelings always develop between allied soldiers. French were consciously or unconsciously jealous of the wealth of American guys. In most cases this wealth was only apparent, due to a new and clean uniform, to plenty of cigarettes and jeeps, but in any event it used to result in great success when dealing with French girls. Such ill feelings, however, never started between us and the Americans who lived with us in the maquis. They were courageous, fine people. They used to volunteer for all missions. Once, when warned about a great danger of a mission, Larry Gault answered “Flying is dangerous too, you know.” They spent about ten days with us and left with the first American Intelligence officer who reached us. Edward Mettler cried then like a child. He fell in love with one of our intelligence girls, who traveled between the German occupied Rhone Valley and our mountains. The separation seemed cruel on him indeed.

The German withdrawal from the Vercors massif (August 13, 1944) was due to Operation Dragoon, the secondary landing of the Allies in southern France on August 15, 1944.

This one left has left me with some Questions, with a capital Q.  

  1. What was the date? Dr. Planas said August 7th, 1944.  My grandfather's writing suggests the Americans were shot down right around August 15, 1944.  
  2. How many Americans did they take in? Dr. Planas say three, Grandpa says two.

When I evaluate a source, I consider several things:
  • Which details match between the different accounts?  The truth most likely lies where the stories intersect.
  • Was the source actually present or a key player during the event? If so, I tend to trust their account over one that wasn't. 
  • Do the accounts give other clues that I can use in my research? 
  • Can I connect the event to a verified historical milestone? If so, I will use the date and location from the historical milestone.
  • Do I have good reason to believe the primary source is mistaken? How soon after the event did the person write their account? (I'm more likely to trust details that were written down in the days or months after the occurrence over ones written decades later.) Were they repeating second-hand information or their own eyewitness testimony?

Matching details: A US plane bombed a bridge over the Rhône River in Valence in August of 1944. The plane was shot down by flak, some of the American airmen escaped the plane and a small number of them joined the unit.

Key player: it's unclear if Dr. Planas was present or a key player or not, but I loved his delightfully snarky comment, "Once comforted, our airmen had to do two mule patrols to make them reflect on their inappropriate methods." On the other hand, Grandpa was clearly a key player because he acted as interpreter and became friends with the Americans, and his friendship was strong enough that he still remembered their names thirty years later, despite only knowing them for 10 days or so.

Other clues:  "Valence bridge at Granges-les-Valence" from Dr. Planas and "Bridge in Valence-sur-Rhone" from Grandpa. I'm still researching this one.  I did find this in wiki, though: 
"The stone bridge, dating from 1905, destroyed 19 June 1940 by French engineers to slow the advance of the German troops. In August 1940, Rhone is again passable by boat and then a ferry to traille. A temporary Pigeaud bridge was then installed by the engineers. This bridge was again damaged on 18 August 1944 during a bombing by the Allied forces.
And my historian friend in France sent me this link which was even better. It's in French, so English-speakers will need to use their browser's translation features to read it. But it says that on August 15, 1944:
    For seven minutes, twenty American bombers flying at an altitude of 4,000 m in the east-west direction, and not on the north-south axis of the river, dropped around a hundred 250 kg bombs, in principle on the crossing road bridge. the Rhône between Valence and Granges-lès-Valence, bridge ... The Americans' objective was to destroy this bridge to delay the German retreat towards the north.  
    The planes came under fire from the Flak (German DCA) installed at the Polygone in Valence and protecting the Valence-Chabeuil-la Trésorerie aerodrome, particularly that of the Billard plateau. Flak from the Polygone district kills several, one falls in Alixan, another in Upie, one in Ardèche. For the first two, the crews, except for an injured person taken prisoner in Alixan, were recovered by the "Pierre" company with the help of people from the locality... 
    The start of the bombardment was so rapid that the block leaders did not all have time to open the shelters: the corpses of the prefecture concierge and other people from the neighborhood were found in front of the door of the shelter opening onto the Sylvante coast.
When the inhabitants can finally go out, it is to see, through the suffocating dust, a hellish spectacle: the prefecture, hit by three bombs, is burning, papers are flying everywhere, tons of files, documents, archives disappear. From the prefecture hotel, to the current location of Saint-Ruff Park, only the entrance gate will be saved. The prefect's mother was killed, prefect Leclercq and his sister were injured. 
    The banks of the Rhône are devastated. The hospital, although marked with two gigantic red crosses on the roof, is partially destroyed, the four floors of the southern part have collapsed as a whole, they contained the women's surgery department and the maternity ward. Completely ravaged, this wing is nothing more than a gaping hole from which it will be difficult to remove the bodies of 130 people, women undergoing treatment, babies, nurses.
It goes on to say that the bombing failed to destroy the bridge and that several days later, the British RAF came back and successfully destroyed it.  So that definitively ties the arrival of the Americans to the August 15th bombing.  But this description also explains Dr. Planas's anger toward the American airmen. He was a young medical student at the time, and while he would have hated the civilian casualties, I think he would have been particularly infuriated at the destruction of the hospital.

Historical milestones: My grandfather's account seems to connect it to Operation Dragoon, which landed in France on August 15, 1944, while Dr. Planas's account describes it as more of an isolated incident. There was a lot of bombing in Valence associated with Dragoon, so the historical context fits.

Conclusions: I believe that my grandfather's account is more accurate in this case, that there were two Americans instead of three. It was most likely associated with Operation Dragoon, and from Wiki, I believe the Americans joined their FFI unit on August 15th, 1944.

I should also mention that sometimes Dr. Planas's stories were shown to be the more accurate, and sometimes Dr. Planas's and my grandfather's stories match exactly (I love it when that happens!), and sometimes (as in the date of Madame Auvergne's murder) both men were wrong.

As a general rule, I tend to favor my grandfather's version, though, because ultimately the book is from his point of view.

"After the bombing of August 18, 1944"
You will need to step through the photos - it's the 35th photo.