Do you enjoy watching films about the Second World War? There is such a wide variety out there from action packed battle scenes to sagas on the Home Front, and many give us an insight into what it was like for civilians living in England – the bombings, the shortages, the evacuation of children – the list could go on and on. But what do we know about life for civilians on the other side of the Channel during World War 2? What would it have been like to live under Nazi occupation? Northern France is just a short ferry ride from the south coast of England, but life there was more complex and more difficult for ordinary people, people like you and me, who lived the unimaginable.
The biggest psychological issue for the French was to see their towns and villages patrolled by German soldiers, the swastika flying above the Hotel de Ville and at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The disassociation of seeing the unfamiliar in familiar places, of no longer seeing the French flag or feeling at home in the towns and villages where they had lived all their lives must have been an incredibly shock.
The other psychological problem for French civilians was not knowing what was happening in the rest of the world as the Nazis had a stranglehold on the media. The Paris daily newspaper, Pariser Zeitung, was written in German and contained around ten pages of news; this was usually summarised in a single page translated into French so real news was scarce and only what the Nazi regime wanted to tell people. This was the only news available, including heavily edited ‘news’ from the Vichy press. Pariser Zeitung was anti-communist, ant-semitic and anti-British; there was even a daily propoganda cartoon with an anti-British theme. Yet this was the only newspaper available to people in Occupied France.
As well as having to cope with enemy soldiers in their towns and villages, everyday life was also constrained by a curfew lasting from 10pm until 5am. No one was allowed out at night without an Ausweis, a German pass. The curfew combined with the blackout created a situation where, as dusk fell, people found themselves confined at home, curtains drawn, with no entertainment as their radios had been seized; it must have filled many people with despair.
Added to these problems was the endemic shortages which the French people suffered from almost the first day of the Occupation. The armistice which France signed with Germany meant that the French were responsible for the costs of the occupying German army of around 300,000 men; a cost of 20 million Reichsmarks every single day for the duration of the Occupation. As it was the Germans who set the exchange rate, obviously in their favour, this meant that there was little money to buy food. There was also little coal or petrol, which disrupted transport and meant that it was difficult to get food supplies from the villages to the large towns and cities. Imports were no-existant because of the Allied blockades, and labour was short on the farms because so many prisoners of war were being held in Germnay, as well as other able men being sent there to work in labour forces, so there were not enough people to work the land.
Many French families were divided by the occupation, either because some members lived in the Vichy controlled area whilst others were in the occupied zone, or because they lived many miles away from each other. An Ausweis was needed to cross the ‘border’ between the zones, and these were very difficult to acquire. The only correspondence allowed was between family members for which pre-printed cards were provided and people had to tick whatever applied to them (something like the postcards provided for prisoners of war). Little could be communicated with these if you could only tick words such as ‘prisoner’, ‘dead’ ‘in good health’ etc.
Of course, good health was something which was lacking as the food shortages increased. A huge amount of French food production went to the Germans, a situation which was exacerbated by a fall of about 50% in food production due to the lack of labour, fertilizer and fuel. Despite these problems with production the Germans seized about 20% of all crops and dairy produce, 50% of meat and a huge 80% of the champagne production. Such problems of supply and demand inevitably led to rationing with coupons issued to be exchanged for bread, butter, cooking oil and meat. Even so, the rationing only allowed civilians around 1,300 or fewer calories a day so home grown vegetables, home raised rabbits and chickens, and black market produce became key to survival. As hunger increased, particularly for young people in urban areas, queues outside shops became longer with no guarantee that there would be anything left to buy once you reached the front of the queue. Only those who could afford the ridiculously high prices could benefit from buying food on the black market, or buy the counterfeit food coupons which were often available. If a person was lucky enough to live in the countryside they could get more food by bartering cigarettes or skills although, as with most things, this was forbidden with confiscation of the food and imposition of fines if you were caught.
The Germans, to their credit, realised that this poor diet was bad for the youth of France and issued children and teenagers with vitamin tablets or biscuits through the schools. For most people, though, the only way to get some products was by substitution. Ersatz produce (ersatz being the German word for substitute or replacement) became the norm – coffee was replaced by toasted barley mixed with chicory, saccharin replaced sugar, wood replaced leather for the soles of shoes and wood gas generators on trucks and cars burned wood pellets or charcoal as a substitute for petrol. There was also a shortage of textiles so that clothes were often made from curtains or old blankets. Life for French civilians was, in a word, grim.
The population of France, bowed, hungry and desperate, was also subject to periodic bombing by the Allies which intensified as the Allied invasion approached. 550,000 tons of bombs were dropped and almost 75,000 civilians killed by Allied bombing during the war. In the weeks and months leading up to D Day the Allies targeted French railways, rail yards and railway bridges in particular, hoping to disrupt German troop movements immediately after the landings. On just one night, 26th May 1944, five cities in south-eastern France were hi,t with over 2,500 civilian deaths.
We often think of how difficult life was for civilians on the ‘home front’ back in England but forget their counterparts in France. The main characters in my novel ‘Heronfield’ see life on both sides of the channel, from the bombing of Coventry and rationing in England to life in the city of Saint Nazaire and the surrounding countryside. It is my tribute to those who were not in the armed forces but who suffered greatly during the dark days of the Second World War.