From Adolf Hitler to Earl Grey
Ronnie Mcgowan has an historic encounter, and discovers a very French love affair with tea
An expat plays war tour guide before taking tea French-style
Buying a property in France can bring with it many bonuses and tales of the unexpected, thanks to the country’s incredible and far-ranging history. Often these are echoes of war or detritus of invasions long past, in contrast to Britain with its ghosts of only two invaders, Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror, the latter returning to his beloved Normandy to live there and to eventually die in Rouen.
After the purchase of our isolated farmhouse in Pas de Calais, we quickly became aware that in the fields and woods around us were some rather odd buildings. They appeared to be a military installation of some sort, but nothing like the shelters, blockhouses and gun emplacements found along the nearby coastline from what had once been Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
My friend Claude enlightened me: our area had been a German World War Two V1 flying bomb launch site, battered and bruised somewhat by the American Air Force, but still largely intact. My curiosity aroused, I began to research the subject in some depth, and discovered an insight into a world long gone. In turn, this led to a very pleasant interlude.
Relaxing on the patio and sipping wine after a rather good lunch was one of our favourite pastimes. Suddenly, Colette straightened. “Someone is coming,” she said.
A British car approached along the lane and stopped at our front gate – a man got out and I went to meet him. He introduced himself as a military historian who was contracted to write a book on V1 launch sites. This was the first one he had visited, he said, and he had lots of questions to ask. Maybe I could accompany him as he explored the surrounding area?
Wow! Suddenly I was a foreign tour guide. This stranger had just made my day.
That afternoon assumed a dreamlike quality as I took the writer back in time, explaining as I went the complexities of such an operation for the Germans (too complex, as it turned out, as the original plan had to be changed).
I showed him the concrete launching ramp precisely angled to target London, which was well within the missile’s 150-mile range; the three so-called ‘ski’ buildings constructed indeed like skis on their side, designed to offer protection against blast; the chief technician’s office pockmarked with shrapnel; the very special non-magnetic building where the gyrocompasses were set, and so on. It took well over an hour.
Tour over and job done, my visitor thanked me profusely and shook my hand rather fiercely in farewell. I returned to my chair on the patio and to my wine. Colette teased, “Who’s a happy little boy then?” I grinned. “Buying this place in France was one of the best things we ever did.” I lay back and closed my eyes, indeed a happy little boy.