The Later Life of Iris Vaughan 15: Iris meets the Vichy French POWs
On a shopping spree into East London from Gonubie, possibly while she had the house full of family and friends for the summer holidays, Iris suddenly found herself confronted by a pack of Frenchmen, a volley of wolf whistles and a cacophony of catcalls:
“It was only after we had been back at the cottage for a few weeks that I discovered there were more internees close at hand. They were French Prisoners of War, interned in East London. I made this discovery only by accident when, having been given a lift into town to do some very necessary shopping, an offer that seldom came my way. ‘Scrounging around for bare necessities’, as my mother called it, I suddenly came upon a staggering bit of unsuspected life. I was quietly walking along Fleet Street, thinking to myself how our first settlers here must have been Londoners and loved their London town, for I had found names like ‘Fleet St’, ‘Fleet Ditch’, ‘Downing St’ and many others both in East London and King William’s Town, and as I was trying to remember others, I was suddenly assailed by loud voices, whistles and catcalls all coming from a ragged group of men lounging and filling the sidewalk beside the fire station, or hanging out of the windows of the small cottage adjacent to it. Spitting and smoking, with berets perched on their heads, fishermen’s caps dangling with untidy bobbles, dirty bare feet, they reminded me of my early pictures of pirates along the Spanish Main. As I hurried past, they followed me with calls in a language I did not know, which might have been and certainly sounded, lewd and insulting.”
Even in later life, Iris was pretty and petite, and always elegantly dressed. So it is not surprising that the French POWs found her attractive and followed her as she walked past. Most women, however, when confronted by a group of men loitering on street corners, full of the bravado that their superior number affords them and making sexual suggestions, would have given them a wide berth as Iris did. She quickly ducked into a shop where she learned who these men were: “I turned into a shop at the bottom of the street where the owner, an elderly woman and a friend of mine, was serving tea and selling smokes to a serviceman. I asked her who they were. ‘They’, she said scornfully, ‘arrived four weeks ago: the Vichy French POWs, and they are just the kind of rats you would expect them to be’.” Lesley George (neé Burmeister) recorded that the Vichy boarding house was opposite her father’s shop, Burmeister’s (picture 5); could this have been the shop where Iris took sanctuary? Before moving to East London, Burmeister’s had been at Kubusie, near Stutterheim. Iris probably knew Willie Burmeister, who worked for the Department of Justice in King William’s Town before joining his father’s business. And although Iris placed this episode after the one about the Japanese POWs, it is more likely that this one occurred chronologically first. If, as the shop assistant said, the Vichy French had been in East London a month, then that would place this episode either in December 1941 or January 1942, while the Japanese only arrived in King in March 1942. On the other hand, the French POWs were held in East London for almost two years, and would still have been there in the latter half of 1943 or early 1944.
After France had surrendered to Germany in June 1940, the state of Vichy France was established in the northern zone that was occupied by the German Wehrmacht. It took its name from the government's administrative centre in Vichy, southeast of Paris. While officially neutral in the war, Vichy collaborated with the Nazis, including raids by the French police to capture Jews and other ‘undesirables’. One of France’s colonies, Madagascar, thus came under the control of pro-Vichy elements. Although of little commercial value, the harbour of Diego Suarez (today Antisiranana) at the northern tip of the island, was of great importance for controlling the Indian Ocean and there was a considerable risk that the Japanese could occupy the island. In an effort to prevent this, South Africa’s Prime Minister Jan Smuts used all his influence to try to persuade the Allied commanders that it was in the interests of the Allies to invade the island. This was eventually achieved in September 1942.
But already in November 1941, HMS Carnarvon Castle took part in an operation to intercept five Vichy French ships that were being escorted from Tamatave (Toamasina) on the east coast of Madagascar to Bordeaux in France. One of these ships was the Commandant Dorise (picture 1), which was taken into East London harbour by the Carnarvon Castle. The French captives were kept under surveillance until they could be repatriated. They were housed in the Local Accounts Office (picture 2) of the South African Railways in Fleet St, near the Fire Brigade (pictures 3) – which is exactly where Iris was walking the day she recorded seeing them.
Several accounts and memories have been shared with me that add interest. Besides what Iris told us about their manners and attitude towards women, apparently they dragged their mattresses out onto the pavement so that they could lie in the sun and tan! Picture 2 shows how wide the pavement outside their boarding house was: wide enough to hang out, watch the local girls on their way to work and do a spot of sunbathing! The building may have been extended over time; in 1941/1942 Iris referred to it as “the small cottage” adjacent to the fire station. That means it was probably the building closest to the fire station, with open space between it and the fire station. The block of flats that can be seen between them now (picture 4) had probably not been built in 1942, nor the road between it and the Local Accounts Office. And Iris wasn’t the only one who hurried to the opposite side of the road after encountering the Frenchmen; apparently all the girls going to work used to cross at the Fire Station to get away from the wolf whistling and unwanted attention.
“ ‘They call that building’, said the young serviceman referring to their quarters, ‘The Vichy Hotel’ and the owner of the shop said to me: ‘Don’t get near enough to become involved with them. Awful language they call at you, and suggestions!! Didn’t you notice?’ ‘Yes, but I have forgotten every word of French I ever knew, so it would not worry me’. ‘They are allowed to go down to Shelly Beach – those who want to – and fish’, said the service lad. ‘Can’t they escape?’ ‘No, they have guards’. ‘Well, I live in a lonely spot – just my old mother and me. Hope none escape that way, for I only have a crocodile-mouthed bulldog for protection’. The lad laughed and the shop-owner said: ‘More likely it will be the likes of me they will be molesting, though I’ll be too old for their fun and games’. The lad winked at her and grinned a cheeky grin: ‘You never know, Mum. You know the saying about the good tune and the old fiddle’, he teased. We all laughed and as we walked out together, I added: ‘I can see the army has already demoralised a nice boy like you’. ‘Don’t worry – don’t you know that nothing ever demoralises nice boys like me?’ Saluting, he left me to go back to his base”. The saying ‘There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle’ is a reminder that certain activities do not depend on one being young! The line, in fact the entire extract is – relatively rare for Iris – laden with sexual innuendo.
It being summer, those of the POWs who wanted to cool down in the ocean and do a little fishing, were taken by truck to Shelly Beach with their guards. The reference to this beach is interesting. Orient Beach would have been so much closer to Fleet St, while Shelly Beach was quite a distance away and not such a popular beach (picture 6) – although the fishing there was known to be good. Apparently the young men, bored and bristling with French testosterone, had initially been allowed to go to Orient Beach (picture 7; the reference below to the pier suggests so), but there had been some incidences that seem to have put a stop to this. One of the stories told to me was that on one particular day, four of them were standing on the pier and admiring a young lady sunning herself on the beach. As they animatedly discussed her physical attributes in French, she suddenly stood up, said ‘merci’ and stalked off indignantly; possibly to report it to someone who informed the authorities. And apparently the men also caused quite a stir on the beach with their makeshift bathing briefs! As POWs they would hardly have brought with them, or been issued with, respectable dark, well-fitting bathing trunks (picture 8) and simply stripped down to what was left of their underpants or – as this photo suggests – made do with any form of shorts they could literally pull together (picture 9). Given the description of the rest of their shabby appearance, their underwear was unlikely to have qualified for a Calvin Klein advert – after a few months in captivity, it was probably threadbare, sadly sagging and, if white, left little to the imagination after being in the water! No wonder the authorities hustled their French captives away from Orient Beach. The respectable East London women who bathed and bared there were then no longer exposed to the disreputable French men who also dared to bathe and bare – a hint of reverse sexism?? Spare a thought for the young men: victims of a war not of their doing; far from home, in a place that did not want them; feeling the heat and desperate for a cooling swim in the sea like everyone else. two piece items to wear in the formal occasions
I am thankful to the people on ‘East London Down Memory Lane’ who shared their stories of the Vichy French POWs with me.
Did you notice Iris’ mention of her ‘crocodile-mouthed’ bull-dog? Next week we meet Bondi the bull-dog – and something strange out at sea.