Olivia was born in Hertfordshire in 1919
Olivia remembers well the outbreak of the war:
“We all knew that it was going to happen. I had been over to France and I was bi-lingual. I loved France. I was a total Francophile.”
She was clearly appalled at the prospect of what might happen to the country she had fallen for as the war clouds gathered.
When war was declared Olivia decided that she wanted to do something to help. Displaying extraordinary courage she decided that with her language skills the best way she could support the war effort was to travel to France on her own and join the French Army.
“My one wish at that time was to be able to fight in the war. My whole idea was to get myself over to France and join the French Army, and I did it.”
The age of majority at the time was 21, so, with Olivia being just twenty years old she was effectively still a minor which puts her single-handed action in heading to France alone into even sharper perspective. She dismisses the idea that her incredible story of bravery and sheer single-minded determination was anything out the ordinary.
“I had managed to establish contact with a British official in Paris, it was the Military Governor whose daughter I knew, and I made arrangements to travel to France by boat.”
When pressed on how she actually managed to put these plans in place, and achieve her objective of joining up with the French army on arrival, Olivia just smiles and says:
“Well, you always know somebody, don’t you?”
After initial training in Paris, Olivia’s unit was moved south but as the Nazi advance across the country gathered pace she was told one day that her colleagues were surrendering to the Germans. Fearing the danger of falling into enemy hands she decided to go it alone. She was well aware of the potential consequences for an English woman of being captured by the German army but if she was afraid, she certainly doesn’t show it.
“I remember walking across a big bridge, this would have been right down south, and a car stopped beside me. I thought, oh b…… hell, but it turned out he was on the right side and he took me by car some distance and I managed to then pick up another lift. Eventually I made I made it to Saint Jean De Luz.”
From this port down, right down in the Basque Country, Olivia managed to establish another contact who got her aboard a British Destroyer that was in the harbour awaiting departure. After a four day voyage, Olivia arrived back in Plymouth.
“I then contacted my parents who said “Oh good, you are back” and they came and picked me up from the port as if nothing much had happened and I had been away on a bit of a day trip. It was very British!”
However, Olivia’s involvement with the French and the war was far from over. In Saint Jean De Luz she had been given some papers and had been asked to try and get them to De Gaulle if she made it back to Britain.
“So I knew I had to make for De Gaulle, he was only a Colonel then, and I met him in Carlton Gardens in London where the French had been given an office. Of course, it was difficult to get to see him as the security had to be terribly careful who they introduced him to but I actually knew the French Ambassador who was a friend of one of my aunts from London and so it all came together.”
Olivia was offered a job in the expanding French operation in London. As she was bilingual here skills were highly valued and she undertook translation work, including for De Gaulle himself who spoke little or no English.
In another extraordinary turn Olivia also ended up as a driver for De Gaulle.
“Well, he didn’t have a car, so I phoned my father and asked if he could lend him one and he said yes, that’s fine, so long as you drive it and that’s how I ended up as a driver for De Gaulle in those early days in London.”
We were lucky enough to be able to take a copy of a picture of Olivia in her car sitting outside the HQ building at Carlton Gardens awaiting orders, chatting to a guard in full Free French Army uniform.
Olivia remembers that there was an understandable fear that De Gaulle would be assassinated and that there was intense security around him and the entire exiled administration. She also talked about life in London during those days and how everyone lived in the knowledge that the next day could be their last.
She was at the Café De Paris when it took a direct hit during the Blitz on the 8th March 1941 and 34 people were killed and many more seriously injured, the majority on the dance floor which Olivia had just left but the effect of the bomb left her with damaged hearing for the rest of her life.
Olivia was once again lucky to escape with her life. The Café de Paris had been an expensive and exclusive venue before 1939 but after war was declared it dropped its prices and was popular with off-duty service personnel. After the bombing it remained closed for the rest of the war and didn’t re-open until 1948.
Olivia eventually got married and left London and her job with the exiled French and had no further involvement with the war effort but her story is extraordinary and deserves a much wider audience.
Her memories, like those of so many who displayed incredible courage and bravery during the war years, form an important part of our understanding of the personal motivation of those who were prepared to sacrifice everything.
Interview carried out by Geoff Martin on behalf of WarGen