I CAME across a photograph of three Frenchmen, mechanics in 342 Squadron – Groupe de Bombardement No. 1/20 Lorraine, a Free French squadron in the RAF during the Second World War – while researching the story of some French Air Force friends.
I was intrigued by the image, as it was taken in Jersey on 10 August 1940 when the Island was already Occupied.
Their names were given as André Courval (known as Saillard), Clément Milet (Auvray) and Henri Le Tourneur (Hennequin).
This story is about their bravery, how they escaped from Jersey in August 1940 and went on to serve throughout
the African Campaign, enduring many hardships, including injury and imprisonment.
How the story began
Clément Milet received his call-up papers on 3 September 1939, the day war broke out and the date of his 20th birthday.
In June 1940, when Germany invaded France, he left his posting and travelled to Carteret, where his parents lived, and started to plan his escape to England – along with hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women.
In England, under the leadership of General de Guelle, head of the French government-in-exile, people from the country formed the Free French Forces.
André Courval was an assistant professor of mechanics in Granville when he was called up for military service in 1932. In September 1938 he was working on a secret submarine project in the naval base in Cherbourg.
André’s three brothers and a sister were born in Grouville. Despite being born in Carteret – as his mother Eugenie insisted on visiting when she was heavily pregnant – he was a Jerseyman and later worked in Granville High School. He has been honoured by the French with a plaque recording his part in the escape.
Henri Le Tourneur was a quartermaster gunner in the French Navy at the outbreak of war.
He was taken prisoner by the Germans, but managed to escape and made his way to Carteret, with the aim of joining his friend Clément Milet in his attempt to get to England.
Fleeing the German advance
On 15 June 1940 the British Government decided not to defend the Channel Islands, and French people fleeing their homeland began to arrive in Jersey to join the thousands of Islanders who were being evacuated to the UK.
The declaration that the islands would not be defended led to a three-day official evacuation period and un-British hysteria. People were worried; should they abandon their homes or should they risk staying? Those who left queued outside the Town Hall to register for a place on the boats that were scheduled to leave Jersey.
On 17 June, an aircraft arrived in Jersey from Bordeaux to refuel. On board was the then Brigadier General de Gaulle on his way to exile in London. On that same day he established the Free French Air Force.
Bob Le Sueur (who helped to shelter escaped PoWs during the Occuaption) remembers two Belgian nurses who arrived from the Cotentin peninsula, hoping to board the very last mailboat on 28 June 1940. He said that their hearts must have been racing as they walked past the boats still being loaded with potatoes. At the Southern Railway terminal they heard the dreaded words ‘fully booked’.
However, on hearing this, Mrs d’Esterre, who had three tickets and a cabin reservation for her and her two daughters, decided to give the pair two of their tickets, saying that two trained nurses would be more useful than a housewife, a teenager and a schoolteacher. The d’Esterre family decided to stay in Jersey together. After they returned home, German bombers struck the harbour.
How the three Frenchmen reached Jersey
Writing in July 1946, Henri Le Tourneur recalled how they made their way to Jersey. He wrote: ‘On the night of 28 June  we emerged one at a time from the shelter of Clement’s house nearby; down L’Allie Poret, crossing the yard of Hotel de la Mer – occupied by the Germans – to reach the quay. We boarded the Marie-Georges, waiting for skipper Emile Valmy to take us to Jersey.
‘Emile had forgotten a part and returned to his house 100 metres away. A German patrol arrives; we’re in a cold sweat. Emile returns, they examine his fishing permit and move on. The tide was falling, we helped push the boat with the oars then let go, setting sail to make no noise until open sea and full throttle.
‘We reach Gorey at 6.30 am on 29 June. The Harbourmaster’s welcome – coffee and cigarettes. Advocate Philip Richardson arrives and takes us to a farm he owns where two women are in charge. Having escaped the enemy we are once again trapped, there are no more boats.
‘We work in the potato and tomato fields. The women become nervous. On 5 August Advocate Richardson moves us to his farm at La Ferme, St Martin. The farmer Jean Doublard and his wife Lucille are very supportive, lending their bicycles.
‘We collected evidence on German installations and munition depots and detected work going on in an old building in the north-east of the Island, a possible radar station. At the Airport wooden planes were on view while real planes were hidden in hangars.’
Escape to England
Plotting their escape after work on the farm, the threesome set about making Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs) for protection on their journey. Later they found a motorboat, Suzanne, in Rozel Harbour, which was owned by Gordon Poole. Its was by now 19 August. André and Clément went on board the boat and discovered that several items were needed to make it seaworthy.
They reported back to Advocate Richardson who recommended they contact Auguste Le Fevre, who used to be at the French Embassy in London. He managed to get them some spare parts. The petrol for the journey came from Maurice Le Voguer, who worked in a St Helier garage. He siphoned it from abandoned cars and German vehicles. On Mr Le Voguer’s advice, they went to see Father Rey at the home of the Jesuits in Jersey, who gave them a navigational compass, a tide book and chart.
Before they set off, Advocate Richardson gave them letters to give to relatives in England, written by friends of his who had helped with their escape, and equipment for their craft.
At 11.30 pm the night of 26 or 27 August they were ready to depart. The equipment to repair the boat and 30 gallons of petrol were taken down a footpath from La Ferme to Rozel.
The story continues in Henri’s words: ‘We cut the mooring ropes of the other boats in order to cause chaos if the Germans tried to pursue us, but we fell foul of our own plans! With great difficulty we managed to untangle ourselves from the drifting boats.
‘At the end of the jetty, near a small fire, a guard was posted. A little further on, about halfway up the hill there was a guard of several men overlooking St Catherine’s Bay.
‘Slowly, despite a strong current, we left the Harbour towards the open sea with the oars. We headed towards the Ecréhous as if going to France. André started the motor and the Germans started firing on us.
‘Then the beams of a searchlight picked us out, we expected a hail of bullets. But nothing, on the contrary, the searchlight went out, the guns fell silent. A squadron of British aircraft were flying overhead. It was the turn of the Germans to stay under cover.
‘Suddenly I noticed smoke rising, the exhaust pipe had overheated. A bucket of water soon put the fire out but also drowned the motor, which had to be dried out. For 15 minutes we had to row against the current that was taking us back towards Jersey.
‘André had succeeded in starting the motor again and we headed north. While he and I were resting, Clément was at the tiller and through the fine mist that had settled over the sea he saw a dark shape looming, no doubt Guernsey or Sark. Immediately a right angle turn pointed us back towards the Contentin to avoid any danger.
‘By 10 am we were beyond the Casquets, the last islets before Great Britain. Little headway was made despite going at full speed. But our anxiety was gone, each turn of the propeller brought us closer to freedom.’
Free to take up the fight
The three Frenchmen arrived at Dartmouth at 11 am on 27 August, their journey having taken 35 hours. Other mishaps along the way included trouble hoisting the sail, as the mast was too short. They were escorted along the coast by porpoises and survived navigating through a minefield and running out of petrol. Help came at last when they hoisted a French Flag and the Union Jack.
Pulled on to a police boat, they were questioned by a French-speaking officer who took the letters. They were welcomed in Dartmouth by the Officer Commanding the Naval Academy, and they travelled to London by train. Captain Rabbet, who accompanied them, took them to the Home Office to deliver the information gathered in Jersey.
On 30 August 1940, at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, they signed a commitment to the French Forces for the duration of war. Though two are sailors and one a soldier, they chose to serve in the Free French Air Force.