In 2016, as part of the Refuge 44 Project (Read more here) led by Inrap in partnership with CRAHAM, Yvette Lethimonnier, born on 2 April, 1933 in Caen, went back down into the old quarry where she had gone to hide on 6 June, 1944, to flee the bombing in the region. While the project is underway, Yvette, 86 years old at the time, has offered her memories of this famous summer in 1944 in Fleury-sur-Orne.
The Occupation: fear and resistance
“I had been living with my foster family since December 1935 in Fleury-Sur-Orne, just in front of the Saingt Brewery.” As soon as the refugees from Hitler’s invasion of Poland arrived, her foster father, Louis Lethimonnier, joined the resistance. “He used to hide those in the resistance within a pile of wood, and with my foster grandfather, he went to tear up the railway tracks”, Yvette proudly explained. But the occupying Germans, as well as the informers, created fear. Food became a rarity. “If you didn’t have a garden… When the Germans came, they took our rabbits and chickens. But they never managed to take away our fishing pole”, Yvette said with amusement. Since the age of 7, the girl started smoking to stave off hunger: “We dried out old shoe leather that we would then smoke rolled up in newspaper.”
On 5 June, bombings, signs of the coming D-Day landings, lit up the sky. Yvette was 11 years old. The day before, she was celebrating her communion. It was in a rush that she, still in her communion dress, crossed the street at dawn to go down in the brewery’s basement. “André and Lucien Saingt, who were told ahead of time, opened the double door at the top of the ramp, which was used to empty the tanks”. On this first day, between 20 and 50 people took this long slope to enter the large basement filled with the slush and odours of beer. “We started by putting straw on the ground and blankets if we had some.” Over the course of the following days, civilians flocked to the site – there were up to 1,000 people at the height of the battle – and by acquaintance or affinity, they got into groups and set up a couple of square metres of rudimentary living space.
Life was organised 25 metres underground. Yvette’s foster father and grandparents played a major role. “My grandmother would help those that she was able to… she always found a way to make the situation a bit more manageable.” At the entrance of the quarry, Louis Lethimonnier prepared simple, cheap meals for everyone: stews made with animals killed in the bombing, which he chopped up and cooked in a cast-iron trough. Then he made soups in a big washing machine… “My grandfather would always try to find me a bit of milk. He would go get bread and supplies in Fleury to provide for the quarry. Some of the people would leave on dangerous expeditions to find what we needed to survive,” Yvette remembered, feeling forever grateful.
Outside, the noise was deafening. And with good reason: at the entrance of the ramp, the Germans set up on of “their damn canons” aimed at Carpiquet. There was a second one, several metres away, behind an old well. ‘There was a sense of solidarity between the people…Of course there was a bit of grouchiness among the people… but it was either that or be killed,” Yvette said. What was the most difficult thing for a fearless child like her? “To be able not go out, to have to stay calm… in the quarry, you had fun any way you could.” And another danger? The Germans. Over the summer they tried to drive out the refugees. “My father and grandmother then suggested that we move deeper into the quarry. It always surprised me that they would suggest solutions without imposing them, and everyone would accept them.”
70 years later: going down again
Almost 70 years later, in 2016, Yvette responds to the invitation from the INRAP teams, who want her perspective on this site that is practically frozen in time. With the access through the ramp destroyed, Yvette went down into the shelter by way of the ladder in the old well, the same one that she would discreetly climb up for an activity as a child. “A true joy” and a moment full of emotions…
“Going back down there after so many years… I immediately recognised the sites. “With her memories, Yvette can help confirm and clarify the archaeologists’ hypotheses. Here is the space where Dr Cohier treated the sick… and there is the spot that the refugees would use as the latrine. “it was a hole that was dug with wooden rails in the corner of the quarry,” Yvette remembered before providing an anecdote: “one day, a German fell into it… a few people burst out laughing, but I ran away.” Another rule essential to the “forced cohabitation” was: do not be condescending to the Germans, or else you’d be kicked out…
Finally free, singing
Yvette talks about the memories that come back to her. A memory, namely one that always fills her with emotion, despite the years that have passed: the arrival of the Canadians at the end of July. “I still have a clear image of the butcher wearing a nightcap and a shirt… The Marseillaise song was struck up. The soldiers stood at attention. It was if the sky had opened up,” the emotional octogenarian said while the memory made her tremble with happiness. “Much more than the just liberation, that meant freedom.” 25 metres underground, fearful that the Germans would return, that the walls would cave in, this arrival was the sign of better days to come. “My father took his kitchen apron, someone provided a bunk cover and one of the Saingt girls gave her red scarf so we could put together a tricolour flag that we attached to a large branch and hung beside the ramp.” A few days later, the refugees finally climbed out of their shelter. “We left around the first or second of August. We went through Orne to go on to Bayeaux then Bény-sur-Mer. “It was only at the end of September that Yvette went back to her home in Fleury-sur-Orne. “to patch up the holes.”