French History @ IHR: Valerie Deacon on Violence and Empathy: Anglo-American aircrews and civilian assistance in France, 1940-1945

Date & Place: Monday 13 June, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Valerie Deacon (NYU)

Paper Title: Violence and Empathy: Anglo-American aircrews and civilian assistance in France, 1940-1945

Chair: Ludivine Broch (Westminster)


The relationship between the Americans, the English and the French during the Second World War has often been a topic of satire as well as reflection and analysis. Stereotypical clashes in language, education, culture and humour have lent themselves well to tv and film, be it the British series Allo! Allo! or the French blockbuster La Grande Vadrouille. There is, of course, a darker side to these encounters. Conflicts between the French and their allied ‘liberators’ are frequently confirmed in political and diplomatic histories of the war and postwar years. Recently, Marie Lou Roberts explored the complicated relations between the French and the American Allies through the lens of sex. All of these approaches tend to re-confirm the tensions in the story of Anglo-American encounters with the French.

Valerie Deacon’s new project on Anglo-American aircrews who landed in France during 1940-44 and escaped via Spain further adds to this literature ; rather than a story of tensions and conflicts and suspicion, she tells a story of aid, support and even friendship. There are few sources on and studies of escape and evasion, she explains, but there is a lot of material in memoirs. More importantly, Deacon has located an unique body of archival material: thousands and thousands of files reports filled in by Anglo-American aircrew who had managed to escape Vichy France and arrived in Spain before returning home. Of course, these files only tell us of the successful stories of escape ; still, the sheer mass of information – in quantity but also quality – provides a very valuable transnational insight into the history of Vichy France.

Through these sources, Deacon has been able to start piecing together the ‘dangerous and complicated’ ways that Allied men made their way out of France to Spain. It all starts off with training: indeed, Allied aircrew were given training in escape and evasion. They were given basic language skills, small kits – from the picture we saw it seemed they could (almost?) fit in the palm of your hand – and tips on french culture and behaviour. These were supposed to allow them to both seek help and move about unnoticed to safety. Some of this help came in form of manuals or guide books, other times it was lectures about personal stories from past experience. At the beginning of the war, aircrew were encouraged to find priests as soon as possible ; towards the end, when the Church seemed intertwined with the Vichy government, it was peasants who they were supposed to approach. Basic language skills were considered sufficient since germans would probably not be able to discern their thick accents anyways. They were also supposed to avoid whistling ; adopt specific table manners ; shave on sundays. Deacon shows how this training was too basic. Generally it ignored regional differences, the inadequate language skills were a much bigger barrier in reality, and the constant changing political landscape was not addressed enough. These unitary images of the French – not least peasants – are a fantastic insight into seeing how the French were perceived. The greatest imagining of France, Deacon argues, was ‘that of a nation willing to help’.

But why were the French expected to help the fallen aircrews? After all, they were being bombed by this Allied air force. What made them help, and even empathise with, a foreign force which was attacking their homes, their towns, their country? According to Deacon there were undoubtedly some conflicting and hostile attitudes towards Allies. However, many stories of escaped aircrew show great empathy and compassion between the two peoples. Women and peasants supplied men with considerable support either through spontaneous, individual acts or by putting them in touch with organised networks. Resentment towards aerial attacks was thus mitigated – if not completely ignored – with an understanding of the war more generally and also a humanitarian urge for these isolated soldiers who were under the same German threat. After the war, many escapees kept in touch with their helpers, sometimes maintaining long friendships in memory of their shared war experience.

Deacon peppered her paper with many humorous incidents. The fact that the Americans were so much larger than French men meant that finding ordinary clothes in order to fit in could be extremely problematic. Riding bicycles on the wrong side of the road was also a bit of a giveaway. These comical anecdotes animate what is otherwise a rich transnational history of ordinary people. Through her study, Deacon gives a window into diplomatic relations ‘on the ground’ between France, America and the United Kingdom. Allied aircrew were representatives of the USA and the UK at a time when conventional encounters were no longer possible. She also gives an alternative to Roberts’ analysis : Allied aircrew – who were isolated on missions – were not painted a negative sexualised picture of France or the French. This not only shows the difference in training ordinary soldiers versus aircrew, but also suggests that France could be imagined in different ways by different groups of people. Ultimately, a certain sincerity emerges in the relations between ordinary French people and young Allied aircrew.

Deacon’s paper was met with applause and at least 20 follow up questions. It was wonderful to welcome her at the IHR and we wish her the best of luck with the continuation of this project. For more info on Valerie Deacon’s work and publications click here.



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