Tag: World War II

March 27, 1944: Bombing of Biarritz by US Air Force

At 2:30 in the afternoon on Monday, March 27, 1944, toward then end of World War II, the Basque towns of Biarritz and Angelu in Lapurdi was bombed by 44 Consolidated B-24 Liberators in the 458th and 466th Bomb Groups.  In eight minutes they dropped 44 tonnes of bombs on the Nazi-occupied town, resulting in 117 casualties and around 250 injuries.

The official aim of the mission that day–according to the archives–was to destroy the nearby Parma airfield and the Latécoère aircraft company factory, although it is also likely that it included the target of a German base there storing V-1 doodlebugs and V-2 rockets. Moreover, the Nazis had constructed a major command center in bunkers beneath Biarritz. The mission was part of the conclusion of a more general strategy to bomb occupied France on the part of the Allies between June 1940 and May 1945; and served as a prelude to the D-Day landings of June 1944 in Normandy. However, lacking the necessary precision technology, many devices went astray in the carpet bombing and hit the civilian population as well as the Nazi occupiers, with approximately one hundred German soldiers among the dead, and destroying 375 residential homes in the process too.

See “Les mystères du bombardement de Biarritz” in Sud-Ouest, March 26, 2013 (in French) and “70 urte, AEBko hegazkinek Biarritz eta Angelu bonbardatu zituztela” at EITB, March 27, 2014 (in Basque). Check out a video report on the bombing by ETB, the Basque public broadcaster, here (in Basque) and listen to a fascinating piece of oral history in this first-hand account by people who experienced the bombing (in Basque).

The Center’s own Sandra Ott has written extensively on the German occupation of the Basque Country during World War II. Check out her War, Judgment, And Memory In The Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945 and Living With the Enemy: German Occupation, Collaboration and Justice in the Western Pyrenees, 1940–1948as well as her edited work, War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946.

Note (from Wikipedia): At the end of World War II in Europe, the U.S. Army’s Information and Educational Branch was ordered to establish an overseas university campus for demobilized American service men and women in Biarritz. Under General Samuel L. McCroskey, the hotels and casinos of Biarritz were converted into quarters, labs, and class spaces for U.S. service personnel. The University opened August 10, 1945 and about 10,000 students attended an eight-week term. This campus was set up to provide a transition between army life and subsequent attendance at a university in the US, so students attended for just one term. After three successful terms, the G.I. University closed in March 1946.

The Incredible Story of Margot Duhalde: World War II Veteran and Combat Pilot

Continuing with our celebration of Women’s History Month, today we bring you a quite amazing story in many respects; certainly an untold story for us here at the Center. It concerns Margot Duhalde, a Chilean-born woman of Basque descent who saw active service in both the British Royal Air Force and the French Air Force.

Margot Duhalde (c. 1944). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Margot Duhalde Sotomayor was born in Chile in 1920. Her paternal family originally came from Luhuso (Louhossoa), Lapurdi, in Iparralde or the Northern Basque Country. In her own words (all citations from the wonderful article by Palmira Oyanguren cited below): “When my grandfather died, I would have been nine years old. He was an imposing Basque who used to sport some tremendous mustaches and who loved to recount his stories in song.” Growing up in a farming family in Río Bueno in southern Chile, her destiny appeared to be that of a rural life. However, she became fascinated at an early age with the planes that would fly over the family ranch to take the mail to the far corners of Chile.  When the family relocated to Santiago de Chile so that their children could receive the best education possible, she implored her parents to be able to take flying lessons; and, at age sixteen, she began to learn to fly at the Club Aéreo de Chile. As she recalled, “It was tough finding someone who was willing to teach a young half-farm girl to fly.” But she succeeded in her dream and by the late 1930s was a qualified pilot.

When World War II broke out in 1939, she went to the French Consulate in Santiago to volunteer, on the basis of her paternal family connections with France, for the Free French Forces led by Charles De Gaulle, who was based in London. She was not yet twenty-one and therefore not of legal age, so to get around this she had to invent a story for her parents (who would undoubtedly have refused any permission for her to take part in the war). She told them she would be going to Canada as an instructor, which they accepted. She subsequently sailed from the port of Valparaíso for Liverpool, in the company of thirteen other volunteers, including two young Basques with whom she made great friends, Juan Cotano and “some Ibarra”: “Because I was quite useless and knew nothing about any kind of domestic chores, they ironed my clothes, did my laundry … they affectionately nicknamed me ‘blockhead’.”

On arriving in the UK, she was immediately arrested on suspicion of being a spy and spent five days in a London jail. When she was finally released she ran into yet more obstacles when it came time to presenting herself at the headquarters of the Free French Forces: “The truth is that the French … didn’t know what to do with me. They’d mixed up my name with that of Marcel, in other words, they thought I was a man.” She waited three long months without hearing any word and then a post was assigned her helping out with domestic chores at a recovery center for injured pilots. While there, she unexpectedly received a letter from a French second lieutenant who had lived in southern Chile and had seen interviews with her in the press there. He told her to forget about the French ever allowing her to fly and try her luck elsewhere. This led to her decision to apply to the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), an organization that helped ferry aircraft to different destinations. Despite having practically no English, she was accepted for the ATA, initially working as a mechanic while she learned English. Soon after, however, she began a tough training schedule learning to fly both single and twin-engine aircraft, and both British and American machines. This eventually led to her flying over a hundred different types of planes (including both fighter planes and bombers) throughout the war for the ATA from bases in England to combat zones in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. She eventually rose in rank to become a first officer in the Women’s Section of the ATA.

Margot Duhalde in retirement.

At the end of the war, she was finally accepted into the French Air Force, in which she now flew warplanes officially, becoming France’s first woman combat pilot.  She also completed a public relations tour of Latin America for the French Air Force, demonstrating French aircraft in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Having eventually served her time and achieved her goal of becoming a combat pilot, she then returned to Chile in 1947, where she remained for the rest of her life and worked as a commercial pilot, instructor, and even air traffic controller, retiring at age eighty-one.

She married three times, and had one son. In the 2003 interview cited here she states: “Nowadays I live in an apartment accompanied by my dog Maite, who is as old as me, and by my young cat. Whenever I can, I get in gear and go to the land of my ancestors, Luhuso; or to Baiona, where I still have family with whom I maintain excellent relations.”

In 1946 Duhalde was made a Knight of France’s Legion of Honor and in 2007 she was made a Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honor; in 2009 she was awarded the Veteran’s Badge from the British Ambassador in Santiago for her work with the ATA during World War II; and she has also been honored officially by the Chilean Air Force, which bestowed the rank of colonel on her.

Further Reading

Palmira Oyanguren M., “Margot Duhalde: Confesiones de una aviadora,”  Eusko News & Media (2003).

 

Condor Legion Exhibition and Documentary in Elgoibar, Gipuzkoa

The group Elogoibar 1936 held an exhibition in September on the Condor Legion and its decisive intervention in the Spanish Civil War to mark the 80th anniversary of the entry of fascist troops in Elgoibar.

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This was the 28th stop of the traveling exhibit since May 2013, which has been shown throughout the Basque Country thanks to Baskale, a Basque-German cultural association based in Bilbao.

The graphic exhibition is entitled “… a complete success for the Luftwaffe. The destruction of Gernika by the Condor Legion. The past and present of a Nazi crime in the war of 36/37.”

The exhibition, which consists of 16 information panels, is based on an investigation by the  regional history group “Arbeitskreis Regionalgeschichte,” based in a town near Hanover in northern Germany. The airbase where the German elite squad, later called the Condor Legion, was created is located in this town. In the 80s, the group began to go to the military archives in Germany and managed to gather information that until then had been hidden and covered under a blanket of silence.

The exhibition is characterized by providing the German point of view in its historical relations with the Spanish state and is not limited to describing the facts of the bombing of Gernika. It begins by recounting historical events, such as the military cooperation between Germany and Spain before Franco and Hitler in the Rif War or the secret illegal rearmament of the German forces after their defeat in World War I. It makes clear that Franco had Nazi support from the start, without which it would not have been possible to transport his troops from Morocco and Tenerife to the Spanish mainland. It continues to describe the Condor Legion operation on the Northern Front and devotes a chapter to the bombing of Gernika. The use of the newly created Air Force (Luftwaffe) under the conditions of war served as a practice ground for the systematic testing of people and equipment in light of the already planned World War II. In the bombing of Warsaw, Coventry, Calais, etc., experienced pilots of the Condor Legion were listed as instructors. The last panels of the exhibition speak of the lies about the bombing of Gernika, “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso, and encounters with Nazi veterans until the 80s, closing with the demand for political condemnation and a debate on the issue of a necessary reparation for the damage caused.

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The documentary CONDOR LEGION: Past and present of a Nazi crime was screened at the opening of the exhibition in Elgoibar. This documentary was made based on the Baskale exhibition held in 2014 with assistance from the Basque government. Interesting points about the birth of the German military and its role in the bombing of Gernika are revealed, taken as a field of experimentation for a future World War. The following experts from Germany, the Basque Country, and Spain were involved in the documentary:

Oiane Valero, historian and researcher

Hubert Brieden, historian and researcher

Angel Viñas, historian, economist, and diplomat

Ingo Niebel, historian and journalist

Xabier Irujo, historian and philologist- Professor at the CBS

Baskale’s work is based on the three principles of the Historical Memory movement: Truth, justice, and reparation. The main objective of the exhibition and documentary is to provide the truth about the Condor Legion and its war crimes, providing a framework for discussion that aims to learn from history so as to not repeat it.

The Baskale association denounces the historical impunity of the crimes committed by the Condor Legion, which systematically spread terror and panic among the civilian population of the more than 30 villages bombed in the Basque Country, also responsible for thousands of deaths in the Spanish state and in the many countries attacked during World War II.

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The documentary can be watched online, using the following links:

Spanish: https://vimeo.com/125135092

Basque: https://vimeo.com/130355642

German: https://vimeo.com/130350555

Professor Ott speaks on collaboration and resistance, and meets a resister, at the University of San Francisco

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Professor Sandy Ott speaks to a packed house at the University of San Francisco on World War II collaboration and resistance. Seated facing the crowd, in the red beret, is Odette M. Le Pendu, 93 years young, who at age 18 joined the French Resistance and also shared her memories.

On April 23rd, Sandy Ott gave a talk, “Living with the Enemy in Bearn: Collaboration and Resistance,”  at the University of San Francisco. Professor Karen Bouwer (French Studies at USF) extended the invitation to her. Jean Lassegues generously sponsored the event. M. Lassegues’s parents came from villages near Pau in Bearn, and he retains a lifelong interest in his heritage. The audience of some fifty people included USF students, as well as many French-speaking members of the public. One very special member of the audience was Mme. Odette M. Le Pendu, who is 93 years-old and as spry as ever. Odette was born in San Francisco to French parents from the Midi. In 1938, the family returned to France to help relatives with their business. At age 18, Odette joined the Resistance—and managed to keep it a secret from her parents for the duration of the Occupation. She served as a radio operator. At the end of Sandy’s talk Odette shared some of her memories of the Occupation with the audience. As a proud Officer of the Legion of Honor, Odette showed the audience the splendid medal she received at the Liberation in recognition of her wartime bravery and service to France.

In her talk Sandy focused on the wartime experiences of a Bearnais town hall secretary from Oloron and the Vichy police commissioner who established close relations with the SS captain responsible for German intelligence and security in that town. The narrative forms one chapter in Sandy’s forthcoming book, Living with the Enemy: Betrayal and Justice in the Western Pyrenees, 1940-1947, under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Readers interested in this period should also check out our War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, also edited by Sandy and which also treats many of these from a variety of perspectives.