Monday, 28 September 2015

Saint-Raphael and London and the War

Saint-Raphael in the South of France 1938.
Some while ago I did a post about a postcard sent from Saint-Raphael in the South of France in 1939, two months before the outbreak of the Second World War.  This has led a friend to send me another postcard sent from Saint-Raphael, this time in 1938.  So now I have two views of Saint-Raphael before the war, this one less chic than the first; it looks like something of a workaday port, though it does possess several fine sandy beaches.  

But as I said in my earlier post, old postcards make me curious.  They are small pieces of the past, ostraka you might say, or shrapnel, and they almost always have something interesting to say.  

Operation Dragoon in the South of France 15 August 1944.
It turns out that the commune of Saint-Raphael was the landing place for Napoleon Bonaparte and his forces when they arrived by ship from Egypt in 1799 prior to his coup d'├ętat in Paris. Saint-Raphael also played a significant role in the Second World War.  

On 15 August 1944 it was the landing place for Operation Dragoon, the American, British and French attack against the Germans who until then still occupied southern France.  Little is heard about Operation Dragoon as it has been overshadowed by the larger landings at Normandy two months earlier.  Nor was it popular with the British; Winston Churchill wanted to land in the Balkans in order to deny as much of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union.  But by 1944 the Americans were sending more troops than the British into the war against Germany and the decision to go ahead with an attack in southern France fell to American generals, not Churchill, who according to an apocryphal story complained he was dragooned into the operation, hence its name.

American soldiers coming ashore in Operation Dragoon.
Stiff German resistance was expected but in the event the German defences quickly collapsed.  So sudden was the Allied victory that the planners had not provided enough petrol to make a rapid advance thus allowing the bulk of the German army to retreat into the Vosges mountains far to the north.  What ultimate strategic benefit Operation Dragoon had is not clear to me but it certainly made the French feel good.  Within two weeks all of France as far north as Grenoble was free; on 28 August Free French forces liberated Marseille and Avignon.

British paratroopers dropped behind German lines
from gliders towed by American C-47s.
But back to the postcard. As you see on the reverse it was sent by 'Mummy' to 'My Sweet', her daughter Melissa Benton at 19 Norfolk Crescent, London W2. Mummy is responding to a letter just received from her daughter, a letter dictated by her daughter to her secretary. Mummy was travelling with Papa and had bought the picture postcard at Saint-Raphael but they had kept moving east, into fascist Italy, and she eventually sent it from Ventimiglia.

I have never been to Ventimiglia and the only thing I know about it comes from a letter by E M Forster written in 1917 from Alexandria in Egypt while he was there during the First World War.

'As an escape from the war Alexandria is matchless: or rather escapes', Forster wrote to Robert Trevelyan in August 1917. 'The Syrians dance. The Bedouins lay eggs. The French give lectures on Kultur to the French. The Italians build il nostro Consolato, nostro Consolato nuovo, ricco, grandioso, forte come il nostro Cadorna, profondo come il nostro mare, alto come il nostro cielo che muove l'altre stelle, e tutto vicino al terminus Ramleh Tramways. The English have witnessed "Candida" or "Vice Detected"'.

But Forster's preferred escape was the Greek, 'for the Greeks are the only community here that attempt to understand what they are talking about, and to be with them is to reenter, however imperfectly, the Academic world. They are the only important people east of Ventimiglia --: dirty, dishonest, unaristocratic, roving, and warped by Hellenic and Byzantine dreams -- but they do effervesce intellectually, they do have creative desires, and one comes round to them in the end'. Of the Greeks he singled out Cavafy: 'with much help I have read one or two [of his poems] and thought them beautiful'.

All that is another story, however; back to the postcard of Saint-Raphael sent from Ventimiglia to 19 Norfolk Crescent in London. 

Postcard from Mummy.
I have had a look at Norfolk Crescent on Google Street View; it possesses a rim of unattractive houses clearly built after the war. I wondered what had happened to the houses that had stood there in the time of Mummy and Papa and My Sweet.

It is said of London that the greatest damage done to it has been by town planners, greater than anything done by Hitler, and that is true. Urban planners should be shot at birth.  Nevertheless it is true that the German bombing of London did great damage and I thought I should check to see if Norfolk Crescent was a victim.  There is an excellent website for this where you can see where the bombs fell.

And sure enough Norfolk Crescent was blown to smithereens one night by a high explosive German bomb.

Norfolk Crescent off Edgware Road is at the upper left. Marble Arch is at bottom centre; Selfridges is on Oxford Street which runs off to the right.
Maybe Mummy and Papa Benton were at home that night. Maybe their daughter Melissa was there too. Maybe they were all killed by that German bomb. I have tried to find out but have learnt nothing. All I have, as usual, is the postcard.

19 Norfolk Crescent London W2. The bomb fell during the week of 7-14 October 1940.