Stories of Debacle and a Sawed up GMC Truck

By Pascal Sobas

These were bad times for the French people. It was May 1940. The Germans were pouring across the border and there was nothing to stop them. France had the right equipment in sufficient numbers. She had brave soldiers, she always had, but like Britain, she had the wrong strategy, the wrong tactics, the wrong politicians and the wrong generals. And because of all those wrongs, thousands of heroic French and British soldiers died uselessly. In a matter of days, the much respected French army turned into a rout.

My stepfather Pierre Quenton, aka "Pierrot" ("Pierrot" is the diminutive nickame for Pierre) was a mechanic in a tank regiment then and was at Sedan when the German tanks crashed through the Ardennes. The Ardennes forest was "unpracticable to tracked vehicles," according the French high command. Apparently the German high command was not aware of that fact. Neither was Sedan's mayor who had voiced concern. But what's a mayor in front of a bunch

of five star generals? Pierrot told me that story only once or twice and unfortunately I don't have the details of what unit he was with. But his regiment was equipped with Somua S-35 medium tanks and belonged to a "DLM" (Division Légère Mecanisée/Light Mechanized Division). It was a regiment of dragoons. The dragoons were light cavalry and naturally were turned into those light mechanized units with the advent of tank warfare. Against all odds they fought and died at Sedan. Then they fled.

S-35 and its crew, with
the mechanic (the guy with the béret - second from right)

Somua S-35 medium tank. Note the side entry-exit hatch. This is certainly the hatch they had to cut open with the acetylene torch. Strong stuff. Picture courtesy of:
This is his story as much as I can remember it. -"One of the last things we did there was to cut an S-35 light tank open with an acetylene torch to pull the driver out. They had taken two hits, one in the turret and one in the glacis. The tank commander and the radioman-gunner were torn to shreds inside the turret and the driver's hatch was jammed. He was screaming to be let out. He was covered with parts of his buddies. It took us an hour and a half to cut the hatch open. He screamed the whole time. That made us nervous so we screamed back to him to shut up. He was a butcher in civilian life . . ." Some chaotic episodes occurred afterwards, of which he did not provide any details
They abandoned their equipment at Sedan and got really quicky aboard freight cars, on a westbound train. They were actually behind some of the German advance guard. "At some point we passed a station and on the platform there were two Germans with aviator goggles on their helmets and those long leather dusters they had, sitting on a big Zundapp sidecar, waiving at us and laughing." They ended up in Dunkirk, more precisely to close by Bray-les-Dunes where they proceeded to do what several hundreds of thousands

German military WWII Zundapp motorcycle with sidecar

British and French soldiers were doing there at that time: sit in the dunes, dodge the Stukas and pray for a miracle. -"We were close to a British AA battery and the Stukas came. A bomb fell squarely into one of the gun pits. I saw a leg flying by." Then the miracle came: thousands of ships and boats of every description, British and French, civilian and military, sailed to

Dunkirk for a rescue operation which remains to this day both the most improvised and the most successful. Incidentally, and contrary to a popular mis-belief, happily spread by the collaborationist Vichy government, the British did not abandon the French. They evacuated first the units that remained as such --both British and French-- and for obvious reasons numerous French soldiers had been turned into stragglers, their units dissolved in the chaos. And let's

not forget the French and British soldiers who sacrificed themselves and whose outstanding resistance stopped the Germans on the outskirts of Dunkirk just long enough for the survivors of the disaster to slip out. These heroic deeds unfortunately have been forgotten almost, amidst all the chaos, defeat, and renouncement.

Pierrot was eventually put aboard an ore ship. His last sight of the beach at Dunkirk was a long line of brand-new BSA motorcycles. Being a mechanic the sight broke his heart. "They were just lined up there, waiting for the Germans. Before the war I dreamed of owning one."

The ship had an open hold and the bridge sat astern, like an oil tanker. They were standing shoulder to shoulder at the bottom of the hold. "All I could see was a piece

Castle Films picture. "EVACUATION OF DUNKIRK." See Site 5 Misc." for more.

of sky and the bridge with the captain standing there in his whites. Then a Junkers 88 attacked us from three quarters astern. They dropped three bombs. The first two fell short and the last one fell just a little bit too long. It went BOOM! Inside the hull and we got sprayed by water. All the time I looked up: the captain didn't even turn his head." The British tend to have an attitude sometimes.

They reached Britain unharmed and there they were given blankets, tea, food, cigarettes, attention and more tea. -"The Rosbifs treated me better than my own army did," Pierrot used to say with a sad smile. The Rosbifs, from the English "roast beef" is French slang for the British.

Pierrot was eventually discharged and went back to France. I don't know the circumstances of his return. He went back to his bicycle shop in Boulogne sur Seine, near Paris, and to his favorite occupations: mechanics, bicycle racing, chasing ladies and drinking with his friends. I asked him once why he had not joined the Resistance. -"Tu sais môme, quand je suis revenu je me suis dit que je me battrais plus jamais pour des c.. pareils." -"You know kid, when I came back I told myself I'd never fight again for such a bunch of jerks." I don't blame him, frankly.

While Pierrot was traveling toward Dunkirk aboard his freight train, or shortly thereafter, my father and my mother had fled Paris, like thousands of others fearing the worst, and they ended up in Rochefort sur Mer, on the west coast. It had been declared an open town, meaning no troops were supposed to be stationed there. Of course there were troops there and my mother Andrée and my father Léopold witnessed an episode which is the perfect illustration of the general state of mind of the French Army then. -"A troop convoy was there, recalled my mother. There was an officer walking back and forth, a lieutenant or a captain. Very elegant, with leggings, cream-colored gloves, and a stick. Then a soldier on one of the trucks asked him: Yo! Dummy, where are we goin'? We thought the soldier would be punished for this disrespectful attitude. But the officer just looked up at him and said: I don't know. At that point we knew this war was lost."

My parents didn't do anything heroic during the war. They just endured, like millions of others all over occupied Europe. Time passed — four long, painful years. Then freedom came back, brought in by the "Yanks." It was a time of rejoicing in France. But it was also a time of starvation and lack of everything. War had passed over the country and was rolling toward Germany. And it had taken all that was left with it. The only ones who had plenty of everything were the Americans. They not only had food, Lucky Strike cigarettes and chocolate, they had

gasoline. More precious than gold then in fuel starved France. So my stepfather Pierrot and a few of his ole' buddies decided to get some. They knew a man who knew a man who knew someone. Contacts were taken, money was passed along and one fine morning this US Army GMC gasoline truck pulled up in front of Pierrot's bicycle shop. -"Out of it came a big black guy with Sargent stripes, chomping on a cigar," recalled my stepfather. "Here's the gas, said the Sargent." "OK, let us pump the gasoline and . . . " "

GMC Army Truck

You don't get it, replied the Sargent, the truck comes with the gas. Have a nice day." And with these words he walked away to the nearest Metro station and disappeared forever. And Pierrot and his buddies found themselves the quite embarrassed owners of an official stolen US government vehicle loaded with several hundreds of gallons of official stolen US government gasoline, sitting on Boulevard Marcel Sembat. The truck had to vanish. Fast. In the backyard of the bicycle shop was a well. A medium size well and they decided to dismantle the truck and throw the pieces in it. They probably could have sold the spare parts but Pierrot admitted they were scared out of their wits. Four years of Nazi occupation tends to make people like that.

A GMC truck is solidly built. It went quite smooth for the bodywork and the engine, but when it came to the chassis, the transmission axles and differentials it became a different matter. Besides, the well was full to the rim with the rest of the truck. So they undertook to saw off the axles and the chassis with hand saws. That's all they had. They had torches but no acetylene of course. "Strong stuff these GMCs." Pierrot used to say. It took eight of them the whole night to finally reduce the chassis and the axles to more manageable pieces of scrap metal. They destroyed more than a dozen saw blades in the process — not to mention the blisters. After that episode, that night was remembered as "the night when we sawed off that GMC truck." My heartfelt thanks to that anonymous Sargent. What he did may not have been honest, but what he sold Pierrot and his friends that day helped some people to stay warm and eat.

Pascal Sabas

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