Student nurse in Caen (Masse street, Calvados), missionary detached from Letot School now know as Espoir (French word for “hope”) school, Bayeux.
She was 22 in 1944. She is now 85 years old and lives in St Andre-sur-Orne, Calvados, France.
This is a direct translation from a recorded interview, published in a magazine. No modifications have been made, even in style (beside Translator’s notes and the removal of graphic parts).
The goal of the interview was to get eyewitness testimony of the D-Day bombing.
Odette Bonfardin is my grandmother. I grew up in Normandy, where signs of Second World War are still visible everywhere. The war took my grandfather’s right leg and killed a lot of my family members.
I have always been listening to my grandmother war stories but never had the opportunity to hear her D-Day story. I actually discovered a bit more of it the day I read the magazine. But in the end...she always skips the D-Day. She prefers to tell us war stories either from the period before or after Caen was freed. She said from June 6th until July 20th, she was just avoiding bombs and taking care of wounded soldiers. Nothing else to say.
I am now publishing an English translation of her testimony because I believe her actions, her courage, and her hopes gave her the force save the lives of soldiers falling for our freedom.
I believe all great acts of bravery must be respected and never forgotten.
To those who lost their lives to free France,
"We were a group of mobilized nurses. We belonged to the passive defense. In case of alerts, we were supposed to put on our blue armband with the two black letters “DP” embroidered on it and we had to take our helmet, gas mask and flash light.
On the night of June 6th 1944, I went back up from the Misericorde (TN: Christian clinic in Caen. French for “Misericordia”. A German officer was actually filming the nurses running out as the hospital was being bombed. The film is shown at Caen Memorial for peace) to the Bon Sauveur (TN: Hospital in Caen, French for “Good Samaritan”) with two patients. Terrified by this night, I took refuge in Saint-Camille, a first emergency service within the Bon Sauveur. I was feeling very safe and protected in there mainly because there was no storey. There I met up with two other nurses: Ms Allamic and Herbline. I also met Ms Blanchet and Ms Bataille who were interns. We were taking turns. I was on the noon to midnight shift team with Herbline. Dr Morice and Dr Lacroix were managing this department and had decided that nurses should always be present at any time. We treated so many injured that I can not recall the number.
I stayed at the Bon Sauveur until July 20, the day evacuation orders were given (TN: Caen was officially freed on July 20, 1 month and 16 days after D-Day. Nurses then had to move to other combat zone to save people). In the evening, a 6 ambulances convoy had been organized and we all departed for Bayeux. It was a long travel… We had to leave Caen before 10pm to avoid cannonades (TN: old term designing rounds of very heavy gunfire) form German who were shooting at the Bon Sauveur hospital from the Montpinson mount (77 points of impact on the hospital are still visible at the present time). We arrived in Bayeux the day after. It was the longest night of my life.
Ambulances tended to take more and more distance between each others. I could not understand why we would not stay all together in a group until the driver told me that it was better if only one ambulance explode on a mine instead of all of them, in a group.
We stopped at Carpiquet (TN: A small town where Caen’s airport is located) next to a big tree that was cut in half. There was a terrible bombing on the airfield. I was so scared that I wanted to leave. Nine injured persons were with me inside the ambulance. Among them M. Davy helped me to take it.
We went back on the road without lights. Although it was night time, we still could see everything from the bomb explosions lightning. There was no dark nights at this time…We had to stop so many times on the road to be able to go through bombing during the whole journey to Bayeux. Still now, even I try to forget, I can not help thinking about it. It was frightening.
We arrived at the general hospital where nobody was expecting us. It was a mess. We didn’t know where the injured were supposed to go. We didn’t know where to go ourselves. Eventually we were taken to a small room where we were able to deploy stretchers for wounded ones.
We met M. Langlois, the hospital director, in his combat uniform. He bought us in a large room where articles form museums; statues were sheltered. We made up our beds there. The morning after, we had to be on duty. With Herbine, I have been affected to the general hospital. There, we found a disaster.
For the past 3 days, nobody had changed bandages. The smell was horrible. A huge number of wounded had arrived from Caen. Some were also sick, they needed sulfamide, some other were dehydrated to death…but they had been given nothing. It was the same at Robert Lion’s hospital. WE actually went there to check on our soldiers we had brought with us from Caen as we wanted to know what had happened to them after the dispatches.
There were so many things to do. Sometime we couldn’t stand washing bandages while soldiers were dying but it was a necessary task.
The day after I was already transferred to the Letot School while Herbine had to go back to Caen.
Letot school was ridiculously small with very simple equipment. There was only Mrs. Anfrye with her two kids (her daughter Monique and her son Jean-Claude) with M. Angerard who was helping around. Being very nice, Monique and Nicole Lebailly would come to read the news reports to all wounded people. Jean-Claude was sometime reading the mass in Latin, from the staircase.
The school was cut in half. In the first (left) building, the old canteen was for men, right side, classrooms, for women.
On the yard, there were ruins of a building, probably classrooms as I could see some blackboards on the first floor. There were 3 rooms left on the ground floor that was used for men and women.
In the garden, a greenhouse, where we would also pout some wounded people. In the end, we could take care of many people there.
We had named each room after county names! First floor: Corsica with 4 amputated people. A 10 years old boy: Roger with all remaining extremities in plaster, and on the other side in the convalescence room M. Davy from Caen, M. Glasson and M. Matiére from Fleury-sur-Orne.
In the first floor room below, there was much more people, all women. I especially remember that mother with her 7 years old daughter who had both been burnt by German using a flamethrower on them while they were on their way back from milking the cows.
Americans were bringing us a lot of supplies. We would burn needles to sterilize them, use cotton to clean wounds. We never got any “Serious” infections. Dr Boivin wouldn’t skimp on ether!
However, it was hard for us to get enough cloth. Some nice people would bring us their shirts. For us, we had nothing to change. Mrs. Boivin was cleaning and gave us great help while her husband was managing the whole intensive care, spending all his morning next to each injured person, sometime having to re-do huge bandages.
At night, Dr Boivin had order to have at least one nurse to reassure and comfort people.
M. Leroy was managing the whole thing.
Food was coming form the general hospital. Brought to us into milk bottles or those buckets usually used for nature’s need… Sometime it was just too much washing up!
There were many people helping. It’s impossible for me to forget all of them…
I was working mostly with Ms. Floubert. In fact in such emergency situations, requiring so many treatments and care, we were becoming real nurses. After two and an half month, I was so happy to have all these experience validated for my internship by Dr Boivin.
In terms of wounds, we had a lot of crushed bones, open wounds form explosions, cut bones and serious burns. M. Bonfardin who later became my husband had to have his right leg amputated. He was full of bomb fragments (TN: Some graphic descriptions have been removed).
Slowly people went back to find their families. For us it was hard to find enough crutch and pants. On October 16 I finally went back to Caen, in the back of an English military truck. This time, it was much faster than on the way to go! We went directly to the nursing school to work. On November 2nd 1944, we were student nurses again!"
External Link about the battle for Caen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_for_Caen