Living with the enemy on the Riviera during the war
On November 8th 1942 British and American Forces landed in North Africa. Just 72 hours later – on Armistice Day – Hitler decided to occupy that part of France which since 1940 had been a so-called “free zone”, administered by the collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain, based in Vichy. Initially the Mediterranean region was occupied by the Italians. Florence Pinglier kept a record of events which she later wrote up.
Italian occupation in France: Roll call for Italian troops before Italian officers. Photo: German Federal Archives
November 1942-September 1943
The arrival of the first group of Italian troops, parading slowly along the Promenade des Anglais, was a triumph. Their dream was coming true. Nice would be Italian forever!
They were greeted by hundreds of onlookers, mostly locals of Italian extraction who would have nothing to lose from the change. The rest of the population, like us, remained silent and discreet.
Most of the inhabitants were not persecuted by the Italians but we became aware that “suspect” men and women were arrested, especially those believed to have shown sympathy, past or present, for communism. For example, bank records were inspected and those who had subscribed years earlier to the Soviet loan were immediately arrested. Rumour had it that the Italian Special Police at their headquarters in Cimiez were just as brutal as the Nazis. Members of the Gestapo were also present in Nice to help the Italians. Identity cards were frequently checked. That was an ordeal for me – my card stated “British by birth”. Luckily, I was only checked by the French police who stamped it without remark.
We spent the summer of 1943 in Roquefort-les-Pins. That was when things changed. After allied forces landed in Italy, the Italians sued for an armistice. Almost immediately we found the streets filled with German soldiers. Early on I had a frightening experience. I was alone in our house in Roquefort listening to the BBC news. The front door was open and suddenly I found two young German soldiers on the doorstep. Had they heard the news bulletin in English? Apparently not. One of them pointed to our vines and said in hesitant French they wanted to take some grapes. I explained they were not ripe. One repeated this to his companion, they saluted and withdrew. However, the pressure of German soldiers everywhere was very disturbing This occupation was so much more thorough than the Italian. Curfew, patrols day and night, arrests, stories of torture and executions – it was impossible to forget for an instant that we were at the mercy of the invader. Materially, things were bad and steadily got worse. Fresh food had almost disappeared from the markets: we queued to buy cauliflower leaves, the cauliflowers themselves being sent to Germany, with much other local produce. A large part of the provisions sent by train from Paris never reached Nice. Authorities of the towns on the route helped themselves to the food to feed their own people. Then with allied air attacks we had less and less to eat. Luckily, in April 1944 we were able to send our son Alain, then aged seven, to a farm in the Hautes-Alpes near Gap where he got plenty to eat.
The Germans were not the only enemy. A niçois, Joseph Darnand, created the Milice, a uniformed group who helped the Germans hunt down Jews, résistants and others seen as targets for persecution. We had one very frightening contact with the Milice. My husband taught English in a Nice high school. One day one of his pupils, a boy of 15 or 16, asked to interview us at home. He told us he was a milicien and was aware that we were pro-British and listened to the BBC. He had told his captain of this and had been ordered to warn us to change our behaviour or something bad would happen to us. Curiously, not long after he disappeared from school and we never heard of him again. But that was a bad moment.
Florence Pinglier was born near Newcastle upon Tyne in 1902. She became an English teacher and met her husband André when he came to her school as a French assistant. After they married she took a degree in French and when they moved to France obtained the necessary qualification to teach English in school (CAPES). The Pingliers moved to Nice in the early 1930s and both taught at the Lycée hotelier there. After the war André founded the Nice branch of the Association France-Grande-Bretagne and was its President for many years. After his death in 1996 Florence moved to a retirement home near Paris to be close to her son Alain and his children. She died in 2003, just before her 101st birthday.
In June 1944 news came of the allied landings in Normandy and then not long after in Provence. War was now on the Pingliers’ doorstep and they decided to join their son in the Hautes-Alpes; it was there they welcomed the advancing American troops who gladly used their services as interpreters. By October they were at home in Nice to await the final days of the war.