The British soldiers arrived first.
It was 1939, and 14-year-old Andrée Cruise and her 12-year-old sister Marie (Mimi) were excited to see the troops arrive in their village of Wanquetin, France.
“We were so happy to see them,” she recalled. “Their mess tent was just across the street from our house. One of them played the piano, and he came every night to play the piano and speak English with my stepfather.”
Germany had invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France responded by declaring war. The arrival of the British troops invigorated the small farming community.
Cruise, 94, fingered dozens of photographs taken by her and her sister during World War ll. The photos spilled across the dining room table in the Liberty Lake home she shares with her daughter.
Picking up one, she smiled. The helmeted soldier, scarf wrapped around his neck, coat collar up against the cold, hands on his belt, grinned at the teenage photographer.
“This is Larry,” Cruise said. “He used to bring us fish.”
Her smile faded.
“He was killed.”
Another photo shows her with a kilt-clad soldier and an apron-wearing mess cook, carving knife dangling from his hand. That kilt shows up again in a picture where it adorns a snowman she and Mimi made.
In yet another photo, Cruise, Mimi, her baby sister Rosie and their mother are surrounded by smiling British soldiers, one of them balancing Rosie on his knee.
“That was before they left for Dunkirk,” Cruise explained.
When France fell to Germany in 1940, the British evacuated ahead of the advancing Germans.
“They left canned food behind. We dug a hole in the yard and buried it so the Germans wouldn’t get it.”
The Germans arrived at night, on motorcycles and in trucks, and this time there was no delight in the arrival of soldiers – no photos to mark their presence.
“I never took a German photo,” Cruise said.
Her mother, Marie Bonnell, had lived through this before.
When the Germans invaded France during World War I, Bonnell’s family had become refugees. She knew what it was like to be hungry and homeless.
“My mother said she’d rather die in her house than do that again,” Cruise said.
And this time Bonnell was determined to fight back. When her husband was arrested and sent to a German POW camp, she quickly became part of the French Resistance. Her daughters worked alongside her.
“We had to be so careful who we talked to,” Cruise recalled. “No one could be trusted.”
Their farm became part of the Underground, a stop for British soldiers making their way to England, and a safe haven for Resistance fighters. The family hid their secret guests in the attic or in the barn covered with hay.
Cruise remembers the relief she felt when a British soldier made it back to England.
“We’d get a message over the radio – ‘the little lamb has made it home,’ ” she recalled.
Their activities became all the more dangerous when German officers commandeered their home.
“It was one of the largest houses in the village,” she said. “Three or four soldiers with guns guarded the farmhouse. I’d have to walk past them on the stairway. ‘Heil Hitler,’ they would say, and I had to be so careful not to show any emotion.”
The family fell into a new routine. Early in the morning, Mimi would go stand in line for their rations while Cruise took care of the house and gave piano lessons in exchange for butter.
Their other activities were much riskier.
“Mother would sew messages for the Underground in the hem of our dresses, and we’d ride our bicycles to neighboring towns to deliver them.”
Some of the German soldiers tried to befriend the family. When troops raided the neighboring houses, helping themselves to food and bags of flour, an officer gave her mother a bag of flour.
“The Germans were hungry, too,” she said.
But her mother didn’t trust their kindness.
“I remember a German officer offered Rosie a piece of candy,” Cruise said. “Mother’s face turned white. The officer noticed and took the candy back, broke it in half and put half in his mouth before giving Rosie the other half.”
The canned food they’d buried in the yard became a source of food and amusement.
“When we dug it up, we never knew what we were going to get because the labels had come off. Funny things happen even in war,” said Cruise, laughing.
But the close calls they survived were no laughing matter.
The Germans would randomly search their home looking for evidence like flags or pins that showed they were part of the Resistance. One afternoon, her mother heard them searching the house. She quickly grabbed the Resistance flag and shoved it under her dress. Then she sat down in the kitchen and resumed plucking a chicken.
And when Resistance fighters killed three German soldiers in the village and took their bicycles, the occupying forces mounted a house-to-house search.
When they arrived at the farm, they ordered Cruise to accompany them. She knew those bicycles were hidden in their barn. Swallowing her fear, she went with them.
“As they went to open the barn door, a shot rang out, and they ran off to investigate,” Cruise said, shaking her head. “So many close calls.”
Village officials were alarmed at the risks Bonnell took. One day they came to the house and demanded she stop being part of the Resistance because they were afraid of what might happen to the village. They threatened to turn her in.
Cruise never forgot her mother’s response.
“Go ahead,” Bonnell replied. “I will name you as part of the Resistance, too.”
The officials backed off.
When France was liberated in 1944, Bonnell wrote a letter to her mother.
“I could not describe our joy,” she wrote. “Everyone was completely happy! I got out my most beautiful flag.”
After the war, Bonnell and her husband were reunited, and the entire family immigrated to Canada. Cruise met her husband, Richard, there, and they married in 1953. They had three children, and, when Bonnell settled in Spokane, the Cruise family joined her in 1956.
Her mother’s efforts during the war did not go unnoticed. She kept several citations stuffed in a drawer in her home. One from the French Forces of the Interior (the French Underground) recognized a gallant lady who “gave aid and assistance during the war of national liberation at the peril of her life and property.”
Another from the British Empire thanked her for “help given to the sailors, soldiers and airmen of the British Commonwealth.”
She also received the Cross of Honor from the Franco-British Society.
But Cruise said though her mother risked everything to aid the effort to liberate France, the awards mattered very little to her.
“Mother was a patriot. She believed in what she was doing,” Cruise said. “She was a very strong woman, and she raised us to be like her – strong.”
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