Memories: Eric Le Jeune
How and why we moved to the UK in 1941
Hitler attacked simultaneously Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France on Friday,10th May 1940, and war broke out in earnest in Western Europe. In blissful ignorance of the impending disaster, the Belgian High Command had that day authorized leave for the armed forces for the long Whitsun week-end.
I was 5 ½ and my sister Annette 3 years old; our Parents, Albert & Sità Le Jeune-Errera, both fourth generation Belgians, had separately spent the First World War in England as refugees from the 1914 German invasion.
Mindful of the exactions of the First World War by the Germans, there was a massive exodus, wholly unprepared, of the country’s population – first to the Belgian coast when it was optimistically thought that the invader would be halted on the Meuse. We had no car at the time, but were taken that very first day in my grandfather’s Packard with Sità and Miss Moore, our English nanny, to De Panne at the coast to await events.
Seeing the deteriorating situation, Sità bought a “cuisse-tax” 4-seater beach pedal-cycle in De Panne with the desperate idea of cycling on such a hopeless contraption – with nanny and two small children – to the south of France.
Luckily, Jacques Pirenne, a Brussels University professor, was passing by in his motor car (carrying, I believe, a consignment of Heavy Water) and took pity of us; he brought us via Abbevile, Sees and Chateau du Loir to Tours on the Loire River on 20th May; whence we were able to take a train to Libourne (near Bordeaux). My only recollection of that trip is sitting uncomfortably on a big metal chest (of Heavy Water?) in the car; and afterwards the vast throng on Tours station platform all jostling to get a place on the train, and somehow me being pushed onto the railway line. Fortunately Annette and I were ‘in harness’ and I was hoisted up safely as the train steamed in.
Meanwhile Albert had been busy evacuating the Le Jeune Office in Antwerp with his brother Charles and cousin Jean Pecher whilst his elder brother Alick, an officer in the Belgian army returned to his post. Three lorries of uncertain value were hurriedly found to convey all the office files, and those employees and their families who wished to leave for Bordeaux, the planned destination of all Belgians who had activities in the Belgian Congo. The caravan finally set off from Antwerp four days after the invasion, amidst indescribable chaos on the roads, with Stuka dive bombers and rumors of German parachutist spies dressed as nuns, at every turn.
After a brief stop-over in Ostend – by which time the caravan had swollen to five vehicles, 24 employees, their families and hangers-on, numerous bicycles, plus 3 drivers – the party lumbered off along the coast via Nieuport (16th May) in the direction of the French frontier.
Charles had already disappeared ahead in his red van with his wife and dog to Bordeaux.
Travelling through occupied France
was an important communication hub to channel news from and to occupied Europe; it was also a hotbed for spies of both sides.
1. Sita’s manuscript list of dates and places from 10th May to 24th June 1940 found after she had passed away.
2. Jean Pecher’s account of May 1940, “Ch. Le Jeune Limited – en campagne – ou La Tragique Histoire des P’tits Camions “
3. El Diario Vasco 18-23/06/1940 in the San Sebastian Public Library
4. My personal recollections
5. Alistair Horne, “To lose a Battle, France 1940” for the map and historical confirmation of the dash to the sea by German armoured columns 19-20th May.