Once Upon a Time: La Belle France
Linda Groundwater

One in a series of five stories about how the Heroes ended up at Stalag 13




mardi, 9 décembre 1941


Je suis dans un prison en Allemagne. I was captured last week near Chalon after four days in hiding. I have been allowed to keep my diary. Maybe les Boches think I will say something in it that they want to know. Cochons. They will learn nothing. But I will use this to tell my family what is happening to me.


It was cold the day I was caught. L’hiver has been bitter this year. I cannot use names or specific places in this book in case it is taken and looked at for the evil purposes of les Boches. It would surprise me, though, if a single one of them could read le français, since it is a language of beauty, and they are a people of ugliness.


What they have done to la belle France is an outrage. I thought as much when they came plowing through Paris in their tanks and their trucks last year, trying to make it look as though we wanted it, trying to humiliate us and make us into nothing. They did not understand then how strong the French people are. And they do not understand how strong I, Louis Le Beau, am.


Les Boches sont très furieux de moi. I have been beaten at least twice since my arrival here at the processing centre at Frankfurt-on-Main, and at least twice on the trip here. All the Nazis understand is force. They do not consider anyone but themselves worthy of life or dignity. So if my handwriting is hard to read it is because my knuckles are still swollen from being slammed against the wall too many times when they were trying to stop my head from taking the most impact. A fair trade to keep my brains inside my skull. Only time will tell if my plan was successful. I had heard that since France was considered a conquered country, and therefore no longer at war, that some of the prisoners of war had been released back to France. If that is true, then they do not consider me French. Either that or I am not one of the lucky ones. I have a distinct feeling it is the latter.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


mercredi, 10 décembre 1941


I had to stop yesterday because I was getting dizzy and my hand was hurting. They do not leave me alone here. My stomach will ache with hunger so much that I cannot fall asleep, and they complain about my moaning but will not bring me more than a mere scrap of bread. Yet when I finally become silent because I have fallen asleep with exhaustion, they wake me up by turning on very bright lights in my cell and I start moaning all over again. I try not to; I do not want les Boches to have the satisfaction of knowing they hurt me, but sometimes it is too difficult to hold it in.


Each day, three times a day or more, I am dragged into an office and asked what unit I was with, what type of plane I was in, how I dared be in the sky fighting against Germany when the French are a conquered people and have no right to be fighting any longer. I do not answer them, except with phrases such as, “Les Boches sont le cochon crasseux qui ne sont pas assez bons pour manger swill de l'étage,” which irritates them because they do not understand what I am saying. And while most of the time they backhand me because they at least grasp that it is an insult, I feel better for having said it, and that’s all that matters, at least for now. They ask me about continuing French resistance, they ask me for names and for places, but I will not give them anything.


Even if I had information, I would never give it to the people whose filthy feet have soiled my beautiful France.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


jeudi, 11 décembre 1941


C’est incroyable. I heard two guards talking last night, when they thought I was asleep, about le japonais attacking the Americans at Pearl Harbor. It seems impossible, but the guards were saying that America has now declared war on Japan and gotten into the fray. Why they did not consider it important enough to help all of Europe, but are fighting only now that the war has moved onto their own territory, is a mystery to me. But at least with the Americans in the thick of it, we should see an end to the conflict soon. Perhaps by the end of next year we will all be home, if we survive.


A cut on my head is infected, I think. It feels hot when I touch it and I am more often getting disoriented. I may have to use some of my drinking water tonight to wash it. It will depend on which need is deepest whenever the food appears.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


samedi, 13 décembre 1941


I must have been right about that cut. I felt sicker and sicker that night even after having something to eat, and I remember les Boches complaining more than once about my grumbling. But all of a sudden the room went very cold, then very hot, and the floor seemed to start moving, and I fell. When I woke up, I was on the cot with a bandage wrapped around my head, and a small cup of water was sitting beside me. I do not remember any of that happening. One guard was at least nice enough to tell me what day it was, and I discovered I had lost all of Friday in my delirium.


I miss mes amis. I miss ma famille. The Germans are trying hard to make me feel very homesick, and I am afraid they are succeeding. They talk about the coming holidays and how if the French would just accept that they had been defeated that we would all soon be home singing chants de Noël and going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Little do les Boches know that I missed my family gathering on le jour de Saint Nicholas a week ago. Nevertheless, their meaning is clear, and I often find myself thinking of those I love. But it is for those same people that I will get through this.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


dimanche, 14 décembre 1941


Another man has been brought into my cell. For the first time, I thought, I have someone to speak to. But he is Russian, and I cannot understand a word he says, and les Boches seem just as angry at him as they were at me. I fear for both of us now, but even more so for this man, who seems as afraid as I was when I was first brought here.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


mercredi, 17 décembre 1941


His name is Ilya. That is all I have learned so far, as he has been out of the cell for most of the time. When he has returned he has been in no condition to speak or even to sit. I have given him my blanket to use, and sometimes I have even shared my water. He needs it badly, he is very sick from the beatings and the abuse. Part of me is ashamed, but I cannot help but feel some relief when les Boches come for him, because it means they are leaving me alone, and I have been able to recover a little bit.


I fear I am losing my dignity, and my humanity.


***** **** ***** ***** *****


mardi, 23 décembre 1941


I will fight this humiliation. This degradation. Today when Ilya came back to the cell, I helped him onto the cot and then fed him some of the bread that was thrown in after him. I had to break it into very small pieces and wedge it in between his swollen lips. It was very hard for him, and for me to watch, but I know he understood what I was doing because he muttered something that I think is Russian for merci. It is très, très froid in here. Our meager blankets do little to keep us warm, and as we are losing weight from lack of food, our body fat cannot help protect us from the freezing temperatures. Ilya is unable to fight this on his own. I have taken to pulling our blankets over the two of us and curling up beside him to preserve what little body heat we have. His shivering has stopped, at least for now.


I will be strong. I will keep my values and my faith. But s’il vous plaît, mon Dieu, rescue me from here soon.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


?? décembre 1941                                                                  


I have lost track of the days. On veille de Noël, they came and dragged us both away. I do not know how long I was unconscious, and this time no one will tell me the day. My ribs hurt, my back hurts, I cannot see properly out of my right eye. My head is pounding. I remember some of what happened, and I will hold to those memories, and some day, les Boches will pay.


Ilya has disappeared. If this is how I have come out of my encounter with the enemy, I have fears over whether he will have made it out at all.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****


mercredi, 31 décembre 1941


At last I have a sense of time. I heard the guard talking about going to drink after he got off duty tonight. I do not understand a lot of German, but I know enough to get by, and this one used the words zu feiern (“to celebrate”), zu trinken (“to drink”), and Mitternacht (“midnight”), so I feel confident that this is the last day of 1941. I do not know what he has to celebrate. I certainly wish I had something to be cheerful about.


Ilya has not returned.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


jeudi, 1 janvier 1942


The stupid guard drank too much last night, and today he has been cross and abusive. He does not like standing outside my cell, and he does not like knowing I am only a few inches from him. I think he is still a little drunk, and he takes great pride in telling me how the French people had to be conquered so his great leader Hitler could take over Europe and lead the Germans back to where they belong. I take equal pride in shouting back a few choice phrases in my native tongue, while he can only look bewildered and, eventually, annoyed. Once he opened the door and took a swing at me, but I am little and his aim was poor, so he missed and fell into the wall. I dared to laugh. My punishment was no food tonight. It was worth it.


The guard mentioned Ilya. But he was laughing and I could not get any sense of out him. I did not understand the words he used.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


samedi, 3 janvier 1942


I dreamed of home last night. It was beautiful and warm and all-encompassing. Waking up was devastating. I am back in my nightmare.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


lundi, 5 janvier 1942


More dreams. More heartache when I wake up. I need to leave here before I go mad. My mind runs amok. I am home, at le boulangerie, buying baguettes on un dimanche matin, I am holding my little niece Suzette, I am singing for mon oncle, Jean, at one of his parties. I am free….


I am now routinely questioned and then tossed back in my cell. I do not know why they leave me here instead of sending me to a camp. At least most of the physical abuse has stopped. I hear nothing of other prisoners, nothing of Ilya. He has been gone for two weeks. Perhaps he has been sent away, or perhaps il est mort. I do not know any longer if that would be bad. What are they trying to achieve by keeping me here?


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


mercredi, 7 janvier 1942


In ten minutes, I am going to the transition camp at Wetzlar. I will try to keep this with me.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


vendredi, 9 janvier 1942


My new home is a crowded, dirty barrack at the Wetzlar transition camp. I have somehow secured a corner bunk where I can have some privacy. That term is relative when you consider that the bunks are all very close to each other and there is rarely a time where you are actually alone. Privacy has become being able to turn your back and know that the man three feet away will understand that you do not wish to be disturbed. Privacy has become learning to completely ignore the shivering man beside you who does not want you to notice his fear. Privacy has become feeling if not relaxed, then at least not too awkward when you stand naked in each other’s presence as you are sent to the delousing station and then to the showers en masse. Privacy has become learning to ignore someone else’s pain.


The man in the bunk above me is an Englishman. He is a Corporal like myself, but he must have had very high aspirations because all he talks about is the things he can do to better himself while he is in captivity and make himself bigger in the eyes of his superiors. I don’t have the heart to tell him that there is little he can do from here except survive, if he is lucky.


I realized when I got here how much I had missed human contact. Aside from Ilya, when I was at the Dulag Luft, the only people I saw were les Boches. I have asked around about him, but this is a very big place with hundreds of men, and no one seems to have seen him. I will have to accept that I will probably never find out what happened to him. Now, I see many, too many, men: some with hope and some without. But all at least men with whom I have something in common.


I have been counted for the third time today already, at roll call. Roll call is an interesting experience, and actually one of the few bright spots about being here. It shows a real esprit de corps that the prisoners can come together for something, even something as small as a head count. But it is what they do that helps me maintain some hope. They go out of their way to irritate the Germans, and that always raises spirits. Yesterday, for instance, le capitaine in charge of the camp stood before us, bellowing about the apparent theft of a tin cup. He screamed and shouted, and said he expected the guilty party to come forth immediately, with no promise of leniency if the item was returned. He finished by calling for the man who took the cup to take three steps forward. As though it had been rehearsed, everyone, including myself, who was innocent, took those three steps. We were stone-faced, we never let on that we thought there was anything funny about it. But holding in the laughter nearly split me in half. Le capitaine was apparently frustrated by this, and he turned on his heel and walked away. He did not mention it again at the next roll call.


The food here is better than at the processing centre, mainly because it exists. I have seen a half a Red Cross package, which had some good things in it that I was able to stretch out over three days. I rationed the chocolate like it was gold, and I traded the four cigarettes I had for two biscuits and a spoonful of le café. I am still very hungry a lot of the time, but there has been soup here, and some bread. Le pain is very heavy and sits like a rock in your stomach, but at least it is edible, and so I scrape the moldy bits off and eat it gratefully. How I wish I was near my pots and pans again!


We are at time for lights out. I will have to continue another day.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


lundi, 12 janvier 1942


They offer work for food, so I take it. Cleaning the mess hall and the kitchen. It is boring work, but it is warmer than the huts and sometimes I find scraps I can eat that someone may have been too sick to face, even in their hunger. When you are hungry, you think about food all the time, and the prisoners spend a good deal of time discussing their favorite foods. I try not to think about it, but I am only human and so I also find myself daydreaming about bouillabaisse and croissants and le poulet cordon bleu. A fine white wine and a beautiful mousse so light you could float away on it. It would be heaven now, more important than amour, more satisfying than sex.


I am waiting for word of my next living assignment. Wetzlar is supposed to be a temporary place to live, so I keep waiting for a transfer, but again it does not happen. I fear a bit less here, but it is still unpleasant. Le capitaine pulls me from the ranks regularly, along with some other unfortunates, and tries to humiliate me by talking about la belle France in ways that would make a sailor blush. I do not break down; I simply sing songs in my head and try to drown him out. He pulls me by the ear and tries to make me tell him about the French Resistance. I merely answer that I cannot tell him what I do not know. He does not like this, and he slaps me, then throws me in solitary confinement for a day or two. I am happy of the quiet, but not of the cold.


I am being summoned. I have a feeling I will be in solitary again tonight. I will pull on all the clothing I have.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


jeudi, 15 janvier 1942


I feel it is long enough since I was captured to write a little bit about how I got here. Anyone who may have been with me has surely either been captured themselves or has escaped or has been killed. And anything we were doing has finished or is likely not to be useful to les Boches any longer, so if they find this it will be of no use to them. I am writing by the light of the moon coming in through the small window. It will be hard, but I want to do it while it is still clear in my mind.


When my beloved France fell to the Nazis, I was a part of the French Air Force. I had piloted a Morane-Saulnier 406, a fighter that really had no business being in the same airspace as the German Bf 109s. It was a nice little plane, but one does not want a “nice little plane” when one is facing a monster of armament and speed. One wants a strong defense, and a great offence. It was too slow, and it did not have enough weaponry to make a difference. I was lucky enough to escape being shot down more than once, but that did not make me feel any better when I watched my fellow countrymen being felled left and right in what was proving to be a hopeless war against a superior military power.


Once Premier Henri-Philippe Pétain started armistice negotiations with les Boches last June, I knew I had to do more. I loved Marshal Pétain for what he did for France during the Great War. But though I know everything seemed hopeless when he took over, I could not help but feel that he was condemning us to humiliation and dishonor. And so I escaped from France, and was among about two hundred men joining the Force Aériennes Françaises Libres in England under General de Gaulle to continue the fight.


The recruitment centre was in London in a place called O. H. (I will still abbreviate just in case les Boches think there is anything helpful here).  At first we had to live right there, in dormitories that were created as we arrived and needed a place to lay our heads. It was very confusing at first, and for the British people it must have been very difficult to watch as a nation’s defeated people came pouring into their country. The English were very kind to us, though, and when I finally had the spirit to go out into the city, I found I did not even need to have money to ride the buses. “Frenchies don’t pay,” the conductors would say, waving me onboard. It was gratifying, and very helpful, since money was in very short supply.


When London was being heavily bombed by the Germans, I felt once again that I was fighting for my beautiful homeland through my adopted country. At first I had not been given any particular assignment; I had to learn to fly British planes, and my English, while passable, was not yet as good as it is now, so it was at times very frustrating when I was given a British instructor instead of a French one. At these times, I would have given almost anything to be back in my “nice little plane”—at least I already knew how to fly that! I had learned to like the English people, and I shared in their distress at what was happening to their country. I could certainly empathize.


Eventually, after unsuccessfully trying to become adept at piloting a Havoc I intruder aircraft—thank Heaven I never ended up actually having to go into battle with one; their modifications were not very successful—I was assigned to the 340 Squadron in Turnhouse, Scotland. Ah, mon Dieu, and I thought the English accents were difficult! But regardless, I tried very hard to learn how to fly a Spitfire. It was a very confusing plane; to open the throttle, I had to push the lever forward, something quite the opposite to what I was accustomed to, and more than one accident was caused by this difference, not to mention by the language barrier—there were all sorts of ex-patriots joining us, such as the Poles, the Dutch, and the Norwegians. We were a true melting pot, but we all had one thing in common: we wanted our countries to be free of the Nazis and free from Hitler, and for that we could overcome anything.


I loved my plane from the very beginning, despite the problems. The French flag painted vertically on the tail and the markings on the sides only increased my pride in what I was doing. I was not going to give up; I was going to help my beloved France to regain her dignity and her freedom. My undoing was a “rhubarb” over C. This is a small scale fighter or fighter-bomber attack on the continent on ground targets of opportunity. This was usually done when the weather was poor, in case the Luftwaffe snuck up on us. It was raining and I had originally been flying above the clouds, but now I was ready to come in. As I broke through the clouds, I found myself facing several Messerschmitt Bf 109Fs, and without going into detail, I will say I knew I was in trouble before too long, with a broken fuel line and no radio.


For the first time, I bailed out of an airplane. It was cold and wet and terrifying. To this day, I cannot tell if I was shaking from fear or from the freezing weather.


I must stop; the memories are still too strong. I will not sleep tonight.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


vendredi, 16 janvier 1942


There were three of us hiding from the enemy in a cave up on a small hillside. We had considered going to the people and trying to hide in the village, but one never knew when one was going to find Nazi sympathizers, even in France, so we thought it would be better to stay out of sight while we were in uniform than to take a chance on being turned in by some traitor to the mother country.


A. knew of a place nearby where we could get some food, and so after licking our wounds in secret all through the daylight hours, we slipped out well after dark in search of something to eat. He was right. We found some day old bread, and some fresh water in a bucket, and we feasted in honor of the coming le jour de Saint Nicholas. We all knew somehow that we would not be back in England or in France with our families when the day actually came.


It was that same night that I came across this notebook. I saw the paper and a pencil sitting in a corner of the abandoned house, and instinctively I grabbed them. I did not write anything in it, though, as I suspected that if it was found it would still mean trouble for me and for anyone who might be with me. I nearly dropped them at some stage, but I am glad now I did not, as this gives me a way to pass the time, and keep my sanity.


G. had broken his arm in his bailout, and we wrapped and splinted it as best we could, but it wasn’t really going to be a good job as there were no proper materials for us to use. We could tell it still hurt him a lot more than he was willing to say, and we tried to help him, but there was little we could do. By the time we were captured by les Boches, he had a fever, and they said they were going to take him to the hospital at Hohemark. I have not seen him, or A., since.


Our capture was surprisingly civil. They knew where we were, and as we woke up one morning we heard them outside calling for us. A. suggested we shoot our way out, but he always tended to act without thinking first, and I had to explain that with only one working gun amongst the three of us, and with G. in no shape to even stand up, it would be suicidal. He finally agreed, and so when the men outside called in abominable French for us to come out, we did, with both of us supporting G. One of the soldiers came and took G. from us. At first we fought him, but he was backed up by men with guns, and when we saw a truck nearby, we realized he actually wanted to help. G. could barely stand by now, and the soldier was quite gentle when he picked G. up and carried him to the truck. He is the only gentle German I have seen.


The soldiers gestured for us to get into the truck, too, so we did, and we traveled for a long time until we got to the processing centre. Then A. and I were separated, and I began this diary a few days later.


There is a rumor that some of us will be moved out soon. I hope they will move me. I do not get enough food here, and the work is hard in the cold weather. Maybe a regular Stalag will be different. No matter where I am, though, it will not be home, and I will be alone.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


samedi, 17 janvier 1942


Three men near me have been moved. I have been given their work of making sure the barracks are clean. If I don’t finish it all in time I have to stand outside for an extra hour after roll call. With the freezing temperatures, this is bad, and there is so much work I did not finish today. My fingers are numb. I cannot hold my pencil properly.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


dimanche, 18 janvier 1942


Two hours outside today, and no soup or bread. They are bringing in no one to replace the others and help with the work. I am losing hope again.


***** ***** ***** ***** *****


lundi, 19 janvier 1942


I was pulled out of the lineup at roll call this morning and taken to a small room with no windows and a single, bare bulb. I was scared at first, but then I decided it could not be worse than anything that has happened before now, and at least the bulb made the room warmer than outside. I sat for a long time before I realized that it was simply a punishment—they had no intention of doing anything to me, or asking me anything. I do not know why they did this. Perhaps to scare me or make sure I “know my place.” It is starting to work, although I do not want it to. I wish they would let me go.


Same night, just before midnight


Now they have pulled me out of bed, calling me all sorts of filthy names, but they say they are moving some of us, and I have five minutes to get my things and get outside. This is the only thing I own aside from a single change of clothes, so I am ready. Writing in case this is taken from me and not returned. Maybe someday someone else will see it and remember.


I will try to survive. I will try to keep my spirit and my passion. I will try to remember that I am Louis Le Beau, and that Louis Le Beau has integrity and hope. Vive la France


Time to hide this book. The shouting has started again. We are in for a frightening future, they say. The Kommandant of the camp we are going to is called “The Iron Eagle.” And the camp has had no escapes, ever. I wonder, can it be worse than it is here, at Stalag 13?



Text and original characters copyright 2004 by Linda Groundwater

This copyright covers only  original material and characters, and in no way intends to infringe upon the privileges of the holders of the copyrights, trademarks, or other legal rights, for the Hogan's Heroes universe.