On this day in history : 5th June 1944 – Ahead of the following day’s D-Day landings a small café in Bénouville is the first place to be liberated after British troops seize a vital canal bridge….
Every June 5th since, shortly before midnight – to celebrate the D-Day anniversary – Mme Arlette Gondrée has offered Champagne to everyone present in her café….many of whom have been veterans of the Normandy invasion….
The walls of the quaint interior are covered with photographs, old uniforms, helmets and regimental insignia…. Now known as the Pegasus Bridge Café, the two-storey, red brick building was once called ‘The Café Gondrée’….
Georges and Thérèse Gondrée had met in Cannes…. Georges had been a banker, working at Lloyds and so his knowledge of the English language was excellent…. Thérèse being from Alsace was fluent in German…. They married and settled down to run a coffee shop in the Commune of Bénouville in the Normandy region of northwestern France…. Their little café being situated on the West Bank of the Caen canal – at the north end of the Bénouville Bridge (now called Pegasus Bridge)….
However, in 1940 France was invaded by Germany; Georges and Thérèse found life under German occupation intolerable…. They began to support the French Resistance in Caen and passed vital information via the French Underground Movement to British intelligence…. Thérèse did not let the Germans know she could speak their language – she and Georges were able to gather details on the German garrison and the defences of Bénouville Bridge….
On the eve of D-Day three gliders were released from 8,000 up into the pitch-black, stormy night…. Sixty paratroopers, a Glider Unit of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment, British 6th Airborne Division under the command of Major John Howard, had orders to take and hold the bridge…. Howard had been able to put together a detailed plan with the information received from the Gondrées….
All three gliders managed to land in a nearby field, the rough terrain causing considerable damage to the aircraft…. What followed then was a short but fierce battle in which the British troops managed to take control of the bridge…. It was not without loss of life, several died….the very first casualty of the D-Day operation is buried in the cemetery at nearby Ronville…. The taking of the bridge was a key part of the preparations for D-Day – as it made it extremely difficult for the Germans to launch a counter-attack during the days of the Normandy invasion….
The Gundrées had been woken in the early hours by the noise of the gliders landing and then the following gunfire…. Georges had looked out of the window to see what was happening and was shot at by a British soldier….he had been mistaken for a German…. Georges and Thérèse quickly bundled their three young daughters into the safety of the cellar and spent the next few hours trying to work out the nationality of the soldiers – as they knew they were not German….
At 6.20am there came a loud knocking on the door….and all was revealed – as there stood three British paratroopers…. Café Gondrée was officially the first French building to be liberated…. Georges responded by digging up 99 bottles of Champagne he had buried in the garden and for the rest of the day gave celebratory drinks to the passing soldiers….
In later years the café was taken over by Georges and Thérèse’s daughter, Arlette, who had been 5 at the time of the liberation…. It is because of Arlette that the café continues to honour the anniversary of D-Day, with Champagne of course….but I do believe the café serves a very decent cup of tea as well…. Of course, only the British would ensure that the first place to be liberated would be somewhere they could guarantee a great cuppa! The café became an Historic Monument on the 5th of June 1987….
The following video clip shows Mme Arlette Gondrée at the 6th of June 2011 Ceremony