Part III: Transportation during the Exodus

As a somewhat logical follower to part II, here’s a survey of the transportation options during WWII for the thousands of Northern French who headed South, fleeing the invasion of the Nazis. To know before you read: In June of 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris. Before their arrival, 4/5 of the city had fled. The mass movement of people (close to 25% of the French population) to the interior and South of France is called “l’Exode.” A month later, Vichy France (the cooperative French-Axis government) was set up in the unoccupied Southern “free zone.”

Transportation during l’Exode

In 1940, author Antoine Saint-Exupery served as a reconnaissance pilot for the French army. Just two short years later, he recorded his experiences in his book Flight to Arras. While flying on a mission just northeast of Paris, he wrote: “German bombers bearing down upon the villages [have] squeezed out a whole people and sent it flowing down the highways like a black syrup… I can see from my plane the long swarming highways, that interminable syrup flowing endless to the horizon… There is a crazy contagion in this exodus. Where are these vagabonds going? They are going south – as if in the south there was room for them, food for them, tender hands waiting to welcome them… But southward the most generous hearts are beginning little by little to harden at the sight of this mad invasion which little by little, like a sluggish river of mud, is beginning to suffocate them.” What he witnessed would become known as l’Exode, or “the Exodus,” the biggest single movement of a European population since the Dark Ages. As German troops invaded Northern France in the summer of 1940, as many as 10 million people fled their homes and took to the roads and railways in the hope of finding safety beyond the Loire River. Although many modes of transport were available, roads and resources were disorganized and the endless “black syrup” that pushed steadily southwards was “a stampede of alarming proportions” that would foreshadow the inadequacy of old trade routes and supply lines in wartime France.

When the Exodus began in May of 1940, modern conveniences such as airplanes and the TGV did not exist. It was not yet possible to jet across France in as little as two hours. Civilians had to travel by road or rail and they had many different options to choose from, though not all were appealing. In the war years before the Exodus, trains were used to transport injured soldiers to hospitals in the South. However, they became crowded beyond capacity as they began to carry evacuees as well.

The SNCF, the national French train company, even requisitioned freight cars so that they could hold passengers instead of cargo. At some point, the company had to cease issuing tickets because there were just not enough resources to transport everyone (SNCF cars would later transport Jews to Nazi concentration camps and the company would bill the state of France for 3rd class tickets for each “traveler”). Buses were also used to transport as many civilians as possible; on a typical bus there were 21 seats and 52 standing, at a cost of 10 francs per passenger.

Memoirs from the time recount a steady progression in the waves of refugees. First came the luxurious limousines complete with chauffeur. It seemed more like the normal seasonal shift when people from the North would go to vacation in the South. Second were the people in their family sedans; their cars packed full with their belongings. Finally, there were the least fortunate, who traveled with the cargo of supply trucks, in wagons and carts, on bicycles, or simply on foot.

An observer would have seen many emblematic French cars, from Citroens, to Peugeots, to Renaults. The vast majority of these cars were standard transmission, front-wheel drive and in the constant starting and stopping of the cross-country traffic jams, they commonly broke down. Stripped gear boxes, worn-out brakes, blown tires, overheating radiators, scarce amounts of gasoline and oil: all of this combined to make for huge numbers of broken-down vehicles, littering the sides of the road. The cars, with their “groaning springs and bulging tires,” were packed full of people and luggage and often carried a mattress on the roof. The mattress served a secondary, yet important purpose: protection from the bullets of the German air attacks. Along with aerial attacks, lack of gasoline was one of the biggest problems that refugees faced: as all importation of the commodity had stopped (and France has no indigenous oil production), there was an extreme shortage of fuel. Gasoline that was available was generally reserved for ambulances or army transports. The need for an alternative fuel led to the development of “gazogenes” – a generator that could be fitted onto cars and buses and burned charcoal or wood pellets. However, there was one major drawback to this invention: the cylinder was usually exhausted after 40 kilometers and there were very few “depots” at which to refuel.

As a result, modes of transport that did not rely on fuel became popular. Bikes, already popular since the late 1800s, became even more useful but were also very likely to be stolen. In at least one instance, when rubber was in high demand for military uses, bicycle tires were replaced with corks.
An enterprising young man, Fidele Outterick, invented the velo-taxi in June 1940. Essentially the French version of the rickshaw, they became very popular during and after the Exodus as a cheap and efficient means of transport in the crowded cities and on roads. Even by 1940, France was still a largely rural country; it was also very common to see wagons, as well as horses traveling on the roads. Imagine watching a country cart pulled by horses, piled high with hay and old peasant women, racing down the cosmopolitan streets of Paris. Additionally, if unfortunate enough to not have any wheeled-transport, people walked. Many tried to catch rides with motorists, but more often they were able to catch a ride with a team of soldiers on a supply truck.

Moving at the impossibly slow rate of five kilometers per day, on a route that was typically 100 to 500 kilometers total, at times the exodus resembled a vast boiling stew, rather than a steady flow of refugees. The slow advance owed partially to the fact that French army trucks were traveling the opposite direction than the Exodus. Army troops were moving north to halt the advance of the Germans, but the roads, blocked by refugees, impeded their movement. The mixing of French soldiers into the civilian crowds also caused the refugees to become victims of German air attacks. These “Stukas,” as the planes in the attacks were known, not only killed horses and people, but destroyed the transportation networks, cutting communication lines, destroying bridges, and delaying the arrival of supplies and personnel. When a German plane started firing, people were forced to abandon their cars and luggage and find safety in the ditches along the road. When horses were killed, people had to either abandon their belongings or carry what they could and continue the long walk south.

The Exodus of 1940 was an invasion of the South, mirroring the Germans’ invasion of the North. Though it was of course less hostile, Southern France was inundated by successive waves of refugees, each one sweeping through sleepy villages and gobbling up resources like food and shelter. This endless flow of people, lugging their belongings and all different types of wheeled machinery was a burden on the roads, transportation networks and communication lines, and supply movement for the French army.

The movie that made me want to research this topic (Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits). Also, I think they might’ve actually killed a dog in it, which is kind of a bummer:


3 thoughts on “Part III: Transportation during the Exodus

  1. Source list (lazily copied over from the original document in the form of endnotes):

    1. Saint-Exupery, Antoine. Flight to Arras. Penguin Books: Middlesex, 1942. 74-77.
    2. According to , overall it was close to 25% of the French population at the time; Kedward, Rod. “Life in Occupied France, 1940-1944.” Gale: Cengage Learning. 17 Feb 2011 .
    3. Kellam, Jack. Letter to a friend. 26 June 1940. “WW2 People’s War.” BBC. 17 Feb 2011 .
    4. The amount of people fleeing the North would reach its height in June of that year.
    5. By the late 1930s, civilian air travel did exist, though it was used only by the very wealthy. Interestingly, post-war Europe (and the rest of the world) was left with a large amount of airbases and war planes that would be converted into modern airports and civilian airplanes, respectively.
    6. Aliquot, Herve. Le Vaucluse dans la guerre: 1939-1945. Editions Horvath: Le Coteau, 1987.
    7. SNCF cars would later transport Jews to Nazi concentration camps and the company would bill the state of France for 3rd class tickets for each “traveler”; “Le groupe: Histoire.” SNCF. 18 Feb 2011 .
    8. Kellam.
    9. Aliquot.
    10. “Consequences de l’exode.” Histoire de Caychac 19 July 2010. 17 Feb 2011 .
    11. Lemire, Laurent. “1940, l’exode sous la canicule.” Le Nouvel Observateur 30 July 2009. 18 Feb 2011 ; Salix. “Voitures civiles de l’exode.” FranceModellers. 18 Feb 2011 .
    12. Saint-Exupery, 80. Quote: “That road easy to drive? Braking, stopping, shifting gears, changing from low into second and back again every fifty yards in the confusion of an inextricable jam. Easy driving? The woman would break down before she had gone half a mile! And gas! And oil! And water, which she was sure to forget!”
    13. Kellam.
    14. “German Occupation of France during World War II.” Wikipedia 30 Jan 2011. 18 Feb 2011 .
    15. Cointet, Michele. “Les civils dans la guerre.” Historia Sept 2009.
    16. Pryce-Jones, David. Paris in the Third Reich. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston: London, 1981.
    17. Ibid.
    18. “L’histoire du velo-taxi.” Cycloville 7 Feb 2011. 18 Feb 2011 ; Basch. “Gender and survival: a Jewish family in occupied France, 1940-1944.” Goliath. 17 Feb 2011 .
    19. Aliquot.
    20. Pryce-Jones.
    21. Lemire.
    22. Epp, Marla. Review of Fleeing Hitler: France 1940, by Hannah Diamond. University of Alberta. 17 Feb 2011 .
    23. Apocalypse: The Second World War. Created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clark. National Geographic Channel, 2009.

    Additional sources of inspiration/general history:
    1 Jeux Interdits. Directed by Rene Clement. 1952.
    2 Koestler, Arthur. The Scum of the Earth. Eland: London, 1941.
    3 Nemirovsky, Irene. Suite Francaise. Knopf: New York, 2006.
    4 Smith, Meredith. “The Civilian Experience in German Occupied France, 1940-1944.” DigitalCommons@ConnecticutCollege 1 Jan 2010. 18 Feb 2011 .
    5 “The demarcation line (1940-1944).” Chemins de memoire. Ministere de la defense et des anciens combatants. 18 Feb 2011 .

  2. Hi there, I’m currently a final year French student at Swansea University in Wales. You have no idea how helpful this has been in regards to an essay I am writing on on l’exode and Suite Francaise. So thank you very much!x

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