It was early evening on Sunday 6 August 1944. The Allies’ bloody struggle to liberate Normandy from the Nazis had reached the village of Vaudry.
As gunfire broke out on a farm near the Pont du Vaudry, 40 members of one French family threw themselves into a trench next to the house. They pulled torn mattresses and tarpaulins over their heads; those sheltering ranged in age from very elderly grandparents to a four-week-old baby.
The lives of the Le Chevalliers hung in the balance as Allied and German bullets were exchanged just above their heads. The family had inadvertently made their situation yet more dangerous: the tarpaulins they hid under were distinctively German.
Peeping from beneath the coverings, several watched in horror as four British soldiers raised their hands to throw grenades. Then, just at that moment, the tiny baby, Martine, let out a loud cry.
They held their breath. What next? They never forgot their relief as the soldiers froze, before dropping their hands. The grenades were not thrown and, the way the family always saw it, their lives were saved by those four young British men, their sauveurs.
My father (pictured below), then aged 20, was one of those soldiers. As an officer, he may have been the one to order the cease fire. He was certainly, at that point, in charge of a platoon ordered to ‘nettoyer les Allemands’, as the French put it.
Philippe le Chevallier, then a 15-year-old schoolboy, wrote an account immediately afterwards, in an exercise book. He had retreated to the trench, originally dug for a German lorry, with ‘Maman’, ‘Papa’ and his baby sister, Martine. ‘At about six o’clock in the evening a German came behind our shelter. He fired at the Englishmen who arrived at the farm. The English thought we were the enemy. First because shots had been fired from our direction, second because the tarpaulins were German.
‘The English fired back, hitting our little shelter and the bullets whistled past our ears.