Victory in Europe Day, May 8th, commemorates the end of the worst carnage the world has seen, a catastrophe of destroyed lives and families, homes and countries. But the Second World War also began a pivotal shift to a new era, particularly concerning race and gender. The extraordinary circumstances of the war opened the door to wider roles for women, as this article shows through the experience of a unit of ambulance drivers. It is taken from the newly released edition of Women of Valor: the Rochambelles on the WWII Front (McFarland, 2021), by historian Ellen Hampton.
Jacqueline Fournier, petite, brunette, bilingual, had spent three years in New York avoiding the only position the Free French had to offer her – being a secretary. When she heard, in spring 1943, that a women’s ambulance corps was being organized, she leapt at the opportunity. A dozen other women joined, named themselves the Rochambeau Group after the revolutionary-era count, trained in mechanics and first-aid, and sailed to Morocco, where the Free French Army was being organized.
General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque was not interested in having women drivers in his Second Armored Division. Never heard of it! But he needed ambulances for the newly constituted 13th Medical Battalion. He agreed to take the women on until the division got to Paris, where he could get some proper men drivers.
Another 18 young women, from French families living in Morocco and Algeria, joined the group there. When they lined up to board the U.S. transport ship bound for England in May 1944, the crew stopped them: no women allowed. General Leclerc stepped in. “They’re not women, they’re ambulance drivers!” With no template for dealing with women members of an armored division, the men, the women and the army made it up as they went along. By then, opposition to their presence was waning, and the women were widely referred to as the Rochambelles, a name that has stuck ever since.
In August 1944, beyond the immediate joy of being back in France, the danger and darkness of war erupted rapidly around them. One woman was severely injured in a bombing and had to leave the group. Another woman disappeared on a Normandy road, never to be found. They were shot at, blasted by mines, taken prisoner by Germans. While the women were non-combatants, they were not auxiliaries kept behind the fighting lines, they shared the same risks as division troops. And they learned quickly how to master their fear: soldiers’ lives depended on it.
From August 1944 to February 1945, the Rochambelles held the hands of dying soldiers and raced the wounded to field hospitals as the Allies pushed the Germans eastward. Fighting for the Colmar Pocket, in sub-zero temperatures on a frozen plain, was the worst of it. But living on the edge of hard experience, the Rochambelles developed solid bonds of friendship with their comrades, relationships that would last a lifetime.
In early May 1945, the division rolled into Berchtesgaden, Austria, where Hitler had his Alpine command center. There was little to no resistance, and one Rochambelle reported that a German woman who had lost her husband, father, brother and brother-in-law got down on her knees to thank her for ending the war. Another group was among the first into Hitler’s Berghof, looting and pillaging “with the drunkenness of pirates.” And then, on May 7th, some Rochambelles were together when the news came over the radio: Germany had signed the surrender. Around them, soldiers let it rip, firing everything they had into the air. The women whooped and danced with joy: the war was over!
In the midst of rejoicing, a pall fell over them. If the war was over, so were their careers as ambulance drivers. For most of the women, returning to civilian life did not hold much promise. Options for women in 1945 were limited and predictable: family, home, maybe a low-paying job, but nothing nearly as fulfilling as what they had been doing. As Rochambelles, they had touched the sky, rocked the earth, and defeated death on a daily basis. They were glad the war was over. But what would they do now?
Their lieutenant had an idea. She had heard that General Leclerc was going to organize a volunteer division for the Pacific front, French Indochina in particular. Surely he was going to need ambulance drivers. With the prospect of adventure ahead, the women started celebrating again. Their futures seemed marvelously uncertain.