The Free French in Steep in WWII

The Free French in Steep in WWII

WHAT DO LOCAL PEOPLE REMEMBER ABOUT THE FREE FRENCH IN STEEP?

Joyce Pollard:

“During WWII there were French sailors at Steep House (now a nursing home). They came there when they were on leave and they went to the Harrow. They were quiet and kept themselves to themselves. It was thought that Annie Dodd’s baby John, stuttered when he first talked because his language was confused by hearing both French and English.”

Haden Dodd:

Haden Dodd remembered the Free French servicemen recuperating in Steep House and their visits to the Harrow, where as a little boy, he introduced them to darts and they taught him to swear in French.
“Steep House was a convalescent home for French servicemen during the war – I think General de Gaulle visited it once – and the patients used to come to the Harrow and play darts. My job was to be their scorer, and to this day the only words I know in French are darts terms. “

Jean Pritchard writing in Petersfield Area Historical Bulletin in 1995:

“Many of them were young and often homesick but they were determined to fight for the freedom of their country.”

Steep House

The South front of Steep House as it was in WWII. The Free French sailors were based at Steep House, which still exists and is located at the northern end of Tilmore Road, Petersfield. It is now a nursing home. The house cannot be seen from the road and is approached from a long driveway. A man named John, who later became one of the residents at the nursing home, remembered working as a delivery driver to the house during WWII. He recalled that there were guards posted at the end of the drive. Before the coming of the A3 (M) road, which now separates Steep from Petersfield, Tilmore Road led to Harrow Lane, which then led north to The Harrow Inn, Steep. The route still exists but is now only a footpath. This would have been the route which the Free Frenchmen took from their ‘Club’ at Steep House to The Harrow Inn.

WHO WAS LIVING AT STEEP HOUSE AT THE START OF WWII?

The 1939 Register listed the following as living at Steep House:
  • James Tweedie, aged 70yrs, retired tea planter, designated A.R.P. Central Control Petersfield
  • His wife: Alice Tweedie, aged 65yrs
  • Their married daughter: Norah Davis, aged 37yrs
  • And her husband: Robert Davis, aged 39yrs, tea planter
  • Also in the house: Vera Blomfield aged 34yrs, John Crabtree 14yrs, at school, & two domestic servants.
Nearby, at Steep House Cottage, were:
  • Alfred Moore 42yrs chauffeur & gardener.
  • Ethel Moore 48yrs his wife
  • Frank Moore 16yrs, their son, seeking work. (He later worked for Blake & Diana Parker at Whytton House)

WHO WERE JAMES & ALICE TWEEDIE?

The Tweedies had both been born in India. James Tweedie had been sent with his siblings to school in England. His father Charles had also been born in India in 1835. Charles Tweedie was an indigo and tea planter. He was a director of the Jaipur Tea Company. James & Alice Tweedie had at least 3 children: Mabel b. 1899, Charles b. 1900, Norah b. 1902. The family came from the Scots Tweedie clan. Thomas Tweedie b. 1784 at Glenholm in Peeblesshire, was Laird of Quarter. He went to India with the East India Company in 1805/6. He was physician general to the East India Company & proprietor of an indigo manufacturing concern in Bengal. He may have been one of James Tweedie’s ancestors.
At some point perhaps around 1940-1, it was decided to use Steep House as a rest home for the Free French sailors.What prompted this?

IVOR SPENCER-CHURCHILL

Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill 1898 – 1956 In September 1939, he was living at Dona Patch, Durford Wood, Petersfield Ivor was the younger son of Charles 9thDuke of Marlborough and his American wife Consuelo.
Painting of Ivor Spencer-Churchill and his mother Consuelo (née Vanderbilt) Picture licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 Simplified Family Tree showing the family connection between Ivor and Winston Spencer-Churchill

IVOR SPENCER-CHURCHILL (1898-1956)

  • He was educated at Eton & at Magdalen College, Oxford
  • He fought as a Lieutenant with Royal Army Service Corps in WW. He was decorated with French Legion of Honour
  • Ivor’s father, Charles & Winston Churchill were cousins.
  • Ivor was known as an art collector, especially of modern French paintings
  • He organised art exhibitions of Anglo-French art
  • He would have been aged about 39 yrs when he came to Steep

LITTLE LANGLEYS, STEEP

Little Langleys, Mill Lane, Steep. Picture from the book ‘ Buildings, Gardens and Monuments in Steep’ by Tony Struthers updated 2018 by Fran Box, Hugh Routh & Celia Storey The house was designed by Horace Farquharson (1874-1966) It may have been built around 1910 -11. It has extensive grounds.

CHANGE OF OCCUPANTS AT LITTLE LANGLEYS:

Before WWII Lieut. Col Sir Henry Earlehad been the occupant of Little Langleys. He had died on 16thJuly 1939 In September 1939 the following people were still living there: Albert Pound, 26yrs., gardener, & his wife Laura 25yrs. were at Little Langleys Cottage Herbert Hill 35yrs., Head Gardener & ARP First Aid Mobile Unit, with his wife Emily 33yrs were at Little Langleys Lodge Also there: John Turner 27 yrs. Professional fireman & his wife Hilda 28yrs On 27thOctober 1939 the executors of Sir Henry Earle directed Hall. Pain and Foster to hold a sale by of household furniture and effects at Little Langleys. After this, presumably either late in 1939, or in 1940, Ivor Spencer-Churchill became the occupant of Little Langleys.

IVOR SPENCER-CHURCHILL AND THE MAZE FAMILY

Paul Maze artist 1887 – 1979    
At Little Langleys, Ivor Spencer Churchill permitted an artist named Paul Maze (1887-1979) to have rooms in the stables as a studio. Paul Maze had been born in Le Havre and was from a French family. He had been educated in England. He became a naturalised Briton in 1920. Paul Maze had fought in WWI, where he met and became friends with Winston Churchill. He had taught Winston Churchill to paint. Differing accounts name Mme Jeanne B. Maze as either the sister, or sister in law, of the artist Paul Maze.

KEY DATES AT THE START OF WWII

The Nazi invasion of France took place on 10thMay 1940, Paris was occupied by 14thJune 1940. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain on 10thMay 1940. Chamberlain had previously attempted an appeasement with Hitler.

WWII – NAZI INVASION OF FRANCE June 1940

French naval ships which were at sea when the invasion happened did not therefore return to France, but escaped to ports in Britain, the Mediterranean and North Africa. In June 1940 there were more than 200 French naval ships in Portsmouth and Plymouth. They refused to capitulate to Nazi Germany, but they also refused to serve in the British Royal Navy or to hand over their ships to British crews. Royal Marines were sent on board the French ships and the French crews resisted with violence. Only 50 officers and 200 men out of a total of 18,000 sailors stayed in Britain to serve the Free French forces. French ships in North Africa and the Mediterranean were scuttled. General de Gaulle founded the Free French Forces (Forces Françaises Libres) including a naval arm Les Forces Navales Françaises Libres (FNFL). Vice Admiral Émile Muselier was in charge of the FNFL. He created the red cross of Loraine flag to distinguish the FNFL from the Vichy French forces. The Free French sailors were used by The Allies for tours of duty alongside the British Royal Navy. These duties were often those of protecting the Atlantic convoys which brought food and other supplies to Britain. In between duties, or if they had survived the sinking of a ship, or other such traumas, they need somewhere to rest and recuperate in Britain. A number of rest homes were set up. Steep House became one of them.
Free French badges from The Harrow Collection
Unknown Free French sailor from The Harrow Collection

WHY WAS STEEP HOUSE CHOSEN AS A REST HOME FOR FNFL?

The house was close to Portsmouth, which was one of the ports used by FNFL ships. Winston Churchill, who had become Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, had links to the local area through his cousin Ivor Spencer Churchill at Little Langleys, Steep. Jean Pritchard wrote that Ivor helped to set up Steep House as a rest home. Winston Churchill’s friendship with Paul Maze, the Anglo French artist, who was also in Steep, was probably also a key factor. It is interesting to note that the father of artist Paul Maze was a tea, rubber & coffee merchant with business interests in India. Coincidentally, the Tweedie family, who were already living at Steep House, were tea planters from India. One wonders whether perhaps the two families perhaps knew, or at least knew of each other.

STEEP HOUSE AS A REST HOME

We know that Steep House was operating as a rest home for the French sailors by July 1941, with a Mme Maze in charge, because the following newspaper report appeared in The Hampshire Telegraph of 18thJuly 1941
“Recently Mrs Penn-Clarke with the very kind cooperation of Mrs Cox gave a garden party at the Carlton Hotel, when French sailors were the guests of Petersfield residents, who came there to meet them. This was a very happy and successful event. …they had been invited as a simple but sincere token of the gratitude and goodwill felt for their French comrades.Tea and various games were played in the beautiful garden of the hotel.Three boys from Emmanuel School gave very valuable help as interpreters.Mme Maze of Steep House who was not able to attend owing to an accident sent a message of goodwill. It is hoped that other such gatherings may be arranged whereby Petersfield can show these brave sailors, who are away from their homes, families and native land to fight in out cause, that we are not unmindful of our debt to them.”
Jean Pritchard wrote of individual local families, such as her mother, inviting French sailors to their houses. Emmanuel School had been evacuated from London and was staying at West Mark Camp.

A LITTLE MORE ABOUT MME MAZE & PAUL MAZE

Who was the Mme Maze who looked after the French sailors at Steep House? Haden Dodd remembered her being called ‘the ex Lord Mayor of Paris’ She was related to the artist Paul Maze. The Book ‘Petersfield at War’ by David Jeffrey names her as Paul Maze’s sister in law. The Jean Pritchard and the Geni.com website name her as Paul Maze’s sister. Mme Jeanne B. Maze ran Steep House as a ‘club’ for the Free French sailors from at least 1941 – 1945. According to Jean Pritchard, Ivor Spencer-Churchill helped her to set it up. Paul Mazewas famous for painting quintessentially English scenes: Henley Regatta, Goodwood, Cowes week, scenes of pomp and pageantry, as well as country landscapes. He painted in a Post-Impressionist style.

THE STORY OF MICHEL SEVERE and FFL ALYSSE

Michel Severe was one of the Free French sailors. He was a maître chauffeur or chief stoker in the FNFL. His family were farmers from Roscoff in Brittany They grew the famous French onions. During WWII, Michel served on the FFL Alysse (K 100). The Alysse was a flower class corvette which had been built on the Clyde for the Royal Navy and originally named HMS Alyssum. The corvette had been leased to the FNFL and renamed FFL Alysse. In WWII there were 196 flower class corvettes belonging to the various navies of the Allies. During WWII unarmed merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were organised into convoys. These were accompanied by Royal Naval and other allied naval ships for protection.  Convoys travelled outbound from Britain carrying ballast and export goods to North America. They then returned from North America to Britain with vital food supplies and other goods. Some convoys also took supplies to Russia. Roughly half of the convoy escorts in the North Atlantic were flower class corvettes. The corvettes were uncomfortable, due to their short length and shallow draught. A Transatlantic crossing meant enduring the extreme cold, as well as a fortnight at sea in which the corvette constantly pitched and rolled. Many of the crewmen were young, inexperienced sailors. Persistent sea sickness was a major health hazard. Food rations tended to be monotonous: corned beef and powdered potato for all meals. Although quarters for the officers and petty officers were better, the ordinary seamen slept in crowded, stuffy and water laden conditions in the forecastle. In common with a number of the FNFL ships, the Alysse undertook such North Atlantic convoy duties. By 1942 she had already done nine such convoy duties.
On 30thJanuary 1942 the Alysse left Londonderry. She was accompanying the outbound North Atlantic Convoy ON 60, headed for St Johns in Newfoundland, Canada. They had crossed the Atlantic and were 420 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland, at Cape Race. In the early hours of 9thFebruary 1942, they encountered U Boat 654. At 00.34 the U Boat fired three torpedoes at the convoy, one of which hit the Alysse on the port side in the foreship. A corvette had few compartments below water level, so if it was hit by a torpedo, it was likely to sink very quickly. The remaining crew would need to abandon ship. Michel spoke little about his war time experiences, but just before his death he did relate some of this experience to his daughter, Roz Cooper. He told her that after the Alysse has hit, he went to collect his father’s watch. He and his best friend decided that they must to go into the water. Michel felt reluctant about this, but his friend was a good swimmer and reassured him that they would stay together. Michel remembered being in the water for what felt like three hours. The survivors were eventually picked up by the Canadian ships HMCS Moosejaw (K164) and HMCS Hepatica (K159). As he was taken from the water, Michel spoke to his rescuers saying that his friend was also there and could they pick him up too. Sadly, the rescuers could find no one else in the water. Michel’s friend and fellow FNFL sailor had perished. Michel also lost his father’s watch. The HMCS Hepatica took the Alysse in tow by the stern, as it was thought she might be saved. After 30 minutes the tow parted. The Hepatica waited with the Alysse until morning when a boarding party went aboard the Alysse. The Hepatica again took her in tow. The tug HMS Prudent (W 73), escorted by HMCS Minas (J165) were sent out from Newfoundland to try to salvage the vessel. After eighteen hours the weather became worse. There was a boiler explosion on the Alysse. Her forward bulkhead gave way causing her to sink at 11.30am on 10thFebruary.  The position at which she sank was at 46 degrees 34 N/ 44 degrees 10W. Of the complement of 70 on board FFL Alysse, 35 crew members and one British liaison officer were lost.The 34 survivors of the Alysse were landed at St Johns on 11th February. Her wounded commanding officer Jacques Pépin Lehailleur had been saved. He eventually lived until the age of 89, dying on 17 Oct 2000. Michel Severe was eventually brought to Steep House. After such experiences, one can see why it was vital to provide homes like Steep House as places of rest and recuperation for the FNFL sailors. While he was at Steep House, Michel Severe joined his fellow FNFL sailors in walking the short distance along Harrow Lane to the Harrow Inn at Steep. They played darts at the pub. We have already seen that Haden Dodd remembered acting as their scorer. The sailors were distinctive in their uniforms with striped tops and red pompoms on their hats. The locals of Steep and Petersfield became used to having them around.
At the Harrow Inn, there was a board on which WWII servicemen left their photographs. Michel left his photo there and also that of his brother Yves, who was serving in the French army and had been taken prisoner of war. Other FNFL sailors also left photographs. Claire and Nisa McCutcheon, the present Harrow licenses, still have this board in their archive.
Michel became friendly with Arthur and Annie Dodd, the Harrow licensees during this period. He kept in touch with them for a time after leaving Steep. In September 1942 they sent him a card with a picture of their daughter Ellen on it.
When his period of rest at Steep House came to an end, Michel and his fellow sailors were sent to Emsworth. Here they were at first billeted in tents, but it was not long before it was decided that a barracks needed to be erected. The FNFL sailors were put to work in constructing it.
In October 1942 General De Gaulle visited the FNFL sailors in Portsmouth. He visited their camp, inspected ships’ companies and addressed the sailors. It is thought that it was at this time that he may also have paid a visit to Steep House and possibly also to Ivor Spencer Churchill at Little Langleys in Steep.
As in Steep, the FNFL sailors got on well with the locals in Emsworth too. A photograph in the Portsmouth Evening News of 6thSeptember 1943 shows the Emsworth Home Guard Sports Day. The Half Mile race was won by P.O. Ory of the FNFL force. Several of the French sailors eventually married local girls. On 21stAugust 1943 the following announcement appeared in The Chichester Observer: Michel and Elsie Severe had 3 children: Louis, Yves and Rosalind. Michel Severe died in 1995 aged 79 years in South East Hampshire.

RENÉ BESNAULT:

Martyn Ball the handyman at Steep House in 2018 says that the son of a former occupant returned to visit the house. Martyn was told that there were also French resistance fighters there during WWII. The story of René Besnault illustrates the courage and determination of some of those who escaped from France to become part of the Free French. René Besnault was 19 years old. He was a member of the French resistance & made a daring escape from France with four friends. The following account comes from a letter which he wrote to the mother of Jean Pritchard. It is taken from the PAHS Bulletin for Autumn 1995: At last the chance came. They left with parental approval on 18thJanuary in a small boat in bitter weather. René, aged 19, was the youngest. Jean 21, Claude 20, Pierre and François accompanied him. They spent five days adrift in the English Channel in which their compass did not work, the motor broke down and the boat took in water. They rigged up an oar to act as a mast but the wind blew the sail away. Their two tins of sardines, three bottles of wine and some bread gave out early on. There were gales and they were drenched, frostbitten and starving. At last they saw ships, hailed one and were brought into Plymouth the nearest port. Here they were well treated. Someone gave them porridge – their first taste of English food. How they appreciated it! They were given clothes by the Red Cross, taken to London and spent time at Pembroke Lodge, the Free French Centre there. After arriving in Britain, René was subsequently enrolled in the FNFL and posted to a training ship. In May 1942 he spent a weekend at Petersfield. René eventually rose to the rank of admiral and became Aide de Camp to General De Gaulle.

MORE ABOUT THE ARTIST PAUL MAZE 1887 – 1979

Maze had been born into a French family in Le Havre, his father was a tea, rubber & coffee merchant with business interests in India. His father was also an art collector. The family’s circle of friends included Monet, Pissarro & Renoir. Paul was sent to school in Southampton & fell in love with all things English. During WWI he was an unofficial interpreter with the Royal Scots Greys. He became separated from them at the retreat from Mons & was taken prisoner by a British unit who thought he was a spy. He was sentenced to death. On his way to the firing squad he was recognised by an officer from the Scots Greys and released. He continued in the war as a military draughtsman and was wounded three times. He met Winston Churchill in the trenches. They became lifelong friends. He encouraged Churchill to paint. After WWI, in Paris, Paul Maze’s friends included Pierre Bonnard & Edouard Vuillard. He became a naturalised British subject in 1920, & in 1921 married Margaret Nelson, a British woman. They had two children: Jean Paul Etienne and Pauline. It is a measure of how close the Maze and Churchill families were, in that a picture exists of Winston Churchill and Paul Maze’s son Étienne fishing at St Georges Motel, possibly taken in the 1920s or 1930s.
Paul Maze eventually came to live in England, settling at Treyford, in West Sussex. During WWII Paul Maze served with the Home Guard in the local West Sussex & Petersfield areas. He gave his car to the Petersfield Home Guard, who used it to transport their patrols to the Butser cutting. Paul Maze painted in a Post-Impressionist style. He loved to paint scenes of the English countryside and those of British institutions such as Henley Royal Regatta, ceremonial occasions in London, sailing at Cowes etc.

WHAT BECAME OF MME MAZE AFTER WWII?

At the end of World War II, Madame Maze wrote a letter to the local Petersfield magistrates, which was reported in The Hampshire Telegraph of 28thSeptember 1945. The ‘club’ for the FNFL sailors at Steep House was due to close on 30thSeptember 1945. She wrote: It has been a great help and a great comfort for our sailors to spend quiet and happy days in this delightful place, when they were deprived through German occupation from going to their homes. We shall never be grateful enough to the Petersfield people for their kindness and all they did for us…..” Mme Maze seems to have continued to live on in England, possibly locally, in Bosham. Jeanne B Maze died aged 71 yrs in 1957 in the Chichester district of West Sussex. On 19thJuly 1957, the contents of her ground floor flat at Walton House, Bosham were auctioned. The contents included paintings and watercolours by Boudin, Mazeand Ravanne.

WHAT BECAME OF STEEP HOUSE AFTER WWII?

The Tweedie family moved back into Steep House at the end of WWII. They continued to live there. James Tweedie died there in 1960 aged 90 years Alice Tweedie died in 1961 aged 87 years They are both buried in Steep churchyard. The inscription on their grave is the motto of the Scots Tweedie clan: ‘Thole and think on’
Locals remember that a man named Reggie Dingwall lived at Steep House after that. He was well known for collecting used postage stamps which were then sold to aid the church in the Sudan. Steep House became a private nursing home in 1990. It has been extended and had a number of changes of ownership. It has 55 rooms and is now, in 2018, one of a group of nursing homes that is part of the LRH-Homes company, with properties in London, Surrey and across the south of England.

WHAT BECAME OF PAUL MAZE?

Paul Maze divorced his first wife in 1949 and, in 1950, married Jessie Lawrie, who features in a number of his pictures. His daughter Pauline, from his first marriage, died aged 44 yrs 13 Mar 1964. His son Paul Étienne died in 1989. Paul Maze died at Treyford in 1979, aged 92 yrs with a pastel in his hand, overlooking his beloved South Downs in West Sussex.Lady Soames, daughter of Winston Churchill, named him as her father’s painting companion and said that he had been a regular visitor to Chartwell for many years.

IVOR SPENCER-CHURCHILL & HIS FAMILY AFTER WWII

Winston Church died on 24th January 1965 in Kensington, having been Prime Minister of Britain 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. In 1947 Ivor Spencer-Churchill (aged about 49 yrs) married Elizabeth Cunningham. They had a son: Robert Spencer-Churchill born 1954. Ivor Spencer-Churchill continued to live at Little Langleys in Steep until he died of a brain tumour on 17thSeptember 1956, aged 57 years. His wife Elizabeth continued to live there after that. In 1979 Ivor’s son, Robert Spencer-Churchill, married Jeanne M. Maze, daughter of ÉtienneMaze (1922-1989) & granddaughter of Paul Maze, artist. Jeanne M Maze is an artist. The couple went to live in France. They had two children: John b.1984 & Ivor b. 1986. In 1999 Elizabeth (Betty) widow of Ivor Spencer Churchill was living at Fyning House, Rogate. She died aged 96 years in 2010 at Headbourne Worthy. The presence of Free French forces in the Steep and Petersfield areas is now only a distant memory amongst the very oldest inhabitants of our local area. It is vital that their story should be recorded. This account was originally compiled as part of a presentation in September 2018, for a meeting of the Steep History Group. It was prompted by a visit to the Harrow Inn, earlier in 2018, by Roz Cooper daughter of Michel Severe. It has been a fascinating and worthwhile exercise to piece together the information about the various characters and places involved. It is also most important that a record is preserved of this aspect of our local history. If you have further information with regard to the Free French forces of this area in WWII, or to persons and places connected with them, I would be most pleased to hear from you. With grateful thanks to all those who generously shared their memories and information with me, in order to make this account possible. franboxsteep@yahoo.co.uk Sources: Books and publications: Petersfield Area Historical Society bulletin Autumn 1995 – article by Jean Pritchard Petersfield at War by David Jeffrey pub 2004 Buildings, Gardens and Monuments in Steep by Tony Struthers – updated 2018 by Fran Box, Hugh Routh & Celia Storey (available through this website) Steep and Stroud Newsletter June 2018 : Interview with Haden Dodd by David Dobson Dictionary of National Biography Websites: Find My Past: England birth, marriage & death records Census details: The 1939 Register & other records British Newspaper Archives website thepeerage.com The London Gazette 15 Oct 1943 (Etienne Maze) Churchill et Etienne Maze – St Georges Motel photo from Association pour la Mise en valeur du Site Industriel BALSAN   amsi-balsan-asso.fr geni.com (Etienne & Pauline Maze) ecole.nav.traditions.free.fr francearchives.fr christopherlong.co.uk uboat.net (FNL Alysse and her crew) Wikipedia articles on The Free French, Paul Maze, de Gaulle & The Churchills Interviews with: Martyn Ball handyman at Steep House Housekeeper at Steep House Information and photographs supplied by Roz Cooper, daughter of Michel Severe Information and photos supplied by Claire McCutcheon of The Harrow Inn Information supplied by Richard Coles, Rollo Wicksteed, & Diana Parker Information and photographs supplied by Haden Dodd Information supplied by Alicia Denny of The Petersfield Post Photographs in this article are copyright to their various sources and owners.
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